by A. Jeyaraj
Taugeh or bean sprouts is yet another Ipoh iconic product. It is as synonymous with the city as pomelo and Menglembu groundnuts. When served blanched, with a simple mixture of sesame oil, soya sauce and accompanying poached chicken, it is transformed into the one dish that most visitors to Ipoh clamour for – ‘Nga Choy Kai’. This delectable dish, which some folks even claim as the most renowned dish in Ipoh, have become famous throughout the country and as far away as Singapore; and is usually the first dish that visitors will request. It is said that if you visited Ipoh and have not tasted the “chicken taugeh” then you have not been to the city. Although taugeh can be found everywhere in Malaysia, even in neighbouring countries, those grown in Ipoh are reputed to be the best. In fact, Ipoh’s taugeh has a distinctive quality, a special taste that is not found elsewhere. They are shorter and thicker and are sweet, crunchy and juicy.
It is thought that the unique taste of the Ipoh taugeh is mainly due to the underground water from the limestone hills that contain traces of dissolved calcium carbonate.
What is interesting is that this highly sought after ‘taugeh’ are being produced by just eight families located in the Buntong New Village, just within the city centre.
The families have been rolling out drums of the bean sprouts grown from their backyards daily for the last seven decades. Each family produces about 1,400 kg per day, mostly for local markets, restaurants and hawkers’ stalls. The wholesale price per kilogramme supplied by the growers to the middlemen is often unstable, but the retail price per kilogramme is between RM1.20 and RM1.60.
Due to stiff rivalry among the growers, facts and figures about the industry are being held close to their chests, with each one claiming that it is their “trade secret”. Their lack of unity has also resulted in their inability to form an association to look after their common interests. Therefore, the middlemen often dictate the price of the taugeh supplied to them.
Eighty-two-year-old Toon Yow Pooi is one of the pioneers in the industry who is still working. He said that he took over the business from his grandfather and has been growing taugeh for the past 70 years.
He thinks that taugeh have been grown in the Buntong area for more than a hundred years. He still follows the same old method used by his grandfather. The only change made was to replace the wooden tub for growing taugeh with plastic drums.
Another producer Hong Pak Leong, 53, is a first generation taugeh grower and has been in the business for more than 30 years. He learnt to grow taugeh through trial and error. Hong added that all producers use the same method and grow taugeh in the same type of blue plastic drums.
Taugeh growing requires plenty of water which is pumped from wells about ten metres deep. There is no shortage of underground water in the new village which is close to the Kledang Range and which also has a higher rate of rainfall in the city.
All the work is done manually and the taugeh is grown in moist conditions and has to be watered five times daily. Toon has four employees to assist him. It is a continuous process and has to be done 365 days of the year. The taugeh cannot be exposed to sunlight and must always be under the shade.
The black mung beans required to grow taugeh are purchased from Myanmar. Toon said that as far as he can remember that is where the beans have been purchased all along. He added that even taugeh producers in China buy the beans from Myanmar.
Six Days to Market
It takes six days of growing before the taugeh can be sent to the retailers. The process of growing taugeh starts first by cleaning the beans. The cleaned beans are then placed inside plastic drums with perforated holes in the bottom to drain excess water.
A circular mosquito net is placed on top of the beans. The bins are sometimes covered by gunny sacks. At the end of the first day, the beans start to germinate. There are several rows of drums containing taugeh in different stages of growth from the first to the sixth day in the backyards of each of the houses.
During the first four days, the growth is within the drum. On the fifth day, the shoot of the taugeh protrudes the drum by up to five centimetres and on the sixth day when it is ready for delivery it protrudes about six to eight centimetres above the drum.
When asked whether any foreign businessmen had come to Ipoh to find out about the method used, Toon replied in the negative. However, he added that many taugeh growers from other states do visit regularly to learn the technique and discover why the taugeh grown here are tastier.
Beans Price Increase
According to Toon the price of the bean has gone up from RM70 to RM110 for a 25-kg bag. He said that he cannot reveal the quantity he produces or the price. Taugeh is normally sold in drums of 60 kg each. He added that the eight families are not united and are very secretive as well as compete with each other. They sometimes undercut each other in pricing.
Asked about the export market, Toon said it was difficult to do so because taugeh must be moist and cannot be kept fresh for long. He is not aware whether any technology exists for packing and transporting taugeh in a fresh state.
Ipoh taugeh is famous and has potential for export, especially to Singapore where there is a great demand. However, the growers need to look into the availability of modern technology to expand their business rather than be contented with the old methods their parents or grandparents had adopted.