Li Nanxing Has Been Quietly Helping Out At His Bro’s Jln Besar Dessert Shop For 2 Years - 8days Skip to main content

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Li Nanxing Has Been Quietly Helping Out At His Bro’s Jln Besar Dessert Shop For 2 Years

“I prefer to stay in the kitchen,” LNX tells 8days.sg. “I have to continuously stir the bubur cha cha for one hour, that’s why my muscles have gotten more defined”. He co-owns the HK-style dessert shop with his brother.
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It is a well known fact that Li Nanxing is an avid cook. The actor, who comes from a family of Peranakan cooks, has sold his dried scallop hae bee hiam and dishes like curry chicken and beef rendang via collabs with other brands. But did you know that Ah Ge co-owns Chinese dessert shop Tian Wang Desserts at Jalan Besar, too?

The family business, which opened almost two years ago in March 2021, serves mainly local and Hong Kong-style desserts. It’s run by his younger brother Tony Lee, 50, while Nanxing, 58, who dubs himself the “handyman who bao ka liao (Hokkien for “handles everything”), helps out at the shop three times a week, mainly in the kitchen.

“I help out wherever I am needed. I help to cut fruits, watch the fire, stir the desserts so they don’t burn, and dish them for customers. I prefer to stay in the kitchen, I want to be low-key,” he tells 8days.sg.

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Shop so crowded, it had to close 2 weeks for flouting SDA rules last year

Not that he needs to be out there pulling customers in. He says business has been booming since they opened their doors last year. 

“We cannot cope ‘cos a lot of our desserts like our durian mousse are made a la minute. We get a good supper crowd and there’s always a line at night even on weekdays. The average waiting time is around 30 minutes during the peak period which is after 8.30pm,” says Nanxing.

“Even when we were only doing takeaway orders when dine-in restrictions were imposed last year, our shop was so crowded that we were fined $1,000 by the social distancing ambassador (SDA) and had to shut for two weeks. Everyone was waiting inside the shop, and we could not differentiate the customers from the SDAs ’cos they were in plain clothes,” he laughs.

He prefers traditional desserts

The brothers learned how to make desserts from their late mum by observing and helping out in the kitchen. “My mum loved mahjong. When she had mahjong sessions, there would be two, three tables of guests playing at the same time, and she would serve tong shui. Us kids would have to help watch the fire in the kitchen,” reminisces Nanxing. 

“I like traditional desserts like orh nee, chendol, green bean soup, and bubur cha cha. I can make them too, but they are not as good as his,” he says, pointing to Tony.

While Nanxing previously admitted that he has no interest in opening a restaurant, he decided to partner Tony for this venture to support him. Tony used to run dessert shop Tang Ren Dessert at Toa Payoh Central more than 10 years ago. He shut the biz after two years when the lease was up. He then became a property agent. When the property market took a downturn in 2020 due to the pandemic, he returned to F&B. 

“Property sales were down ’cos we could not do physical viewings, so I decided to open a dessert shop again. I love dessert and have the support of my family,” says Tony. 

The Lees try to keep everything within the family, from the cooking to running the shop. “We prefer to handle the cooking ourselves so we can control the quality. If the dessert doesn’t make the cut, we won’t sell it. I have burned desserts before when I was too busy and forgot to keep an eye on the fire,” shares Nanxing.

“You cannot distract me when I am cooking ‘cos I might forget if I have added a particular ingredient. This is why I don’t do the cooking here. I only help to stir. Even then it is no joke. I have to continuously stir the bubur cha cha for one hour, that’s why my muscles have gotten more defined,” he quips, flexing his biceps.

Helping out at the shop has benefited his arms, but unfortunately not his waistline. At least initially. Nanxing tells us that he gained 4kg in the first three months of opening from all the sweet treats.

Back then we were still tweaking our recipes and I had to try desserts every day. It was so scary. I started working out and have since returned to my previous weight. I am trying to maintain my weight now but occasionally, I would treat myself. My favourite dessert is bubur cha cha with durian topping. It is very rich.

“Even my helper has put on weight. Our shop is closed on Mondays so every Sunday, I will tapow the leftovers and distribute them to my friends and neighbours. She tells me not to bring any more food home,” he says with a chuckle.

