In 2009, Ning moved back to Kuala Lumpur after spending eight years in Chicago. He brought home with him a passion – fermentating, something he picked up in hipster Brooklyn. "At that time I was obsessed with the fermentation process. I was brewing beer, mead, making Kombucha, Tapai, aged cheese, and sauerkraut." One of them was chocolate.
It made sense for him to zero in on chocolate back in Malaysia. The country's cacao trade was once booming – steadily swelling from the 1980s to peak at 1990, a year when the country produced almost 250,000 tonnes of cacao beans.
Washed cacao beans are left to dry in the sun at Chocolate Concierge's facility in Kuala Lumpur.
While the public associates fine chocolate to European cities like Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and Switzerland, these regions don't actually produce cacao beans. It was their processing methods that were ground-breaking such as Van Houten's soluble chocolate drink, or Cadbury's injection of milk into their chocolate drinks.
Cacao beans are optimally grown in humid, hot, tropical countries littered along the equatorial line – midlands Africa, South America, and South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia.
Gunny sacks of cacao pods. There are many cacao seeds in a pod.
Since its boom in the 1980s, Malaysia's cacao industry has dwindled to just 1,757 tonnes in 2016 – an ebbing attributed to the economic slump of the late 1990s.
Ning spent time visiting surviving local cacao farms and farmers, and decided he wanted to unpack the intricacies of the trade. "There's a lot of myth, hype, and secrecy surrounding the dark arts of chocolate making. Picking the right chocolate was a nightmare. What does percentage mean? What is 'extra dark'? How is that different from 'extra bitter'? What is good chocolate?"
Chocolate brittles littered with nuts and dried fruits.
His research birthed Chocolate Concierge in 2015. The business is based in Kuala Lumpur, and pirouettes around flavours. Quite like coffee beans, flavour profiles are immediately affected by raw cacao beans and processing methods. Ning has single-origin chocolates from Ghana, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Madagascar, alongside the state of Pahang, Malaysia. This month he unveils another single-village chocolate from Semai, a native tribe of Pahang.
There are only two Malaysian-origin cacao amongst his offerings right now, but it's a receded trade and Ning is "still in the process of sourcing for [them]."
When the cacao beans arrive in Ning's facility, they are washed. "[Washing] changes the rate at which heat transfers to the core of the bean, and also makes the winnowing process (separating the husk around the bean) easier." The beans are then sun-dried and fermented in varying methods, by a team of four to six chocolatiers in a lab.
Outside of his laboratory, is the "wilder" side of the business. Ning has a plantation "of various fruit trees including durian, mangosteen, and cacao" which he manages.
In the lab, he enjoys "having an 'Aha!' moment". Yet when he steps out, "I must say [that] it is a great privilege to be able to breathe among cacao trees, to be able to observe, touch, and experience cacao on a daily basis."
Chocolate Concierge is exclusive to SPRMRKT at 2 McCallum Street and SPRMRKT Daily at 41 Robertson Quay.
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