Sunday Vibes

Malaysian woman leaves corporate world to get into pickles business

"IN words and pickles, I have immortalised my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods," writes Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie's Booker-winning Midnight's Children. For Sinai, pickles are a metaphor for both the country he is from — India — and its muddled history.

For "pickle queen" Fallon Hannah Jacob, her unexpected venture into the ancient art of pickle-making was her way of taking charge of her own narrative. "It wasn't exactly a conventional path," she admits sheepishly, adding: "But it was what I wanted to do."

You can't tell Fallon not to do something without her bristling and doing the exact thing you didn't want her to do. She breaks into laughter and admits to having a rebellious streak. "You've just got to try something once," she insists, with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Pursue the things that excite you," she tells me sagely, chuckling a little before continuing: "… and who knows what might come out of it?" In her case, the headstrong woman chucked her conventional career aside and went into the murky, vinegary world of pickles.

"What I want this story to be about is the reinvention of yourself; that nothing is wasted in our lives, that every single thing that happens can come out for the good to build you," Fallon continues with a determined thrust of her chin. She's not done with what she has to say just yet. Pausing for a breath, she adds: "I really want this story to resonate and to be for people to say, 'I can build my business'."

It's hard to imagine that this worldly-wise young woman is only 33. "You're so young!" I exclaim, and she raises her eyebrows in surprise. Tucking her legs beneath her, she makes herself comfortable on the sofa. It's quite a departure from the norm. For one, Fallon is in my home on this balmy afternoon.

"I'll come over," she'd said a few days ago. An interview in my home? That's really not something I've done before. But Fallon is family (we're cousins), albeit someone I hadn't really kept in touch with for a good number of years. Despite the radio silence, her bottles of pickles had somehow managed to find their way to my home.

The unusual permutations (unlike the usual mango, lime and salted fish achars that I'm used to) intrigued me. Spiced brinjals, dry dates, caramelised onions, cili padi (bird's eye chili), sweet coconut — it appears there's very little that escapes pickling in Fallon's eyes.

"I keep looking at things and wondering if I can turn it into a pickle," she admits blithely, adding that the inspiration for her orange peel achar came from seeing a recipe for marmalade.

Days after promising to drive all the way to Klang to see me, she's finally here. Smiling widely, she stands in my doorway with my curious dog trailing after her, one hand extended to hand over a little bag to me. "For you," she says simply, with a grin. I rejoice inwardly, knowing the contents of the bag even before I've had the chance to peer inside.

It's pickles — my kryptonite — and the kind I trot out at breakfast, lunch and dinner, expanding the pleasures of every meal (and my waistline), from a plain plate of rice and yogurt to a grilled cheese sandwich.

Blame it on my late father, of course. I remember the gruff man sitting at the kitchen table, cutting up thin slivers of young mangoes, much to my delight. "Mango pickles!" I'd yell out in glee. He'd glare at me and tell me sternly: "Eat it sparingly. It's not a vegetable!"

Dad and I fought over many things. But we had our shared love of pickles. Furious arguments would simmer down to shared confidences over which pickles sold at our local grocery store were better, or if his latest batch of home-made pickles met the "mark".

We'd have fiery debates about the pickles that made their way to our homes: whether aunty's pickles were any good or if that store-bought version was better. Dad and I may not agree on a lot of things, but we had so much in common when it came to pickles!

"Do you know who inspired me to make pickles?" Fallon's voice breaks my reverie. Without waiting for an answer, she continues quietly: "It was a conversation I had with your dad, actually." About five years ago, Fallon accompanied her mum to visit my ailing father who was already bedridden by that time. "He was already in that room," she points to the room at the back of the hall. That was my father's room before he eventually passed away four years ago.

"He was reminiscing about the traditional Kerala salted fish pickle from his childhood and lamented how he couldn't get it anywhere. He told stories about how the fishermen would bring in their catch and their wives would either pickle it, salt it or fry the fishes," she recounts softly.

When Fallon got back home after visiting the old man, she asked her mother why didn't she (her mother) make those kinds of pickles anymore. Her mother retorted that she didn't make pickles because no one really ate it at home.

"Something, somehow, just, you know… clicked. I decided I wanted to try making pickles," she recalls, grinning, adding: "I didn't have a recipe at hand. There was no family recipe to fall back on. Nothing. Imagine that!"


It's easy to imagine that she's a natural in the kitchen, but she shakes her head vehemently at the mere suggestion that she's been cooking all her life. "Oh no," she disagrees, admitting: "I was never in the kitchen growing up. I only started cooking when I was studying in Australia."

