A nondescript kopitiam along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 just got a lot more glam, thanks to former Ch 8 actresses Cassandra See, 48, and Tang Miaoling, 50.
The endearing BFFs, who call each other “Miao Miao” and “Cass”, opened their almost three-month-old Korean stall there called Star Army Stew together with two other friends. They sell wallet-friendly budae jjigae (say ‘buh-day chee-gay’), or army stew in Korean, and a selection of K-dishes such as Korean ramyeon, bibimbap, and interestingly, grilled fish jerky.
Army stew, a wartime staple, consists of a spicy broth cooked hotpot-style with American junk food such as luncheon meat, hot dogs and processed cheese that the Korean natives got from supplies American soldiers left behind towards the end of the Korean War. It stuck around as a popular comfort food long after the war ended.
It was by pure chance that Cassandra and Miaoling became first-time F&B #girlbosses. Cassandra shares, “I was based in Hongkong for six years and Japan for a year as my husband was working there. When I moved back to Singapore, my friend who owns this coffeeshop asked me what I wanted to do next. I had a few projects with Mediacorp, but she said, ‘I have an empty stall, do you want to take over?’”
Initially, Cassandra was hesitant. “A lot of people told me that hawkers have to wake up at 5am, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to depend on a professional cook either. But serving army stew is easier. You just prepare the ingredients [and let diners cook the food themselves]. I couldn’t set up a stall on my own, so I asked my friends to help,” she says.
K-food is obviously a hit in Singapore, but it also makes sense for Cassandra, whose husband is Korean, to offer the country’s cuisine. She explains: “My husband and I both love hotpot and I always cook army stew for friends when we were living in Hongkong.”
Some recipes for the dishes here came from her Korean mother-in-law, while Cassandra concocted a recipe for the spicy paste that goes into the army stew broth.
Fun fact: our celebs adore this fiery dish too. Stars such as Pan Lingling, Chew Chor Meng, Joey Swee, Phyllis Quek, Apple Hong, Aileen Tan and Moses Lim were Instagrammed tucking into the stall’s K-nosh.
Miaoling, everyone’s Ch 8 sweetheart in the ’90s, shares that the first time she tried army stew was at Cassandra’s home during a Chinese New Year gathering. It was a massive hit. “I had to go buy more cheese for her,” laughs Miaoling.
The two had known each other for over 30 years and had kept in touch after their full-time acting days were over. Cassandra adds: “The pot was cooking from 3pm to 11pm. Luckily I used an electric stove and not gas! [Pan] Lingling and [Huang] Shinan helped me to serve the food, while Sherry [Chen Xiuhuan] had to stand beside the stove and keep stirring the stew.”
From Celebs to Hawkers
As F&B novices, the two actresses face a steep learning curve. Cassandra says sagely: “We learned [through trial and error]. Initially we ordered this really bad kimchi from a supplier. But we are very good students! The first month, we did everything ourselves. People took photos of us scrubbing the floor and washing plates. But our president also stays in a flat, okay? (Laughs) Even though it’s a coffeeshop stall, we cannot anyhow do.”
According to Miaoling, they trudged through 14-hour work days daily to get their stall on track. “We can’t just be silent partners. You won’t have the same attachment to your business. We’d stay in the kopitiam till 3am after we closed our stall to discuss and solve problems. It was only three weeks ago after we hired more staff that we could only drop by in the evenings,” she says.
Just how committed are they? Cassandra lets on that she checks on her stall all the time. “We have a CCTV camera in the shop and I’d keep looking at the feed online. My husband would roll his eyes. But it’s like my baby! I miss my business when I’m not there.”
The pals also pride themselves on being hostesses with the mostest. Says Miaoling: “Some people were sweating from eating our spicy stew in a kopitiam, so we offered them packets of tissue.” Cassandra adds, “We also missed some customers’ orders ’cos there was a long queue. We personally apologised to them.”
To think that Miaoling wasn’t even enthusiastic about cooking before opening this stall. A part-time real estate agent since leaving acting over two decades ago, she naturally took charge of the stall’s “accounts and admin work”.
The mother of a daughter, 19, and son, 15, says: “I’d cook a fried egg or spaghetti for my kids sometimes, but I’ve had a full-time helper since my daughter was born, so I see no reason to cook.”
But she has since picked up some culinary chops. “She’s our G-Pho princess now,” declares Cassandra, referring to the fish jerky they sell that requires careful grilling. “At first I was like, ‘Miaoling you have to do this, you have to start cooking rice’, and she’d be like [makes a panicked hand-flapping gesture].”
Miaoling beams: “I cannot just sit there and watch while everyone is busy in the kitchen. From day one I was in there [learning how to cook] ’cos it’s good to know the flow even if it’s not my job scope.”
But what about the cautionary adage, “Never do business with your buddies”? The two friends reckon it’s all about mentally preparing themselves to fight and make up. Cassandra says: “I’m used to being territorial in the kitchen. When I’m cooking at home and my mother-in-law comes in, I’d say ‘Annyeong, you go out and rest’ (laughs). I was really bitchy to Miaoling in the kitchen at first! But I reflected on myself, and apologised to her later. We don’t bear grudges.”
It also helps that they share a really tight bond even while Cassandra was living overseas. “We like to Skype in the morning and eat sweet potatoes for breakfast together in our pyjamas,” reminisces Miaoling. Cassandra cackles, “That’s how we keep our friendship going. I see her more often than my husband! He’d joke, ‘Why do you see her more than me?’ (Laughs)”
While they both acted in the Ch 8 drama 118 II, don’t count on Cassandra and Miaoling to make a full-time return to the small screen. Miaoling, whose husband is a financial controller, now acts on a freelance basis “out of interest”.
She explains, “I’ve been doing real estate part-time for the past 18 years, and only went into it full-time last year. Now, I’m trying to branch into leasing commercial properties for F&B businesses, so it makes sense for me to run my own eatery [so I can relate more to my clients]. Our kids are grown up now, which is why Cassandra and I could open a stall. But I still value family time, so I can’t take on too many things and end up being overstretched.”
Meanwhile, Cassandra says that her 18-year-old son (with her German ex-husband) is due to enlist in NS this year. “I’d maybe act on a project basis as my husband and I travel a lot — he works in the hotel line — but I hope I’ll be based in Singapore permanently now. I missed my friends here when I was away!”
She has also more or less recovered from her 1997 accident, where her flying fox stunt at a President’s Star Charity Show rehearsal went awry, causing her to fall several metres to the ground and suffer a head injury.
The injury subsequently affected her sense of smell and taste. “At that time, I couldn’t even smell durians,” she says. “The first time I drank orange juice in the hospital [after the accident], I thought it had gone bad ’cos I couldn’t taste anything. The doctor said I had a hairline crack in my skull that was too delicate to be operated on. Nowadays my sense of smell goes on and off, but it has recovered about 90 per cent. It’s like a wire that tio sot [Hokkien for ‘malfunction’] sometimes! But I’ve no problems tasting food.”
The two ambitious F&B owners plan to open more Star Army Stew outlets and rope in more stars as their biz partners. But nope, the ‘star’ in their stall’s name doesn’t refer to their celeb status. Miaoling muses, “We just think stars are something good. It’s a rating for good food!”
Check out the photo gallery above for our verdict of the food at Star Army Stew and photos of the stall's famous customers.
Star Army Stew is at Blk 108 Ang Mo Kio Ave 4, #01-74, S560108. Tel: 8322-0161. Open daily 1pm-10pm. www.instagram.com/stararmystew.