YOU could say it's a timely solution for well-travelled foodies afraid to 'smuggle' wheels of cheese and packs of jamon past immigration or tired of hauling back a suitcase full of Bordier butter that you cannot find in Singapore. Now, to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of hungry home cooks, more gourmet purveyors are springing up to offer imported speciality ingredients and premium pantry staples.
These high quality foodstuffs all have something in common: they are usually described as "artisanal", "small-batch", or carry the "farm-to-table" badge proudly.
"Artisanal produce is now common in food; it is what gives it that slight edge when you make something," says La Perera of The Cheese Artisans. "You can cook mac and cheese - and using something like an artisanal cheese could make all the difference."
So if you're searching for that hard-to-find dulce de leche, you can now find it at the Argentinian-centric restaurant Bochinche's new retail section. But not everyone is procuring air-flown ingredients; Ah Hua Kelong, for example, offers something closer to home - fresh farm fish reared in a kelong near Pasir Ris.
For a more competitive edge, some gourmet suppliers like Asian Cutz are not only providing hassle-free delivery, they are also offering extra services such as cooking tips and education on how to handle the ingredients. The intrepid home cook never had so many choices.
Eatery's new retail section
22 Martin Road #02-01
Tel 6235 4990
ONE-year-old Argentinian grill restaurant, Bochinche, recently transformed a small section near its entrance into a gourmet market offering El Perdido grass-fed, free-range Angus beef to meet the steady stream of requests from regulars who wanted to purchase their beef fillet, sirloin, flank and ribeye for home cooking.
"After trying so hard to bring in premium Argentinian beef from Buenos Aires for the restaurant, we thought why not expand upon it . . . This is an extension of our restaurant and it's a very personalised shop in the sense that these are the products that we like to use in Bochinche," says Diego Jacquet, chef patron of Bochinche, who emphasises that they are not trying to be "some deli shop just selling retail products".
For sale are small-batch Chimichurri Sauce (S$8), made in-house with balsamic vinegar instead of white wine vinegar "because we like a hint of sweetness in our preparations" - yes, it's the same one served with your steaks at the restaurant. And that La Salamandra Dulce De Leche that you've been licking off your dessert plate? Now you can bring home jars of that stuff at S$12-S$14 a pop. Other items that might prompt a supermarket sweep include traditional Yerba Mate tea leaves, (S$12-S$14), and Esnaola creamed sweet potato (S$14) that you can serve with light, creamy cheese. They also stock a selection of 50 Argentinian wines and 15 types of charcuterie.
Chef Jacquet already has the successful Abasto Butcher & Wine Merchant gourmet store up and running in London so it wasn't difficult for him to curate the rest of the products for the grocery section at Bochinche. Leveraging on the relationships that he has built with purveyors over the years, Chef Jacquet brings in limited-edition Cedron Tea or Lemon Verbena Tea (S$18) created by Rare Tea Co exclusively for Abasto. The Abasto house brand jams are also crafted by Jacquet's jam-maker friends, Nick and Judy, who reside in France and supply to Dean & DeLuca and Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.
Sea change in fish farming
Ah Hua Kelong
Tel 8399 2220
BEHIND the Pasir Ris wholesale fish farm, located 10 minutes by boat from the Lorong Halus Jetty, are two unlikely fish farm entrepreneurs: Wong Jing Kai and Bryan Ang. The 25-year-olds were from the digital marketing and sea transport industries respectively but have since taken to their new roles, literally, like fish to water.
The web-savvy duo partnered with Teh Aik Hua a.k.a. Ah Hua, who has owned the kelong since 2008, to bring the business to another level by tapping social media platforms such as Facebook (their page had 20,318 likes at last count).
Ah Hua Kelong has been supplying to hotels and restaurants for some time now but since April this year, Mr Wong and Mr Ang expanded its clientele to include home consumers in order to meet the 30 tonnes per annum quotas set by the AVA - so that the kelong can continue its operations. While the kelong does not have a wide variety of fish, what it has to offer is freshness as the seafood is processed on the same day it is delivered - all within 12 hours. To heighten that farm-to-table aspect, they capture the entire process of harvesting the fish to packing them in boxes right until it arrives at their customer's doorstep, on their smartphones. The pictures are then posted online. Their seafood ranges from black grouper, seabass, golden pomfret (which has a similar texture and taste as barramundi), and a hybrid of tiger grouper and giant grouper (S$20 for 600g) to plump green lip mussels and the occasional flower crabs which are caught in the north of Singapore.
The feed is also an important factor as to why their produce costs a bit more than supermarkets. They use top-grade feed consisting of ikan bilis (that they catch themselves) and high quality fish bait. There's also the time-consuming and expensive task of cleaning out the barnacles from the sea cage to prevent food from accumulating. "What we need is ventilation, otherwise the feed will rot at the bottom of the sea cage and give the fish a muddy taste," explains Mr Ang.
As Mr Wong shows off pictures of cooked fish that his satisfied customers recently sent him, he adds: "We don't want to be fly by night. We want to give personalised service and teach customers how to handle and cook the fish well."
