Henry Yap dishes up nostalgic flavours that remind him of his hometown, Ipoh.
In 2006, after stints at Jack’s Place and Lawry’s Prime Ribs in Singapore, Henry Yap went home to Papan, a small town 30 minutes south of Ipoh, Malaysia. He ran an itinerant bakery, selling bread at pasar malams in the villages around Ipoh.
Business was slow at first. “After a month or two, people would wait for me at the same spots on the specific days of the week,” says Henry. His customers would often scramble up his lorry to grab the breads, even before he could finish setting up his stall. He would sell out within two hours.
“I felt a sense of achievement building my own business from scratch,” says Henry. But he had to give that up eventually. The price of flour kept on rising, and his supplier raised bread prices several times. Yet Henry felt that it wasn’t right to always pass the cost increase to his customers. Soon, the costs rose too much for his business to be profitable. “I learnt that to have control over what my customers have to pay, I have to make the food myself,” he says.
Henry returned to Singapore in 2009 and worked as a chef at a number of F&B establishments, including Café Cartel, Oasia Hotel and Tanjong Beach Club. Among these experiences, he loved working in opening teams the most. “We saw the improvements every day, and they happened because of the hard work we put in,” he explains.
Henry, 33, is excited about getting the same experience at his stall, Yap’s Noodles (#01-36), at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre. “Here, I am creating something out of nothing. Every day I will push hard to get the results I want,” he says. “It’s a magical feeling.”
At his stall, Henry has returned to his Ipoh roots. He serves a menu of Ipoh traditional favourites with jiaxiang wei (“hometown flavours”), including Ipoh curry mee. “I miss home, and cooking these dishes is my way of connecting with home,” he says.
Henry’s curry mee recipe is based on that of his mother’s, tweaked further with advice from his aunts and neighbours back in Papan. Unlike other types of curry, the Ipoh version uses less curry powder and is more aromatic with ingredients like lemongrass, chillies, dried shrimp, garlic and shallots. These ingredients are mixed as a rempah (spice paste), which is fried over low heat for two hours. The curry noodles – dry or soupy – are topped with sides like seafood, sio bak, char siu, taupok, fried pig’s skin and cockles.
For breakfast, Henry offers Ipoh steamed glutinous rice: the savoury type comes with peanuts, dried shrimp and shredded fried egg; the sweet one is enjoyed with kaya. On the morning menu as well are Cantonese-style congee and Ipoh chee cheong fun with curry or minced meat-mushroom sauce.
Henry says that people in Ipoh “really know how to eat”. “If a stall’s food standard drops, its eaters will immediately go somewhere else,” he adds. “They are picky about food.”
And that is why the quality of food in the kampung is high, though most people don’t realise it, says Henry. “The food is full of guzao wei (‘old flavours’). When you find such a dish, you’ve got yourself a real treasure.”
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