The secret to a perfect curry puff

Shelley Loh ‘failed miserably’ for three months before perfecting her recipe. Now, writes Olivia Shivas, she sells 1000 a week.

This is a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air.



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Shelley Loh’s curry puffs are one of the top sellers at her Malaysian food truck. The trick, she says – which took three months to perfect after she ‘‘failed miserably’’ to get it right – is having the perfect ratio of water dough and oil dough in the layered pastry to make a spiral pattern. How you roll the dough and the length of rest time also makes a difference – but don’t ask for more details, because the exact recipe is her secret. ‘‘You really need a good balance of ingredients,’’ says the 40-year-old, who’s spent the morning preparing her labour-oflove pastry dough before a visit from the Sunday Star-Times. The curry puffs were far from perfect in the beginning: her family and friends spent months as reluctant guinea pigs, trialling whatever came out of her deep fryer. It took a lot of trial and error with different ingredients to get the pastry consistency perfect, so it wouldn’t break apart when going into the hot oil. Loh’s persistence paid off. Now, customers tell her the curry puffs are perfect: not too oily, and they stay crispy for a long time. When we arrive at her Ota¯ ¯ huhu home in Auckland on a drizzly afternoon, a shiny food truck sits at the end of a long driveway. New Year cookies are meticulously laid out with a fresh batch of curry puff pastry dough ready to roll. Lunar New Year celebrations kick off today, and it’s going to be a busy time for Loh’s roving business. Loh gently separates her dough and flattens it with a wooden rolling pin. Her mum Joanne Lee hovers and comments on the food, while asking me questions in Cantonese. My grasp of the language is shaky and I reply in halting Mandarin: dui bu qi, wo bu zhi dao (sorry, I don’t understand). Loh explains that her mum helps her with the business and prepares the food when Loh’s busy with her two kids, aged 8 and 10. The motherly touch goes both ways; Loh fusses over her mum’s hat as the pair get ready to pose for our photographer. Loh never thought she’d be running a food truck. She was made redundant from her advertising job during the August 2021 Covid lockdown, and found herself stuck at home with plenty of spare time to potter away on her favourite recipes. After those initial forays with family and friends, ‘‘word just got out’’ and she was persuaded to start posting her cooking on Facebook as Shelley’s Kitchen. Now, it’s a full-time job. Loh takes it seriously: early on she toured Auckland’s Malaysian restaurants to figure out favourite flavours and worked to put her own twist on them. Demand grew quickly and a few months later she found herself searching for a food truck so she could take her curry puffs to the world. The brand-new trailer unit – grey, with bright yellow trim – came from a supplier in Po¯ keno, and Loh then went through the demanding process of applying for a food licence from the Ministry for Primary Industries. ‘‘It’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of recording and processes of how you make things for each item,’’ she says. Since then, she’s been a regular at the Ormiston Markets in Flatbush and she also caters for parties and events. Her curry puffs are a firm favourite: she estimates she makes around 1000 a week, which includes Facebook sales, market events, and courier packages to customers outside Auckland. During Lunar New Year, her most popular items are bakkwa (pork jerky), nian gao (Chinese New Year cake), peanut cookies and honeycomb cookies. The reason for their popularity, Loh explains, is that many of these food items represent prosperity. ‘‘The peanut cookies and honeycomb cookies are good luck symbols,’’ she says, pointing out Chinese-language labels that bestow best wishes, happiness and blessings. For many, they’re also a throwback to fond childhood memories. ‘‘As Malaysians, we miss home, and we enjoy food,’’ Loh says. Food has played an important role in her life since she was a child. Loh grew up with a chef father, and was seven when her parents moved to New Zealand from Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands 33 years ago. She was initially told it was just a holiday, and laughs: ‘‘but when I came, I never went back’’. It was ‘‘daunting’’ moving to another country as a child, and Kiwi fish and chips were one of the few reasons she wanted to stay. ‘‘Back in Malaysia you don’t get chips like that,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s not like the goodies in Malaysia, it’s something new.’’ For Lunar New Year though, she prefers nian gao, the Chinese New Year cake. The cake – made of glutinous rice flour, sugar and water – is steamed in banana leaves for more than 48 hours. The longer it’s steamed, the stronger the fragrance and taste. Slices of the cake are pan-fried with egg batter and kumara or yam, which gives it a soft and chewy texture. After Lunar New Year, Loh plans to expand into a commercial kitchen and take on staff. She doesn’t see herself opening a restaurant, but would like to do larger-scale catering for events like weddings. ‘‘I’d like to get a feel of what it’s like and do better in the future,’’ she says. As the interview wraps up, Loh sends us away with a bag of treats. The curry puffs are supposed to be shared with the newsroom, but they’re all gone by the time we get back.