Meet these third-generation business owners who keep their families’ food legacies alive
Even with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, these Singaporean food producers keep the flag flying for their family’s food businesses. Nanyang Sauce’s owner Ken Koh continues to safeguard his grandfather’s traditional approach to hand-brewing soya sauce. For siblings Annie and Raymond Tan, it’s a balancing act to preserve heritage while injecting a new lease of life to their company, Tan Seng Kee Foods.
Tan Tiong How, Ken’s maternal grandfather, arrived in Singapore in the 1940s in search of a better life. Tan came from a line of soya sauce makers in China’s Fujian province, but when he arrived, he had to take on odd jobs as a coolie. To flavour his porridge, he made his own soya sauce and gave some to his friends. When Tan realised there was a market for it, he started selling the soya sauce from a tricycle. In 1959, with a little bit of savings, he bought a small piece of land for his company which he christened Nanyang. The forward-thinking entrepreneur also got his label trademarked in 1962.
After Tan passed away suddenly in 1996, Ken’s mother Tan Poh Choo, who’s the eldest in the family, took over the business. “My mum, Nanyang’s Sauce Master, was recently recognised as a Steward of Cultural Heritage in Singapore by the National Heritage Board (NHB) for her artisan craft of handmade soya sauce,” Ken proudly shares. He joined Nanyang in 2018 as he felt that it was his responsibility as the eldest grandson to carry on the family business. Before that, he was running his own business in corporate speaking and training.
“What makes us different is that our soya sauce is truly artisanal—using the centuries-old method of natural fermentation. As our sauce takes at least nine months to be fermented, it’s slow food at its best,” says Ken. The traditional way of steeping soya beans in dragon vats is a lost craft; nowadays, soya sauce can be made using modern methods that take about two weeks or less.
The earthen vats with dragon motifs were produced at Pulau Tekong in the 1950s. Just like a well-seasoned wok, these vessels are “seasoned” for more than 60 years and cannot be replaced; the taste is simply different from sauce that’s made in stainless steel or fibreglass tanks. Today, Nanyang Sauce’s premium products are used by home cooks as well as Michelin-starred restaurants like Labyrinth. Ken has also created products like intensely flavoured soya salt, and also introduced unique packaging for gifting.
He adds that to survive as a small artisan trade, they have to innovate their business and find niches that the big boys can’t fulfil. The challenge to expand is that they are limited by land, vats, time and manpower. “But that’s the beauty of being small—to fill the gap when other sauce [brands] couldn’t.”
With a clear direction in mind, Koh decided to offer bespoke soya sauce this year. “Nanyang Bespoke service, the first in the world, involves taste profiling and fermenting your private vat of soya sauce to your desired taste. We will care for your private vat for nine months. What you’ll have is a timeless legacy that can be bottled for own use, as a family gift or aged further for future generations.”
2022 will see an overseas expansion for the brand. “Nanyang Sauce Bespoke Service is opening in Bhutan where we [produce] a customised brew of soya sauce using organic Bhutanese beans, Himalayan salt and glacier water from the mountains. It has been in the works for the past few years, and opening Nanyang Sauce Brewery there is in line with our vision of brewing the best soya sauce in the world with the best ingredients using our family’s secret recipe from Singapore,” Ken shares.
“We tested the glacier water and the quality is amazing; coming fresh from the Himalayas it is unspoiled and rich in valuable minerals. More than 72 per cent of the total land area of Bhutan is covered by forest, and it is known as the last Shangri-la in the world,” says Ken. He adds that their brewery in Bhutan aims to provide a farm-to-table experience, from farming organic soya beans to creating artisan soya sauce in an entirely environmentally sustainable way.
Tan Seng Kee Foods
“The origins of our family business started in 1936 when our grandparents arrived from Swatow, China, to start a new life. They started off with selling beef noodles in Chinatown for fellow immigrants who worked at the docks and warehouses,” tells Annie Tan, director of Tan Seng Kee Foods. Her enterprising grandparents identified the increasing demand for rice noodles (kway teow), and decided to hand-make them.
She continues: “My parents took over the business in the late 1960s and expanded to also produce wheat-based noodles such as Hokkien noodles to cater to the growing Singapore population, including the different ethnic groups.” Annie and her younger brother Raymond, who’s the executive director, pride themselves as a trusted noodle manufacturer and distributor with their retail brand Kang Kang. The brand “Kang Kang” comes from the word Jian Kang, which means “healthy” in Mandarin.
Annie adds: “Our biggest fulfilment comes from our passion and willingness to share—be it flavour, knowledge, product innovation or manufacturing capabilities.”
A more than 20-year veteran in the marketing and communications business, including luxury hotels, Annie decided to join the family business to support her brother in preserving their family’s legacy. Raymond was previously in commercial sales and marketing for the energy, oil and gas industry. Their intention was to re-invent the business by providing a brand new perspective to the traditional trade of noodle manufacturing. They adopted a holistic approach in their production processes, and invested in a comprehensive facility to meet the principles of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), which was then a relatively novel concept in food manufacturing in early 2000. They are also the first in the fresh noodle industry in Singapore to be Hazard Analysis Critical Points (HACCP) certified.
On their strategies to upgrade the business, Annie says, “After two years of research and development, we launched Singapore’s first pasteurised fresh noodles that completely transformed the business. This innovative breakthrough helps extend the shelf life of the fresh but highly perishable noodle from two days to six months in chilled condition, without any preservatives. We have created a paradigm shift and given a new lease of life to a traditional industry and transformed the noodle-making sector.” Thanks to the technology of pasteurisation, they have since exported Kang Kang noodles to Europe, the Middle East and the US.
She continues: “Following the innovation, we have also developed a Health Promotion Board certified range of Healthier Choice Wholegrain noodles (Hokkien noodles, kway teow and bee tai mak) that is higher in wholegrains and lower in sodium and fat. Moreover, the range is colouring-free, which helps to reduce hyperactivity in children.” This makes Kang Kang noodles ideal for the health-conscious consumers who prefer wholesome noodles with authentic flavours.