A taste of Singapore abroad: Home-grown food brands open overseas outposts

Singaporean travellers hankering for familiar food while they are overseas now have more choices, with many home-grown brands opening in places from Australia to Britain

Years ago, when chef Willin Low was a student at University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, he walked into a Chinese restaurant and ordered Singapore noodles.

"I was so excited. I was craving and expecting something from home," he says. But the fried vermicelli coated in dry curry powder was nothing like his favourite bak chor or Hokkien mee.

"I had never had something like it. There was nothing familiar about it at all. If they had called it fried vermicelli, I probably would have been less disappointed, but it was the most foul thing I had ever eaten. I refused to order it ever again," he says.

For decades, versions of Singapore noodles - stir-fried vermicelli or bee hoon with vegetables, prawns and egg with yellow curry powder created and popularised in Hong Kong and now a common item in Chinese restaurants across the UK, Australia and United States - were the closest travelling Singaporeans could come to a taste of home.

Fast-forward to today. There are now dozens of Singaporean restaurants and food brands available around the world.

Mr Lee Yee Fung, group director of Lifestyle Business Group at International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, a government agency that promotes international trade and helps Singapore companies go global, says that in the past five years, IE Singapore has helped 55 food services companies (with about 70 food and beverage brands among them) expand overseas, mostly to countries in Asia including Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and China.

 

Singapore's reputation as a culinary hot spot with an inherent passion for food has helped brands such as Song Fa Bak Kut Teh and Ya Kun Kaya Toast enter competitive foreign markets, but learning to maintain consistency in taste and dining experience as they expand overseas remains a challenge, he says.

Achieving the authentic flavour of Singaporean food is another challenge, says foodie, TV host and Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh.

"Many cooks who cook overseas don't have the culinary DNA. When they cook laksa, it's by rote, not by soul, and (they) often compromise on the ingredients because they can't get them or can't be bothered to include them," he says.

Singaporean dishes are not easy to replicate either.

"Our food is so diverse, but at the same time, we have hawkers who spend their lives devoted to one dish. You can't possibly replicate that format overseas," he says.

As for the infamous Singapore noodles, Mr Seetoh does not mind it. He had a fairly good version at the Sydney airport, in fact.

"There are no rules in food," he says. "If foreigners think it's Singapore food, then some brilliant Singapore guy should make it. And top it with lobster."

The Sunday Times rounds up some places around the world where Singaporeans can find an authentic taste of home.

Nasi lemak from Rasa Sayang (above) in London and from Nasi Lemak House (left) in Melbourne.
Nasi lemak from Nasi Lemak House in Melbourne. PHOTO: RASA SAYANG

Nasi lemak

The variety and subtle complexity of this deceptively simple dish - warm coconut-infused rice, a crisp fried chicken or fish, and a spicy kick of sambal - mean that a great version of this beloved Malay breakfast can be hard to find in Singapore, let alone overseas.

But the folks at Nasi Lemak House (nasilemakhouse.com.au) in Melbourne say they have got it figured out.

The humble 70 sq m cafe was started by a Malaysian couple whose children were attending the University of Melbourne in the mid-2000s. Though they served an array of Malay food, their speciality was nasi lemak.

In 2008, Laos-Australians Marcel Nantharath, 34, and Aline Viravouth, 34, took over and learnt all the recipes and techniques from the previous owners.

They cut the menu in half and focused on its best dishes: mee goreng, char kway teow and curry laksa, but the nasi lemak (starting at A$12.80 or S$13.30) continues to be the star, outselling all other dishes three to one.

There are five varieties of nasi lemak on the menu - fried chicken, fried calamari, tofu, beef rendang and curry chicken - recipes which were honed by customer feedback and the owners' multiple tasting trips to Malaysia.

Everything is made from scratch, from the curry paste to the sauces and three types of sambal (traditional spicy chilli; Kelantan sweet and sour; and Kerabu shrimp and lime leaf), which are made with four types of chillies and slow-cooked twice a week. They also fry and roast the peanuts and anchovies - both sourced from Malaysia - themselves.

