David Tan’s approach to life has gotten him to move from a 20-year career as an industrialist to hawking the famous Ipoh kai si hor fun, opening one stall after another and publishing his own recipe book.
It’s never enough for David Tan. That’s the kind of impression you would get of Dato’ David Tan Sek Yin when you get to know him better.
David has since written two recipe books – Lao Wei Dao (Old Tastes): a trip down memory lane and The Best of Ipoh Street food with a third book in the works. The first one is dedicated to his late grandfather Tan Lark Sye who was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in Singapore.
Tan Lark Sye was born in Jimei, a fishing village in Xiamen, southern China. David spent many formative years living with him in Singapore and growing up eating traditional Hokkien dishes prepared by his grandmother. His first book features many of these dishes including some of his grandfather’s favourites.
“I always liked watching my mother and grandmother cook. I wanted to learn how they cooked and the method they used. It is not just about knowing what to cook. My grandfather loved his dish of pig tail braised with peanuts. You must eat this with hot rice, it’s very appetising,” said David.
Birth of Little Katong
For this 61-year-old entrepreneur, starting this chapter of his life has fired his passion for researching and modifying traditional recipes to get them right. He wanted to recreate the original taste of the kway teow which he had 30 years ago and he couldn’t get the same anywhere.
He spent many months perfecting the special broth for the Ipoh kai si hor fun (shredded chicken kway teow soup) until his recipe could almost upstage the old timer Thean Chun stall in Ipoh old town.
David laboured over hot stoves for long hours in his garage-turned-kitchen at his bungalow in Tiger Lane, experimenting until he got the taste he wanted. “In 3 years, I have opened three stalls. I didn’t open restaurants or coffee shops is because I need to know the business and to build a name before committing to a bigger investment.”
Today, David has his stalls Little Katong at Canning Garden, Gourmet Square hawker centre and one more across the street from Thean Chun.
David’s first book went for two reprints and the publisher was persuading him to write a second book on Ipoh street food. He undertook the laborious task of seeking out the recipes from internet and hawkers and test them out until he has perfected it and detail the method of cooking so his readers would not be confused.
“The most difficult part about writing this second book is in getting the taste right and as accurate as possible to the original dish. The second book features 50 recipes of Ipoh famous street foods. For instance tai kau meen (peanut pancake), I know there is a fermentation process required but I don’t know for how long. So I had to try this over and over again.
“Another difficulty is because most of the featured foods are handmade delicacies. It is not about collecting all the ingredients and putting them into the wok to cook. I need to research and improve on it,” he said.
David suggested to use palm oil or peanut oil to get kaya puff pastry to be flaky when making the oil dough to combine with the water dough (who would have guessed!).
People often inspired by David’s ability to juggle a hectic lifestyle in the food business and time to write his books. He explains that this was owing to the management skills he had acquired from the corporate world to help set up a system to run his food business even when he is not around.
This system allows him to travel and take care of his other family commitments in his capacity as Director of Chiyu Bank in Hong Kong, board member of Chengyi University college and the Tan Lark Sye Museum in Xiamen, China.
David’s grandfather had tremendous influence on him. He remembers his advices about the importance of good education and how once should pursue it despite all circumstances. “His tenacity and determination to succeed is the biggest influence on me. He would work at something until it yielded the result he wanted,” David wrote in his book.
Text and photos YY Chen