Someone told me Ho Jiak will be a Sydney institution one day. Now I believe them.
From a tiny Strathfield food court stall to the most popular Malaysian restaurant in the state, Ho Jiak has helped redefine Malaysian food in Sydney. Nicholas Jordan shares the story of two friends, who’d never cooked professionally in their lives, and how they ended up with a restaurant that’s pushing the cuisine beyond its tropes.
When Junda Khoo and William Xie opened Ho Jiak Haymarket in 2017, they were scared. Every restaurateur feels it and will tell you nerves are normal, but this was different. They were opening a Malaysian restaurant with a million dollar fit-out, high-end service, stellar produce, and $25 plates of noodles.
Think about every Malaysian restaurant you know. What do they look like? How much does a laksa or a chicken rice cost? The history of Malaysian restaurants in Sydney has been dominated by cheap food court stalls and restaurants serving a checklist of essentially the same stuff.
Xie and Khoo know all about this because they run one. Before Haymarket, the young duo opened Ho Jiak Strathfield in 2014, a tiny food court stall with $13 laksas and char kway teows. It was their first restaurant.
The two met through Papa Roti, where Khoo was a franchiser and Xie his franchisee. They soon got into business together, initially to bring a duplicate of Melbourne restaurant Petaling Street to Sydney in partnership with the original owners. But after opening two branches (the second in Kingsford), Khoo grew frustrated.
“I wanted to go into the kitchen and change the recipe,” says Khoo, who, until then, had only had a career in banking. “They would say, ‘you’re so young, you’re inexperienced, you shouldn’t butt in’. That’s when I decided, you know what, if we’re so inexperienced, why don’t we go out and do our own thing? That’s how Ho Jiak started.”
Having only ever prepared food for family and friends, Khoo was thrown into a commercial kitchen and was suddenly cooking for paying customers. “It was crazy. Will was like ‘hey, you love cooking? Well go for it. It’s time to learn’. I had no idea what I was doing.”
So Khoo dedicated his time to researching, developing and experimenting. “I am still learning, every day I finish work here, I go back home at about 12 or 12:30 and I’ll do my research until 2:30am. In the morning I drop my kids off and come here to keep researching.”
Their char kway teow is a good example of a dish that’s constantly evolving. He describes how he blends soy sauces from Japan, China and South-East Asia to get the perfect flavour; how he just recently changed the thickness and elasticity of the noodles; and how he’s always trying to get more wok hei (the umami-rich charred flavour you get from using an extremely hot work).
Their Strathfield stall, with its stool seating and no-compromise menu of Malaysian street-food (they’ve never held back on chilli, salt or shrimp paste), brought the brand a lot of success and recognition. More importantly though, it gave them cash. “We always wanted to come back to the city, this was our training ground,” says Xie.
The dream was to give Sydney the same experience Khoo had as a kid, growing up on the streets of Penang and eating the food his grandparents once made. “My parents were busy working all the time. I was raised by my grandma, without her I wouldn’t be here today. Her cooking meant so much to me, I wanted to share her cooking with everybody else.”
Mid-conversation, Khoo’s voice starts to strain as he battles oncoming tears.
“My grandparents were the only people who believed in me, in school, through uni, only they would say, ‘you know what, maybe this guy will grow up to be a chef’. No one else said that, not even my parents,” he says. “The reason it gets me every time is I know she would be proud of me.”
His restaurant is a love letter to his grandparents and the life they gave him. The downstairs dining room is modelled on the street he grew up on, with its lego-coloured window frames and murals of what life was like outside his grandparents’ house. Upstairs is the family home, with Khoo’s family portraits dotting the walls.
While you can still find Strathfield’s best sellers on the menu, the rest is either a direct translation of Khoo’s grandma’s recipes or his best recreation of them. Some, like the assam gulai (a spicy, sour wok-fried fish stew) are distinct in pungency and power, while others are distinct in their homely quality. Dishes like the poached lettuce; fried bean sprouts with salted fish; or the steamed eggs with preserved radish are daily peasant foods so unsexy in their basicness it’s no wonder other Malaysian restaurants in Sydney have ignored them.
That’s why Xie and Khoo were scared. “We were suffering for the first three months. We were bleeding cash, we were dying,” Khoo says.
They were running the 111-seater at less than $27 per seat over an entire day, and panicking. But gradually the word spread, first in the Malaysian community and then among Sydney’s online media.
It’s come a long way since day one. Beyond street food and Khoo’s family recipes, the menu now touts Malaysian staples like nasi lemak and nasi goreng luxurified with grilled marron, 6+ marbled Wagyu and, when the season is right, truffles.
Khoo is also exploring lesser-known specialties from Malaysia’s Indian and Malay communities. He’s already started with assam laksa (a tart, mackerel and tamarind broth generally coupled with thick, elastic noodles) and nasi kerabu (a herbal, mixed rice dish that’s blue from the use of butterfly pea flower essence, and often served with fried chicken and fish crackers). “When I talk to other chefs about it, they say ‘yeah, good luck converting people to eat it,’ but that’s my responsibility to take on,” says Khoo.
These days, seeing Ho Jiak close to empty would mean something seriously bad has happened, like a global apocalypse, or a new light rail line being constructed out the front. It’s not just Malaysians in there looking for a slice of nostalgia, or former backpackers looking to relive their post-party street-side noodle dreams, it has the same wide mixture of ages, cultural groups and class that makes you think the restaurant has gone beyond just being a good place to eat, and is on its way to becoming part of the city itself. An institution, one that eventually every Sydneysider will know.
PHOTOGRAPHY: ELLYNA TJOHNARDI
This article was first published in foodservice's July 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.