(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. And with children, in particular, parents have to be inventive and sometimes downright sneaky in their attempts to surreptitiously get picky eaters to eat their vegetables without hearing the dreaded “yuck”.
But a few local parents have taken this attempt to introduce vegetables into their kids’ food to a whole new level with Malaysia-made veggie pasta and created a lucrative market.
What Is Veggie Pasta?
Homemade vegetable-infused pasta is made with just flour and vegetable puree (the vegetables are steamed first).
The percentage of vegetables to pasta is somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent, depending on whether additional water is required to soften the vegetable during the pureeing process – sweet potatoes, for example, are typically denser and might require a bit of water so that it can be pureed to the desired consistency.
After kneading, the dough is fed into an extruding machine. The pasta pieces are traditionally laid out in a dehydrator to dry out (which the Malaysian Agricultural Research & Development Institute, or Mardi, says retains more nutrition), before being packaged.
The entire process can take anywhere from four to 12 hours, depending on the manpower and machinery that the maker has.
And this is just for a single shape for a single vegetable pasta. As most of the Malaysian veggie-pasta makers offer multicoloured pasta infused with between eight and 10 vegetables, this means this step has to be repeated multiple times for each shape.
Once cooked, the colours of the veggie pasta become even more vibrant and you’ll taste tiny hints of vegetable flavours (spinach seems to stand out the most).
We spoke to three major players in the homemade veggie pasta market to find out how they got their start and how they’re moving forward.
Eatalian Express (eatalianexpress.com.my) was launched in January 2017 by husband-and-wife team Ahmad Yusman Faris Mohd Yusoff and Noraida Mohd Razali. The couple began experimenting with making veggie pasta as a means to getting their three sons to eat their vegetables.
“It was like wartime when we gave them greens. Yet, when we gave them mac and cheese or spaghetti, they loved it. But when we included carrots and broccoli with their pasta, they just ate the pasta and left the vegetables,” says Faris, laughing.
Faris and Aida looked for vegetable-pasta options at the supermarket, but were discouraged when they realised the vegetables were in powder form and only formed about 2 per cent of the content. So, they decided to learn to make pasta themselves and went to Bologna, Italy, to master the art.
With their newfound skills, they set about making pasta with vegetable puree and took six months to come up with the final product.
Once they perfected their recipes, Aida and Faris went a step further by verifying the nutritional content of their pasta with Mardi. The results showed that their mixed veggie pasta contained 15.35g of fibre per 100g serving. By comparison, traditional pasta contains about 2.5g of fibre, while wholewheat pasta has about 5g.
“We wanted to prove that our pasta is not a gimmick because for those who are concerned about eating healthy food, they should be able to know the nutritional facts. After all, we are feeding this to our sons, so it has to be good.” says Aida.
With this in hand, the two launched their brand Eatalian Express with a website and Facebook page. Demand instantly flooded in for their homemade veggie pasta, mostly from parents desperate to add vegetables to their kids’ diets.
The two were so bogged down by orders that they worked 24 hours a day and took turns sleeping, eventually even quitting their jobs to focus on the business. They started out with a RM15,000 (S$15,000) Italian-made pasta machine and soon had to buy a larger-capacity one for RM27,000. Before long, even this wasn’t enough and they spent another RM32,000 on a third Italian pasta machine.
Last September, Aida and Faris moved their home business to a physical outlet and hired employees to help with the surge in demand. They now produce about 100kg of veggie pasta a day and say even that is not enough to meet the huge demand. They will soon be taking over the retail space next door to theirs and are investing in an even larger pasta machine, with the expectation of producing 300kg of veggie pasta a day.
Eatalian Express’ pasta is made using semolina flour, which has a higher protein content than white flour and a lower glycemic index. It is also harder to source locally.
“We produce real pasta here, that is why we use semolina flour. That is one of the challenges that we faced – finding a semolina flour supplier. Because locals don’t use a lot of semolina, so the first question that we got from the owner of the factory is, ‘Why do you want so much?’” says Aida.
The brand makes four kinds of veggie pasta shapes – star, macaroni, fusilli and shell – and incorporates 10 kinds of vegetables into the pasta: carrots, cauliflower, green spinach, broccoli, sweet potato, beetroot, red cabbage, pumpkin, purple carrot and tomatoes.
Eatalian Express’ veggie pasta starts at RM9 for 100g and goes up to RM35.90 for 600g. You can opt for multicoloured veggie pasta or single-vegetable pastas. Deliveries are possible throughout the Klang Valley and some areas in Penang, Ipoh, Seremban, Melaka and Johor Baru.
Moving forward, Aida and Faris are looking at introducing gluten-free pasta, getting halal certification and launching a milk-booster date pasta for breastfeeding mummies. Asked why their veggie pasta has been such a hit in the market, Aida says she thinks it boils down to a simple equation: Parents just want their kids to eat more vegetables, however that gets done.
“You can’t find any vegetable pasta with 10 types of vegetables in one packet. That’s one of the reasons the demand is so tremendous, because kids find it interesting and, honestly, as a mother, you realistically don’t have time to prepare that many vegetables for your kids’ daily meals,” she says.
Foodies With Love
Health hasn’t always been on Denise Chye Hui San’s side. She suffers from muscle weakness and, at one point, couldn’t even walk from her living room to her front door. After changing her diet and lifestyle, her health improved, but when her eldest child was born, Chye found herself anxious that his health would somehow mimic her own. The fact that he simply refused to eat any vegetables compounded her worries.
