Retreating to a simpler way of life
To make anything you need the right ingredients, but to create something special, you want the best ingredients and nobody knows this more than Kua Kok Keong.
So when KK Kua, as he is better known, first wandered through a vacant property in the hills near Mantin, Negeri Sembilan three years ago, he felt he had found the perfect place to satisfy his passion.
“ My friends thought I was crazy to create this,” he says, sweeping his arms around as he leads the way up a shaded path along one of the two streams that run through the 5 acres (2ha) of arable land. “They said that I should, instead, just spend the money in Paris and sit in a café and drink coffee,” he says.
But idling is not in the make-up of this former art director who spent 15 years in the high-pressure world of advertising, working for two top-flight agencies.
After quitting the advertising world he found himself in the kitchens of London learning French cooking - a year to study the cuisine and another year to master learning the art of making French pastries.
His talents quickly gained recognition and before long Kua became the head pastry chef at The Dorchester in London. But the birth of his twin boys- Jodok and Louis- a year later made him re-assess his future.
I wanted my children to enjoy the same experience I had growing up with nature and for them to learn to respect nature, he said,“ so we returned to Malaysia.”
Kua had formulated a plan that would satisfy both his business objectives and personal desires, a plan that would combine elements of the natural world mixed with a dash of the demands of modern life.
His would be a retreat not so much for those who want to escape the madness of city life but more for those who want to return to a simpler and healthier way of life, when all the food you need is available on the farm, free of pesticides and harmful additives.
Kua’s retreat on the farm is still under construction but the basics are already in place.
“Look at how beautiful this place is,” he says as he wanders further up into the property.
He is referring to a large oblong structure that is still under construction. It straddles over one of two streams like a bridge.
This is the focal point of Kua’s dream. It is surrounded by an abundant garden cultivated on both sides with a variety of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs.A large passion fruit vine offers shade over the stream.
“I don’t want this to look like an orchard, everything is planted randomly, as nature would have intended.”
Once completed, the structure will be a fully operational, commercial style open-air kitchen, equipped with multiple ovens as well as a dining area with benches.
"I want to have people come here, stay the weekend and I will conduct cooking classes for them. We will use only local ingredients, “Kua says. His inspiration, he says, are three over-riding factors; flavor, education and health. Kua does not use pesticides or herbicides because he wants all produce from his farm to be certified organic.
Organic fruits, he says, taste better. He tells the story of his expatriate friends from Kuala Lumpur who say they do not like papayas. “But they have only eaten those sold at the supermarkets, which taste rather bland. After eating papayas grown on my farm, they now love the fruit,” he adds.
To prove his point he picks a papaya, a dragon fruit and a jackfruit that he asks us to sample. True enough, the fruits are among the best I’ve ever tasted.
Beside the flavor factor, Kua is disturbed by the fact that a teenage son of a friend from Geneva, Switzerland thought that chicken was made in a factory. “He had no idea that if you wanted a drumstick you needed to slaughter a chicken,” he relates.“They went to a farm in France on a holiday and the boy got quite a shock.”
He also recalls seeing a child spit out some pineapple because he did not like the taste.“ Children need to learn that it takes a year to grow just one pineapple, we need to respect the fruit,” he says.
Kua believes that if the food grown on his farm are free of toxins instead of being picked early and then gassed to ripen, it will ensure a healthier diet for those who consume them later.
He is wary of eating any commercially grown vegetables or fruit.
Beyond the kitchen is a small valley where four bungalows stand-each surrounded by a moat filled with fish.
In time the carp and other species in the moat will have fattened up adequately before the first visitors arrive to test their scaling, filleting and cooking skills.Like the rest of the property the bungalows exude a Zen-like ambience. Each bungalow is one luxurious room.
"This is only a place for you to sleep in. There is no TV. We want our visitors to enjoy the experience, not spend time in front of the tube,” Kua explains.
The emphasis, he says, is for people to learn to cook with local ingredients harvested from the farm.
He laments the fact that Malaysians, especially those living in the city, are not familiar with many herbs that can be used for cooking.
Not only are fresh herbs available, Kua also has a variety of chickens and ducks for the budding chefs to cook and eat. All the livestock have grown full-term naturally, some to four months - old, as compared to twenty-six days in most commercial chicken farms.
“If we over-produce we share our harvest with the parents at my kids school.
When guests are done harvesting, cooking and eating they can hit the jungle trails to the waterfall and pools in the mountains.
Kua plans to engage guides to take people jungle trekking. A large slab of rock on top of a hill will serve as a place to practice yoga.
“The concept is for visitors to move from each place to the next, one place to sleep, one to eat, one to bathe. I have shelter, livestock, vegetables, fruits, water, a well, what else do I need?”