Prioritising quality and authenticity is what sets them apart, says the cafe's general manager, Malaysian Qristina Zainir.

"The feedback has been amazing. Customers are always telling us our nasi lemak is better than the ones in Malaysia. There isn't anyone in Australia doing nasi lemak like us."

In London, Singaporeans craving nasi lemak often head to Rasa Sayang (rasasayangfood.com), a halal Malay-Singaporean restaurant in the heart of Chinatown.

The comprehensive menu includes hard-to-find hawker dishes such as roti canai with chicken curry (£7.90 or S$14.50), kueh pie tee (£3.90), rojak (£4.90), mee pok soup (£7.90) and prawn mee (£7.90), but when Singaporeans are hungering for a taste of home, nasi lemak is one of their go-to food, says restaurant spokesman Jay Sim.

The restaurant was opened in December 2008 by owner and director Ellen Chew, a Singaporean who had already lived in London for several years and knew how difficult it was to find a restaurant that satisfied her cravings for Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine.

Nasi lemak is one of its signature dishes, along with char kway teow, beef rendang and Hainanese chicken rice. Ms Chew ensures that the kitchen does not cut corners and follows the time-honoured recipes.

London has become very cosmopolitan in recent years and people have gotten more adventurous with their food, says Mr Sim, so finding key ingredients in Chinatown is not as much of a feat as it used to be.

However, some ingredients, such as tea leaves for teh tarik, Singapore coffee powder and dried cuttlefish, are still unavailable in London markets and the restaurant imports them directly from Singapore.

"Because of our uncompromising approach to cooking, we have gained quite a loyal following," says Mr Sim.


Chilli crab on a bed of noodles at Singapore Garden restaurant in London.
Chilli crab on a bed of noodles at Singapore Garden restaurant in London. PHOTO: SINGAPORE GARDEN

Chilli crab

When Mrs Lim Siam Kiang opened Singapore Garden (www.singaporegarden.co.uk) in north-west London in 1984, Singaporean and Malaysian food was incredibly hard to find.

Her traditional Nonya food, which she had learnt to cook from her mother in Singapore, was an instant hit and the family-run restaurant has been earning rave reviews ever since.

Homesick Singaporeans and Londoners alike travel to South Hampstead to savour authentic home-style dishes which, according to Mrs Lim's son-in-law, Mr Toh Kok Sum, who helps manage the restaurant, make no compromises for the Western palate.

British columnist and restaurant critic for The Times, Mr Giles Coren, says Singapore Garden serves the best Malaysian food in London and Mrs Lim's tangy and spicy chilli crab (£24 or S$44), made the traditional way with a chilli and tomato-based sauce and ribbons of egg, served on a bed of egg noodles instead of mantou to soak up the sauce, is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes.

Closer to home, one of Singapore's favourite seafood restaurants, Jumbo Seafood (www.jumboseafood.com.sg), is synonymous with chilli crab.

From its first restaurant, which opened in East Coast Seafood Centre in 1987, Jumbo has expanded to five outlets in Singapore and seven overseas (five in China, one in Vietnam and one in Taiwan), where its signature award-winning chilli crab and black pepper crab are the most popular dishes.

It is part of Jumbo Group, which includes other local eateries such as JPot, Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine and Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh. The chain plans to continue to expand Jumbo Seafood into other Asian markets such as Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau and Indonesia, as well as open more restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing, according to a company spokesman.

To ensure the quality of all Jumbo Seafood outlets, a central kitchen in Singapore prepares the restaurant's signature sauces which are supplied to all outlets. Overseas outlets are also regularly audited to ensure that they meet Jumbo's standards in taste and ambience.