“I read online that people were making this pasta already, so I made it for my son. It took me a few months to perfect the recipe because my son is picky,” she says.
At first, Chye didn’t think of doing it as a business, but when she started sharing pictures of her pasta on Facebook, friends started placing orders and the full-time mum thought why not make an income out of it. That was in 2015.
Three years later, through her brand Foodies With Love (facebook.com/foodieswithlove) Chye now produces 20kg of veggie pasta a day and her husband Choon Chee Heng has even given up his business to help with hers, as she couldn’t cope with the demand on her own (she was hand-cutting pasta in the beginning). Chye has also invested in a RM20,000 Italian pasta machine to churn out more shapes, like tube, shell and mini pastas.
Chye’s veggie pasta is made from unbleached white flour and pure vegetable purees. She also follows the Chinese philosophy of cooling and heaty vegetables, and so doesn’t use vegetables like tomatoes and cabbage, which she says can cause gassiness in young children. Instead, she uses capsicum, beetroot, purple carrot, orange carrot, red spinach, green spinach and broccoli.
Chye sells two versions of veggie pasta – regular veggie pasta with vegetables sourced from the wet market and organic veggie pasta, which makes use of organically grown vegetables.
Prices start at RM25 for 300g of regular pasta and RM29 for organic and go up to RM75 for 1kg of regular pasta (RM90 for organic).
Interestingly, Chye also sells wolfberry pasta (made with pureed wolfberry) and moringa pasta (made with a moringa powder that Chye gets from her friend who has a moringa tree).
Chye also advocates the use of less plastic and encourages customers to bring their own containers when collecting veggie pasta from her. Customers who do this will then get a discount on their purchase.
Although business has been booming, like many of her customers, Chye’s focus is her kids, so she isn’t looking to expand anytime soon. The joy she gets out of kids eating her veggie pasta is satisfaction in itself, she says.
“When people comment that their kids hate eating vegetables, but can eat a lot of our pasta, it’s a satisfying feeling that you can do more for mummies and ease their worries. I would say this is a good way to cheat your kids,” she says, laughing mischievously.
Vi Vien’s Homemade Vegetable Pasta
The pioneer of veggie pasta in the Klang Valley, Vivien Woo is an effervescent foodie who has been cooking since she was eight years old and loves experimenting with food. She started making veggie pasta in 2014 as her son has an egg and dairy allergy and was even hospitalised at one point.
“I had to come out with my own food for him because there is a lot of food in the market that has traces of eggs and dairy. And my son is the pickiest eater in the world. He’ll pick out the tiniest vegetable. He can tell it is a vegetable and gags when he eats it." she says.
So Woo started experimenting with pasta and vegetables. “It came to me that babies eat purees, so I thought why not add vegetable purees into my pasta. It tasted great and looked bright and cheerful too. I let my son try it and he loved it.” she says.
Woo also posted pictures of her pasta on a baby forum and got 500 likes in an hour. Spurred by that success, she launched her Facebook page, Vi Vien’s Homemade Vegetable Pasta (facebook.com/homemadevegepasta) to sell her products.
Woo uses unbleached white flour to make her veggie pasta and only offers macaroni-shaped multi-coloured veggie pasta as she still carefully selects the fresh produce from the market herself (sometimes lugging 20kg of vegetables on her own) and works solo. She also kneads the dough herself and hand-cuts the extruded pasta, which is also why her daily capacity is 10kg.
Her pasta also doesn’t go through a dehydration process; instead Woo uses a “secret” method that she is disinclined to reveal except to say that “it’s hygienic and safe”.
Woo’s multicoloured veggie pasta is made using vegetables such as beetroot, spinach, broccoli, purple sweet potato, purple carrot, orange sweet potato and pumpkin.
“I am looking at vegetables that are recommended for babies’ first foods. I don’t simply add vegetables for colour, that is pointless. I do it because it’s meant to be beneficial to babies,” she says.
Woo’s pasta starts at RM18 for 200g and goes up to RM75 for 1kg. She also makes complementary items to go with the pasta, including a tomato and onion sauce, creamy mushroom sauce (her bestseller) and homemade chicken nuggets and meatballs.
In the future, she hopes to do something revolutionary in the food and beverage industry and says she already has an idea. For now, though, Woo says she derives immense satisfaction from the fact that babies and young children are eating her pasta and getting vegetables into their system.
“Children love it. When I make it, even though I’ve done it for four years, I still feel so happy with the end product. It’s tiring to make, but still satisfying,” she says, with a gleam of pride in her eyes.
Is veggie pasta good for kids?
According to certified nutritionist Alexandra Prabaharan, veggie pasta makes a good supplementary meal in addition to vegetables, but should never be used in place of vegetables.
“It will always be better to eat your vegetables. First, because you will be getting a variety of nutrients from different vegetables.
“If you are eating a well-balanced diet, then veggie pasta is a great addition, but it shouldn’t be considered your ‘vegetable’ intake for the day,” she says.
Prabaharan also adds that not all veggie pastas are created equal, as veggie pastas made with semolina flour are nutritionally richer.
“If semolina or wholewheat flour is used instead of white flour, this would boost the nutritional value of the pasta. It would be higher in fibre and other nutrients and also take longer for the body to break down, keeping you fuller for longer,” she says.
In a toss-up between regular pasta and veggie pasta, however, Prabaharan says the latter definitely wins in the nutrition stakes.
“By all means, I would always say pick the veggie pasta as it will have more benefits than regular pasta, but don’t use it for picky kids to try to supplement their vegetable intake,” she says.