Leaning forward, she confesses: "My mum didn't want to give me the recipes at first, telling me, 'You've got enough money to go and buy food. Why stress yourself with cooking?' But I really wanted my rasam and rice!"

She missed the traditional Indian food she grew up eating back home. Picking up the phone, Fallon called her mother and insisted on the timeless recipes of some of her favourite food. "I just wanted to try and cook the 'homey' food of my childhood," she reiterates, eyes dancing with mirth.

It wasn't easy, she admits with another hearty laugh. "I mean mum would say, 'use jeeragam' or a pinch of this and that. I had to find out what these ingredients really were, or what the exact measurements were for that particular dish. You can't go looking for jeeragam or jintan putih here in Australia! I'd call my other aunts for the same recipe with the hopes I might make some sense of mum's instructions by comparing her recipe to theirs!"

Fallon was undeterred by her failures in the kitchen. "There were many disasters in the kitchen," she gleefully admits, adding: "I mean, my fried rice was a complete disaster at first. But I really fell in love with cooking. I wasn't afraid of mistakes. I'd just learn not to repeat it and I was brave enough to experiment with the recipes."

The youngest of three siblings, she studied mass communications in Australia. Shares Fallon: "I enjoyed mass communications a lot but on one of my summer breaks back home, my father told me bluntly, 'Please get out of the house and get an internship!' So I took on an internship at an advertising agency and fell in love with that. When I went back to Australia, I decided to minor in advertising."

In the meantime, she turned to cooking and found a secret joy in discovering new recipes or improvising on old, hand-me-down recipes of her favourite dishes. She tells me blithely that she enjoys tweaking, experimenting and changing timeless recipes to suit her taste.

"We credit recipes with much more authority than they necessarily deserve," she says thoughtfully. "It might be better to regard them really as more of an account of a way of cooking a dish rather than a do-this-or-die barrage of instructions."

Her love for cooking followed her when she returned home after graduating in 2012. Fallon decided to embark on a career in advertising. But in the meantime, the kitchen had become a familiar place for her to tinker and cook. "I loved cooking for friends and family. I loved how they'd respond to food and it gave me such great satisfaction," she shares.

A meeting with my late father in 2014 drove Fallon to the kitchen again. "My very first attempt was the salted fish pickle your dad talked about," she reveals. She made enough to fill a few jam jars and gave them away to her mum, aunties and her brothers to taste. "Well, it wasn't a complete disaster," she recalls, laughing. "Based on their feedback, I continued to tweak the recipe until I finally hit on a taste they enjoyed. When my sisters-in-law suggested that I sell my pickles, I knew I was on to something!"

Where did she get her recipe from? "Oh, trial and error, Google and getting some information from my mum and aunties!" she replies, adding: "I didn't believe in following a traditional recipe. I wanted to make it my own — and that's what I did."

Her sisters-in-law asked her to make a fresh batch that could fill around 10 bottles and offered to buy them to pass around to their friends and colleagues. "I did just that. Imagine, I sold my first batch of pickles and felt really chuffed. In fact, I took a picture of that first 10 bottles and posted it on Facebook!" shares Fallon. She soon started taking orders from family and friends as word of mouth spread.

She apprenticed herself, learning to combine new and old ingredients to balance out their acidity levels. As she tried to standardise the recipes, her project became increasingly more ambitious.

From the tried-and-tested salted fish pickles, Fallon went on to create interesting combinations with coconut, brinjals and even orange peels. "Back then, it was a wonderful, fulfilling experience!" she exclaims.

Her pickle-making venture halted indefinitely when Fallon took on a job posting in Dubai in 2017. "At that time, pickle-making and cooking was a hobby I enjoyed. My real 'career' was in advertising and I dove into that field for a while," she explains.


When Fallon returned from her stint in Dubai a year later, things started to shift for her. It became harder to get a job. When she finally did, she found that it wasn't what she was keen on doing anymore. "I found that I couldn't fit into that life anymore. I wasn't being paid a whole lot despite my experience and I wasn't being treated well at the last company," she admits, adding: "I didn't even have a car. I couldn't afford it."

She fell into depression. "It was my rock bottom period," she reveals quietly, adding: "I was so unhappy. I wasn't having the career I thought I'd have, a decent pay check that I deserved and I didn't want to lean on my family for support. I mean, I knew that if I didn't do something for myself at that point, it would only get harder."

She realised that advertising — as enjoyable as it was in the past — wasn't something she wanted to do forever. "You don't get to put in your creativity. Instead, you're just the one executing what the client wants. It really wasn't something I wanted to do at all," she shares.