In Japan, fans of chilli crab can get their fix at Singapore Seafood Republic (www.singaporeseafoodrepublic.com.sg), which the Jumbo Group opened in a partnership with other Singaporean seafood icons Tung Lok Seafood, Palm Beach and The Seafood International Market & Restaurant, in 2008.

There are now four Singapore Seafood Republic restaurants in Japan (two in Tokyo, one in Osaka and one in Fukuoka), which are so popular that reservations often have to be made two weeks in advance.



California-based Shiok Kitchen’s laksa and Sydney-based Alex Lee Kitchen’s laksa (above). PHOTO: ALEX LEE KITCHEN


California-based Shiok Kitchen’s laksa (above) and Sydney-based Alex Lee Kitchen’s laksa. PHOTO: SHIOK KITCHEN

Laksa

With its thick vermicelli noodles, plump prawns and fishcake in a bowl of rich orange coconut gravy, 328 Katong Laksa in East Coast Road is still, for many, the gold standard for laksa in Singapore.

The multi-award-winning Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant opened its first overseas outlet in Sibu, East Malaysia, in 2014 (RM9.50 or S$3.20 a bowl) and its second in Taipei (NT$260 or S$11) in November last year.

To maintain the authenticity and standard of the original 328 Katong Laksa gravy overseas, the laksa gravy paste is made in Singapore and shipped to Sibu and Taipei, where the staff sources the additional ingredients such as beansprouts, fishcake, chicken, beef and pork in the local markets to maintain quality and freshness.

Laksa is one of the best sellers at the family-run Shiok Kitchen (shiokkitchen.com) in California. Opened in the San Francisco Bay Area's Menlo park neighbourhood by a Singaporean mother-daughter team in 1999, Shiok Kitchen has been serving local favourites such as laksa (US$11 or S$14.50), cereal prawns (US$21), chilli crab (US$38) and dry mee siam (US$13), prepared based on family recipes passed down from their grandmothers.

These recipes are tested and quality-controlled by Singapore-born and raised son and restaurant manager Dennis Lim. "Since the recipes are my mother's and grandmother's, I know exactly how they should taste, having grown up eating the food. I check on the dishes before they get served and I control the quality of the different sauces and curries personally when they are made," says the 49-year-old.

The oyster omelette, hor fun and Hokkien mee are other popular dishes ordered by Singaporeans looking for a taste of home, he says, adding that his family moved to California after his sister decided to open the restaurant there.

In Sydney, Alex Lee Kitchen (spice-alley.com.au/alex-lee-kitchen) serves chef Lee's signature laksa (from A$12 or S$12.50), a speciality from his days at his Malaysian restaurant Ginger and Spice in Sydney's Neutral Bay, which will be re-opening in the Kensington Street lifestyle precinct later this year.

But old-school Malay Chinese Takeaway (www.malaychinese.com.au) in downtown Sydney is where people queue for what is said to be the city's best.

Glowing reviews of its 11 types of laksa, including drumstick chicken laksa (A$13), beef laksa (A$10.70), vegetable laksa (A$10.70) and king prawn laksa (A$14) have made this simple canteen-style eatery a must-visit since it opened in 1987.



Ya Kun’s toast with soft-boiled eggs (above). PHOTO: YA KUN

Kaya toast

A hot cup of rich kopi, two runny soft-boiled eggs and a slice of toast slathered in butter and kaya (coconut jam) is an enviable way to start the day.

With Hainanese roots, this Singapore breakfast staple has been a fixture of local kopitiams for almost 100 years and few do it better than Ya Kun Kaya Toast (yakun.com).

Started by Hainanese immigrant Loi Ah Koon, who began roasting coffee and serving breakfast from a small shop in Telok Ayer in the 1930s, the Ya Kun name is now recognisable across Asia, with 56 outlets in countries such as Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, with plans to expand further.

Ya Kun opened its first outlet in Indonesia in 2003 and regular franchise visits and audits are conducted to ensure service standards and food quality are in check.

