Snack attack

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 26, 2014 

When it comes to Chinese New Year goodies, there are the mass-produced ones by bakery chains. Then, there are the ones from smaller, lesser- known purveyors.

But how do they stack up against one another?

The SundayLife! food team ate their way through dozens of pineapple tarts, stacks of bak kwa and various weird and wonderful snacks to rate goodies from some unusual suspects.

We highlight three shops that pride themselves on making everything from scratch: bak kwa shop Kim Hock Seng in Keong Saik Road; bakery HarriAnn's Delights, famous for its kuehs and festive snacks, with outlets in Tiong Bahru, Bedok South and Bukit Merah; and Ng Kian Seng Confectionery in Bedok South Road.


Who: Mr Ong Geok Hoo, 64, owner of Kim Hock Seng at 34 Keong Saik Road

You do not need to queue for bak kwa from Kim Hock Seng.

Owner Mr Ong keeps repeating this line to SundayLife! when asked about how his barbecued pork business stands out from the rest.

Unlike his competitors that have customers queuing for hours, Mr Ong does not believe in the need for his customers to queue. He says in Mandarin: "Just call me to make an order, why must you queue? Time is money and if my customers queue, I'm wasting their time."

No queues aside, Kim Hock Seng at Keong Saik Road is famous for its tender bak kwa - particularly the honey bacon version.

The honey bacon bak kwa is sold out for the Chinese New Year period but the yummy original barbeced pork slices are still available.

To prove his point, Mr Ong shows SundayLife! his stack of receipts, and gestures towards order forms for the barbecued slices pasted on the shop's walls.

He has run the business for more than 40 years with his wife Madam Ong Siew Hong, who is in her 50s. The dynamic duo prepare their bak kwa from scratch in their shop.

During the Chinese New Year period, the shop's signature red boxes are piled high on one side, while slices of caramelised pork are stacked on trays around the shop, cooling off so that they can be packed for the next day's orders.

While Mr Ong admits that he is tired and has had fewer than four hours of sleep a day, put him in front of the fire to grill bak kwa and he is in his element - declaring that "it's not hot".

The couple have three children in their 30s who have no plans to take over the business, says Mr Ong.

But with a hearty laugh, the jolly bak kwa seller adds: "I'm still young and I can do this for at least another 10 years.

"My bak kwa packaging has never changed, my recipe has never changed. My white singlet and white shorts have not changed also."

Eunice Quek


Who: Mr Ng Sew Kuong and Madam Lee Sai Kiow, both 71, of Ng Kian Seng Confectionery, Block 17, Bedok South Road, 01-567

For the past 39 years, come rain or shine, Mr Ng and his wife, Madam Lee, both 71, have made their way to their confectionery every day at 4am. The old-fashioned confectionery sells items such as tau sar piah, wife cakes, soft buns and bread rolls. It also sells made-to-order traditional Teochew and Cantonese wedding cakes and longevity buns. Handmade popiah skins, made by Madam Lee's sister who runs a factory, are available for pre-order.

In the lead up to Chinese New Year, the confectionery also sells more than 10 different types of festive snacks including kueh bahulu (airy Nonya sponge cakes); walnut cookies; thin cookies topped with almonds and sunflower and pumpkin seeds; and pineapple tarts in three different shapes - open, spherical with a clove stalk and in the shape of a pillow.

The couple still make everything by hand and from scratch. For instance, Madam Lee says she makes her own jam and pastry for her pineapple tarts even though it is time consuming.

She says in Mandarin: "I attended a class about 20 or 30 years ago and that is how I learnt to make pineapple tarts." As she speaks, her hands are deftly fashioning the pastry around a ball of pineapple jam.

The shop will still be making and selling these tarts in the days before Chinese New Year. Walk-in purchases are welcome, subject to availability.

The confectionery was started by Mr Ng's paternal grandfather more than 70 years ago in Kampung Chai Chee, selling traditional pastries such as tau sar piah. It moved to its current premises at Block 17 Bedok South Road in 1975.

Asked if he and his wife have plans to retire, Mr Ng says: "What would we do if we did not come to our shop in the day? It is our own business, so we will continue for as long as we can."

They have three children, aged between 39 and 46, who have not decided if they will continue the business.

Mr Ng says: "I'm not sad. That's life."

Rebecca Lynne Tan


Who: Mr Alan Tan, 41, third-generation owner of HarriAnn's Delights; various outlets including Tiong Bahru Market, 30 Seng Poh Road, 02-25

From its humble beginnings as a pushcart selling glutinous rice in the 1950s, HarriAnn's Delights has evolved into a full-fledged family business famous for its pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit and ondeh ondeh. And the third generation now helms the company.

The stall at Tiong Bahru Market & Food Centre was started by Mr Harry Tan, and his wife Annie, after his mother moved her pushcart into a food centre in the 1950s.

Their son Mr Alan Tan, now runs the business, which opened another outlet and a central kitchen in Jalan Bukit Merah in 2010.

A Bedok outlet is operated by a franchisee.

The younger Mr Tan quit his job as a country manager at Certis Cisco to join HarriAnn's Delights full-time as the business' owner in March last year.

His younger sister, Sharon, 33, is also involved in the business operations after quitting a marketing job.

She is currently studying for her master's of science in communication management at the Singapore Management University.

Mr Alan Tan's wife Sharon Goh, 37, lives in Kuala Lumpur with their five-year-old son, as she runs a yogurt franchise there. The Singaporean couple also have a 12-year-old daughter who lives with her dad in Singapore.

After Chinese New Year, the company's expanded menu will include cakes and new kueh.

Think cheese Swiss rolls and kueh talam with a layer of sweet potato topped with coconut cream infused with lemongrass and lime leaves.

He says: "We want to show the younger generation that traditional recipes can taste and look as good as macarons and cupcakes.

"It's about staying relevant and creative, and not doing what others are doing."

He plans to venture into shopping malls within the next two years and is actively increasing the visibility of the brand with monthly roadshows.

For Chinese New Year, he created a special HarriAnn's Bountiful Bundle ($48) - a set of four popular products including pineapple tarts and cashew nut cookies.

Its popular kueh bangkit is already sold out and there is limited stock of its other goodies, such as pork floss rolls.

To ensure quality control, his parents - dad is now 66 and mum 63 - still help out at the outlets.

Says Mr Harry Tan: "I need to teach the recipe and make sure they learn the recipes step by step."

On making sure his parents' recipes stay authentic, Mr Alan Tan says: "We started planning the succession so that my parents can retire, but we are not taking shortcuts. It will be a long transition and every step is followed to make sure that the original taste is not lost."

Eunice Quek

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 26, 2014

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