Lee Lock Teng reinvents a traditional yong tau foo dish without losing all that is familiar.
Lee Lock Teng has been honing his cooking chops since 10. He was already wielding the kitchen knife confidently then, helping mum to dice vegetables. Now, at 24, he has embarked on running his first hawker stall, Ah Lock Tofu (#01-08), at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre.
Part of Timbre’s incubator programme, the first-time F&B entrepreneur is being supported to learn the ropes of the trade. For a year, his monthly service charges, pest control fees and cashier system rental expenses are waived. Basic cooking equipment and utensils are provided by the hawker centre.
Lock Teng’s signature dish, Hakka tofu rice bowl, is a combination of his grandma’s decades-old Hakka yong tau foo recipe and elements from Hakka lei cha (thunder tea rice). He decided to reinterpret these rice meals by marrying them with donburi, also a type of rice bowl, but which hails from Japan and has been popular in Singapore.
In his creation, tofu and taupok are stuffed with minced pork belly, deep fried, and then served on warm Japanese short-grain rice. They are accompanied by manicai (sweet leaf) and long beans, two out of the seven vegetables in a traditional lei cha dish. The final touch is a soybean-based sauce drizzled over the top.
“The key ingredient is the pork belly,” Lock Teng says. “It has a good amount of fat, so it’s juicier and tastier than other parts, even when it’s minced.” The meat, tofu and taupok – all of which are handmade – arrive fresh at his stall at dawn every day.
Since young, Lock Teng has always looked forward to travelling across the causeway to visit grandma in the small town of Layang Layang in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He would savour her home-cooked meals, and her yong tau foo slices, especially, are a labour of love, he says. They take anywhere from two to three hours of preparation.
For Lock Teng, preparation takes twice the amount of time, as he makes a larger quantity for hungry customers. But the engineering undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University is more than ready for the laborious work: he has even taken a semester break from school to tend to his business round the clock.
Lock Teng believes that whether it is a passion or a business, the culinary craft is ultimately a creative endeavour, which constantly inspires improvisation and reinvention. He will be introducing new flavours along the way, such as kimchi, to pair with the rice bowl. Some of his current sides include tofu sliders and tofu rojak, which put a new spin on classics.
Older brother Lock Phon, 25, assists in the business. Both of them are involved in food preparation, and Lock Phon manages the accounts. But Lock Teng remains the cook, largely because he wants to be in full charge of quality and taste.
“I’m a very strict and serious person in the kitchen,” he says with a laugh. “I also want to keep improving my creations. I’m never satisfied.”
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