Foodie Confidential

He lives and breathes kueh

Mr Alan Tan, chief executive of home-grown kueh business HarriAnns, feels kueh-making is in his blood

As a three-year-old, Mr Alan Tan, chief executive of home-grown kueh business HarriAnns, wanted to help his grandmother Madam Chia Nga Eng prepare glutinous rice.

So he poured soap powder all over the grains.

"I clearly thought that I was helping," says Mr Tan, 45, with a laugh.

The kitchen was his "playground" then - he also used bottles of soya sauce as bowling pins, lining them up and hitting them with a ball.

"I was too young to remember all this, but my mother would tell me such stories."

He has certainly come a long way from his days of playing with food.

In 2012, he left his job as a country manager for security company Certis Cisco and took over the family business, which dates back to the 1950s.

Back then, his grandmother, now 93, sold glutinous rice from a pushcart before setting up a stall at Tiong Bahru Market.

The stall is now run by Mr Alan Tan's parents - Mr Harry Tan, 69, and his wife Ann, 66.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Chicken rice, which seems easy to cook but is actually very complicated. Every element, from the rice to the chilli, needs to be perfect. My favourite place for chicken rice is Delicious Boneless Chicken Rice at the basement of Katong Shopping Centre. I eat there once a month.

When Mr Alan Tan came on board in 2013, he expanded the business into a cafe, HarriAnns Nonya Table, which now has outlets at Bugis Junction and Ocean Financial Centre.

Last month, he opened a new outlet in Kallang called Harritage, which is pending halal certification.

The business also has a central kitchen in Aljunied.

Over the years, glutinous rice has remained a staple on the menu at HarriAnns, and with Mr Tan and his wife Sharon Goh, 40, at the helm, there is much more on offer now.

His younger sister, Sharon, 37, handles the company's accounts.

At the outlets, the menu features the signature ondeh ondeh and rainbow lapis, as well as a variety of kueh and cakes.

The cafes sell a selection of dishes such as laksa, chicken curry and mee siam.

Mr Tan also supplies kueh to several hotels, including the Shangri-La and participates in events, such as the upcoming Kueh Appreciation Day on July 23, which is organised by non-profit organisation Slow Food Singapore, as part of the Singapore Food Festival next month.

Mr Tan has no regrets picking this path. The father of two says: "I started learning how to make ondeh ondeh at the age of 13. It was never a chore for me.

"I guess it has always been in my blood."

What is your favourite kueh?

What I like changes. I used to really like ondeh ondeh, when we were exploring all kinds of flavours to use for the filling instead of gula melaka.

Some flavours we tried include cheese, red bean, and peanut filling.

When we opened the Bugis Junction outlet in 2014, I became obsessed with perfecting our rainbow lapis. I ate it every day to make sure we had the correct texture.

My current favourite is kueh bugis, a steamed glutinous rice ball with coconut cream.

You like to be creative with the flavours for your kueh. Has any combination not worked?

Sweet kueh still works the best. We tried a savoury pumpkin salat that didn't really work. I would love to try making kueh inspired by ice kacang, or bubur cha cha.

Over the years, has your grandmother's glutinous rice recipe changed?

In the past, we used to fry it with pork lard. It was very fragrant, but super sinful.

Now we use vegetable oil instead, as well as other secret ingredients so that it retains the authentic flavour.

What is your favourite food?

I'm very much a local food guy. Comfort food would be laksa from anywhere - as long as the broth is not diluted.

I also like fish head bee hoon from a coffee shop in Aljunied. For good crab bee hoon, I head to Golden Spoon Seafood in Tiong Bahru.

Do you cook?

Yes, I like to cook when I have the time. My wife's favourite is my aglio olio. I also like to bake chocolate cookies.

What are your favourite desserts?

I would pick bubur cha cha, tau suan and red bean soup over a molten lava chocolate cake and waffles.

Are you an adventurous diner?

I challenge myself to eat almost everything. I've had live octopus in South Korea, although all I tasted was the wasabi. I love to eat any form of innards, as well as stinky tofu.

The only thing I don't eat is brinjal because of its slimy texture.

You used to do the food photography for HarriAnns. Can you give some tips on food photography?

You need to brush oil on food to make it shine.

And when shooting soupy dishes, I use a syringe to add soup to a dish instead of ladling it in, so that the sides of the bowl do not get dirty.

You also need to think about whether to put the gravy followed by ingredients, or ingredients then gravy.

People now eat Instagram first, not the actual food.

When shooting a dish that has chicken inside, it is best to use the drumstick as that looks better in photographs compared with a chicken wing.

It is also important to garnish the dish and vegetables cannot be too cooked or they will appear limp in photos.

It could take me an entire day to shoot 10 dishes because I'm a perfectionist.

If you could have a meal with anyone, who would you pick?

My wife, for a meal with just the two of us, where we don't have to talk about work. It's hard for us not to talk about work all the time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'He lives and breathes kueh'. Print Edition | Subscribe