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Cooking made easy
IT could be the novelty, or maybe Singaporeans are hungry for hot, instant meals that they don't have to cook from scratch. Earlier this month, hordes of hungry diners flocked to VenCafe in Sengkang, queuing for an hour just to get a taste of nasi biryani or seafood hor fun out of the first vending machines to serve instant hawker food.
But if you don't have the patience to head all the way to Sengkang and wait in line for a machine to make your meal, and if your regular hawker haunt is getting just too boring, then make your own quick meal that doesn't involve a lot of work.
Just turn to the growing number of players offering ready-made pastes, including one company which is the first in Singapore to offer fresh noodles and ready-to-eat sauce packs.
Signature Delicacies' range of ready-made sauces is one of the latest entries in the market. The brand may be only four months old, but its parent company, Kwong Woh Hing Sauce Factory, has over 70 years of history in Singapore. Kwong Woh Hing is known for its range of premium soy sauce.
Dickson Woo, a third generation family member, says that cooking at home these days can be even more expensive than eating out at coffeeshops. But there are families who still cook, because they can control the quality of the ingredients used. "Our instant sauces are different because they are all made from the premium bases that Kwong Woh Hing makes from scratch, which gives them that homely, rather than a commercial taste," says Mr Woo, 28.
There are currently 10 sauces available, such as Charred Hot Wings, Black Pepper Crab, and Bittergourd Black Bean Beef. Mr Woo explains that the sauces are both a mix of Singapore's famous dishes and traditional recipes from his late grandmother. An example of the latter is the Golden Treasure sauce, which is a mix of pumpkin and plum. "It has a sweet and sour flavour, and tastes best with pork," he says.
Each packet of sauce is good for two people, in line with Mr Woo's target audience of young couples, teenagers living overseas and tourists. "It is also good for families where the kids no longer come home for dinner, and the parents have to cook only for themselves," he explains.
To make the products more appealing to younger folks, Mr Woo worked with students from Republic Polytechnic on the branding and packaging. "The sauces are named after random locations to add a touch of fun," says Mr Woo. Instead of photographs, the dishes are watercolour illustrations. Mr Woo declines to give sales figures, but he says that the response for Signature Delicacies has been very encouraging.
Chef Jeremy Nguee, who runs gourmet catering company Preparazzi, knows too well how time consuming the process of making a cooking paste from scratch is.
"Pastes are tedious to make. There's peeling, scraping, pounding, mincing and frying to be done," he says.
Working together with an experienced chef who specialises in traditional Malay cuisine, the two created three pastes which are sold under the Batu Lesung Spice Company label. Batu Lesung means mortar and pestle in Malay. There are three flavours: Classic Curry, Rendang Rempah and Panggang BBQ Marinade.
Mr Nguee points out that the flavours of pastes made from scratch can sometimes vary due to the quality of ingredients. "Unless you're a seasoned cook who grew up eating lots of curries, Batu Lesung's spice pastes are going to be better than yours," he declares.
To those who scoff at using instant pastes as a cheat method, Mr Nguee says that cooking curry and fooling around in the kitchen is fun, but making spice pastes isn't the same.
"In Singapore, effort in the kitchen has been closely linked to how much you love your family and how hospitable you are to your guests," he quips. "In these modern times though, it is you that your families and friends want at the table, not your back. What these spice pastes do is really help you to host your friends better, to provide nutritious food for your family."
Chef and cookbook author Shermay Lee is no stranger to the sauce business. For over a decade, she ran a cooking school, teaching Singaporean and Peranakan recipes. Despite having a strong following for her classes, she realised that there is a relatively small market of enthusiasts with interest, ability and time.
"There is a much larger untapped market of people who love to eat but don't or can't cook," she says. She wanted to reach out to this group of people through cooked food products.
"I also realised the market wants convenience food for small families and individuals, preferably with traditional tastes and a healthier option. It needed to be as simple as opening the jar and scooping it onto food," adds Ms Lee.
She launched Shermay's Singapore Fine Food two years ago, which carries a range of Cilicuka chilli sauces, and the Singapore Meat Marinade which she dubs the Magic Mother Sauce. The marinade can be used for baking chicken wings, or marinaded in pork neck to make char siew, and even to make braised pork belly. The Cilicuka is good as a condiment, or it can be used as an ingredient.
