by Toh Ee Ming
SINGAPORE, March 15 (Xinhua) -- Back as a business undergraduate in London, Keith Koh was first exposed to British cuisine while working part-time at a hotel's restaurant and bar.
Intrigued, he signed up for short culinary courses over the weekends to learn the basics of British cuisine. It was there where he met fellow participants comprising of "bored grandmothers and housewives" who revealed home-cooked recipes and secrets of how they got their grandchildren and children to love their cooking. He also bounced his ideas off them.
Koh began replicating these recipes, such as the traditional Sunday roast (roast beef, roast potatoes, other vegetables and Yorkshire pudding) and pies, to try out on his dorm mates, many of whom were Britons.
Returning to Singapore, Koh poured in 20,000 Singapore dollars (about 14,727 U.S. dollars) savings to set up the hawker stall Lad & Dad at the Serangoon Garden Market & Food Centre in 2015, within the neighborhood that he grew up in. It also has a reputation for being a food paradise among locals.
In the beginning, Koh, now 28, recalled how he often felt like a "thorn among the roses."
Most Singaporeans patronizing Western food stalls at hawker centers would be familiar with typical hawker fares like fish and chips and chicken chops. So when he stepped into the scene with quintessentially British pub grub like Bangers and Mash, the unfamiliar items attracted confusion and puzzled remarks from customers.
To suite the complex Asian palate, Koh constantly experimented to inject more "umami" flavors and incorporated Asian style cooking.
For instance, its Signature Beef Stew is slowly cooked for eight hours with root vegetables, herbs and spices like thyme and rosemary to bring out the broth's savory goodness.
Today, Lad & Dad has come a long way from its beginning dorm room.
Since relocating to tourist hotspot Maxwell Food Center in central Singapore in 2017, it has garnered a loyal following of expatriates flocking there for their breakfast or lunch fix, as well as Caucasian backpackers wanting a taste of something familiar. Koh sells around 100 plates a day, which equates to less than 1,000 Singapore dollars (about 736 U.S. dollars) in sales earnings.
In fact, one of the biggest highlights includes being invited as one of the hawkers to cater for a private Chinese New Year garden party for Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, where Koh met him and other ministers in person.
But beyond the local and international recognition gained, Koh finds greater satisfaction in making customers happy. To him, it is the "proper comfort food" that keeps customers returning for more.
Singapore's rich hawker culture has recently come into the spotlight, following its nomination to be inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The new breed of young and daring hawkers are reinventing the concept of the traditional Singaporean hawker fare.
Hawker centers are open-air complexes that house many stalls selling a wide variety of affordably priced food, and are often located at short distances from the people's dwellings. As an important place for social interaction and community bonding, they are considered a unique aspect of Singapore culture and lifestyle.
Recalling how the U.S. Navy personnel once docked in Singapore for three days, Keith said a group of them would specially return to his stall every day.
"They tell me that among all their travels in all over the world, this is one of the best food they've had ... It really makes our day," he said with a touch of pride.