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Singapore-born siblings introduce kopitiam culture to New York with Lion City Coffee

(Third from right): Yeen Tham with her brother Chuin Tham (pictured below) of Lion City Coffee. (PHOTO: Lion City Coffee)

By: Kelly Ng

Brother-sister duo Chuin, 35, and Yeen Tham, 38, may have moved with their parents to New York city over 30 years ago, but their love for Singaporean food remains in their hearts. They co-founded Lion City Coffee last August 2018 in a bid to introduce a taste of the Singaporean-style kopitiam.

As kids, both Chuin and Yeen Tham often found themselves yearning the experience of sipping and stirring a full-bodied cup of tea and coffee in open-air kopitiam. “We grew up eating home-cooked food, which incorporated elements of Singapore cuisine, including chicken rice, laksa, chai tow kueh,” shared Chuin. “Every few years, we would take a holiday, go back home to visit and basically enjoy what’s important in terms of eating and experiencing the culture.”

Inspired by Singapore’s literal namesake, Lion City Coffee currently operates as a pop-up which participates at food festivals and providing catering services for events.

But more than that, Lion City Coffee was conceived in memory of their father, who died in February 2016 after a long bout with cancer.

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The Thams family. (PHOTO: Chuin, Yeen Tham)

A tribute to their father

“He was always very interested in culinary adventures, always curious about how to make certain things,” said Yeen. “At home, he would clip out articles about how to make certain Asian dishes, even Singaporean dishes that he has come to miss.” After moving to New York, he started working as a dishwasher then worked his way up to becoming a chef at Imperial Szechuan in Connecticut.

The Tham siblings have fond memories of outings with their father to coffee shops, wet markets and hawker centers back home in Singapore.

“One of my favourite pastimes as a child was to go to a kafei dian (coffee shop in Mandarin),” said Yeen. “My dad would take us to the kafei dian, at the bottom of our flat, and we’d just sit down to pick whatever food (we) like, and have a taste of everything. And it was always a gratifying feeling of having very tasty food.”

Mr. Tham. (PHOTO: Chuin and Yeen Tham)

It’s no wonder that coffee shops were the usual haunt for the Thams – the late Mr. Tham was a health inspector for coffee shops back in Singapore. “So he knew everyone at the coffee shops, and whenever he stopped by, people recognised his face right away,” Chuin recalled.

However, the siblings think their father would not have been very fond of their business endeavour if he were still around. “To be very frank, if he knew of us doing this, he’d probably say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this with all your education? You guys are crazy’,” Chuin said.

“He’d probably yell at us. But, truthfully, he would be smiling from cheek-to-cheek,” Yeen added. “He is a very, very Singaporean person.”

The ever popular nasi lemak dish. (PHOTO: Lion City Coffee)

Rich, flavourful food

Lion City Coffee currently serves a concise menu of kaya toast, nasi lemak, roti prata, and Singapore-styled kopi.

Unlike most western brews, the coffee is made from Robusta beans, which contain a high dosage of caffeine. The beans are roasted in a wok with butter, which caramelises and gives them an unique aroma. They are then strained through a sock (a small cloth that acts as an infuser) and can be had black, with evaporated milk, or with sweet condensed milk.

Although Chuin and Yeen are no strangers to the kitchen, achieving consistency for every iteration of a dish has still been a challenge. “Making the food is easy, but making it consistent is the challenge,” Chuin said. “Because once we decide on a flavour profile, or texture, or portion size, the next step is in ensuring how we make it the same every time.”

Chai tow kueh. (PHOTO: Lion City Coffee)

Chai tow kueh. (PHOTO: Lion City Coffee)

They have also been hard-pressed to find unique ingredients like pandan extract, high quality fish balls, and even the specific type of bread used in kaya toast.

“We’re trying to stay as close to the taste and texture, and all the consistencies of what we can have back home. Because of that, we sacrificed a lot of menu items,” Chuin said.

Each time they concoct a dish, the siblings would invite their friends over for a taste test, which also offers an opportunity to share something new about Singaporean food.

One day, they want to introduce chwee kueh – a savoury, steamed rice cake served with preserved turnip – which was one of their father’s favourite foods. “He’d jump through hurdles to get that dish when he goes back to Singapore,” Yeen said. “I think we make it pretty good, but it’s not something people are very open to because they never had anything like it.”

Lion City Coffee pop-up at a food bazaar in New York. (PHOTO: Lion City Coffee Instagram)

Building culinary dreams

Although both siblings have day jobs – Chuin an accountant and Yeen a lawyer – they have big dreams for Lion City Coffee. “We want to do to kopi what industry giants did to drip coffee,” said Chuin.

The Thams hope to eventually acquire a storefront. But even as a mobile outfit now, they want to be “brand ambassadors”. “We hope to introduce a cultural experience and allow people to sample a little taste of what Singapore has to offer,” said Yeen. “That you can have your coffee while at the same time, have spicy noodles too. It’s not strange, it’s basically having breakfast, (Singapore-style).”

There is a surprising – or maybe not quite – dearth of Singaporean food outlets in cosmopolitan New York City.

“Generally, Singaporeans who go abroad study courses that have high returns, like engineering, law, business, medicine. They are definitely not going to other parts of the world just to promote Singaporean food,” said Chuin.

If there is one thing Singapore is known for, it is food. Yet, there seems to be a social taboo associated with working in the food industry.

“Some families whose parents hold blue-collar jobs, would push their children and say, ‘You must get higher education, have a better life than us.’ For them, if you enter the culinary world, you will suffer and it’s a step back,” said Yeen. “Even though that’s not true at all, we feel quite the opposite. The culinary experience is so untapped, especially with Singaporean food culture.”

No dream’s too big, but for the siblings, Lion City Coffee will always be anchored to something more intimate – kinship.

“Lion City Coffee is our dad, you know. It’s an extension of his culture, his upbringing,” Yeen said. “It makes us happy knowing that we can do this for him, for our family, for our culture, and to really bring about an awareness to a hidden gem, a hidden part of the world.”

To catch Lion City Coffee’s pop-up timings, subscribe to Lioncitycoffee.com or follow them on Instagram.

Kelly Ng is a freelance reporter studying documentary in New York City.

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