Kua’s twin boys gave him the answer to that question - a castle.
For Kua, his retreat will eventually serve as his retirement home.
”I want to live here after my children have finished school,” he says. But the farm will welcome visitors.
Apart from utilizing the natural benefits of organic food, there are plans to have stables with horses so visitors can take rides around the area, within and outside the farm.
For his children, six-year old twin boys Jodok and Louis, he has built a castle so they can live out their fantasy of being knights and princes in a real world. Entry to the castle - essentially a turret - is through a large heavy wooden door.
They have been coming for the past three years to the property to, in Kua’s words, “help out.” It wasn’t always so.
“At first the boys weren’t too interested as it was all a new environment for them, mostly jungle. The first time they came and saw a crab in the stream, they thought it was spider!”
Kua offered to build them a special cubby house or tree hut to encourage their participation which soon escalted to the building a fully-fledged castle turret. What six-year-old boy wouldn’t want to hang-out in a castle?
“The boys love it and spend hours in there playing games and having fun inside and out. They have learnt so much by being in the outdoors and not playing on phones,” Kua says.
“The boys now know a lot more about many things here and educate their friends and classmates,” adds Kua.
Every effort has been taken to ensure that the prospect of the farm being awarded organic certification is not jeopardized.“We are not 100% organic yet. If we want to be organically certified we are not allowed to use things like plastic with the plants.”
Small plastic bags are currently used to protect passion fruits and other fruits from fly-strikes-to be certified fruits must be wrapped in approved paper.
Standing in the doorway of the castle with his brother Kuok Chuan , Kua talks about the recycling efforts they do at the farm.“A friend gave us these timbers and we made it into the doors for the castle.
“People are begging me to take away things like used bottles. Last week I told my friend I’ve got enough bottles but he said, please take one more load,” he says, pointing to a pallet load of green beer bottles destined to become part of another textured concrete wall or a garden bed divider.
Kua is unsure exactly when the retreat will open but a lot of his friends are already clamouring to get there to experience the natural surrounds.
The farm should have organic certification long before Kua retires, which bodes well for him and his families future as studies indicate that more and more Malaysians are opting towards the benefits of eating untainted, clean foods.
Helping Kua to obtain that goal and increase the volume of fruits produced is his brother Kuok, who has barely missed a weekend in the past three years that Kua has being coming to the farm.
Working Monday to Friday as an engineer in his own company, Kuok loves nature too and likes nothing more than experimenting with varieties of fruits, planting techniques and researching.
Kuok Chuan collects all types of Asian fruit and hopes to create a collection of variations of fruits like guava, so people can taste and compare different types. He has experimental garden areas where cultures are combined to increase genetic diversity and strengthen plants' immunity.
Self taught, Kuok also did own research about processes such as using fermented bacteria, a technique that has revitalized trees on the property that were dying into trees that are producing fruit again.
“I was so pleased with our results because when we first developed the land, many plants were dying, but after being given fermented bacteria they are now thriving.”
“We work according to the natural landscape. We never take out any soil or anything. We want to keep it that way. We keep all the old trees.
“Nothing is moved here. There is no need to cut trees to build a house and the workers are not allowed to chop down trees unless they are dead,” says Kuok.
The fermented bacteria has been successful with papaya, jackfruit, passion fruit, durians, lemons, oranges, guava, rose apples, soursop, custard apples, dragon fruit, tapioca, sweet potato, and the herb gardens as well as the livestock.
Fermented bacteria is poured into the animals' water and the result is that the droppings of the animals, generally ducks and chickens, is not smelly and the animals are healthier and bigger - some chicken varieties weigh in at eight kilograms after four months.
The results look positive for Kua’s personal and business plan with the Federal Territories Deputy Minister Datuk Loga Bala Mohan recently talking about a huge potential in Malaysia for organic produce in the market and that more awareness may lead to greater demand for organic produce at reasonable prices.
“With the rise in demand, more people will turn to organic farming techniques and this will in turn bring down prices.
Loga ruled out any possibilities of subsidization though, saying, “that would not be sustainable. Let market forces decide on the prices,” he said.
Malaysian agricultural practices like most around the world now are fast becoming unsustainable in the long-term- large amounts of toxic chemical and fertilizer pollution, slash-and-burn land clearing cannot continue and consumers are on the look-out for viable healthy alternatives.
At present Negeri Sembilan is one of the leading states along with Pahang, Johor and Selangor that have many farms using this sustainable farming practice so Kua has invested at a good time.
For him though it is mostly about having the option of living a life-style he experienced as a child, showing his children a different way of living as well as following his passion for creating something tasty, with a French-Malaysian twist perhaps.