Another local favourite, Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop – which was renamed Killiney Kopitiam when it was purchased by a customer in 1993 – opened in 1919 and is the oldest Hainanese coffee shop in Singapore.

Famous for its white bread kaya toast, Killiney has also expanded around the region with more than 80 international outlets in countries such as Malaysia, China, Myanmar and Australia.

The coffee shop’s three Australian outlets are in Melbourne (www. killiney-kopitiam.com.au), with the first one having opened in Lygon Street in 2011. Kaya toast (A$3.20 or S$3.30 for two pieces) and Set B (A$6.80), comprising traditional coffee and two soft-boiled eggs, are favourites, says spokesman Julie Fong.

The franchise’s head chef trained in Singapore and monitors the outlets for quality and flavour, which is especially important as the outlets offer an expanded menu of Singaporean cuisine, including carrot cake, Singapore rojak, nine types of nasi lemak and seven types of laksa.


Hainanese chicken rice (far left) from Singapore hawker food restaurant Chomp Chomp in New York City; and the Wee Nam Kee outlet (left) in the Tamachi neighbourhood of Minato, Tokyo, in Japan.
Hainanese chicken rice (above) from Singapore hawker food restaurant Chomp Chomp in New York City; and the Wee Nam Kee outlet in the Tamachi neighbourhood of Minato, Tokyo, in Japan. PHOTO: THOMAS DANG VU

Hainanese chicken rice (far left) from Singapore hawker food restaurant Chomp Chomp in New York City; and the Wee Nam Kee outlet (left) in the Tamachi neighbourhood of Minato, Tokyo, in Japan.
Hainanese chicken rice from Singapore hawker food restaurant Chomp Chomp in New York City; and the Wee Nam Kee outlet (above) in the Tamachi neighbourhood of Minato, Tokyo, in Japan. PHOTO: WEE NAM KEE

Chicken rice

One of Singapore's indisputable national foods, chicken rice, a dish of tender poached chicken served atop rice cooked in flavourful chicken stock, was adapted from early Chinese immigrants from Hainan province in southern China.

Everyone has his go-to chicken rice stall and Wee Nam Kee in United Square is one of Singaporeans' favourites.

Founded across from Novena Church in Thomson Road in 1989, the restaurant now has four outlets in Singapore and 11 outlets overseas, all serving the same recipe developed by Wee Nam Kee's founder Wee Toon Ouut, 80, and the restaurant's head chef Lau Sang Lin almost 30 years ago.

It also serves other local favourites such as curry fish head, cereal prawns, salted egg pork ribs and sambal kangkong.

Wee Nam Kee opened its first overseas outlet in the Philippines in 2011, where it now has five eateries. The chain also operates three outlets in Indonesia (two in Jakarta and one in Surabaya) and another three in Tokyo. Overseas, the price of a single serving of chicken rice ranges from$6 to $9, compared with $4.80 here.

To maintain the food standards and flavours Wee Nam Kee is known for, all overseas outlets must pass a biannual quality check and overseas chefs are required to visit the Singapore restaurant for a "refresher" course at least once a year, says restaurant spokesman Albert Tan.

Wee Nam Kee, he says, plans to open more outlets in the countries in which it already has a presence, as well as expand into other regions in the next couple of years. However, Mr Tan declines to say where.

Fortunately, there are other Singaporean restaurants serving chicken rice around the world.

In Sydney, Singaporean property developer Stanley Quek recruited Singaporean chef Alex Lee to be the first Singaporean vendor in his Kensington Street lifestyle precinct in the city's Chippendale neighbourhood.

Located within the precinct's Spice Alley collection of eateries, the Alex Lee Kitchen (bit.ly/2o65HyC) serves quintessential Singaporean dishes, including the chef's best-selling chatterbox chicken rice (A$12.80 or S$13.40).

In London, the Singapore UK Association recommends Bugis Street Brasserie (bit.ly/2Ci3qFB) in the Copthorne Tara Hotel London Kensington for chicken rice (£12 or S$22).

