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ANGUS, wagyu, Kobe, shirobuta, kurobuta, iberico. In 1994, people might well have thought them to be exotic holiday destinations. Such was the knowledge of the average shopper when specialist meat provider Swiss Butchery first came on the scene. At the time, they were one of the first gourmet butcheries to open, as no other specialty shops were providing different cuts and grades of meat and sausages, says current managing director Mark Foo.
"When we first started out, there was not much knowledge about quality meats and sausages, so it took a little bit of education before (the industry) got going," recalls Mr Foo, 37. Nowadays however, "Angus" and "wagyu" appear on almost every cafe menu, while "kurobuta" is an increasingly common hotpot ingredient.
"Over the years, the market for gourmet meats grew as people travelled more, ate more, and wanted that same experience when they came back," adds Mr Foo. That's why Swiss Butchery has now expanded to have two outlets and three supermarket counters, and Mr Foo estimates that each store gets about 150 customers per day who each spend an average of S$100.
It was also in 1994 that gourmet food and wine distributor Culina was set up, and they now have 11 butchery concessionaires at Fairprice Finest outlets in Singapore, in addition to their flagship boutique and bistro in Dempsey.
The reason behind Culina's growth is that "consumers are generally eating better and well", observes Leelyne Yeo, general manager of Culina. "With affluence and better knowledge, consumers trade up more readily for a quality piece of meat... We hope that the increased availability of our products at outlets across the island inspires our customers to experiment with new tastes and innovative styles of cooking," she says.
Over the years, there has been a proliferation of players on the scene, the latest being three new gourmet grocers popping up in just the last few months alone - Ethan's Gourmet Foods which at the moment focuses on Japanese produce, a butchery at Tanjong Katong called Meat Collective, and an online organic barbecue delivery service known as Stoke.
For these new kids on the block, their main goal for now is to make a name for themselves by selling high-quality produce at reasonable prices, to target the middle to high-end consumer.
Explains Ruth See of Stoke: "If you were to buy a ribeye steak from a supermarket and get my organic grass-fed ribeye from Australia, do exactly the same thing and cook it exactly the same way for the same duration - I can tell you mine will taste better just because the beef is more tender and natural."
Like Ms See, Sasha Conlan of The Barbie Girls - an online gourmet meat and seafood grocer - also believes that it is the quality of their produce that has earned their popularity among consumers.
"In my experience, consumers are becoming more educated about the produce that is out there and also the quality of that produce. I don't so much feel that the interest is in "gourmet" produce, the interest is more in good quality food that has been ethically produced and is fully traceable," she says.
Ms Conlan's business started out in October 2011 selling only lamb; they saw an average of about 10 customers per week. Now, they sell a much wider range of produce including beef, poultry, pork and seafood, to about 100 customers per week.
Adds Swiss Butchery's Mr Foo: "Our country's solid food culture is one of the push factors. People's expectations are steadily increasing and they are slowly assimilating with the mantra 'health is wealth', which advocates a better quality of life, and quality food is the basis of that," he says.
Asked about the future of the gourmet meat industry, there's a consensus among the grocers that there is still a lot more variety of high quality produce that can potentially be brought into Singapore.
Says Mr Foo: "With the rise of new age farmers and so many different techniques of raising livestock, we can expect an even wider range of produce in the future. That being said, different meats appeal to different tastebuds so I think we still have room for growth."
Ethan's Gourmet Foods
50 Tagore Lane, #B1-01 Entrepreneur Centre
Tel: 6372-8809 www.ethansgourmet.com
Open Tue to Sun, 11am-7pm. Closed on Mon
IF you're on your way to Ethan's Gourmet Foods, don't be fazed if you find yourself in the middle of a dusty industrial park off a secluded stretch of Upper Thomson Road. Keep going, and you'll eventually find the gourmet minimart tucked away in the corner of a self-storage facility building.
Inside, the bright open space is lined with shelves of mostly Japanese products - sakes, seafood, colourful snacks, and of course, meats. The highlight is their stock of world-famous grade A4 and A5 Kobe beef, displayed right next to the lesser-known A3 Tajima beef - the "parent" cow of the Kobe.
"Tajima cows (marbling score 1 to 12) are used to raise other famous cattle, and the top scoring Tajima beef are labelled as Kobe (marbling score 6 to 12)," explains Hiro Fukushima, 43, one of the owners of Ethan's Gourmet Foods.
"Nowadays, it's hard to sell beef with higher marbling because no one wants to eat it; people are getting more health-conscious. So we bring in those with slightly lower marbling but still tastes good," he adds.