Edgy cheese artisans
The Cheese Artisans
Mezza9, The Grand Hyatt, 10 Scotts Road
THE Cheese Artisans are not exactly the new kids on the block. The gourmet cheese company was set up two years ago because ex-colleagues and friends, Geri Kor and La Perera, felt that there was not enough good cheese around in Singapore. They have been concentrating their efforts on wholesale but are now starting to reach out to consumers.
From now to Nov 30, 2014, The Cheese Artisans transform an existing wine cellar in Mezza9 at The Grand Hyatt, into a temporary pop-up store where guests can
take their pick of cheeses to enjoy onsite or at home.
The makeshift cheese emporium stocks 20 different types of cheeses with highlights such as the Oveja Negra, a Manchego-style organic Spanish cheese made from the milk of a rare breed of Black Manchego ewes, and Red Wine Farmer, a Swiss Mountain cheese with red wine rubbed into its rind.
This is just a small slice of the 130 varieties on their portfolio that leans towards artisanal, farmhouse, hand-crafted selections with an interesting story behind each of the labels. When they do bring in more mainstream cheeses, they pick their suppliers very carefully.
"There are five or six registered Stiltons worldwide but we went for the best of the six - a Colston Bassett Stilton that is hand-ladled in the UK in a 100-year-old Stilton dairy. We are not just picking cheeses that are unique but ones that are the best in class for that particular type," explains Ms Perera on how they curate their list of offerings.
"There is a growing market for gourmet cheese in Singapore as people are learning more about it," says Ms Perera, who describes how she was surprised when locals came up to their booth at the recent Epicurean Market event to ask for the "really smelly cheeses".
When asked how the cheese they offer compares to the selections in the supermarket, Ms Perera demurs: "A lot more time and effort has gone into making these cheeses. You cannot compare brie that is sold in the supermarket with a Brie de Meaux from France. The former is cost-efficiently made, the latter is lovingly made."
Premium cuts, Japanese-style
A LOVE of shabu shabu (hotpot) - her go-to dish whenever she entertains at home - was enough to prompt ex-IT sales executive Jillian Kee to move into the modern-day butchery business. "The only two places that sell decent shabu shabu sliced meats are Meidi-Ya and Isetan," she declares.
And when she found herself standing in the snaking long queue at the supermarket during Chinese New Year this year, she decided to launch Asian Cutz with three other silent partners, to deliver Japanese-style cuts of premium meats to the customer's doorstep.
Asian Cutz has been opened for only two months, and for now, they are sticking to a Web presence where customers simply place their orders online.
Hoping to plug the gap in a traditional market where "most of the other butcheries are Western in style and focus on steaks and roast meats", Ms Kee provides shabu shabu slices and yakiniku cuts in Miyazaki A4 Wagyu, New Zealand Grass-fed Sirloin, Momoiro Pork Collar and US Kurobuta Pork Belly.
Since they don't have facilities to process meat yet, Ms Kee is relying on wholesale food purveyors such as Indoguna and Angliss Singapore, to portion her beef and pork. Ms Kee has also specified that her shabu shabu slices be cut to 1.2 mm to 1.5 mm in thickness instead of the typical 2mm. "It has a melt-in your-mouth texture when it's sliced that thin," she explains.
Besides Japanese-style cuts, Asian Cutz also offers sirloin steaks, chuck and short ribs. One of their bestsellers to date is the Darling Downs Wagyu, a Wagyu-Angus cross originating from Queensland, Australia, and is only supplied to restaurants and cafes. With so many players in the market, Ms Kee believes that convenience is the biggest selling point of Asian Cutz.
"It is not just meats but an easy way to entertain at home," she says of the assortment of meat platters that you can bundle with condiments such as Yuzu Pepper or Kewpie Deep-Roasted Sesame Dressing as well as bubblies such as the Champagne Thienot "Alain Thienot" 2002. "There is an entertainment and lifestyle angle to our business and it is very service-oriented. I'm hoping to recapture the old days of meat-buying when you go to the market and the butcher provides personalised service by recommending you certain cuts," adds Ms Kee.
Boxes of fresh, organic produce
FROM make-up, beauty products to DIY craft items, subscription boxes are great for people who are too busy to shop or are curious to discover something new. SimplyFresh is the latest to join the fray and offers one that is not only edible (the contents, that is, not the box) but also healthy.
Set up by Austrian native, Michael Giesswein, founder and director of Premium Foods Holding, SimplyFresh will deliver a hodgepodge of fresh and organic European fruits and vegetables such as Savoy cabbage, beetroot, leeks and fennels, pumpkin, and salsify to your doorstep every week. To suit different lifestyle needs, there are seven boxes (from S$120) including Simply Fruit Box, Simply Veggie Box and a box with everything you need for blending smoothies. You can also customise your trove by choosing from over 60 varietals of produce.
"When I came to Singapore two years ago, I was going to supermarkets to look for organic fruits and vegetables, but all I could find were salads and tomatoes coming from Australia, Malaysia and China. The quality of some of these produce wasn't comparable to what I was used to," says Mr Giesswein, on why he started SimplyFresh.
But this is not Mr Giesswein's first foray into the local food business. He also founded Foodcom with a partner to bring in Chanterelles, porcini mushrooms, and German asparagus for restaurants and hotels.
Eighty per cent of the greens and fruit available will be coming from organic certified, family-owned farms in Germany while the rest will be flown in from Austria, Italy, Spain and Greece. "I have direct and private relationships with these farmers so we are not buying through big supermarket chains. We have about 12 farmers and I've known them for years," adds Mr Giesswein.
- Orders can be placed from Nov 1, 2014, and deliveries will start from Nov 13. For more information, please contact email@example.com
Homing in on hairy crabs
Hairy Crab at Home
Tel 8113 4232
AS a seasonal speciality, hairy crabs are known to be expensive, fiddly to cook and eat, and better enjoyed in a Chinese restaurant. However, a pair of young upstarts who want to prove that the opposite is true has launched their own online seafood store on Facebook.
It's the brainchild of fresh business graduates Jason Xie, 25, and Lee Yuan Rong, 26, who didn't want desk-bound jobs and saw a market for the delicacy. The pair also wanted to keep prices affordable so that they could reach out to a broader range of crab-lovers and not just those who can afford it in restaurants.
The partners share: "We wanted to try and introduce, first and foremost, the idea of eating hairy crabs at home." And knowing how easily the crabs can be prepared, they saw no reason why Singaporeans shouldn't enjoy preparing it themselves at more affordable prices than what food outlets tend to charge.
The savings are significant - a single 200g hairy crab typically sells for about S$60 in a restaurant, but the duo are just charging customers S$138 for six pieces of similar-sized crabs. Prices are kept affordable because running an online business means they do not have to worry about rent and the savings are passed on to buyers through weekly promotions and special discounts.
Being on Facebook also allows them to interact more closely with their customers to find out their likes and dislikes to tailor things better to customers' needs. But despite running a business in cyberspace, the duo believe in adding a personal touch. Hence, all orders are personally delivered. "Some would say that this is an inefficient way of doing things, however, I remain firm on providing our consumers with the best possible experience" says Mr Xie. More than that, it also ensures that they can explain to their customers how to properly clean and prepare the crabs so the crustaceans will end up tasting as good as at a high-end restaurant.
The personal touch also extends to informing customers of the quality of their crabs, which are issued an Animal Health Certificate from Lake Taihu to ensure they're healthy and free of infection before they are even allowed into the country. They also go through additional checks atSingapore customs.
And what will happen when hairy crab season is over? The pair hope to continue supplying Singaporeans with premium quality seasonal seafood - delivered straight to their doorsteps.
- Additional reporting by Lisa Fratini
- Hairy Crab at Home takes orders via WhatsApp, Messages or phone: 8113 4232; and also via their Facebook page: Hairy Crab at Home
Go-to site for gourmet Japanese
WITH foodies and aspiring home cooks now taking their passion and craft more seriously, local retailers have been upping their game to try and meet the demands of this group of enthusiasts.
That has also prompted the former F&B PR consultant Amanda Tan to start Zairyo, an online food and kitchenware grocery store selling a myriad premium Japanese products for those who want to whip up something exotic in their own kitchens. "Home cooking is no longer just the usual simple fare. People are really going for the quality stuff," says the avid home cook, who knows first-hand how lacklustre the choices are at supermarkets. "(Also) if you go to the supermarket, you're very uninspired because there are so many things that you don't know where to start."
The decision to focus on Japanese produce was a natural one - her father owns the Japanese food and beverage distributor, Goodchoice Trading, which has been supplying restaurants and top chefs in Singapore for over a decade. That has also allowed Ms Tan to build lasting relationships with the suppliers and Zairyo's clientele are able to get their hands on produce at prices that were previously reserved just for businesses. For example, customers can indulge in hotate (scallops), directly from Japan, at only S$60 for 1kg, almost S$10 cheaper than most Japanese food shops.
In addition to a variety of noodles, sauces and snacks, Ms Tan has also branched out into kitchenware and "meal kits" consisting of somen, soba or udon with separate packs of soup bases. "I think it's a good way to get people more interested in cooking," explains Ms Tan.
Zairyo does not limit itself to just selling Japanese produce, and makes sure its customers know how to prepare and treat the produce correctly by providing recipes and serving suggestions online. Ms Tan believes that food creates conversation, and bring foodies together. Hence, she hopes to inspire people to explore the variety and simplicity of preparing Japanese cuisine together through her site.
"There are so many different ways that you can prepare something, so I really want to share that with other people,"she explains. "I'd like to have a community where people can share ingredients and suggestions on how to prepare stuff."
By Lisa Fratini
- Zairyo is set to launch this November, for more information email Amanda Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org
An earlier version of this article stated that Bochinche recently transformed a small section near its entrance into a gourmet market offering Angus beef to regulars who wanted to purchase their beef from home, which made it sound like Bochinche has a home delivery service. The article has been revised to reflect that the restaurant does not have a home delivery service.