Going Nuts in Ipoh

Cover Story

By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

While the Kinta Valley is synonymous with tin and the rich heritage it spawned, another commodity which has been overshadowed by the silver sheen of tin is the lowly groundnut, a cash crop that some entrepreneurial tin miners began planting during the Tin Rush from the 1880s onwards. Most of these groundnuts came from Menglembu where a majority of these tin miners lived. The people of Menglembu soon learned to love the groundnuts for its unique flavour and crunchiness. Before long, the term ‘Menglembu Groundnuts’ or ‘Man Lei Mong Fah Sang’ became a household name.

Groundnuts contain more protein than meat and about two and a half times more than eggs

One businessman who capitalized on this popular demand for groundnuts is Mr Ngan Yin. He developed his own brand ‘Kacang Cap Tangan’ – meaning ‘hand brand groundnuts’ using the image of a hand giving the thumbs up sign to signify excellence. This hand image which has remained unchanged from the beginning, was to become one of the most widely known symbols of good taste not only in Malaysia, but also in Singapore as well.

This very clever subliminal suggestion of excellence has seeped into the mind of the consuming public, gaining unconscious acceptance and probably accounting for the fact that despite the plethora of peanut brands out there, Ngan Yin (the eponymous brand name) today, has captured 60% market share.

Mechanization in 1975

As the lowly groundnut slowly but surely gained popularity to become the snack item for all occasions, Mr Ngan Yin, aiming for bigger and better markets for the groundnuts, incorporated his factory in 1975, increasing production and further imprinting ‘Kacang Cap Tangan’ into customer’s top-of-mind awareness.

Today, the Ngan Yin empire is helmed by Mr Ngan Yin’s son Dato’ Gan Tack Kong, who despite his busy schedule as the Chairman of FMM Perak Branch and sits on many boards and committees, found the time to give Ipoh Echo an interview.

Two Varieties, White and Red

“Our groundnuts are of two varieties, the Spanish white and the Spanish red. The Spanish white are favoured by the Chinese while Malays generally prefer the red variety which is marketed as Shandong Peanuts. The Spanish white was originally grown by small farmers in plots throughout Malaysia and particularly around Ipoh and Menglembu. These smaller and more delicate nuts, take 92 to 95 days to mature while the reds which are bigger, more robust and more oily, (peanut oil is produced from these) take 110 to 120 days.

“Middlemen would collect the groundnuts from farmers just after the monsoon and deliver them to us for processing which in the old days was a laborious manual affair lasting 11 days of salting, cooking, drying in the sun and then roasting. All this changed when my father set up his factory and mechanization came in.”

Semi-Processed Imports

Today, farmers are not planting groundnuts commercially in Malaysia anymore. All the groundnuts that Ngan Yin processes and package are imported from Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Cambodia. Their factories are in Cambodia and here in Malaysia in Mambang Di Awan near Kampar.

The groundnuts come in semi-processed, meaning that they are already salted, cooked and dried. The factories then roast and sort them for the final packaging with the inimitable hand symbol emblazoned across the package or tin. Aside from a move to brighter neon colours to attract a younger market, the graphics have remained the same for all of the 65 years that the company has been in business. And the old fashioned square tins are still being sought after since the good old days when these air tight tins were hoarded to be re-used as containers to store other dry food items.

The Original Health Snack

“No preservatives are added to the groundnuts so when you think about it, here they are, pristine  in their natural shell, lightly salted, each ‘nut’ packed with its own monounsaturated “good” fat, low in saturated “bad” fat, and voila, we have the original healthy snack. Its no wonder that our products are now placed alongside other snack items on supermarket shelves except that our Ngan Yin groundnuts are way ahead of the game in terms of heart healthy value” Dato’ Gan added.

Nutrition Facts

And there is ample reason for groundnuts to be a favoured snack food. An ounce of groundnuts can provide up to 14 per cent protein in one’s daily diet. That’s more than any other nut and legume. This high amount is especially beneficial in the diets of children, vegetarians and those aged 50 and above.

The groundnut is particularly valued for its protein content (26 per cent). On a kg for kg basis, groundnuts contain more protein than meat and about two and a half times more than eggs. Being an oil seed crop, it contains 40 to 49 per cent oil. In addition to protein and oil, groundnuts are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc and boron.

According to The Peanut Institute, Albany, GA, USA, an ounce of groundnuts can provide 25 per cent of vitamin E and essential minerals such as magnesium, copper, phosphorus, potassium and zinc required in your daily diet. All these act as antioxidants which help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. It is a good source of vitamin B containing folate, which helps prevent birth defects and reduces homocysteine in the blood thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. It is a good source of phytochemicals, that is, natural substances in plants which provide a variety of health benefits including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Recent clinical research shows peanuts (a more popular name for groundnuts) can fight obesity because it slowly releases high glycaemic sugars into the bloodstream. This slow release of energy results in less frequent hunger pangs.

Peanuts Facts

While “nut” is in their name, peanuts are in fact legumes (Arachis hypogaea). Peanuts actually grow underground, as opposed to nuts like walnuts, almonds, etc., that grow on trees (and are sometimes referred to as “tree nuts”). Peanuts, along with beans and peas, belong to the single plant family, Leguminosae.

Legumes are edible seeds enclosed in pods. As a group, they provide the best source of concentrated protein in the plant kingdom. While groundnuts’ physical structure and nutritional benefits more closely resemble that of other legumes, their use in diets and cuisines more closely resembles that of nuts.

Big Business   

Groundnuts are no small business. With an annual turnover of RM40 million, Ngan Yin is constantly on the lookout for new markets and new sources of revenue. New customers now include Firefly which serves packets of the shelled roasted peanuts on its flights and a similar small pack is available for sale at retail outlets and supermarkets.

While there are peanuts everywhere – shelled, salted, unsalted, smoked, a plethora of options  are out there – and yet there is instant recognition when one hears the name Menglembu groundnuts. With such a successful track record and recognition especially amongst the Chinese population worldwide, Ipoh Echo asked Dato’ Gan if plans for a Peanut Museum have ever been mooted, to which he replied, “Considering that so much has been talked about re the setting up of a Tin Museum, I have often thought that a Peanut Museum would be most appropriate especially as Menglembu groundnuts has became a household name. Our hand signature logo is instantly recognisable wherever one is in the world and one day I would love to see the packaging immortalised in a museum. Together with all the other brands like the well known Pagoda and the Fisherman. Of course, the first step is to collect all the old paraphernalia that went into the processing of the original Menglembu groundnut”.

So the next time you crack open a groundnut, remember that they first achieved popularity as a snack food in Menglembu, on our very own doorstep.

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