Why not start a home-based business, they suggested. Ah Bee enthusiastically took it up. He signed up for a “$10 phone line” that offered him generous talktime, and eagerly waited for customers. But none came. “Nobody called me to order min jiang kueh,” he told us forlornly. In the current social media era, the elderly man - who is not tech-savvy
- was unaware that he had to aggressively market his delicious, old-school pancakes online to get customers. No part of this story or photos can be reproduced without permission from 8days.sg.
Min jiang kueh sold out of a one-room flat
Home for Ah Bee is a rented one-room flat near his old stall in Buangkok Crescent, just across the road from Singapore’s last kampong village called Kampong Lorong Buangkok. He lives with his wife Lee Gay Lee, 71, who had been helping him take orders at the kopitiam.
The couple moved into the relatively new housing estate 14 years ago, after selling their four-room flat in Nee Soon due to a personal family decision (they have two sons and a late daughter).
It takes us some time to locate the hawkers’ flat, which is tucked away at the end of a confusingly twisting corridor. But we are greeted from a distance by the charmingly hipster sight of Ah Bee’s acrylic Kueh Pulau Pinang signboard, which he had lugged home after winding up his stall. Husband-and-wife had secured it to the railing just outside their main door, lovingly flanking the sign with two solar-powered fortune cats that were also from the stall. Gay Lee laughs when we ask if the signage was deliberately placed there to help customers find her flat. “No lah, we just put it there for your shoot today. If we leave it there, our neighbours will think we siao
!” she giggles.
The lively couple busy themselves most afternoons with taking care of their younger son’s two children, who are in Primary 1 and 3. During our visit, the grandkids stream into the house after school and immediately clamour for Ah Gong’s min jiang kueh when they see him making pancakes. “What do you want? Peanut?” Ah Bee coos lovingly. He gives his grandson a pancake on a plate, fresh off the seasoned metal griddle that he has been using for 60 years. “I gave a griddle pan to my sister who lives in Canada, she tried making min jiang kueh there but she said she couldn’t make anything like mine,” he chortles. “If I stop doing this, nobody can do it like me. Sometimes when I’m free I would make min jiang kueh and give it to my neighbours and friends. Just to make everyone happy lah.”
Apartment cleaner than a professionally-run eatery
Ah Bee and Gay Lee’s one-room flat on the eighth floor is airy, brightly-lit and cosy. It consists of a small living room, a partitioned bedroom and a kitchen where Ah Bee makes his min jiang kueh. The space is simply furnished, with the only luxury being a 60-inch flatscreen television that Ah Bee bought for his wife for slightly over $2,000 as “she loves watching TV”.
We are struck by how clean the entire apartment is, which is unsurprising as Ah Bee’s kopitiam stall was also fastidiously neat. “My wife wakes up at 3am to clean every day. She’s just used to those hours,” Ah Bee says. We spot four brand-new bottles of Magiclean in his bathroom, all lined up at a precise 45-degree angle like attentive soldiers.
‘Canes’ in the kitchen
There is also a bunch of rattan canes tucked behind some pipes in the kitchen, which some folks may recognise from their childhood, erm, disciplinary sessions. But nope, they are not for the grandkids. “I use it to beat my flour,” says Ah Bee, who lets his flour rest for a few days and whack it with the canes so that his batter produces amazingly soft pancakes.
His mise en place is impeccable, not unlike a humbler version of a Michelin-starred kitchen’s setup. Ah Bee fries and grinds his own peanuts and cooks down grated coconut with gula melaka for his pancake fillings. Over the years, he also started offering newfangled flavours like creamed corn, cheese, egg and picnic ham (or any variation of the aforementioned) to attract younger customers. “But if anyone wants ham, they will have to let me know in advance because I only buy it when somebody orders it,” he says.
How to order min jiang kueh
According to Ah Bee, here is how you can order his min jiang kueh. It is self-collection only and packed in paper-lined styrofoam boxes. “I can’t do delivery because my pancakes are too inexpensive to justify the delivery costs,” says Ah Bee.
Place your order by calling him at 8947-5069 at least one day in advance (no minimum order).
Let Ah Bee know what time you are planning to collect your min jiang kueh, as he makes the pancakes at the time of collection so you get ’em hot and crispy-edged.
If you are unable to collect your min jiang kueh personally, you can also arrange for your own delivery driver for the pick-up.
Ah Bee sells a whole pancake (about 16cm in diameter which yields three slices) at just $1 each for the Peanut , Coconut and Red Bean Paste flavours. The Cheese or Egg flavour is priced at $1.30 each, while a min jiang kueh with ham or any customised combination of savoury ingredients like creamed corn costs $1.50 .
Ah Bee is not calculative about charging customers extra if they want additional toppings. “Anything lah. When we do business we want customers to come back, so it’s more important to make them happy,” he chirps.
What to get
The veteran min jiang kueh hawker’s pancakes are different from his competitors — when savoured freshly-cooked, the thin pancake is fabulously soft and fragrant with a hint of crispiness from the hot griddle. Where we could normally only eat a maximum of two slices from the average min jiang kueh stall, we find ourselves scarfing down five slices of Ah Bee’s pancakes in a row.
Our favourite picks are the subtly-sugared Peanut and the juicy grated Coconut sweetened with earthy gula melaka. And strangely enough, the untraditional Egg + Cheese + Corn flavour that makes for a very filling breakfast pancake. You have to hoover your min jiang kueh fast, though. They are best enjoyed just right off the griddle, and turn a bit stodgier when you leave them out for a few hours.
Despite starting a home-based business, Ah Bee still hopes to eventually get another stall to sell min jiang kueh. He muses: “But it can’t be too far, because the transportation costs will be very expensive. If it’s near my home, I can get a bicycle and cart and cycle to work.” To order, call Ah Bee at 8947-5069 at least one day in advance. Self-collection or self-arranged delivery only. Photos: Alvin Teo