New on the list is the Ginger Garlic Sauce, created as a complement to Cilicuka. "It can be eaten on its own as a condiment, or used as an ingredient, making it very versatile," says Ms Lee.
Rather than create more flavours, Ms Lee is now focusing on creating multiple uses for her sauces. "If I can do 10 recipes in a few months for each sauce, then I hope to eventually do 100, then 1,000 in the months and years to come," she says. "I'm also challenging myself to create recipes with less ingredients and fewer steps."
She says that her desire to empower home cooks to cook better remains, but she can now reach a bigger audience with her ready-to-use sauces.
While most instant spice pastes on the market are designed for local dishes, Mekhala Living stands out from the competition for its Thai pastes. The Singaporean/Thai label has pastes for making green, red and yellow curries, as well as tom yum, lemongrass turmeric and basil garlic paste.
The production is done in Chiangmai, and co-founder Daphne Hedley says what makes them different from other brands is that the pastes are gluten-free, vegan, and certified organic. "Being based in Chiangmai gives us access to USDA and EU certified organic raw ingredients," she says. She adds that the range of pastes suit vegans, as there is no fish sauce or shrimp pastes added which are commonly used in other brands.
Before she had a child, Ms Hedley was one of those who scorned premade sauces and pastes. "But with a full-time job, a family to take care of, who has time to source organic ingredients, find a good recipe and then make everything from scratch," she wonders at times. Her sentiments would resonate with many time-strapped Singaporeans. "Our pastes are not just for newbies, but also for people who are hard pressed for time and yet appreciate a quality meal at home."
Premade food is not limited to spice pastes. Local company TSK Foods makes fresh, raw and cooked food products, such as noodles and beancurd. Its latest product aims to satisfy those who crave a bowl of hot noodles at any time of the day.
Called the Kang Kang Express Meal Kit, these are fresh noodles that come with packs of fresh spice paste. There are three flavours to choose from: Curry Mee, Prawn Mee Soup and Laksa.
TSK Foods' executive director Raymond Tan says: "We wanted to create a convenient meal pack that utilises fresh ingredients such as our pasteurised noodles and ground paste, that is easy to prepare, consume and most importantly, has the authentic and familiar flavours of home."
The preservative-free noodles are pasteurised and can be kept for 30 days in ambient conditions and up to six months in the chiller. TSK Foods worked with celebrity chef Eric Teo on the recipes for the various meals.
Mr Tan says that customer feedback is "very positive and encouraging" since its launch in May, with the Curry Mee being the most popular. "The meal kit tastes as good as any hawker options," he says with confidence.
Unlike other brands of instant noodles which uses dried noodles, Kang Kang uses only fresh noodles, "as they are more springy and retain the authenticity of our hawker flavours", says Mr Tan. Fresh noodles also means they cook faster and the noodles are ready to serve in four minutes. "It suits the busy professional, as people are constantly on the lookout for short cuts without compromising on taste."
It is not just the food businesses that have jumped on the instant paste bandwagon. Coffee joint Nanyang Old Coffee also has a foot in. Besides coffee, kaya toast and soft boiled eggs, it also serves curry chicken with rice or bread and spaghetti with chilli crab sauce.
The two dishes have gone down so well with customers that its managing director Lim Eng Lam decided to market the curry and chilli crab pastes. These are sold at the various outlets, but Mr Lim has taken it a step further.
He has a vending machine outside Mandarin Gallery, which sells chilli crab, laksa and curry chicken sauce, as well as nasi lemak chilli sauce, chicken rice chilli sauce and chicken rice cooking sauce. The brand's staples such as coffee powder and kaya are also on sale.
"The opportunity to have a vending machine selling our products came up, and I thought why not? A machine saves me manpower costs, and I can test out the market in a new location," he says.
Sales from the vending machine have exceeded Mr Lim's expectations, and he is looking at setting up more vending machines. Possible locations include Fullerton Bay and Changi Airport.
He admits that he is targeting tourists to buy the products from the vending machine, but there is nothing to stop locals from doing the same too. "How often do you get a vending machine that dispenses sauces?" he asks. "But for the tourist, this allows them to buy a piece of Singapore that is not Merlion-related."