In New York, chicken rice (US$14.75 or S$19.50) is one of the signature dishes, along with oyster omelette, BBQ stingray and char kway teow, at Singaporean hawker food restaurant Chomp Chomp (chompchompnyc.com) by Malaysian chef and owner Simpson Wong.

But it is the chicken rice at Side Chick (www.facebook.com/eatsidechick) in Arcadia, California, about 20km north-east of downtown Los Angeles, that is ruffling feathers and earning rave reviews.

Opened by Chinese-American chef Johnny Lee in 2016, Side Chick specialises in Hainanese chicken rice (starting at US$8), using organic chickens poached the traditional way and a chilli sauce recipe he picked up from Justin Baey, a Singaporean chef working in Los Angeles.

Renowned gourmand and Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold, who has tasted chicken rice in Singapore, said Lee's version is "pretty first-rate" in his glowing review of the restaurant last year.

But many southern Californian chicken rice fans still swear by Savoy Kitchen (savoykitchen.net) in Los Angeles' Alhambra suburb, where the legendary chicken rice (US$8) is still a firm favourite.


Others

BAK KUT TEH 

From its humble roots as a pushcart in Johor Road in 1969, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh has expanded to eight outlets across Singapore, four outlets in Indonesia and a new outlet in Shanghai, with plans to open two outlets in Thailand and three more outlets in China this year.

Lines still snake around the block for its signature bak kut teh, which translates to meat bone tea, a dish of tender pork ribs simmered for hours in a complex broth of aromatic herbs and spices.

In Japan, it has become a popular hangover cure and is a signature dish at Rakudo (www.rakudodining.com), a restaurant serving Singaporean cuisine which opened in Tokyo's high-end district of Omotesando late last year.

When Mr Akihiro Takahashi, a Japanese, tried bak kut teh for the first time while on a business trip to Singapore in 2014, he loved the soup so much that he became obsessed and returned to Singapore multiple times to eat it.

He spent three years sampling the dish before he developed his own recipe and opened Singapore Bak Kut Teh (www.sgbkt.jp), a 25-seater restaurant near Akasaka Station in Tokyo which serves only bak kut teh, though reviews so far have been mixed.


PHOTO: SANDRA LEONG

CURRY PUFFS 

When Old Chang Kee (www.oldchangkee.com) held a two-day pop-up event in north-west London, about 1,200 curry puffs (above) flew off the fryer and were sold out within four hours each day.

The home-grown curry puff chain, which started as a stall near Rex Cinema in Mackenzie Road in 1956 and now has more than 80 stores here and 11 outlets overseas in Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia, plans to open a flagship store in central London later this year.

Though the stall serves dozens of fried treats - including spring rolls, fishballs, prawn nuggets and gyoza - its halal curry puff stuffed with curry potato, a sliver of egg and chicken is its calling card.

To ensure that its food quality is maintained, an overseas business development team flies to overseas outlets to ensure that the cooking and raw materials meet Old Chang Kee's standards.

The brand's curry pastes, made using its secret recipe of herbs and spices, are produced in Singapore and shipped to overseas locations to ensure consistency.

ROTI PRATA 

It is not easy to find quality roti prata (or roti canai), which is not too oily but has a crisp flaky dough, outside South-east Asia. However, fortunate London residents and visitors can head to Roti King (rotiking.info), a basement restaurant within walking distance of Euston metro station.

This Malaysian restaurant specialises in fresh roti canai and serves more than a dozen savoury and sweet varieties, such as its basic order of two pieces of roti with curry dhal (£5 or S$9.20), with egg (£3.50), chicken murtabak (£5.50), lamb murtabak (£5.50) and roti pisang, with caramelised banana filling (£3.50).

According to the Singapore UK Association, customers should avoid peak hours of between 1 and 7pm if they want to avoid long queues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'A taste of home abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe