How to have your ‘baked pies’ and eat it too

Da Niu Bake Pie brings Chinese ‘baked pies’ or ‘guōkuī’ to Malaysia. — Pictures courtesy of Da Niu Bake Pie

RAWANG, Jan 12 — There is no Big Cow.

At first glance, the name Da Niu Bake Pie might conjure up visions of English steak pies with flaky pastry, rich with butter from massive bovines. You see, if you haven’t figured it out by now, dà niú means “big cow” in Mandarin.

That’s certainly what I thought at first. Fortunately Da Niu Bake Pie’s founder, Daniel Lim, was quick to correct me.

The 48-year-old former contracts manager and cost controller explains, “The name Da Niu came from a visit my wife Olive and I made to a poor province in China many years ago. A group of children couldn’t pronounce ‘Daniel’ so I happily accepted my new nickname!”

That sweet memory of China pervades his current passion: sharing his style of Chinese “baked pies” with fellow food lovers.

Lim explains, “We call it ‘baked pie’ but in Chinese, it is called guōkuī. A kind of Chinese flatbread dating back to 1,000 years ago, it is Olive’s favourite snack during our stay in Shanghai before we returned to Malaysia two years ago.”

Daniel Lim (left) and his brother-in-law Ving Lee (right) run Da Niu Bake Pie.
Daniel Lim (left) and his brother-in-law Ving Lee (right) run Da Niu Bake Pie.

Considered a staple of Shaanxi cuisine, a guōkuī is basically a flour-based pancake. Its name literally means “pot helmet” in Mandarin, perhaps as a nod to how it’s traditionally cooked — over charcoal inside a clay oven. This is also why some people call it the Chinese naan, Lim informs me.

That entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of independence have always been there. Lim, who studied construction management and economics in Australia, recalls juggling three part-time jobs during his college days in order to earn enough for his own education fees.

This never-say-die attitude came in handy in 2019 when Lim was waiting for a job offer. He shares, “As the company was having restructuring issues, I did not receive the offer letter. Thank goodness — because that position would have been in Wuhan, though before Covid-19 outbreak.”

During that six-month waiting period, Lim was far from idle. He spent much of his free time cooking for his family. One challenge was to grant his wife’s wish to have a bite of her favourite Chinese “baked pie.”

How 'guōkuī' is traditionally cooked – over charcoal inside a clay oven.
How ‘guōkuī’ is traditionally cooked – over charcoal inside a clay oven.

So the loving husband got cracking in the kitchen, whipping up batch after batch, testing variations of recipes till he had something his wife approved of. And not just his wife, as family and friends began clamouring for a slice of his guōkuī too.

And with that, Da Niu Bake Pie was in business.

While their response was encouraging, Lim was first introduced to the idea of selling the baked pies at pop-ups by his brother-in-law Ving Lee and his friend Davy Teh (who runs Omeor Grill, an artisanal grilled meats purveyor).

Soon Da Niu Bake Pie became a regular feature at various pop-ups and flea markets in the Klang Valley such as the Sunny Side Up Market, MURFEST, City Roar Festival, Southern Gate Music Festival, Padi Music Festival, The Japan Club and GSSKL (German Speaking Society Kuala Lumpur) Charity Bazaar.

Lim making sure his pies are baked till crispy.
Lim making sure his pies are baked till crispy.

The preponderance of musical events and festivals in their itinerary is courtesy of the 37-year-old Lee, who shares, “Surrounded and raised by a musical family, I was and am always interested in art. I did some crazy stuff throughout my 30s such as cycling from Malaysia to Italy.”

Clearly a risk taker and armed with a major in 3D animation, Lee joined forces with his foodie brother-in-law and is now the creative and branding consultant for Da Niu Bake Pie. The entire enterprise is very much a family affair and a labour of love.

In the beginning, Lim learned how to make guōkuī from a sifu (“teacher”) in China. He later adjusted the recipes to accommodate Malaysian taste buds.

While guōkuī originated in Shaanxi, Da Niu’s version is Jingzhou style as the flatbreads are stuffed with a variety of fillings.

Flavours include Xinjiang-style spicy lamb, otak-otak, mui choy (preserved vegetables) and red beans. There were seasonal flavours too; special recipes inspired by moon cakes and Yuletide cheer that Lim would concoct during the Mid-Autumn Festival and Christmas.

A freshly baked 'guōkuī' from the oven.
A freshly baked ‘guōkuī’ from the oven.

A good entrepreneur has got to roll with the punches, of course, and that’s what Lim and Lee had to figure out when the movement control order (MCO) was implemented last March.

Baking guōkuī at events and pop-ups consistently were no longer a feasible proposition.

Lim says, “During MCO, we couldn’t sell our baked pies at the market, so we hit upon the idea to turn our baked pie ingredients into fillings for dumplings instead. And what goes well with these dumplings? Spicy Sichuan style chilli oil! And it’s all our own recipes.”

That never-say-die attitude came in handy yet again.

Part of extending one’s product line is understanding one’s customer base. The fact that the regulars who used to track them down to each and every market or event for their freshly-baked pies might also enjoy other similar treats was not lost on the duo.

‘Rainbow dumplings’ that use many of the same ingredients as 'guōkuī.'
‘Rainbow dumplings’ that use many of the same ingredients as ‘guōkuī.’

Especially if these treats were easy to prepare meals at home during MCO and could be produced to scale as well as to order, making it both commercially viable yet still artisanal and hand crafted. A new opportunity for Da Niu Bake Pie.

Today they offer six dumpling flavours in vivid hues. Marketed as “Rainbow Dumplings”, all the dumpling wrappers are made from natural ingredients such as carrot juice, spinach juice, dragon fruit and red rice.

Lim enthuses, “There are two extraordinary flavours which are rarely found in the market: the mui choy (preserved vegetables) dumpling and the lamb dumpling. As for the spicy chill oil to pair with these dumplings, our recipe is based on the Sichuan style with a strong aroma but without the numbing ‘mala’ taste.”

Children, in particular, love the different colours: black for Mui Choy, yellow for Lamb, red for Scallion & Pork, green for Celery & Pork, white for Chives & Egg and pink for Prawn. Lim has also introduced his children’s favourite dish, luncheon meat, as their latest offering; these are available in three flavours: Original , Otak Prawn and Salted Egg.

Jars of Da Niu Bake Pie’s Sichuan style spicy chilli oil.
Jars of Da Niu Bake Pie’s Sichuan style spicy chilli oil.

Lee says, “We shifted our focus to online marketing and changed our product offerings using existing ingredients. This turned out to be a good decision. As Da Niu would say, ‘I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails.’”

Despite the ever shifting landscape due to the ongoing pandemic, the duo has found the response to their products to be more than welcoming. Lim says, “So what’s next for Da Niu Bake Pie is finding a base for our central kitchen as well as selling pies at the same time.”

The startup hopes to secure more distributors in the near future as they scale up production and beef up their operations. The idea here is to expand their reach once their foundation is strong.

The latest Da Niu Bake Pie offering: luncheon meat in Original, Otak Prawn and Salted Egg flavours.
The latest Da Niu Bake Pie offering: luncheon meat in Original, Otak Prawn and Salted Egg flavours.

“If the space is big enough, Da Niu and I hope to bring people who love Da Niu’s cooking and music together,” adds Lee. “This will allow us to have small events and activities.”

Even if the latter might not be possible immediately or take the form of something far more restrictive for now, it’s clear that Da Niu Bake Pie has set its sights on an exciting and abundant future.

For the duo, opportunities are opportunities and obstacles are opportunities too. There’s no difference. Their philosophy, if they were to be humorous about it? Now we can have our (baked) pie and eat it too.

Da Niu Bake Pie
No. 11, Jalan Anggun 1D, Kota Emerald, Rawang, Selangor
To order or for more information, call/WhatsApp 011-2607 2866 or visit: