Memory Makers: Old-fashioned Nanyang Sauce with umami taste

Ken Koh with his younger brother in 1995 (L), and at the present-day Nanyang Sauce factory in Taman Jurong.(PHOTO: Ken Koh and Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Ken Koh with his younger brother in 1995 (L), and at the present-day Nanyang Sauce factory in Taman Jurong. (PHOTO: Ken Koh and Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

Are you nostalgic for the old days? In Memory Makers, Yahoo News Singapore takes a trip down memory lane with people and places, and revisits oft-forgotten parts of Singapore’s history.

SINGAPORE — Once upon a time, soy sauce was made by fermenting soya beans in earthenware jars for nine months. In the 1960s and early 1970s, customers would bring empty soya milk or beer bottles to tricycle-riding vendors, who would fill them up with soy sauce for as little as 50 cents.

Tan Poh Choo, whose late father Tan Tiong How founded the Nanyang Sauce Factory back in 1959, recalled that as entire families still lived together in kampungs, customers would often buy many bottles at a go from her father. "Back then, there would only be one road that led to a kampung. When you drove your lorry on it, it was like sailing on a ship - it would sway back and forth," the 64-year-old consultant of the brand told Yahoo News Singapore in Mandarin.

Delivery runs to the provision shops were fraught with other hazards too. "Sometimes, gangsters would block the road and not let you pass, so when you delivered goods, you had to pay a ‘toll’."

Older residents, such as Mdm Ling, remember buying soy sauce from itinerant sellers.

The 72-year-old retiree said, “I was staying at a kampung in Potong Pasir area and we used to buy soy sauce from sellers who came by, walking around with their large baskets or riding on their tricycles.

“We would use our bottles to fill up with their soy sauce. The sauce was of good quality and tasted very fresh since it was hand-made.”

More than six decades later, despite having faced challenging times for many years, Nanyang Sauce is one of the few manufacturers in Singapore still making soy sauce the old-fashioned way, with non-GMO and whole soya beans. It is sold under the Golden Swan brand, with many customers having bought it regularly for decades.

Despite initial reservations, the family has let Tan's eldest son Ken Koh, 37, run the business for the past three years. Koh recollected his mother's words at the start, "You can make money from pen and paper. If you got a degree, why come back and do all this kind of back breaking coolie work?"

The father of two added, "But I knew that we had good soy sauce, because (long-time) customers have stayed with us."

Production remains limited, given the length of time required and that the company has just a few hundred 100-litre vats at its Taman Jurong factory. The company employs less than 10 staff, most of whom are in their 60s.

But with the help of some modern touches, savvy marketing – "an Umami goodness with a rich aroma", declares its website – and extensive media coverage, Nanyang Sauce has been transformed into an artisanal, gourmet soya sauce retailing for between $2 and $28.

The company receives "a few thousand orders" each month and runs a boutique shop at South Bridge Road selling soy sauce, as well as other products like chilli sauce and even kaya. Koh said the business is profitable but was reluctant to reveal any figures.

He recently launched a bespoke vat service, making soy sauce exclusively for customers who want it tailored to their specific tastes.

Koh also runs sauce appreciation workshops, including one at last month's Singapore HeritageFest (SHF), which explored the country's food heritage and medical history. Another workshop on sauce making was cancelled due to safe management measures imposed for the ongoing Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).

A long heritage

The late Tan Tiong How with his six children in 1973. (PHOTO: Ken Koh)
The late Tan Tiong How with his six children in 1973. (PHOTO: Ken Koh)

Koh, who majored in business management and previously ran an education business, has fond childhood memories of visiting the old Nanyang Sauce factory, initially located in Paya Lebar.

"I would sit on (my grandfather's) chair and pretend to be boss, and open his drawer, count the money." His grandfather would also assign him to monitor stock prices on Teletext, an old information service carried on television.

The late Tan came from a line of sauce makers in China. Arriving in Singapore from Fujian in 1942 in search of a better life, he took on coolie work. "All he had was his recipe, and he brought a small packet of the special asparagus mould that's used for fermenting," said Koh.

Years later, he started making and selling soy sauce door to door, before going on to set up the company. The hard work paid off, and Nanyang Sauce even did well enough to give away gold pendants in lucky draws. The one doing the draw: Koh, his eldest grandchild.

But Tan passed suddenly from a heart attack in 1996 without leaving a will, forcing his six children – Koh's mother is the eldest – to step up. "When he left, he left a huge gap. My uncles were the workers, they were not the entrepreneurs."

It was the beginning of a gradual decline for the business due to modern and faster methods of producing soy sauce via chemical hydrolysis, the rise of supermarkets and e-commerce.

'You cannot sell one bottle for more than $10!'

Non-GMO or whole soya beans are fermented for nine months in vats at Nanyang Sauce's factory (left), before being made into soy sauce. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Non-GMO or whole soya beans are fermented for nine months in vats at Nanyang Sauce's factory (left), before being made into soy sauce. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

When Koh took over the factory in 2018, he recalled having a "sense of regret" at the struggles of the family business. In the course of research, he visited a major soy sauce brand in the region and discovered that it produced 60,000 bottles a day. "That's probably our production capacity for a year," he said with a laugh.

But Koh had an epiphany when he walked around the regional brand's museum, which chronicled how soy sauce was made 300 years ago. "I said, this is exactly how we are making soya sauce right now. I think we got something special and worth preserving. So, what was our weakness became our strength."

Asked about the difference between Nanyang Sauce and other rival brands available in the supermarket, Koh said that his product has "a lot more umami". He noted, "There is sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. You get that bean taste, you get that fragrance and it's not just salty."

His relatives were initially resistant to his way of doing things. "One uncle was very adamant, 'You cannot sell one bottle for more than $10!'" But Koh said his relatives have started to come around and maintained he is in it for the long haul. "This has sucked me in so much, it's become a masterpiece of my life. I feel that there is that runway of at least the next 30, 40, 50 years for me. There's so many things that we can do with this sauce."

Asked what her late father would make of what Nanyang Sauce has become, Tan replied, "He would certainly be very happy.

"My father once told me, 'This line is very tough, it would be better if you can avoid it. The future is very uncertain.' But after he left, we still carried on."

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