SINGAPORE — Fans of the famous “Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff” can be excused if they think they are seeing double at the second level of Hong Lim Market & Food Centre.
Situated just two units away from each other – and differentiated by one contentious word – are the Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Original Since 1952 at #02-36 and Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Since 1952 at #02-34. The stalls, run separately by two brothers, personify a tale of fierce sibling rivalry over the legacy of the beloved curry puffs first created by their father seven decades ago.
Peter Ng, 56, and Ray Ng, 50, began helping their father, Ng Yong Cheong, at the original Hong Lim stall at #02-36 in 2000 and 1997, respectively. Peter operates Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Original Since 1952, while Ray set up his stall under the name Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Since 1952 only in March this year.
During a recent visit to the stalls, Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore approached the brothers separately to talk about how they run their business.
Peter was more forthcoming in telling his version of the history of Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff, insisting that his stall is the one and only “original”. “This is a business but now it’s like a war, we are like enemies. He (Ray) is trying to kill me,” Peter said bitterly about the family fallout.
In contrast, Ray preferred to talk about making curry puffs. When asked about the rivalry, he was reticent and would only say, “You want to talk about why we have the same name but the other stall (has) no queue, is it?”
History of famous curry puffs
The story began when the senior Ng started selling the family’s flaky treat in the area around Orchard Road and Scotts Road in the early 1950s. He later moved his business to the historic Read Bridge at Clarke Quay in an area called cha chun tau, a jetty for boats to unload firewood.
Over the subsequent decades, Ng sold his curry puffs at other locations including the Old Airport Road Food Centre and Kitchener Road before settling down at Hong Lim in 2000. Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff is often touted as one of the best curry puffs in Singapore by foodies. Now 86, Ng only retired last year, and has left it to his sons to continue the legacy.
Peter had worked in the construction industry for eight years before joining the Hong Lim stall. He then left in 2004 to start another stall selling curry puffs under the same name at Maxwell Food Centre. In 2016, he was persuaded by his father to work again at the Hong Lim stall, this time as an owner.
After helping out at the stall for almost 20 years, Ray left to become a paramedic and ambulance driver from 2016 to 2018. He then returned to work at the stall alongside his father and brother again.
Growing tensions between brothers
According to Peter, the stall was losing money before he took over. Peter claimed that he later turned around the business and prevented it from closing for good.
Ray received permission from their father to use the Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff brand and promised to leave Hong Lim to set up his business, according to Peter. Instead, Ray chose to do so at Hong Lim barely two metres away from the original stall, Peter said. It was a move reminiscent of the rivalry between the original Tian Tian and Ah Tai Hainanese chicken rice stalls at Maxwell Food Centre with the latter helmed by a former head cook at Tian Tian – both just three units apart from each other.
“I feel cheated because he (Ray) went behind my back. It’s very unfair to me because I built up the business in 2016 when nobody wanted to take over. Now Ray is telling everyone that he is the original Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff,” Peter said.
As a result of the rivalry, customers are confused and his relationship with Ray nosedived, Peter added. “Family businesses can be complicated and we are not on good terms. There is no chance of making up, because he snatches my business.”
Peter revealed that he has also fallen out with his father over the issue. “I’m trying to clear my own name, I don’t want to be known as unfilial or that I don’t respect my dad,” he said.
To emphasise the heritage of Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff, the brothers have pasted pictures of their father at the two stalls.
When asked about what makes their business tick, the brothers were willing to speak more about their competitive advantage.
Ray dismissed the many stalls selling curry puffs elsewhere, saying that many of them resort to making them in bulk.
According to Ray, what differentiates his curry puffs from the others is that he meticulously makes them by hand and is stringent with quality control. “My curry puffs have layers, a thinner skin, and contain freshly cooked ingredients…I let the quality speak for itself. I hold the taste of my puffs in the highest regard,” Ray said.
A nephew of the brothers who occasionally helps Ray out explained that his younger uncle once threw away a whole batch of curry puffs because their outer crusts were slightly disfigured by an employee who had held the frying tongs too tightly.
Peter, on the other hand, stressed about the originality of his curry puffs and the location, backed by what he considers as his loyal customers who have been with him since his Maxwell days. During the interview with Peter, several of his customers came over to exchange pleasantries and talk with him.
“People recognise your brand when they remember your face. That is what it means to be original and authentic, building rapport and reputation with your customers who like your food,” Peter said.
The two stalls sell three different types of puffs – original, sardine and otah – and this reporter tried the puffs from both.
Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Since 1952 lived up to Ray’s claims as his puffs’ layered crust was thin, flaking at the lightest touch, and had a satisfying crunch. The filling had a spicy aroma infused with the fluffy melt-in-your-mouth potatoes to give it a piquant bite.
On the other hand, the puffs made by Peter at Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Original Since 1952 had a more traditional feel to it. The crust of his puffs had a crispy exterior but with a doughy and chewy skin for those who love them with a little more texture. The curry filling was not as spicy as those from the other stall, but it still had the warm and homemade flavour with just the right amount of peppery spice.
To find out which puffs are better in terms of taste, head to Hong Lim and decide for yourself whether Peter or Ray deserves more to carry the marquee name of Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff.
Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Since 1952, #02-34, Hong Lim Market & Food Centre
Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff Original Since 1952, #02-36, Hong Lim Market & Food Centre
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