The Singaporean immigrants taking a bite out of the Big Apple

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How far would you travel for crabs slathered in black pepper and spicy sauce, an experience that requires more napkins than you have hands, and is likely to blemish your clothes?Long lines form outside the restaurant, especially on the evenings and weekends. Patrons come from all over New York and beyond, lured by the appetising smells of curry leaves, black pepper and chilli.There are plenty of Southeast Asian flavours in the melting pot of New York, but Singaporean eateries are few and far between.Because of all these ethnic groups we have a blend of cooking, of cuisine, very particular to only Singapore Richard ChanFor many years, Malaysian eateries like Kopitiam, Rasa, and the Nyonya chain were the closest thing New Yorkers had to a taste of Singapore. Even the Singapore consulate relied on these places to cater their National Day celebrations.

That has changed in the past year, with a wave of made-in-Singapore offerings emerging in the Big Apple. Yummy Tummy is one of them.

Richard Chan, 57, who moved to New York nearly 40 years ago, started the bistro last August, hoping to introduce Singapore’s hawker favourites to his adopted home.

“I hope people realise Singapore has its own cultural differences from other Chinese, because they used to think that Singapore is all Chinese,” says Chan, a former travel agent who now runs Yummy Tummy with his wife. “I explain to them that we are a multi-ethnic society where everyone blends together: we have Indians, Malays, Chinese and what we call Eurasians. And because of all these ethnic groups we have a blend of cooking, of cuisine, very particular to only Singapore.”

CREATIVE COMPROMISES

Chan’s two-storey bistro stands out in a predominantly Korean neighbourhood, with a menu boasting the city state’s culinary staples, including chilli crab, Hokkien noodles and Hainanese chicken rice.

Chan remains committed to authentic Singaporean fare but has made some modifications to cater to his American clientele. He uses less pepper in his version of bak kut teh (a pork-ribs broth, native to Singapore and Malaysia). He has also instructed the kitchen to remove bones from the Hainanese chicken dish because “Americans like putting a fork in and just eating the meat”.

Chan isn’t alone. In the nearby Queens night market, Amy Pryke, who moved to New York eight years ago for college, doles out “dry” laksa noodles which she believes will be a more palatable option during the summer.

“I am also experimenting with thicker rice noodles than typically used as they are more appealing to the target audience here in New York,” says Pryke, 28, who is studying at Columbia Business School.

“In my eight years in New York City, I have struggled to find authentic food from home. Singapore also boasts a wide variety of noodles unique to the country; from prawn mee to char kway teow, laksa, and mee soto. I believe there will be an appetite for it.”

Ian and Marc Seah, who co-founded salted-egg crisps brand Tochi Snacks with Ian’s girlfriend, Dina Shi, have also tinkered with their recipe to cater to an American palette.

“Our audience in the US is more sophisticated in the sense that they care more about health benefits,” says Shi, a 27-year-old American born to Taiwanese parents. “We try to use organic and local if we can, and we use ghee instead of butter. Ghee is dairy-free. And we have also tried to go lighter on the spice.”

The Seah brothers – Ian is 32, Marc is 29 – have been living in the US for about a decade. They started Tochi after stumbling upon the salted egg craze during a trip back to Singapore with Shi last year. Shi was so eager she quit her job in the finance industry to join the venture full-time.

Operating out of a friend’s kitchen, the trio makes by hand about 600 bags of chips per month, most of which are stocked at Asian supermarkets and bubble tea stores in New York. Tochi Snacks has also provided an opportunity to educate the US market about Singaporean food cultures.

“We have found that Westerners can be quite confused about the product,” Shi says. “For example, people expect it to be chips made of salted egg, rather than salted egg flavour. Unless you grew up in Asia with your family eating salted egg with porridge, you may not be very familiar with the taste. So our products are definitely more familiar to Asians and American-born Asians.”

THE NEW WAVE OF ENTREPRENEURS

According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington there were 34,600 Singaporean immigrants living in the US in 2017, most of them in the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor.

Many who ventured into New York’s restaurant scene failed to find a niche. Masak, run by Singapore-born chef Lawrence Reutens, opened in the East Village in 2011. It closed after less than two years.

Business in the Lower East Side, where Masak was located, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

“When everything was back up and running in late November, the crowds still kind of stayed away from the area because the streets were still messed up,” Reutens says. “Once we didn’t hit our numbers for December or January, I knew that we’d be in trouble in the slow months.”

Someone’s going to Instagram a kaya waffle with gold coconut dust and then they’ve won Lawrence Reutens

Reutens acknowledges that it can take time for new cuisines to be discovered and embraced in foreign markets. The younger Singaporeans, however, have social media on their side, compared to Reutens who “didn’t put (himself) out there enough”.

“Someone’s going to Instagram a kaya waffle with gold coconut dust and then they’ve won,” he says.

Social media skills aside, this new wave of Singaporean restaurateurs have taken the less obvious route – they may have arrived in the US to study or work but do not necessarily come from professional culinary backgrounds.

“It’s a very Asian mindset and stereotype regarding less typical routes like entrepreneurship,” says Shi, who was nervous about breaking the news to her parents after leaving her job. “I only told my dad about my venture with Tochi Snacks six months after. Actually, he found out first via my LinkedIn profile.”

Pryke, who had spent the last four years working in financial services and consulting, said she could have easily stayed in the sector and risen to become a partner.

“But when I was reflecting on my long-term goals, I decided it was ‘now or never’ to pursue my passion in food and the restaurant world,” she says.

Brother-sister duo Chuin and Yeen Tham, who co-founded Lion City Coffee last August to introduce the Singaporean-style kopitiam (coffee shop), agree.

Yeen says: “Every time we talk to our mum about this, she’s always like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You guys are highly educated, you’re kind of just throwing that away?’”

STARTING SMALL, DREAMING BIG

Although both siblings have day jobs – Chuin as an accountant and Yeen as a lawyer – they have big dreams for Lion City Coffee.

“We want to do to kopi what industry giants did to drip coffee,” Chuin says.

They currently operate as a mobile outfit, serving coffee, tea, chai tow kueh (fried radish cake) and nasi lemak (coconut rice) at night markets and food festivals but they hope to eventually set up a permanent store.

Lion City Coffee was conceived in memory of their late father, who died in February 2016 after being diagnosed with cancer.

“He was always very interested in culinary adventures, always curious about how to make certain things,” Yeen says. “At home, he would clip out articles about how to make certain Asian dishes, even Singaporean dishes that he has come to miss.”

Upon moving to the US with his family some 30 years ago, their father started out as a dishwasher before working his way up to become a chef at the Imperial Szechuan restaurant in Connecticut.

However, the Tham siblings are unsure whether their father would have supported their business if he were still alive.

“To be very frank, if he knew of us doing this, he’d probably say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this with all your education? You guys are crazy’,” Chuin says.

“He’d probably yell at us. But, truthfully, he would be smiling from cheek to cheek,” Yeen adds. “He was a very, very Singaporean person.”

Back at Yummy Tummy’s in Queens, Richard Chan is already planning a second outlet. He does not see himself returning to Singapore to settle: the weather is too humid but the people tend to be “cold”, he says. He will always miss the food, though.

“The food is always, always so memorable,” he says. “You will never, never, never, never not miss the food.

“Even after 35 years here, I still miss the food. That’s one of the reasons I opened up a Singapore restaurant: I want to promote this kind of food.” 

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