Adding, she continues: "Of course, my parents were aghast. After all, I chose that field to study and they had invested a lot in my education. My brothers were all corporate people and my mum worked in a company for more than two decades. It was inconceivable that I didn't want to remain in this field anymore."

She turned to the kitchen for solace, and rediscovered her creativity and joy in cooking. The familiar aromas of spices and the bubbling oil in the large wok — they beckoned like old friends. Cooking was no longer a hobby but a lifeline she grabbed in the midst of her tunnel experience.

When her dad's brother requested for a bottle of pickles, she began making her pickles again and the orders soon started coming in. "We missed your pickles!" she was told by her friends and family members. "I realised that maybe it was time I jumped into this venture full-time. This was something I felt I could do," she recounts.

According to Fallon, the hardest part was breaking the news to her father. She plucked up the courage to tell him that she wanted to resign from her job and focus on her pickle-making business. "I bawled my head off when I told him. I was ready for my dad to disown me. At first, they thought I was depressed and it was a 'phase' that I'd soon come out of," she says dryly, adding: "But as I dove into the business, they soon realised I was serious about making this my vocation."


Two weeks into her new venture, her father changed his mind and became supportive. "Maybe she's taking after me," he told her mum proudly. Her mother couldn't understand Fallon's choices. "But she doesn't even like to eat pickles!" she wailed, aghast.

"Mum didn't understand why I'd want to pour in my blood, sweat and tears in the kitchen when I could've had a nice corporate job!" remarks Fallon with a smile, admitting that it took a while for her mother to come around.

But by then, dad grew annoyed as Fallon took over his kitchen and space to make pickles. "He did something that really triggered me," she admits, shaking her head. "He made me pay for gas, electricity and water. He also made me pay our maid for her labour charges as she helped me cut onions and such!"

On hindsight, she's grateful for her father's "tough love". "It opened my eyes to a lot of things like the hidden costs that I should have factored in. In fact, when he first saw my costing, he predicted that I'd go out of business in six months!" she says, breaking into laughter.

Her first bazaar experience was a complete failure. "At that point, I was doing everything by myself," she recalls, eyes rolling up in mock frustration, adding: "I had to cook, bottle, label 60 bottles — essentially do everything. I was too proud to ask for help. Everyone was just waiting to see if I could actually stick to this business if the going got tough and I was determined to prove that I could do it on my own."

It was humbling, she admits, to sit there at the bazaar and not having anything sell. "My mother and brother came along later and bought some bottles," she reveals, sheepishly, adding: "My brother Jason told me, 'Fallon, I don't know what happens after this. But this is just the starting point for you, okay?'"

A couple of months later, Fallon started an Instagram account for her pickles, and business started picking up after that. Soon the kitchen in her parent's house wasn't enough. She knew she had to find a place elsewhere to accommodate the storage of oil and ingredients. "I had to move out. I couldn't take up all that space. It was time for me to stand on my own two feet and figure this business out," she explains.

Business continued to pick up but when the pandemic hit, Fallon found herself once again, doing everything on her own. "There were roadblocks everywhere and my hired help couldn't travel to where I was. I ended up doing literally everything. From chopping up ingredients, cooking, labelling, bottling and even washing down the oily kitchen — I did them all. I had so little sleep and lost a lot of weight, trying to keep up with the orders by myself," she says.

Once the lockdowns lifted, Fallon herself contracted Covid-19. "It was a nightmare," she recalls, shaking her head. "I landed in the ICU, oxygen-dependent and feeling so sick. Imagine, I was lying in ICU, furiously messaging on my phone and trying to explain to my customers why I couldn't fulfil their orders!"

Thankfully, she recovered. But it took a while for Fallon to regain her strength before she could even think of returning to her pickles. "I took my time," she says quietly. Three months after her hospitalisation, Fallon went on to create new ingredients for her pickles. "I wanted to prove that Covid couldn't get me down for long," she says, adding: "I expanded the flavour profiles and the response was so encouraging."

There's no looking back since. As we continue to sit and catch up on life and family events, I apologise to her for being able to make it for her wedding (she'd gotten married recently and looked resplendent in a white jumpsuit). But my eyes keep shifting to the little bag that she'd given me earlier.

Much later, I opened the bag with glee. It was too early for dinner but I really couldn't wait. After all, pickles are my absolute favourite and Fallon's didn't disappoint. The pickle did what all great pickles do: It revived me with a ripple of salt and acidity.

The grainy oil tickled with chillies and chunks of brinjal. It had the effect, with every breath, of filling my lungs with more air so I could breathe more deeply. And it made everything on the plate taste bigger, stronger, hotter, better.

My father would've been so proud.

For more of Fallon's pickles, go to

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