Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Huat Kee Teochew Cuisine from Push Cart Stall to Premier Restaurant & Retort Gourmet Meals

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

Anyone who is a fan of Teochew cuisine in Singapore would know Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee in RELC building (beside Shangri-La Hotel). Huat Kee is one of the top Teochew restaurants in Singapore. Huat Kee is also an innovator and major producer of ready-to-eat Teochew food. One of the brightest stars of Singapore F & B industry, Huat Kee came from very humble roots.


Lee Jee Tee left Chao-an district (Chaozhou city) in China's Guangdong province for Singapore in the early 1930s. The fall of the corrupt Qing Dynasty in 1912 brought neither peace nor relief from poverty, famine and disease. Local warlords slugged it out to set up their own fiefdoms. The Chinese Civil War between the Communist Party and Kuomintang broke out in 1927. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

In the chaos, millions left China through its southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian for Nanyang (British Malaya). Among them was Lee Jee Tee (and my own grandfather from Toishan county). (Video courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Mandarin Hotel under construction 1969

Once ashore, resourceful Lee Jee Tee taught himself to cook and worked in Tai Seng restaurant as well as Hung Kang restaurant. By the 1950s, Lee Jee Tee rose to the position of head chef at Chui Huay Lim Teochew Club's restaurant.

By this time, Lee Jee Tee's sons including eldest Lee Liat Huat (born 1934) already learned the ropes of cooking from their father and ran their own hawker stalls. In the 1960s, the Lees pooled together to operate a canteen for workers building Mandarin Hotel. (Image courtesy of NAS.)


When Mandarin Hotel opened in 1971, the Lees started a zi char (cook & fry) stall in an open space at Wayang Street (today's Eu Tong Seng Street). The stall was named Huat Kee after Lee Liat Huat, the eldest son. (Image courtesy of NAS.)


In the 1970s, Huat Kee stall moved from Wayang Street to Ellenborough Market, a huge complex comprising two slab residential blocks with a three storey market and food centre. It was part of the government's hawker centre programme to move all street hawkers to hawker centres.

Huat Kee was one of the four zi char stalls at the Ellenborough food centre on level 3. The stalls were Mong Hing, Lee Kui (Ah Hoi), Ah Orh and Huat Kee. Today, only Ah Orh and Huat Kee are still in operation.


Huat Kee moved to Gay World (Happy World) in Kallang in 1989. The huge events and amusement park gave Huat Kee the space to expand its operations. (Image courtesy of NAS.)


Huat Kee moved back to Chinatown at Amoy Street in 1993 where it remained till 2015. (Image courtesy of NAS.)

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

That year (2015), Huat Kee moved to RELC building level 2, where it remains today.

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

Third generation Huat Kee owner Lee Chiang Howe is known for his forthrightness, acumen and derring-do. When he joined the restaurant, Lee Chiang Howe was advocating that for the family business to thrive, it had to move up the value chain in tandem with the growing affluence of Singaporeans. To Lee Chiang Howe, slashing prices and shaving margins is a dead end route for traditional cuisine. The way to preserve heritage food is to take the high road.

Lee Chiang Howe brought in premium and high value ingredients for use in traditional Teochew cuisine. The leading position Huat Kee enjoys today in the market testifies to the wisdom of Lee Chiang Howe's judgement.

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

But, it is not simply a matter of up selling or crass gentrification. It is based on a solid foundation and appreciation of traditional Teochew cuisine from decades in the craft. Lee Chiang Howe was cooking at Huat Kee once he was strong enough to lift a wok. It takes commitment and dedication to preserve traditional cuisine in the face of today's fickle palates that are spoilt for choice.

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

Lee Chiang Howe's octogenarian mum Mdm Loh (everyone calls her Huat Soh) still goes to the wet market at 5am everyday to personally handpick the best ingredients for the restaurant. She still works at the restaurant. One moment, I saw her pulling pork and the next she was slicing braised duck with the seasoned hand of a master.

Teochew_Restaurant_Huat_Kee

With part of the proceeds from selling off their Amoy Street shop lots, Lee Chiang Howe took bold steps to buy over a retort food pouching (packaging) plant in Christchurch, New Zealand and a canning factory in Adelaide, Australia.


Lee Chiang Howe with his daughter Jasmine are growing their food processing business with premium retort food (such as abalone) packaged in food grade plastic pouches which can be reheated quickly and enjoyed. Their vision is to have ready-to-eat authentic traditional Teochew cuisine enjoyed everywhere in the world through this technology.

Written by Tony Boey on 2 Feb 2021

References: 

Conversation with Lee Chiang Howe

Delicious Heirlooms

No comments:

Post a comment

I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't. All comments with genuine identities are published.