What makes a masala powder superior? The family at Malacca Electric Flour Mill (MEFM) seems to have cracked the secret. Based on a grandmother’s formulas, MEFM’s curry powders, chappati flours and garam masalas have been delighting customers since 1929. MELM were the first millers in Melaka to use machines to grind their spices, replacing grindstones and manual labour.
The building at 100 Jalan Temenggung is strategically located a few steps away from busy Bukit Cina market. It was here, amidst anAn intoxicating aroma of freshly ground spices, we asked owner K. P. Ranganathan to tell us a little about the business set up by his grandparents, from the Nattukothai Chettiar clan.
With the owner of
Malacca Electric Flour Mill K. P. Ranganathan, 67
11 September 2019
Malacca Electric Flour Mill 100 Jalan Temenggong 06-282 2355
Operating Hours: Monday to Saturday 8.00am - 7.30pm Sunday 8.00am - 1.00pm
I inherited this family business from my father. It was established in 1929. My father was born here, his father came from Tamil Nadu, South India.
So, the trade is from your father?
From my grandfather, R. Kandasamy Chettiar, a government servant in the postal department. Of course he wanted to have a business. At that time no one was running the curry powder business. Then he thought, why not start one himself? Then he bought the machineries from Kuala Lumpur. And he set up over here in Melaka. We were one of the early birds here.
What about the recipes?
Of course the formulas and recipes were from my grandmother, Madam Kaliama. So, it’s more or less like a home recipe, you see. So customers who buy and cook this curry powder, they feel like it’s their grandmother’s kind of food. The authentic taste is there.
When your grandfather started the business, where did he get the funding?
Of course he got his own savings, I told you he was a government servant. He started on a very small scale. Only 2 machineries and for that you don’t need much capital. It was more or less a retail business. People come, they grind and go. Or they buy our products which were already ground.
Where did your grandfather start the business?
Here in this building. It’s about 100 years old.
Your family has been living here since?
Those days, we used to live here, of course not now.
From your grandfather to your father to you, then to?
Maybe my son. I have 2 kids. If they are interested, they might run it.
Before when your grandfather started this business in this building, was it still the same?
Here, you cannot change the face of the building, so it looks the same. You can do whatever you like inside, but not the façade. This comes from the Heritage Centre. Now they have gazetted it, you can’t change the face of the building. You can renovate it but you have to maintain the face and structure.
“My grandfather started the business in this building. It’s about 100 years old. Now they‘ve gazetted it, you can’t change the face of the building. You can renovate it but you have to maintain the face and structure”
Initially, when your grandfather started the business he managed it with your grandmother, then they passed it on to your parents?
Yes, my parents were running it. Of course, they had workers, you can’t run it alone! You have to have workers to operate the machines, sales boys, drivers and so on.
And the machinery, do they still use the same machines?
No, during the passage of time we have upgraded the machines.
Any business challenges?
The present scenario is very challenging. We have big players in the business. The prices have got to be very competitive, but even though the prices are competitive, we still maintain the quality. So people come here for the quality and the freshness. So, you can’t get it elsewhere. If you go to the supermarket and buy, it might be a few months old. They have a shelf life. But here we grind it every day. So, it’s fresh, the aroma is different.
And what are the main ingredients?
Of course, we have all sorts of spices. For example chicken curry masala will have about 10 to 12 different spices. And you have to formulate it according to the formulas which my grandmother passed over.
“…chicken curry masala will have about 10 to 12 different spices. And you have to formulate it according to the formulas which my grandmother passed over”
Do you have customers who ask to customise the ingredients?
Yeah, some customers bring in their own spices, with their portions of their spices, they will ask us to grind. We do that service too.
And what’s the family’s great secret?
When it’s a secret, you can’t reveal it. Simple as that. [Laughs]
So, what’s your inspiration for the future of this business?
Of course, we want to develop it further into a small-scale industry. Now it’s only a shop lot. Perhaps, we might turn it into a small-scale company.
What type of customers do you have?
Every race comes here and they enjoy the products here.
What’s masala powder?
Masala means curry powder, which is all pre-mixed. So if you want to cook chicken curry, you need this masala powder, apart from the usual ingredients like onions, tomatoes and so on.
You have different masala for meat and fish?
Yes, you have masala for meat, masala for seafood, then you have vegetarian powder. Different ingredients for each. So the taste comes out.
What’s the price of the machinery now?
Depends on what type of machinery. For grinding it starts about RM5,000. It even goes up to a quarter of a million dollars. Those are the very sophisticated and ultra-modern machines.
Do tourists purchase the spices?
Yes, we have tourists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Australia, UK and US.
From where do they hear about your spices?
All these people, perhaps they were Melakans in those days. Then they migrate somewhere else, but still keep coming. Then they tell their friends, so it’s by word of mouth. And likewise, we have been in some magazines and newspapers. And through that people comeing in. And also through Facebook.
“People come here for the quality and the freshness. If you go to the supermarket and buy, it might be a few months old. But here we grind it every day. The aroma is different”
Your grandparents came from Tamil Nadu. What are the distinctive ingredients for their curry powder?
Curry powder basically comes from India. The Indians came over to Malaysia, they brought in the formula. So, whatever the formula, the type of spices they used in India are the same spices [as here].
And from time to time they added some extras?
That depends on individual personal taste. But we have a set formula. That is sufficiently good to cook the curry, but the cook must also be good. If you buy this curry powder but don’t know how to cook, then your curry won’t be good. However now, by watching YouTube, people can cook anything.