The Life Interview With Goh Chiew Buay

The Life Interview with Ah Orh zi char restaurant's owner: Taste of tradition

Ah Orh zi char restaurant may have a new menu, but it plans to stay true to its decades-old Teochew recipes

It has been in business for 97 years, but zi char restaurant Ah Orh in Jalan Bukit Merah introduced a printed menu only two years ago.

This was done at the suggestion of the eatery's third-generation owner, Ms Goh Chiew Buay, 43, who felt a menu was necessary so that diners would have a more pleasant dining experience.

Prior to that, diners would place orders by pointing at pictures of signature items displayed around the restaurant or simply pick what was recommended by the staff. Others, unfortunately, would just walk away.

Ms Goh says in a mix of English and Mandarin: "People found it difficult to order food and asked why we had no menu. It was also troublesome for us to name all our dishes every time a diner came.

"Some found our pricing a bit high because of the ingredients we use and thought we were trying to cheat them. First-time customers wouldn't even try our food."

"We may consider expanding, but we must have the guts to do so. Hiring staff has also been difficult. Also, for everything we do, it has to be approved by my father. Everyone must agree for us to do something new or different." - MS GOH CHIEW BUAY (above, with her father Goh Leng Chia), third-generation owner of Ah Orh zi char restaurant, on the eatery's plans to stay unchanged ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

With input from her father and two brothers, she spent a week preparing the menu, which features more than 30 traditional Teochew dishes such as steamed pomfret, braised duck and chilled pig's jelly that have been served at the restaurant for the last 50 years.

But lest one thinks Ms Goh has more changes in the pipeline, she is quick to assure that Ah Orh will remain rooted in tradition, in both the dishes it serves and the way it does business.

That means no jazzed-up zi char dishes such as salted egg yolk crabs or coffee pork ribs.

And no women in the kitchen.

Ms Goh's grandfather Ah Orh did all the cooking, as did her father Goh Leng Chia when he took over.

Mr Goh no longer cooks - instead her brothers Goh Maih Woo, 37, and Goh Maih How, 40, are the restaurant's chefs. Most of the recipes still used today have been passed down from Ms Goh's grandfather, who died in 1975.

The soft-spoken Ms Goh says Ah Orh's kitchen is the territory of the men: "I cannot cook, I never go into the kitchen."

Her job is at the front end - receiving customers, taking orders, being the cashier and taking care of salary matters for the restaurant's 15 staff.

Ah Orh started as a bak kut teh stall at a market in Merchant Road. Since 1965, its menu grew to include zi char dishes and it moved to the now-defunct Ellenborough Market Hawker Centre in 1980.

It opened in 1997 at its current premises, a Housing Board block void deck in Jalan Bukit Merah.

That was also the year that Ms Goh joined the family business, at the request of her father. Then aged 24, she had been working as an accounts assistant in a shipping company for a few years after completing her O levels in a private school.

Her husband runs his own business and they do not have children.

She says: "I did not feel any pressure to join the family business. You can say the restaurant was my childhood playground. I grew up helping my parents at the stall and going to the market with them, so it's nothing unfamiliar."

Her brothers joined in 1999 after completing national service. Their father trained them in the kitchen, while Ms Goh learnt to manage the front of house from her mother Tan Siew Kiau, who is now 66.

Ms Goh quietly admits that the family has had its fair share of squabbles over the years, although she declines to elaborate.

She says: "We may argue a bit. But after we go home, it's all forgotten."

While the running of Ah Orh has been pretty much left to Ms Goh and her brothers for the last eight years, her parents are still very much involved in the business to ensure quality control.

They still go to Tiong Bahru Market daily to buy fresh ingredients.

Ms Goh says her 67-year-old father has a talent for spotting the freshest catch.

Ah Orh's best-selling cold crab dish, for example, is filled with roe and sweet flesh. She says: "My brothers and I can't just look at the crab and tell how much roe is inside. This is something we have not learnt yet."

Chuckling, she adds: "Even the stall owners are scared of him. They dare not sell him something that is of bad quality. He will watch them very closely."

