Aztec myth has it that cacao was a gift to man stolen from paradise by the winged serpent deity Quetzalcóatl. From cacao came a drink, chocolatl, which was said to bestow upon human realms the knowledge and wisdom that started civilisation. While it’s nothing so sacred today, chocolate still holds some of its mystique; the process of how chocolate is made is almost alchemical, holding secrets to both the layperson and even science. But that’s changing. Like how oenology has entered the halls of academia, chocolate is seeing its fair share of fanatics and geeks who are working cacao in more ways than ever.
We’re in the state of Pahang, Malaysia, driving up a winding road that sometimes turns from gravel to dirt, on our way to look for the origins of an amazing bar of chocolate that we’ve just tasted weeks prior at SPRMRKT in Singapore, made using cacao collected from Orang Asli villages. Our host and guide, Ong Ning Geng, is a chocolatier who’s hoping to change the landscape of cacao in Malaysia by promoting the country as a source of ethical, quality cacao, as well as growing the awareness of cacao as a specialty food item; where its origins and nuances are appreciated in a way not unlike wine. His approach is twofold: his artisanal chocolate operation Chocolate Concierge, and a company that deals with the cultivation and promotion of the cacao fruit, Culture Cacao, which he started with his partner, Tham Kok Weng.
Called to the Bar
Chocolate Concierge was conceived after Ong left his job in the IT industry (his educational background is in physics and computer science) in Chicago. Intrigued by the fermentation in the chocolate-making process, he decided to produce his own artisanal line of chocolates, which eventually led to a desire to use Malaysian cacao. With Chocolate Concierge, Ong’s focusing on the bean origin of his products, with chocolate from all over the world like Ghana and Costa Rica, and most importantly, Malaysia, where he oversees the entire process of turning fresh cacao into chocolate bars. He’s also constantly pushing the bar for his range of pralines, which feature a constantly rotating range of flavours—his latest creation has a nutmeg and cream filling, where he uses the whole fresh fruit including the seed and mace.
To reach where he is today, Ong spent seven years devouring every bit of chocolate and cacao-related information while attending agricultural seminars for cacao farmers in search of someone who shared his vision to begin planting for quality—an endeavour that he soon realised was futile. “Many of these farmers are incentivised by the quantity and size of the pods, and they’re all growing trees that are disease resistant, that give good yields. But they don’t have a KPI (key performance indicator) on flavour, so they’re not growing the clones that actually taste better,” he explains.
This led him to start Culture Cacao with Tham, where they run an ongoing corporate social responsibility project with the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the Malaysian peninsular. The company buys cacao pods that the Orang Asli families forage off their land. Ong turns them into single-village origin chocolate that he sells under the Chocolate Concierge brand.
It’s easy to romanticise this fact, but many of the Orang Asli still live within their own communities, oftentimes in poverty. Most of the cacao that grows on their land are often wild, loosely scattered around, so Ong’s supply of local cacao for his village-origin bars is inconsistent and highly limited. To make the project more tenable and sustainable, Ong and Tham, with the support of the Malaysian Cacao Board, are also supplying these families with the necessary tools, skills and saplings to grow their own cacao plants.
Reclaiming the Crop
In many ways, Ong is trying to do for chocolate what is already the norm for specialty coffee: to promote the origins of the beans down to specific estates.
“If you ask people where their favourite chocolate comes from, most of them are going to name a European country like Belgium or Switzerland, which is ridiculous. These aren’t cacao-producing countries. Most of the world’s cacao comes from Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. You would never hear someone say that their favourite coffee comes from Australia or Seattle,” he explains.
Ironically, the chocolate produced in cacao-growing countries are often perceived to be of a lower quality, made using low quality cacao and vegetable oil instead of cacao butter. Unfortunately, this is true to an extent, as many of these developing countries export their best cacao to richer countries.
While the cacao plant isn’t native to Malaysia, it’s a crop that’s been cultivated in the country for over a century, and enjoys the benefit of having its own government board that promotes the growth and education of the crop. A look at the Malaysian Cacao Board’s statistics reveals that the country once produced massive amounts of cacao, hitting 243,000 tonnes annually at its peak in the late 1980s. Today, the production of cacao has dropped to less than 1% of that amount, largely due to plantations making way for cultivation of the more lucrative oil palm.
Given that the climate of Malaysia is ideal for growing cacao, Ong hopes to bring local cacao to the forefront, and push the production numbers back up by giving Malaysian cacao the recognition typically reserved for countries like Ghana and Venezuela, who are said to produce some of the best beans in the world.
Taste of the Land
I ask Ong if he used to be into coffee, wine, or whisky; given that his methodical approach to tasting the cacao, and his almost-obsessive attitude towards his craft reminded me of many a coffee or wine geek.
“All three, and I still am,” he answers with a grin. The self-described ‘flavour fanatic’ lets on that he’s certified at an introductory level by the Court of Master Sommeliers, where he picked up the knowledge of identifying the different characteristics of wine by region and varietal, as well as how to taste and pair wines. It’s something that undoubtedly translates well as a heuristic to approach cacao with.
We taste-test seven different varieties of the cacao fruit, each pod in a different shape, size and colour, and the range of possible flavours is amazing; some tasted close to mangosteen, others exactly like soursop, and one even strongly of watermelon. More importantly, the seeds from each pod had different characteristics—some were more astringent than others, and some were prized white beans that are less bitter and more complex; all of which affects the final product.
