How 4 Friends Helped Spark Mala In SG
Right now, you can find grilled mala fish in almost every cafe in Singapore.
You may also remember watching enticing commercials of grilled fish playing on SMRT trains.
Contrary to popular belief, Tan Yu, the former owner of these ads, is not the first to launch the grilled fish fashion in Singapore.
This title goes to Chong Qing Grilled Fish (CQGF).
Abandon finance for restoration
Singapore’s first grilled fish restaurant is the brainchild of four friends who originally worked in the financial services industry: Khoo Siow Kiat, Lee Hwai Chi, Lee Ann, and Lee Chor Whye.
Foodies and enthusiasts of Chinese culture, a pivotal trip to Chong Qing, China, in 2008, convinced them to create their own grilled fish restaurant in Singapore.
During the holidays, Siow Kiat and Hwai Chi decided to stop at Chong Qing. The municipality is only a two-hour flight from Beijing and was once the second largest city in Sichuan.
The Chong Qing grilled fish was a must. The dish has over two thousand years of history, says Siow Kiat, and was served in imperial courts and eaten by fishermen in ancient China.
The duo fell in love with the dish and haven’t looked back since.
“My first experience with authentic Chong Qing grilled fish was unforgettable,” he said.
“The first experience left my lips swollen from the heat. It’s a specialty concept, set in a relaxed dining environment, making the experience fun and unique.
Back in Singapore, the two convinced the other members of the group to create a grilled fish restaurant together. They readily agreed, and CQGF’s first outlet was established two years later on Mosque Street in 2010.
Turning an “too fatty” mala dish into a staple
Grilled mala fish was not immediately popular in Singapore. In fact, the initial reception of the dish was overwhelmingly negative.
“Singaporeans absolutely hated it,” admits Siow Kiat. “They said it was too heavy, too fatty, too salty, with all the negative perceptions of authentic Sichuan cuisine.”
It was a major disappointment. The founders of CQFG had done their best to recreate the authentic Chong Qing grilled fish, even returning to Sichuan in 2009 to attend a cooking school.
When the culinary school refused to divulge the secrets of the Chong Qing grilled fish spice blend, Hwai Chi even reverse engineered the spice blends, reveals Siow Kiat.
In addition to the poor reception of the dish, former finance professionals had to contend with their lack of F&B experience.
“We learned it the hard way,” says Siow Kiat. “We knew absolutely nothing about creating an F&B, even though we are foodies. Until today, we are still improving our skills. “
But their dedication has paid off. Through trial and error, CQGF’s grilled fish recipe improved, ultimately conquering the hearts of Chinese expats.
“(It happened) by word of mouth,” says Siow Kiat. “CQGF reminded the Chinese of their home, and there were very few options (for authentic Chinese food) in Singapore at that time.”
How Mala crossed the sea and landed in Singapore
You don’t need statistics to prove that mala cuisine has essentially taken over Singapore’s F&B scene.
Despite Covid-19, Singaporeans still feverishly consume bowls of mala at the island’s hawker centers. When a dish becomes a staple of the masses, that’s when you know you’ve made it.
Mala flavors have been adapted for potato chips, fish skin snacks, and even ice cream. Grilled fish, one of the key dishes in the mala trend, is now sold in Singapore restaurants.
LadyIronChef, HungryGoWhere, and other top food blogs have lists of the best grilled fish restaurants in Singapore.
CQGF, at the top of those lists, is the MA of MAs – it’s Singapore’s very first grilled fish restaurant, Siow Kiat assures me.
The founder of CQGF attributes the success of their F&B to a combination of word of mouth and marketing. The current popularity of Sichuan cuisine is part of a natural transition for F&B, he observes.
“As China goes international, more and more Asians who travel to the country are exposed to Chinese cuisine,” says Siow Kiat.
“(At that time) there was a revival of the concept of grilled fish going on in China. Many F&B groups have set up their chains in major Chinese cities. “
Naturally, entrepreneurs who have experimented with Chinese cuisine abroad have noted that there is a lack of options for Sichuan cuisine at home, continues Siow Kiat.
Thus, expats and locals have created restaurants in Singapore offering new cuisine. It also helps to keep Singapore’s entry barriers for food and drink low.
Cooking for culture
Despite being at the forefront of the Singapore mala craze, CQGF doesn’t claim to be the best grilled fish restaurant, nor would it market itself as a grilled fish restaurant.
The reason for the existence of CQGF is to act as a way to share Chinese culture with everyone, says Siow Kiat.
“Our brand statement is ‘Celebration of Culture’. A cuisine (derives from a culture’s geography, terrain, people, races and religion).
“It would be a waste if future generations forget the beauty of what lies beneath the making of a particular dish.”
CQGF has grown throughout South East Asia, with three outlets in Singapore, two in Malaysia and one in Myanmar.
The Burmese love Sichuan hotpots, while the Malays are relatively new to the concept, but SEA remains largely an untapped market, notes Siow Kiat.
Featured Image Credit: HungryGoWhere / Ahmad Iskandar Photography
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