Inspired by Hong Kong’s “mahjong houses”

You can’t miss Tian Wang while walking down Jalan Besar Road. The shopfront is decked out with huge pics of desserts and a bright blue sign featuring their fortune cat mascot. The interior is equally vibrant with flashy neon signs, Instagram-worthy mahjong tile wall and auspicious huat centrepiece.

Tony’s daughter Joelene, 25, an interior designer, shares that they picked the mahjong-theme as the entire family, from her late grandma to the youngsters, love the game. “We also wanted the space to ‘pop’. We gave it a Hong Kong vibe as we were inspired by the mahjong houses in the city, as well as cha chaan tengs,” she adds.

Keeping in line with the theme, desserts are served in mahjong tile print disposable bowls and on each table is a Rubik’s cube for customers to challenge themselves.

“If customers can solve the puzzle, we will give them a free dessert of their choice,” declares Nanxing. “So far, we have given out around 10 desserts. There’s a strategy to it, but I can’t solve it. I can’t handle things that require a lot of brain power.”

The menu

Tian Wang offers over 50 hot and cold offerings. There are sweet soups, traditional desserts, as well as interesting creations like green bean soup with durian. Prices range from $4.20 for a regular green bean soup to $14.80 for mao shan wang durian mousse with two scoops of MSW topping. The recipes are developed by Tony, while some are adapted from his mum’s recipes.

“We try to make the desserts healthier while keeping the traditional taste, for example, we replace sugar with honey or fruits. We also try to appeal to youngsters by pairing popular toppings like durian or ice cream with traditional desserts such as chendol and pulut hitam (black glutinous rice with coconut milk),” shares Tony.

Nanxing shares with us his top picks at Tian Wang:

Mao Shan Wang Durian Mousse, $9.80; $14.80 (two scoops of toppings)

This decadent dessert of rich mao shan wang mousse topped with a mound of creamy pure durian flesh is Tian Wang’s bestseller. Tony tells us that they can sell 300 bowls of the dessert on weekdays and double that on weekends.

The mousse is on the lighter, airier side, and the pulp pleasantly sweet, with a faint bitterness to it. For optimum freshness, the mousse is freshly whipped using pulp from Pahang MSW durians, heavy cream and sugar when each order comes in. You’ll have to finish it fast as it tends to become watery quickly.

Bubur Cha Cha, $5.20

“I helped make this bubur cha cha. It’s full of my love,” Nanxing tells us as we dig into the warm dessert, while attempting to hold back our laughter. Well, the no-frills dessert is a winner, with its fragrant coconut milk, tender chunks of steamed sweet potato, purple sweet potato, taro, and delightfully chewy tapioca jelly. We also like that it is creamier and richer than usual.

Mango Pomelo Sago $5.80

The dessert comes with generous servings of Thai mango chunks, pomelo pulp and sago in a mix of mango puree and coconut milk. While it’s not as creamy as we’d like, we enjoy the perfectly ripe mango chunks that lend sweetness to the dessert and the tangy bursts from the pomelo pulp. 

Peach Gum, $6.80

This tong shui, which is believed to be rich in collagen, is popular with the ladies. Refreshing and not too sweet, it is made by simmering peach gum (the resin from peach and Chinese wild peach trees), dried longan, red dates, white fungus, and goji berries for three hours. A welcome change after all the rich desserts.

Seafood Pancake, $8.80 for five pcs

The only non-dessert item on the menu, this snack created by Nanxing was previously featured on Mediacorp food show LNX vs Hawkers. The golden-brown fritters which consist of crab meat, fresh prawns, shredded cabbage, carrot, spring onion, are crispy on the outside and slightly fluffy within, accented with bursts of umami from the crunchy prawns. Too bad the crab meat was so finely shredded that we could not taste it.

The details

Tian Wang Desserts is at 145 Jln Besar Rd, S208863. Open Tue-Thur 5pm-2am; Fri & eve of public hol 5pm-3am; Sat, Sun & public hol 3pm-3am. For more info, visit Instagram and Facebook


Photos: Kelvin Chia

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