When Sara Tang first moved from Malaysia to Canada 15 years ago, she was missing the food that her grandparents used to make. Laksa, a spicy and citrusy noodle soup filled with various proteins like chicken and shrimp, was one of her childhood staples.
When she tried to replicate their dishes however, she noticed a problem.
“No one actually made these Southeast Asian pastes and sauces, which are key to these dishes,” she says.
As a result Tang wasn’t left with many options. She would either eat instant Laksa noodles from convenience stores, bring her family’s Laksa paste back to Canada after visiting Malaysia or try to cook the pastes from scratch with her long-time university friend Tao Yee Lim, which she says would take hours.
It wasn’t until 2016 when Tang and Lim – who also experienced the same issues as Tang when moving to Canada 10 years ago – decided to create Kopi Thyme, a Southeast Asian cooking sauce line.
True to Southeast Asian flavours, each of the sauces are light and extremely aromatic. The Uop Sa Nuong, considered to be a “Vietnamese Classic” is savoury, sweet and tart. The Kari Ayam, a chicken curry paste, has a complex balance of spicy, earthy and tangy flavours, thanks to ingredients like lemongrass, ginger, curry leaves and chili pepper.
“We wanted to make it convenient for people to experience Southeast Asian flavours,” Tang says. “You can cook it with water or coconut milk and have a meal done in 20 minutes instead of two hours.”
The dishes you can create with the sauces are endless, they say. You can make traditional dishes like prawn curry, or bun bo hue, or something less traditional, like chicken curry pot pie, veggie dip and laksa bread bowls.
Kopi Thyme is a business made out of love. The name itself pays tribute to both Tang and Lim’s grandparents, who ran kopitiams (coffee shops) in Malaysia.
“We wanted to pay homage to them for getting us to where we are,” Tang says. “If it wasn’t for their hard work, we wouldn’t have been able to study in Canada. We would have a different life. It really is love in a jar.”
To replicate their grandparents’ recipes, Tang and Lim found it especially important to use fresh ingredients sourced in Ontario, while also not adding any preservatives or artificial flavours.
“We wanted to make the sauces as authentic as possible without compromising the taste and texture,” Tang says.
That proved to be their biggest challenge, which is also the reason why it took more than five years to launch their products. It was a time of trial and error and being adaptable to changes, since they were also creating their sauces in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think what COVID-19 essentially taught us is have an idea in your head but don’t fixate on it too much. If you dwell too much you’re never going to move forward.”