Bringing our “shiok” culture abroad
‘Shiok’— a colloquial, approving exclamation of something EXTREMELY enjoyable or pleasing — is the epitome of Singapore’s food culture. By and large, Singaporeans are a food-crazed bunch (yes we are), and with snaking queues for the popular hawker food stalls being such a common sight, eating can surely be considered as our unofficial national hobby! Having been touted in numerous travel guides, shows and magazines, Singapore’s reputation as a culinary hot spot for foodies has helped many of our local food brands establish themselves overseas. This includes 328 Katong Laksa, Old Chang Kee and Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice, among many mouth-watering others.
Since venturing overseas, these brands have received international recognition in various ways:
In 2012, Old Chang Kee was named one of the ‘Best Fast-Food Chains in the World’ by U.S. based Travel & Leisure magazine;
In 2011, Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice was awarded ‘Best Hawker’ in the Asiaone People’s Choice Award.
For decades, versions of ‘Singapore noodles’ (which was actually created and popularised in Hong Kong!) were all the world knew about Singaporean cuisine. Thankfully, with these food brands making their mark abroad, we have been able to make our ‘shiok’ culture more available to foodies around the world. However, these brands bring much more than just the taste of Singapore to the world’s table.
When Old Chang Kee opened its store in London just earlier this year, they replicated the store décor after an old-school Singapore during the 60s-70s , in hopes of piquing interest on our culture and history.
Old Chang Kee’s London branch with its ‘Kopi’ menu, Singapore flags, and Peranakan influences
“Other than our food, we wanted people walking through our doors to experience everything from Singaporean heritage design to even Singlish! We have Singaporean knick knacks on display, like tiffin carriers, kopi cups, enamel plates and old-style biscuit tins. We also have posters explaining what Singaporean cuisine is, and even what ’shiok’ means. Our staff, though recruited locally, know how to use their lah-s (a colloquial Singaporean slang) when serving customers!”
Similarly, 328 Katong Laksa’s store in Taiwan is peppered with Peranakan decorations and motifs, reflecting the cultural group where the dish originated from.
Peranakan-inspired tiles covering 328 Katong Laksa store overseas
(Photo credit: 328 Katong Laksa)
Through iconic local dishes such as chicken rice, laksa and curry puffs, which are inseparable with our epicurean culture, the overseas presence of these food brands create opportunities to share about Singapore. With curious passers-by popping in wanting to know what a “curry puff” is on a daily basis, the crew at Old Chang Kee’s overseas outlets in Australia and the UK jump in to point out where Singapore is on the map and explain how our cultural makeup produces uniquely ‘rojak’ Singapore food.
The spokesperson of Wee Nam Kee quipped that our ‘little red dot’ has progressed so far from the days where most thought Singapore was a part of China, and the company is heartened to see more and more people familiar with our country at their overseas outlets.
A true taste of Singapore
A taste that tells of Singapore is made possible through an exacting persistence on the authenticity of the local taste. Our brands certainly go the extra mile. For example, 328 Katong Laksa insists on producing the base laksa paste strictly in Singapore, to be delivered and used at all their overseas outlets. The founder, Mdm Nancy, would also make frequent trips to ensure that the standards are maintained.
By the same token, Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice is very cautious with who they partner with despite strong interests from numerous parties to franchise the brand across Asia. They believe in taking the time to first understand the culture of each market, which can be a long learning process. Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice maintains that chicken rice is globally known, therefore they take pride in upholding the original taste and quality of this iconic Singaporean dish.
Wee Nam Kee’s famous chicken rice
(Photo credit: Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice)
Committing to the original flavour across borders is not without its challenges. Having their first overseas outpost in South Africa as early as the 1990s, Old Chang Kee’s spokesperson shared: “Sourcing for the same quality ingredients overseas, which may not be grown in the region or scarce due to the seasons, is a continual issue.” To overcome the issue on saucing (sourcing), the three brands tweak the recipes using locally-available ingredients to achieve the same taste.
Beyond being a billboard for the Singapore brand overseas, these local food joints also provide a little, familiar reprise for homesick Singaporeans, as well as tourists who are eager to relive their holidays in tropical Singapore. As aptly put by Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice: “When people taste our chicken rice… they will think of home.”
Do we all have the same taste?
Another challenge pertinent to food businesses overseas is market acceptance of taste. Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice shared that taste is always a challenge for any brand entering a new territory, and that it would take time before a novel taste is widely accepted. Brands like Old Chang Kee have found ways to adapt to the local markets, while continuing to hold true to its original taste.
“Both Singaporeans and foreigners really love our Curry’O. However, their dining out and snacking cultures vary, and our menu would have to be adapted to that culture. For instance, we have more meal items instead of snacks items for specific markets, and in London, our Curry’O is bigger to cater to the larger appetites of the locals.”
A poster introducing “Shiok” to diners in Old Chang Kee’s London branch
Likewise, 328 Katong Laksa offers beef, chicken and pork options in Taiwan, in addition to the original seafood version, to cater to the different dietary preferences.
Singapore as a spring board
While businesses are increasingly finding it a pressing need to diversify and grow their revenue streams beyond the local market, getting one’s feet wet in a new market is a daunting task. There are many uphill challenges such as resourcing, securing the right partners and drawing in the crowds. In varying ways, Singapore as a brand itself has definitely contributed to the success of businesses’ ventures overseas. Thee three brands have unanimously acknowledged Singapore to be the perfect launch pad for the global market.
“Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities, and this helps us to better identify trends that may work in specific overseas markets,” explained Old Chang Kee’s spokesperson. “Also the numerous tourists that Singapore receives each year allows foreigners to be acquainted with our brand even before we establish a presence overseas.”
If you’re looking for a way to introduce Singapore to your friends, or simply reminisce our sunny isle, these yummy food haunts can be a start. It’s #makantime!
328 Katong Laksa: Using a recipe passed down from generations, the multi-award-winning Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant opened its first overseas outlet in East Malaysia in 2014, and its second in Taipei in last year.
Old Chang Kee: From its humble beginnings as a stall near Rex Cinema in Mackenzie Road in 1956, the curry puff flagship now has more than 90 outlets in Singapore and 12 outlets overseas in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and most recently, the United Kingdom.
Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chickien Rice : Founded across Novena Church along Thomson Road, Singapore, in 1989, the restaurant now has four outlets in Singapore and 12 outlets overseas in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines — all serving the same 30-year old recipe developed by Wee Nam Kee's founder Wee Toon Ouut and head chef Lau Sang Lin.