Mr Fukushima started the business with his two co-founders - Johnny Tan, 47, and Elaine Yee, 34. For both Mr Fukushima and Mr Tan, running Ethan's is now a full-time job.
The store opened in December last year, but the official launch will only take place on March 21. For now, they specialise in bringing in Japanese produce, since Mr Fukushima used to work in importing and has contacts in Japan.
"Everyone's thinking is that Japanese food is expensive, and I think that needs to change. Of course I cannot make Japanese beef cheap and good, but what I can do is at least make it reasonably priced," says Mr Fukushima. He explains that instead of going to distributors and getting them to source for produce in Japan, he goes straight to slaughterhouses and gets them to introduce their middleman. That way, he has better control over the prices because he is in direct contact with the source.
Their Japanese beef ranges from S$20 per 100 grams for Tajima, to S$50 per 100g for Kobe, while their Japanese pork ranges from S$3.60 per 100g for shirobuta to S$8.60 per 100g for kurobuta .
"I want local people to be able to eat good Japanese meat and learn how it is different from others. But the prices here are too expensive, especially at Japanese restaurants. Now they can come here and buy and bring it home to cook," says Mr Fukushima.
According to him, what sets Japanese beef apart from other beef is the fact that the cows are all grain-fed, and kept in cages so they retain their fats. Plus, the water they drink comes from the natural springs in Japan, making their meat more sweet and tender.
Other than Japanese produce, Ethan's Gourmet Foods also carries a small range of items from Europe, and they intend to slowly add even more variety.
Says Ms Yee: "Singaporeans are now very well-travelled, so they know what produce they want. We're trying to source for these and bring it here. The dream is for Ethan's to become a megamart instead of a minimart, but the focus will always remain on gourmet produce."
An appetite for barbecue
IF your idea of barbecues still revolves around hot dogs and chicken wings, it's about time to raise the bar. At least that's what Chris Vethaviyasar and Ruth See would like you to do - with their gourmet barbecue meat parcels.
Their new online service, Stoke, delivers organic meat packages with beef, lamb and pork from small artisan farmers that the couple personally met during their travels. The best part? Because the meats are of a high quality, there's no need to slather on a thick layer of greasy marinade to give them flavour.
Says Ms See, a 36-year-old Singapore PR working in the finance industry: "People ask me what marinade they should use. I say don't put anything - no chilli or whatever. Just salt, pepper, and olive oil five minutes before you cook. The meat has a natural sweetness."
Stoke currently specialises in four main organic meat products - grass-fed beef from Australia, Bultarra lamb from Australia, iberico pork from Spain, and 96 per cent gluten-free pork sausages from the United Kingdom - all specifically selected to go on a barbecue pit.
"We realised over the years that we can't get certain things in Singapore and it's such a pity because this market is ready for it. There is that sense of adventure, and that ability to afford, but the options are not there. I love chicken wings and satay too, but that's all we have. There's just not enough good quality and affordable food to put on our grills," explains Ms See.
So over the Lunar New Year weekend, they launched Stoke by publicly listing it on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, as a way to gauge the market's demand before actually bringing in the meats. So far, they have raised about a third of their £10,000 (about S$21,000) target.
On Kickstarter, Stoke offers three parcel sizes - a basic for four to six persons (about S$185), a luxury parcel for six to eight (about S$330), and a grande for 10 to 12 (about S$495). Each parcel contains a varied portion of Stoke's four meat products, as well as an assortment of cheese and appetisers like Spanish stuffed olives and pates. According to Ms See, if the target is met by April 1, customers can expect to receive their shipments by mid-May.
Down the road, they intend to expand their inventory to include seafood like tuna and prawns, or other cuts of meat like spare ribs or brisket - all of which are suited for the grill.
Says Ms See: "What brought us to Stoke is that Chris and I both love food. And as you age, you look after your health a little bit more. Of course eating beef every day won't make me healthy, but if I'm going to eat beef anyway, then I might as well eat the ones that have no chemicals, hormones, and are not sprayed with toxins. Plus, it's an alternative to travelling - just fire up the grill and your tongue will travel. It's like a culinary adventure."
High quality at accessible prices
342 Tanjong Katong Road Tel: 6348-6339
Open Tue to Sat, 10am-8pm; Sun, 10am-6pm. Closed on Mon
FEEL like having a piece of steak without the hassle of cooking and cleaning, or putting on pants and going to a nice steakhouse? Then perhaps you might prefer to pick up a raw piece at Tanjong Katong Road's new butchery, Meat Collective, and take a 20-metre stroll down the road to have it cooked for you.
