It was a wet Wednesday evening when I drove into the narrow, dingy streets of old Pudu to find Restoran Ruby. The end-lot coffeeshop was quiet at this hour with workers outnumbering customers, and the few who were there seemed to linger for the company, more than anything. At first, Ricky Kan seemed like an aloof man. When his Indonesian worker, the kakak, pointed him in my direction, he walked into the back of the house without a word. I braced myself for what would be a challenging interview, and ordered all three available desserts while he was gone.
Restoran Ruby is known for its trio of traditional Chinese desserts, chi ma wu (black sesame soup), fa sang wu (peanut soup) and tang tan (steamed egg custard). These desserts are no longer widely available in the city, but between the few who offer it, Ricky’s time-honoured family recipe has emerged as one of the more loved options, earning him the moniker, “King of Chi Ma Wu”. He reappeared with a plastic table and signalled for me to join him outdoors, and so we sat down for an interview with the king.
Ricky Kan was nowhere near the man I thought he would be. He spoke Cantonese with gusto, occasionally expressing his thoughts in English; shaky but earnest. More importantly, once he settled in, he spoke to me affably — like I was a friend. I asked him how the business started, and as if it was standard procedure, he stood up to show me around. Albeit distinctly aged, the shop was nothing short of glorious. Next to sprightly lion dance costumes and old photographs that reiterate the business’ Chinese heritage, two bulky stone mills — the bedrocks behind every bowl of dessert that leaves the kitchen — adorn the shop. The apparatus once belonged to his great-grandfather, who first started this humble dessert shop in his hometown, Guangzhou, China. It was then passed down to Ricky’s grandfather Kan Choy and then his father, Kan Leong. The over 128 year-old stone mills came to KL with Kan Leong when he embarked into the business as an immigrant in the old Central Market (then, it was an actual market as opposed to the tourist attraction it is today).
Despite Chinese customs that compel sons to be successors, Ricky was not expected to take on the trade. It was his elder sister who ended up mastering the coveted recipes. Ricky, on the other hand, delved into the working world and found himself in a foreign employment agency. Hanging above the dessert stall is proof of this; a framed, sepia-coloured photograph of his younger self receiving an award from a government figure.
Before he was King of Chi Ma Wu, Ricky reigned in his white-collar work. During this time, his father Kan Leong retired with no one to take on the family business — his sister found it too taxing. And it was. The daily grinding of sesame and peanuts on the heavy stone mill required laborious efforts, and it was also no easy task to constantly stir the soups over a slow fire. Texture is key to Chinese dessert soups, and every step of the cooking process has the potential to make or break it. I looked around to see the coffeeshop now operating methodically, four Indonesian helpers at the heart of it; stirring, boiling, serving, washing.
That led to my next question to Ricky.
“So how did you get here?”
In 1979, Ricky felt like he was running out of time, and the clock was ticking on his family recipes. He believed in keeping traditions, and he saw that the precious ones of family and food were in his hands — soon to disappear forever if he didn’t do something about it.
“Today, young people come once to my shop and they come back with their parents who will always tell me that the desserts remind them of their childhood. I don’t want us to lose that, the flavours of our younger days.”
With his wife’s help, he revived the desserts here in Restoran Ruby. As their name flourished and business boomed, he relied on his former networks to hire help. He spoke endearingly of the four girls who now run his shop. “They are like my anak angkat (daughters) and the business will one day become theirs,” Ricky chimed.
Ricky has two sons, none of whom sees their future in his old dessert shop. So between teaching the girls his dessert recipes and his traditional life values, Ricky even employed a tuition teacher to teach them Mandarin.
When he paused and noticed that I had only three bowls set on the table, Ricky quickly hollered at his worker for another order: cha wu. In Cantonese mahjong lingo, it meant ‘playing a wrong move’ or ‘false win’. Here, it was ironically a winning dessert that represents the duality of chi ma wu and fa sang wu, shaped to look like the yin yang symbol. Before I could ask, he began to tell me that this was the only dessert that didn’t originate from his great-grandfather’s repertoire, and the conversation soon revealed how business was done back in those days.
Back in 1888 Guangzhou, Ricky’s great-grandfather Kan Seng sold freshly ground chi ma wu, sweet fa sang wu and tang tan to friends and family in their hometown. Because Chinese etiquette encourages generosity, Kan Seng would often distribute these desserts for free. Moreover, a firm practice was to always abstain from charging customers if ever they found themselves not enjoying the desserts. Ricky has remained loyal to his predecessor’s convictions, with a dignified sign that reads: “You don’t have to pay if you’re not satisfied” in Cantonese emblazoned all over his shop. It was not a marketing gimmick, but rather, a sense of obligation that has contributed to much of his popularity. He sees customers, be it fresh faces or regulars, as friends who have come all the way to taste his fine work. If they left unhappy and still had to fork out money for it, he would feel guilty; mm hou yi si, a common Cantonese phrase that succinctly describes the predicament.
If you’re ever in the area, make a turn into Jalan Kancil to find Restoran Ruby for a bowl of nourishing, comforting chi ma wu. It will be slightly sweet, redolent of black sesame fragrance and at the back of your palate, you will taste a hint of bitterness. If you’re lucky, Ricky will be there, waiting to meet his the next customer; his next friend.
Writer’s note: A week after my interview with Ricky, he has kept in touch, sending me Chinese New Year greetings and public service announcement posters. I’m thinking about adding him on Facebook.