GEORGETOWN: For many visitors from other states and Malaysians living abroad, trips to Penang would be incomplete if they did not buy boxes of mung bean biscuits — known in the Hokkien dialect as “tau sar pneah” — to bring home.
In fact, Penang is now synonymous with the biscuits that made their way to then Malaya in the mid-19th century, together with immigrants from Southern China. These immigrants came in search of greener pastures, and jobs in the tin mining and rubber industries. Tau sar pneah originated from Fujian, the home province of many of the immigrants.
One of the oldest and most famous tau sar pneah makers in the country is Ghee Hiang, which was started in Penang in 1856 by a migrant called Teng. Teng brought with him the art of making pastries but sadly, his only son was not keen to take over the business.
In 1926, after Teng’s death, his wife sold the business located along Beach Street for several thousand ringgit to a group of four friends from the Ooi, Ch’ng, Yeap and Yeoh families.
Today, Ghee Hiang is run by Ch’ng Huck Theng, a fourth generation Ch’ng, and Datuk Ooi Sian Hian, a third generation Ooi. Ch’ng is executive director while Ooi is the executive chairman and managing director. They are the only two members of their families involved in running the business.
In 1999, a crisis in the business led to Ooi, an architect by profession, coming into the picture and a director being removed. The matter ended up in court but was recently settled out of court, with the Ooi and Ch’ng families buying out the minority stakes of the Yeoh and Yeap families. The original Beach Street outlet has been turned into a museum and visitors centre with a viewing deck. Visitors not only get to see firsthand how the biscuits — which are still moulded by hand — are made but to taste them hot from the oven.
Ghee Hiang’s outlets include another bakery and sales office along Macalister Road which was set up in 2005, a kiosk along Burmah Road, and outlets at the Sunshine shopping malls in Bayan Baru and Farlim. Ghee Hiang biscuits are sold only at its own outlets to ensure freshness. Made without preservatives, they have a shelf life of two weeks.
Klang Valley and Johor Bahru denizens who have a craving for the biscuits will be happy to know that they will soon be available at outlets in both places. In Singapore, they have been available at an outlet called Gurney Drive since last year.
Ooi reckons that although Ghee Hiang was the pioneer, there are at least 40 tau sar pneah makers in the country, each serving different segments of the population.
Ghee Hiang, which means fragrant or aromatic in Mandarin, is also slowly bringing back products it used to make several decades ago.Aside from tau sar pneah, the company has been producing its brand of sesame oil with a baby as its logo since 1926.
“The Ghee Hiang sesame seed oil is our most popular product, and later we ventured into coffee-making. We have also recently brought back the mooncakes and almond cookies.
“We also used to produce biscuits which were served during wedding ceremonies and we hope to bring these back too. Our plans include bringing back cookies which we used to make for children like peanut butter cookies and ginger snaps.
“All these were in Ghee Hiang’s repertoire but we couldn’t cope with the orders then. Now, with automation we are hoping to bring back these cookies into our fold,” Ooi said in an interview with The Edge Financial Daily at the Ghee Hiang drive-through sales office in Macalister Road.
Ooi said that customers are Ghee Hiang’s “best judges”, better than any market research. Samples of new cookies placed at sales counters have received the thumbs-up from customers.
One challenge that the company faces is hiring workers. Although Ghee Hiang has introduced automation, the biscuits are still handmade. Ghee Hiang now employs 110 workers, half of whom are foreigners. Having filled his foreign worker quota, Ooi is finding difficulty hiring locals who are not too keen to take up such jobs.
“We have automation now but only for kneading. The pastry is flaky and the filling has to be tightly moulded with the pastry around it or it will break during baking and hence is very labour-intensive as we produce millions of various biscuits per day,” Ooi said.
The original recipe of mung bean biscuits has also expanded to include biscuits made with molasses, white sugar, and brown sugar.
The ingredients for the filling are made from fried mung beans, sugar and shallots, while the pastry is made with flour, lard and egg.
In the early years, coconut husk ovens were used to bake the biscuits but today, they are baked in electric ovens.
As for why the biscuits have remained firm favourites over the years, Ooi said: “Our secret ingredient, which makes our biscuit stand out from others, is our quality. The demand for our biscuits is more than supply.”
The fame of Ghee Hiang’s tau sar pneah is such that Penangites and other tau sar pneah lovers living abroad are willing to pay between RM80 and RM200 in courier charges for their favourite teatime snack. The orders come from Malaysians, mostly Penangites, in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.
Unlike other tau sar pneah makers, Ghee Hiang still uses lard for its products, which is how its customers prefer it. Ooi said the company considered making the product halal but this did not go down well with customers.
“Lard gives the biscuits flakiness, everyone knows that. There are customers who come to us asking why we still use lard. We tell them to check on the Internet on using lard versus processed oils, there are answers there. Lard is a natural product and not processed oil. There is a huge difference,” he added.
However, Ghee Hiang’s coffee and sesame seed oil are halal-certified and are produced in a different factory from the biscuits.
Ooi said Ghee Hiang prides itself on its principle of using only the best and freshest ingredients and the fact that it is the only tau sar pneah pastry maker with the HACCP and ISO 22000: 2005 certification in the country.
Though the cost of the main ingredients including mung beans, shallots and flour has escalated over the past two years, Ghee Hiang resisted raising its prices until recently.
Its famed product — the baby-brand Ghee Hiang sesame oil — is now exported to Asian countries, among them Singapore, China, Japan, India, Indonesia and Hong Kong. New markets being considered include South Korea and the US. Exports account for 35% of its production, while the remaining 65% is for local consumption.
“Our penetration into the Hong Kong market was by sheer luck. One of Hong Kong’s celebrity chefs, So Sze Wong, had walked into our outlet here and bought some biscuits and the sesame oil without our knowledge last year. During one of her cooking shows, she whipped out a bottle of Ghee Hiang sesame oil and proclaimed that it was the best sesame seed oil in the world!
“She also said she treasured it so much that she uses it only for special dishes. All of a sudden, we had an influx of calls asking for our product, and now, we are in 400 shopping outlets and supermarkets in Hong Kong,” said Ooi.
Ghee Hiang sesame oil is usually used in Chinese cooking, especially in food that Chinese women eat during the confinement period after giving birth.
“Low quality sesame oil is high in stearic acid and is bad for the heart and even worse for mothers on confinement as it would also be bad for the babies who are nursed. Our sesame oil is 100% pure with nothing else added. The sesame seed is gently roasted and then mechanically pressed to extract pure oil,” said Ooi.
Although tau sar pneah lovers would associate Ghee Hiang only with the biscuit, 70% of Ghee Hiang’s revenue is derived from its sesame oil business. The remaining 30% comes from the other products.
Ghee Hiang’s sesame oil factory produces 6,000 700ml bottles a day. The oil retails at RM16.50 each.
This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, January 24, 2011.