This article was first published on Sunday, 25 March 2012
Some roast meat recipes are so good, they are indeed worth paying a million dollars for.
The national soul-searching exercise about preserving hawker culture has prompted some to suggest paying for recipes from famous stalls, to keep tradition from dying when the hawkers call it a day.
But how much are recipes worth?
That question was answered last week, when the owners of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint (right), a three-decade-old business, put up its recipes and premises for sale at $3.5 million. For the 50-year-old recipe alone, the asking price is $2 million.
Offers have flooded in since, and the highest bids have been $2.5 million and $2.8 million.
Hawkers all over the island must be thinking hard about what their life’s work is worth, and this will intensify if the real estate broker does close a deal.
It is good food for thought for those who have no one to pass their recipes and stalls to.
Having slogged all their lives, they can retire with a nest egg and be assured that people will continue to enjoy the food they have worked so hard to perfect.
But is Kay Lee’s offer to teach the buyer everything about its Guangzhou-style roast meats worth $2 million?
I decided to find out on Wednesday, the day The Straits Times ran the story. Others had the same idea too because when I arrived just after 2pm, there was a queue outside the old shophouse along Paya Lebar Road, a no-frills place with a faded sign.
Holding court behind the counter, chopper in hand, was Madam Betty Kong, 66, looking unfazed and sassy.
I was not as composed. There was one duck left, a few pieces of char siew and a woefully small piece of roast pork. I looked at the people ahead of me and was not confident of getting any food.
When my turn came, I gave my order and was told to find a table inside the coffee shop.
Magically, when I sat down, people emerged from the kitchen, carrying ducks, char siew and roast pork on hooks.
Soon, my combination platter arrived and I dug in.
The roast pork was sliced thin so I had to have two pieces at the same time for a satisfying bite.
At all the other places, the crackling stayed on the meat but here, it was dislodged, and you had to root around the plate to find little bits of it to have with the pork.
The meat was tender enough but bland.
On to the duck. Its burnished skin was crisp but alas, the meat lacked character. Where was the aroma of five spice powder, ginger and Chinese rice wine – among the ingredients for Cantonese-style roast duck?
What I enjoyed most on that platter was the char siew, so deeply caramelised it looked charred. The marinade had been lacquered on hard.
But the wonder of it was that it did not taste burnt.
Over two days, I tried out nine other roast meat stalls in hawker centres and coffee shops.
These were names that come up regularly in “best of” lists and included a few personal favourites.
After all that meat, I can say very confidently that you can get better roast duck, roast pork and char siew elsewhere. One of the stalls even does all three well, and more cheaply too, with prices starting at $3.30. At Kay Lee, a plate of char siew rice costs $5.
When I asked some of the hawkers what they thought of Kay Lee’s asking price, they shrugged, smiled and could not be persuaded to comment.
I can see why Kay Lee received more than 40 offers, mostly from Singapore.
The prospect of buying over a well-known name and the possibility of opening many, many branches and the promise of tills ringing endlessly are enticing.
Whoever buys over the rights and recipes will also be making sure that the Kay Lee name lives on.
It is one I remember because my family used to eat there regularly when I was a kid. The food was great but didn’t everything taste better back in the day?
While I am not a fan of Kay Lee’s roast duck or roast pork, I am sure there are many others who find them delicious. Madam Kong’s promise to “teach them until they pass” is an admirable one.
I hope she and her husband, Mr Ha Wai Kay, 62, strike a deal and get a good payout. It would send a message to elderly hawkers that they do not have to fade out quietly, their recipes lost forever.
If I were a savvy investor with money to spare, I would persuade the folks at Kim Heng, Yee Kee, Foong Kee, Fatty Cheong, Lau Phua Chay and Fu Shi to part with their recipes.
Some of them are million-dollar ones.