Nanyang Sauce owner keeps heritage brand alive with fresh spins on an old product

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Third-generation soya sauce maker Ken Koh hopes to fulfil his grandfather's dream to make the best soya sauce in the world.
Ken Koh, 36, tends to as many as 100 vats of soya sauce daily with his mother, Mdm Tan Poh Choo, 63. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

SINGAPORE - During the circuit breaker period, Nanyang Sauce owner Ken Koh started doing food deliveries.

The sudden shutdown hit his F&B business hard because he had Malaysian workers who were stuck on the other side of the Causeway.

Over a drink at his shop at South Bridge Road, the 36-year-old says simply: "If we want to survive, we have to take the load."

Food retail is not even his core business. He started an eatery, which sells braised chicken, as a way of showcasing his family's handmade soy sauces and he has learnt some hard lessons along the way.

The first iteration of Nanyang Chicken was in a shophouse and he admits: "The space was a little too big for us to handle."

His current shop is literally a hole-in-the-wall with just enough space for a tiny kitchen dispensing braised and curry chicken, a counter with two socially distanced high seats, and three tables on an outside walkway.

His determination to keep his family's business alive is palpable as he talks about the traditional way his company still brews soy sauce. While commercial soy sauce is made the quick way with hydrochloric acid and vegetable protein, Nanyang Sauce mixes non-GMO soybeans with wheat flour and aspergillus mould before the mixture is fermented naturally under the sun in giant vats.

Mr Koh relates with pride how, when he visited a 250-year-old soy sauce factory in Japan, its 72-year-old soy sauce master was shocked when Mr Koh shared a video of the way Nanyang Sauce made its sauce: "He said, 'This is how I used to make sauce as a 16-year-old.'"

Modern automated processes use defatted soybeans because fat can jam up the machines. At Nanyang Sauce, workers still mix the whole soybeans by hand before decanting into vats for the nine-month fermentation process.

The non-GMO soya beans imported from Canada are first boiled before being laid in large trays to cool off. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Mr Koh stepped in to take over the business three years ago because "nobody wanted to take over".

He grew up in the factory, playing among the soy sauce vats and raising chickens and fish.

Ken Koh was initially discouraged from joining the family business as his mother felt it was a sunset industry. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

His mother has helped out there since she was 16, and his 94-year-old grandmother still goes to the factory.

His grandfather died at work from a heart attack when Mr Koh was 12 years old, so he feels a deep attachment to the business where three generations has lived and worked. It was a typical small family enterprise setup with no marketing department, he recalls wryly.

"Nobody knew about us. When we first came out, people were asking, 'Are you fake?'," he says. His solution was to go to the Intellectual Property of Singapore office to unearth the 1962 stamp registered to the company to prove its provenance.

Part of the reason why Nanyang Sauce was so low profile was because it supplied to old-school grocery stores and hawker stalls but those businesses were closing.

Crystallised soy salt, found at the bottom of the vats, is prized as a culinary gem as it is very limited in quantity. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Mr Koh found new ways to promote the soy sauces. A Hong Kong customer who walked into their East Coast sauce boutique one day to ask for soy sauce salt helped him raise funds for new equipment for the factory. Mr Koh had no idea that the salt crystals leftover in his soy sauce vats were worth anything: "If he told me it was worth $1, I would have sold it for $1."

Instead, the salt, aged 10 years, was the centrepiece of a Kickstarter campaign which helped him raise more than $70,000. There are still limited jars, which is sold in a gift box priced at $68 each.

The successful campaign enabled him to bottle 500 jars of soy salt to retail for $68 each. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

"Gifting is big for us. It's a blue ocean," says Mr Koh. He declines to reveal the privately owned company's annual turnover, saying modestly, "It's so small people will laugh at us."

He jokes that he does not drive a Rolls Royce but a Volkswagen Polo: "We are poor, but we take pride in what we do."

He sees potential for growth, given the current trends in Singapore and the world. Younger foodies, he notes, are far more health conscious and aware of the food products they consume so his company's artisanal roots give their products an edge.

Traditional Chinese vats containing soya sauce in different fermentation stages are placed in the courtyard of Nanyang Sauce Factory. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

The by-product of the sauce making process has also offered an unexpected revenue stream. The lees, similar to okara, which the company once sold to pig farmers now go to companies hoping to make the next meat substitute.

Mr Koh is brimming with ideas for the sauces too. While he is intent on keeping the old school labels, he is using his shop as an "R&D" outlet to test new products. He has a soy sauce ice cream which will be introduced in a 100ml cup offering at the end of the year. Another product, a soy sauce cake, was to have been introduced earlier this year but will now be launched later this year.

He is also hoping to expand his factory and that the Government's push to increase local food production will help his company grow in the coming years.

Naturally-fermented soya sauce is translucent and whereas chemically-hydrolysed soya sauce is opaque. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

He is realistic about the changes that will be necessary to keep the business relevant in the modern age: "You can make a very good quality product but you also need to make it financially viable."

But his family's history and heritage means he will try to keep it alive: "This is tribal knowledge. Once it's gone, it's gone."

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