A tribute to Singapore's Delicious Heirlooms

Ms Ow Kim Kit discussing her book Delicious Heirlooms at a Straits Times Book Club session on Wednesday.
Ms Ow Kim Kit discussing her book Delicious Heirlooms at a Straits Times Book Club session on Wednesday.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The latest Straits Times Book Club left many people feeling hungry, as lawyer Ow Kim Kit described the spring rolls, fish head curry, mullet roe fried rice and more that feature in her book Delicious Heirlooms.

It chronicles the stories of 10 well-known family restaurants in Singapore, which the 44-year-old picked based on three criteria: that they were at least 50 years old, had not changed hands outside of the families running them and, of course, are well-loved for their food.

"Singapore is a very developed nation and we often take food for granted," she said. "But a community can be brought together by food and we need to find some communal support to keep these businesses going.

"Our heritage takes a lot to cross generations and it is important that we play a part in helping it cross to a new generation."

Close to 110 people attended the session on Wednesday at the National Library headquarters.

For the project, which was supported by the National Heritage Board (NHB), Ms Ow spent two years knocking on doors and persuading the families to share the stories of how they have kept their businesses going for so long.

She recorded these in the book, from the detail that goes into the filling for the spring rolls of Chinatown's Spring Court Restaurant to the special briyani spices of the nearly century-old Islamic Restaurant in Kampong Glam.

Though the book has recipes in it, she quips: "Do not try this at home." The dishes are difficult to replicate, she explained, because they are cooked not with exact measurements but "by feel" and from the heart. The families would also often withhold a secret ingredient.

What was more important to her than the recipes was capturing the heritage of each restaurant. Often, she said, it was not just good food that kept the business alive, but management, innovation and sheer hard work with a dash of luck.

"How do you not only keep a worker for 30-odd years, but even get their children to join?" she said. "Some employers achieve the kind of loyalty that if you have cashflow problems, your staff will go without pay for months until you sort things out."

Moderator and STFood Online editor Hedy Khoo quizzed Ms Ow about which of the 10 restaurants she would have her last meal in. Ms Ow settled on Teochew restaurant Huat Kee. "It's really upped the ante for normal dishes such as orh luak (oyster omelette). Theirs is crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and every mouthful's got an oyster."

Housewife Tan Hiang Lee, 62, who was attending the book club for the first time, said she found the session "insightful" and added: "I'll definitely be revisiting these restaurants after this."

At the next Straits Times Book Club session on Sept 25, former minister, diplomat and law dean S. Jayakumar will discuss his book, Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience, with ST news editor Zakir Hussain. Readers can register for the talk at str.sg/JkC7.

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2019, with the headline 'A tribute to Singapore's Delicious Heirlooms'. Print Edition | Subscribe