For now, Culture Cacao has got members of Semai and Temuan (ethnic groups among the Orang Asli) villages in Pahang collecting cacao, which Ong then turns into his single-village origin chocolates. Each piece’s flavour reflects the specific terroir of the village they were collected in, including the unique mix of cacao varietals that grow on each plot of land.
At the same time, Ong and Tham are also setting up their own plantation, a space where they can take charge of the growth of the cacao plants. It’s an endeavour still in its nascent stages though, as many of the saplings have been planted just weeks prior. To promote biodiversity, there are also durian, mangosteen and countless other plant species growing on the land. The taller trees serve as shade for the young cacao plants, which do best when not in direct sunlight.
For the layperson, it might be hard to imagine the direct consequences of terroir; the idea that a crop’s environment has an direct influence on its development. How would the nearly-endless variables of land, water and air affect the final outcomes of produce? But as I sit out in the open air at the back of Ong’s truck, moving along a dirt path set among tropical greenery, it all comes to me. I’m buffeted by wind that carried a multitude of scents coming from the forest at dusk: damp humus, jasmine flowers and even flashes of almond. The chocolate was a translation of all the smells and flavours in the forest.
The fermentation of the cacao is where it develops some of its most important characteristics: the sweet fruit pulp around each bean is broken down by various microorganisms present in the air, which in turn produces heat, alcohol and acetic acid that kills the seed germ. This releases enzymes that break the bean down, developing flavour complexity and reducing its astringency.
“The problem,” Ong begins, “is that most chocolatiers buy the beans after they’re already fermented and dried, and they have no control over these processes even though fermentation develops the foundation for flavour. Most cacao farmers just throw the beans in a sack and let it ferment on the ground, which results in uneven fermentation.”
To ferment his beans, Ong uses a pine-wood box with high panels, which allows him to pack in enough of the fresh beans so that they can maintain optimal temperatures during fermentation.
He then shows me two wooden barrels that have been stained purple with use, encouraging me to stick my head in for a whiff; it smells pleasantly sweet and yeasty, like freshly-steamed mantous (buns). This is his latest experiment: whisky barrel-fermented cacao. While barrel-aged cacao is nothing new, Ong believes that he might be the first to ferment his cacao beans in whisky barrels. Not only does this to contribute the whisky’s flavour, it also brings along its own collection of yeasts and bacteria that contribute to the fermentation process.
I try the raw beans, as well as ones that have been fermented and dried. The difference is night and day. The former is bitter, with grassy undertones and definitely do not make good eating. The latter, upon first taste, strongly reminded me of buah keluak (a tree nut commonly eaten in Peranakan cuisine), although there were also bourbon-like flavours and an obvious hint of the final product, chocolate.
To make chocolate, the fresh cacao is first allowed to ferment with the help of the sugary pulp surrounding each bean. Then, the beans are dried to stop the fermentation. The dried beans are then roasted before they’re ground and liquified, and finally conched with the addition of sugar and cacao butter; afterwhich it is ready for consumption.
While he’s roasting the beans, Ong pulls out a handheld infrared thermometer, regularly checking the temperature and timing. These are all recorded in a comprehensive logbook with all his previous attempts. “With every batch, I vary slightly the roasting variables. Each time it’s an exercise in improving my process, otherwise you’ll never learn anything,” he shares.
By now, I’ve learnt that the standard protocol was to taste and smell everything, and constantly work all my senses to discover the wondrous array of differences every step of the way (to a chocolate bar). Naturally, we taste the beans post-roasting. Heat and time causes maillard reactions that bring out many of the deeper flavours of the bean, like dark fruit and caramel—the beans were starting to taste like very, very dark chocolate.
To Ong, every step of the process is chance to experiment, a chance to make the chocolate better and different. It’s here that his background in the hard sciences starts to surface. The beans are judiciously tasted at every step, for every batch of chocolate that he makes; to the point where he knows how to adjust variables to produce a specific result that he, or a customer wants— hence the name of his operation, Chocolate Concierge. He has created bespoke pralines, as well as chocolates with customised flavour profiles for locavore fine-dining restaurant Dewakan in Selangor, Malaysia.
At Ong’s kitchen where the chocolate is being tempered and moulded, we try the final product: a 70%, eight day-fermented bar of chocolate made using cacao collected from the Temuan village. While chocolate is usually fermented for between three to six days, Ong has boldly extended the time for this one to produce a bar with a complex fruity tang, that’s frankly quite delicious.
While Chocolate Concierge and Culture Cacao are making headways, Ong believes that they have barely scratched the surface―that industry practices can be more mindful, that Malaysian cacao can be more recognised.
We’re getting coffee at one of his favourite cafes, and his cup of pour-over comes with a card printed with tasting notes, and the bean’s origins, complete with growing elevation. “You see? This is exactly what I mean. Why can’t chocolate be like this too? I’m hoping to do something like this for my (chocolate) bars in the future. All cacao is different and people should know that,” he exclaims. I’m inclined to agree.
Jason’s Food Hall, Bangsar Shopping Centre, Jalan Sena 59000,
Tel: +60 12 528 2562
2 McCallum Street, Singapore 069043
Tel: +65 6221 2105
STPI—Creative Workshop & Gallery
41 Robertson Quay, #01-01, Singapore 238236
Tel: +65 9736 4032
This story first appeared in SALT Aug/Sep 2017 issue, which can be downloaded here.