You might think of The Golden Duck’s founders, Jonathan Shen, 30, and Chris Hwang, 27, as Willy Wonka types who spend their days and nights dreaming up plans for how they can turn their favourite dishes into conveniently packaged snacks.
After all, The Golden Duck isn’t content to rest on their salted egg laurels. Although it was their first product, Salted Egg Yolk Potato Crisps, that first launched them to stardom, their subsequent innovations, like Singapore Chilli Crab Seaweed Tempura, have given snackers even more reasons to indulge.
Their latest product, Sichuan Mala Hot Pot Fragrant Mix, proves that there’s no holding them back.
Born out of Hwang’s obsession with mala dishes, the new snack comprises crispy fish skin, beancurd skin and a trio of straw, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, in a punchy mala spice blend featuring up to 19 ingredients including Sichuan peppercorns, cumin, fennel, coriander and sesame seeds.
“I really believe that if you want to do a snack of this level you have to take it a notch further and you have to compare it to dishes,” said Hwang.
“It has to be close to the dish, and it has to be better than whatever else is out there,” Shen added.
Their mala snack spent nine months in development, with the team travelling to China for six months in search of authentic Sichuan flavours.
TOP-SECRET LAB? SECRETS REVEALED
Evidently, there are no limits for the duo when it comes to pushing the boundaries of modern snacking.
But what we really wanted to know was: What flavours might have been left out in the cold on the great conveyor belt of R&D? What bold, daring experiments unfortunately did not make the cut?
“We’ve canned a surimi based snack,” Hwang said. “It’s really old school, right? A real throwback. We tried to unroll the crab sticks and we tried to cut them up and then fry them. It’s a really interesting medium because you immediately recognise the white and red stripes. But then when we fried it – maybe we got the wrong batter – it had a crumbly feeling. It flaked and got stuck in your teeth. So Jon said we couldn’t do that one.” He laughed.
Another flavour that never saw the light of day was chicken rice. The problem, said Hwang, was that “Some people have black (roasted) chicken, some people have white chicken. Some people have ginger, some people have no ginger. There are so many different varieties. When you try and get an aggregated version of all of that, it does not work. So, one thing we realised is that we have to go after flavours that are unanimously agreed on. For example, you can agree on what is a good chilli crab.”
Then there are far-out flavours that were fated to remain fanciful ideas. “If you remember, last year, there was this very funny comment that a MasterChef UK judge made, about ‘crispy rendang’,” Hwang chuckled. “That blew up in everybody’s faces. We got our designers, who are a very cheeky bunch, to design a Golden Duck Crispy Rendang pack. We put it up (on social media) and everybody loved it. They said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do it!’”
Speaking of social media, “If you just watch my Instagram, you’ll probably find out what’s happening on Golden Duck’s back end,” quipped Hwang, as many of the foods he enjoys serve as inspiration for R&D work. It’s a job hazard, after all.
“Whatever we eat nowadays, at some point the question will come in: ‘Can I turn this into a snack?’” said Shen. “It’s about understanding human cravings.”
“And when you get that craving at 2am for wanton noodles or whatever – if I can turn that into a snack, bam, I’ve got your stomach,” Hwang said.
In an attempt to sniff our way to discovering what their next snack might be, we asked them: What was the last craving they each had?
“Pizza. Last night. Four cheese,” Hwang answered immediately. “If there’s a little bit of blue cheese on it – love it.”
“I’m a bit more basic. I’m quite craving-neutral," Shen said. "I would eat if you put good food in front of me but I wouldn’t queue up for 45 minutes for it." That said, “Recently, I’ve been pigging out a little bit at Ghim Moh Market. Chwee kueh, carrot cake, duck rice, nasi lemak. I feel it’s one of those food havens that have been somewhat untouched by modernisation.”
We think we would put money down for a chwee kueh chip if it were to hit the shelves – but The Golden Duck’s next snack, as our sleuthing led us to believe, is more likely to be laksa.
“We’ve worked on laksa and our laksa is good,” Shen offered in a non-committal manner. However, "We won’t launch something that doesn’t have legs to take off. We have this really good laksa on an interesting medium that’s sitting in our kitchens. We have to decide whether it’s still going to be a good flavour to launch. I think a lot of people have come into the market to do laksa as well, and we have to probably ask and listen to the community.”
HACKS, SNACKS AND GOLDEN DUCK QUACKS
You might not know this unless you’re a next-level snacker, but there are The Golden Duck snack hacks that exist.
If you take a pack of Salted Egg Crab Seaweed Tempura or Singapore Chilli Crab Seaweed Tempura and put it in the toaster for about 30 to 45 seconds, “everything just melts a little bit so that when you crunch into it, the texture is like softshell crab,” Shen revealed.
You can also use the flavour-loaded crumbs and salty bits at the bottom of the pack in your dishes and meals, he added, saying that fans have been known to pour them onto porridge or use them to coat chicken before grilling it. “We saw the community taking our stuff and cooking it with pastas, burgers – whatever,” he said.
You’re only limited by your creativity – and that’s the kind of approach that’s gotten Hwang and Shen onto Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
And when it comes to flavours, there’s so much uncharted territory.
“In our neighbouring countries, as far away as India, China and Thailand, I think there’s so much room to be explored,” Shen said.
“The zesty flavours – Thai, lemongrass, lime, ginger – stuff that really give an interesting kick to your snacks. That's one area that’s really not been explored, even by the Western brands,” Hwang said. “I think we can do something really amazing here with Asian flavours.”