A freewheeling conversation with Melody Mok, the founder of Curious Elephant which is a line of spicy and flavourful condiments
On May 1, 2020, at the early peak of the pandemic, Melody Mok got a call to say she would be let go from her job with the postponed Dubai Expo.
“A lot of us were in the same situation, a lot of tears being shed. At the time there was no way of knowing if you’d get work anywhere else.” Scrolling through LinkedIn in the days that followed, she came across a peanut butter business founded as a passion project by a couple from New Zealand who quit their corporate jobs to go for it. “That was a real ‘pinch me’ moment,” says Melody.
“I thought if they can do it with peanut butter, I can do something in Dubai with Asian sauces. I knew there was a gap in the market because we’ve got all these international brands but nothing that’ actually made in the UAE.”
An Aussie of Hong Kongese descent, Melody grew up eating across Sydney’s Far Eastern restaurants, including one particular Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall where she used to finish whole condiment jars of lemongrass chilli sauce with her bowls of pho. Overseas travels included visits to Balinese cafés and Malaysian hawker markets, which only deepened her love of those cultures’ varied spicy oils and sauces.
“I want chilli in my food,” she says. So, with her husband’s support she developed her own line of condiments: a Vietnamese chilli sauce, a Chinese chilli oil, a Malaysian chilli sambal and now an Indonesian tomato sambal with shrimp paste and lime. They drew the brand name from a trip to Tanzania in 2019 and an actual “curious elephant” who wandered into the campsite where they got engaged. “He was curiously shaking a tree at four in the morning and fruit was raining down around us.” By the time the Expo was up and running again, Melody was going so “full steam” with Curious Elephant that she declined the offer to return to her job. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life and career.”
Having already collaborated with the likes of Pickl, the British Butcher Shop and beloved Japanese restaurant Maru Udon, she was so excited to be selected for the Spinneys Local Business Incubator that her husband recorded her “jumping up and down with happy tears” as she received the news. “Even when I took the plunge I never imagined my product on supermarket shelves. For a small business to make that leap from startup to retail, aligning with the Spinneys brand is just so exciting.”