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HERITAGE HEROES: A Grandson’s Love

By Dawn Wong | 09 May, 2019 | Food, People, Profiles
2019-05-09 18:03:24 2019-05-16 16:13:08

Young, single and driven, he carries on the Koh Brother Pig’s Organ Soup legacy.

 

“When I first started, I almost died. I couldn’t move. Fitness is so important in this line,” he declares.

Thomas Koh is only 30 years of age, yet he took it upon himself to continue his grandfather’s remarkable legacy. He was professionally trained in visual design, but took a great leap forward five years ago to take over the family’s hawker business of over 6 decades. An extremely bold move, considering it is a trade that is neither simple nor glamorous. The reason for his decision is a simple, one, that boils down to filial piety and a deep love for his family. With the reality of his aging parents weighing heavily upon him, Thomas decided that he should be the one to helm the family business because he felt that it would be a pity to see his grandfather’s decades of hard work and sweat go down the drain. Since young, he has always had an avid interest in cooking. During in schooling days, he used to work at the store in Tiong Bahru market because, as he put it candidly in his own words, wanted to “scam some pocket money from his parents”.

When Koh Kee Teo first started the business in 1955, he was selling these delicious bowls of inscrutable soups from an illegal pushcart at Tiong Bahru. 63 years later, the store which is now managed by his son and grandson Thomas Koh, remains one of the most popular ones in Tiong Bahru market. It is an institution in its own right. Even before lunch hour, the queues are already snaking all the way to the other end. Before we even spot the signboard, the massive line signals us in the right direction. Although ‘Pig Organ’ soup is considered a dying heritage, it seems to still have relevance among the current generation, judging by the sheer popularity of the soup. This traditional dish is a clear and robust soup, served with other optional side dishes as well as rice. The broth is boiled from a mix of pig offal including liver, heart, intestines, stomach, tongue, blood cubes, as well as pork meat slices, strips of salted vegetables and a sprinkle of chopped onion leaves and pepper. You can also opt for their other speciality; the chewy large intestines stuffed with a filling of sticky glutinous and sweet chestnuts, a recipe handed down from his beloved grandfather.

Even as Thomas and his parents switch off the lights signalling the end of lunch, there were still throngs of eager people lingering outside the store, hoping to get a taste of this legendary dish. We spotted a tourist from America who said he had come all the way down to Tiong Bahru Market just to sample a bowl of this delicacy.

Cleanliness is Paramount

Though Pig’s Organ Soup is one of the most popular comfort foods amongst the older generation in Singapore, many of the younger generation might have feelings of aversion towards the dish if the offal is not thoroughly cleansed and if the pungent odour still lingers.

At Koh Brother Pig’s Organ Soup, the stock is always fresh as it is never kept overnight. All the parts are washed thoroughly; at least three times, to ensure maximum cleanliness. The intestines are all imported from Germany, and the fats have already been pulled out from the intestines even before they reach Singapore. Parts sourced from Germany are generally reputed to be the cleanest in the world and the safest for consumption.

The Secret Recipe for Success

“We have many regulars who have been coming here for years,” says Thomas. The key to their overwhelming popularity and loyal fanbase lies in their secret family recipe, handed down from his grandfather. For Thomas, the secret to success is simple. It all boils down to hard work, humility and a burning desire to continuously improvise and learn. His soups are also delicious. The innards are well-cooked and tender to the bite, and the peppery broth has a beautifully complex flavour.

“Every day is a learning experience. Even if I cook the same thing for 100 days, it will be different every day. I never want to stop learning. For now, I want to learn everything I need to learn”.

It Is a Tough Job but Someone Needs To Do It

Increasingly, there have been more initiatives like NTUC Foodfare’s “hawker-preneurship” programme and National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Incubation Stall Programme in recent years to support hawker culture in Singapore. There is a growing trend of youths foraying into the hawker scene in Singapore. For all these aspiring young hawkers, they need to understand that life as a hawker is not a walk in the park. It is hard work. A whole lot of hard work.

“It is a very physical job, so working out is a must.” Thomas repeats this line three times, emphasising on the importance of taking care of one’s health. After his first day as a hawker, every single muscle in his body was aching and protesting. Since fitness is important, we ventured to ask Thomas what his fitness regime entails. Laughing he says, “I do push ups at home. I am too busy for work, so I have no time for the gym. One jar of salted vegetables already weights 10KG. Lifting these heavy jars is already a good workout on its own.

The Challenges

Apart from the increasing costs and lower profit margins, the biggest challenges that Thomas faces thus far are the gruelling working hours and the lack of rest. He hardly has time to meet his friends as he labours almost 7 days a week. With whatever remaining time he has, he is too tired to socialise and rather spending his time sleeping or playing computer games at home. As the soup must simmer for up to 8 hours, Thomas must come in on Monday nights at 9pm even when they are closed, to start preparing the soup for the next day. He stays till 8am the following morning, as he works hard through the night cooking the soup and doing the washing.

His Inspiration

I don’t find it unglamorous,” quips Thomas. To him, being a hawker might be hard work but it is enjoyable. As a graphic designer, he had to think of new ideas daily, but as a hawker, he only needs to do one thing right and perfect it every day. What then, drives him and inspires him? For Thomas, it is the young children that visit his store. It comes as a surprise to us that even very young children do enjoy and appreciate this traditional dish. He always remembers the time when a little girl started to cry after they told her that the store was closed. She was disappointed because this was her favourite dish in the world. These adorable children give him a sense of hope and inspire him to keep running the business. A great sense of satisfaction is felt, especially when he sees theirgleeful delight after consuming the Pig’s Organ soup. Their happiness is his primary motivation to keep the business going.

No Time for Dating

For all the single ladies out there, the good news is that he is single and ready to mingle. With practically all his waking hours spent at work, Thomas hardly has the time for leisure and social activities. As a result, this boyish, young hawker does not have a girlfriend yet. Young, single and ambitious. A master in the kitchen. What a killer combination.

“I have no time to go out dating,” he laughs. Any kind ladies out there who want to save him from singlehood are welcome to apply. A lifetime of soup guaranteed.

Thomas has some very wise advice for aspiring young Hawkers out there.

“Once you start chasing money, your focus is no longer on the food. I aim to make the best pig’s organ soup and the money will automatically come. Don’t look at profits. When you are the best, you will earn.”

Her talents/skills sets include having a bottomless pit of a stomach and doing an impressive Chinese split, attributes that will certainly make her highly sought after among employers. (Or so she hopes) She promises not to bite… unless you are a juicy piece of pork lard.