Her father also recently suggested that the siblings introduce a new dish - crab yam bee hoon, in which fresh Sri Lankan crabs are stir-fried in bee hoon made from yam. He got the idea after trying the dish on a trip to Shantou, China.

The patriarch says: "It takes slightly longer to cook the noodles and you have to be careful not to overcook them as they will turn soggy."

Like their father, the Goh siblings take pride in the heritage dishes they serve and have a keen eye for detail.

For this interview's photoshoot, it is clear why their father entrusted the business to them.

They move about efficiently without having to say much to one another - the Goh brothers whipping up dishes in the kitchen, their sister plating, garnishing and placing the appropriate dipping sauces by each dish.

Ms Goh even removes the glass panel of a display fridge so there is no reflection during the photoshoot.

She also adds extra vegetables as garnish for the fish maw soup and replaces them immediately when she notices them sinking into the soup and getting soggy.

When complimented for her food styling, she gives a shy smile and says: "Really? No lah."

There were meant to be just five dishes for the shoot, but that number grows to 10.

"It's okay, they are all signature dishes and we can't decide," says Ms Goh with pride.

To complete the sumptuous spread, her father places two halves of a yam by the crab beehoon. "So people know this is yam bee hoon," he says.

Watching her parents run the eatery's daily operations has rubbed off on Ms Goh.

"Every day, I learn something new and my parents guide me through many things, such as how to deal with customers and managing orders. If my parents go on a holiday, we can handle everything. My brothers will go to the market instead."

With zi char restaurants such as JB Ah Meng in Geylang and New Ubin Seafood in Sin Ming listed in the recent Michelin Guide's Bib Gourmand, Ms Goh says it "would be nice" to make the cut in the future.

But she remains cautious about expanding.

She says: "We may follow the market, but slowly lah. I don't want our regulars to go away because they think we have changed too much."

There used to be another branch of Ah Orh in Sin Ming Road that was run by Mr Goh Leng Chia's younger brother, Mr Wu Ling Wu, for 23 years. It closed last year.

Mr Goh, who acknowledges that the economy has not been good in the past two years, says: "I don't think there's any pressure to expand or move on. But we will keep the business in the family.

"I've been asked to open in Indonesia and China. I've been asked to share my recipes.

"But when others have learnt the recipes, they don't need you anymore and will tell you to go home. I will not sell my recipes."

For retired businessman Patrick Ng, 67, Ah Orh's pledge to stay true to tradition is what he loves best about the eatery.

He says: "I'm okay with it not changing anything about its style. If it gets too modern, I fear the flavours will not be the same.

"For authentic Teochew cuisine, I still go to Ah Orh because I know it is true to its traditional recipes and cooking styles.

"Now, I take my grandchildren to eat at Ah Orh too. I want them to know what I grew up eating and try dishes you don't find very often anymore."

To ensure that old-timers such as Mr Ng remain loyal customers, Ms Goh's elder brother Maih How has learnt to tweak recipes according to the ingredients they get.

"The sour plums we used to get last time were actually sour. Now, they taste more salty than sour. So we cannot put too much. We need to keep the flavours of the dish balanced," says the father of two children aged 10 and 12.

His younger brother Maih Woo also has two children - aged 11 and 12.

The Goh siblings laugh when The Straits Times asks what plans they have for the fourth generation to take over the business.

Ms Goh says: "I'm not sure. The next generation will have their own thinking. They also eat different things. For them, everything must be trendy."

Clearly, the trio do not get caught up in trends - all of them, when asked separately, pick steamed pomfret as their favourite dish since they were children.

Ask Ms Goh about her thoughts on Western cuisine and she shudders. "I prefer Chinese food," she says frankly.

And do not get her started on dealing with negative Facebook comments.

Ms Goh says: "If you want to say something, tell us at the restaurant. When you put it online, I don't know who you are.

"We don't reply to Facebook posts, but we take note. All we can do is improve for the next day and for the future."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline The Life Interview with Ah Orh zi char restaurant's owner: Taste of tradition. Subscribe