"It's why we're called a collective," says Meat Collective's founder Simon Chee, 43. He teamed up with Mojo Burps - a Western bar and grill nearby, so customers can buy his steaks and take them to the eatery to have them cooked for S$8 per person, inclusive of two sides.
For example, if you purchase 300 grams of a chilled Australia wagyu ribeye steak with marbling grade five at S$8.30 per 100 grams at Meat Collective, you can have it grilled at Mojo Burps and the whole meal will cost you S$32.90.
It's all part of Mr Chee's mission to give people more access to affordable high quality meats. In fact, down the road he also intends to collaborate with more nearby eateries, so his customers have options on where they want their meat cooked.
Says Mr Chee: "I was a consumer before, and I personally couldn't find good cuts of meat at a relatively cheap price. So I started Meat Collective, where people can find out what they're paying for because our pricing and quality is transparent."
The other reason for starting the business, is that he simply loves his meats, adds Mr Chee. "I have a passion for meats, especially beef... Meat is just like wine, there are different cuts, different grades, and they come from different countries. Each meat tastes very different and distinct. Just compare grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef - they have two very different flavours altogether."
The idea for Meat Collective came about sometime early last year, and for Mr Chee it was a natural decision to give up his 20-year career in financial trading to start the business. Both he and his co-founder Daniel Tan, 40, had little experience as butchers, but that did not discourage them from opening the doors to their butchery by mid-December.
Now, the pair specialises in chilled affordable high-quality meats like certified-Angus beef, wagyu and kurobuta from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. They also carry a selection of seafood and other imported produce.
Ultimately though, it's clear that it's the meat that Mr Chee takes most seriously. "My favourite is the USDA prime certified-Angus beef (S$6.60 per 100 grams)," he says. "There's a difference between the certified Angus beef and black Angus beef that most people don't know about.
"I think knowledge is important - you need to know your products and be able to tell your customer where it's from. That's why every meat that comes into the shop we will cook and taste it ourselves. I think that's extremely important in this business."
Southern-style smoke house
167-169 Telok Ayer St Tel: 6221-2262
Open Mon to Sat, 11.45am-2pm, 5.30pm-11pm. Closed on Sun
CHEF Andrew Baldus has worked in all sorts of restaurants before - Mediterranean, French, and even a Japanese ramen shop that he opened with a friend. Now, the 30-year-old from Nebraska is embarking on yet another type of cuisine - Southern American-style barbecue, and for once, it's not his cooking school training that he will be tapping on for the job. Instead, it's his years of personal experience and expertise behind the grill that qualifies chef Baldus to head the two-week-old 60-seater smokehouse in Telok Ayer - Meat Smith.
"Smoking is becoming more and more like a treasured cuisine of the United States. Back in Nebraska, whenever I had a day off I'd go to a friend's house and we'd stay up all night barbecuing and having a few beers," says chef Baldus.
Meat Smith is the latest eatery by hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, and aside from specialising in smoked meats, it also has a bar serving craft beers and cocktails.
Says Mr Loh: "I love smoked meats and there is nobody doing it in an authentic American South style at the moment. We had to import our smokers specially for this project... We are looking at doing something that has a broad appeal and that we can do really well. Specialising in meats in particular has allowed us to invest in the equipment, personnel and training to offer something unique like Meat Smith."
On the menu are three main meat dishes - a juicy half chicken with an addictively-salty house rub (S$20), a 365-day grain-fed Angus beef brisket (S$16 per 100 grams), and a vinegar-brined pork belly (S$14 per 100 grams). It also features three sandwiches - the Nashville fried chicken, pulled pork, and brisket (S$8 to S$10) - plus a range of starters and sides. (Hint: try the fried okra at S$4)
On his cooking technique, chef Baldus explains: "Smoking enhances the flavour and it's about the different woods you can use. Different woods produce a different flavour of smoke which is good for different kinds of meat. The meat is slow-roasted with off-set heat so it stays really moist as well."
He adds that the brisket takes about 14 to 15 hours to cook at about 100 degrees Celsius, while the pork belly takes about eight hours and the chicken takes about three. "We have a saying back home that 'if you're looking, it ain't cooking.' You just want to leave it alone and let it do its thing. The more you open it up, the more the heat fluctuates and the less likely you'll end up with a good product," he advises.
According to Mr Loh, Meat Smith was a "natural progression" after his two earlier wood burning concepts - Australian barbecue Burnt Ends and burger and steak joint The Market Grill. He says: "We want to progressively offer more complex and sophisticated concepts and use different cuts of meat, all prepared in different ways. I think curing will be next on the list of things to do."