메인메뉴 바로가기본문으로 바로가기

Ng Keng Leng: Giving Korea the Gift of Singaporean Flavor


Ng Keng Leng: Giving Korea the Gift of Singaporean Flavor  


Ng Keng Leng


< pic 1 >Chef Ng Keng Leng (center) attended the 2017 ASEAN Food Festival as a representative of Singapore


Since ancient times, people have served food to their neighbors for occasions of joy and sadness. Food is shared as a way of conveying wishes of celebration or solace, as done by Singaporean chef Ng Keng Leng, who has operated a Singaporean dessert store in Korea since 2014. For its October issue, the ACH Newsletter team sat down with Ng, who considers himself fortunate for being able to cook food he enjoys in a country he loves.



Q. Please briefly introduce yourself to the readers of the ACH Monthly.

Hello, my name is Ng Keng Leng. I am from Singapore, and I founded a company here in Korea that makes traditional Singaporean desserts and beverages.


Q. You have run a Singaporean dessert café since 2014. What compelled you to start it?

I loved Korea since long before I started a business and took several vacations here. I was fascinated by Hallyu so much that I studied Korean for one year at Seoul National University’s Language Education Institute (LEI). I had fun attending LEI, but there was one thing missing in my life: establishments that serve dessert from Singapore or any other Southeast Asian country. One day, while craving the desserts and beverages I enjoyed in Singapore, I thought to myself: ‘Maybe I can make Singaporean desserts and coffee and market them to the Korean public?’ I was excited about creating my own opportunity to prepare foods I love in a country that I love.


Q. What do you think is the most defining characteristic of Singaporean desserts? Is there a particular “taste of Singapore” that you want to introduce to Korean consumers?

Singapore has had a unique beverage and dessert culture for a long time. There is certainly a harmony of Eastern and Western flavors, as most people know, but there are also independently-developed foods that were designed to satisfy the tastes of Singaporeans. In addition to large foreign café franchises, Singapore is home to many small traditional cafes that are frequented by locals. The coffee served at these traditional cafes is very strong and aromatic. Singaporeans usually take coffee at a traditional café with kaya toast dipped in soft-boiled egg, or pandan cake (to borrow a Korean expression, the “peoples’ cake” of Singapore!), which has a flowery scent. 

   The Singaporean coffee that I really want to introduce to Koreans is “kopi-C,” which is a Singaporean-style latte that is made with evaporated milk. In Korea, there are many, many Western-imported cafés, but still so few Southeast Asian coffee and dessert stores that I can—unfortunately—count them on one hand. My goal is to show Korean consumers, who are now famous for their love of all things coffee, the captivating, savory fragrance of kopi-C.


Q. What is your opinion of traditional Korean desserts?

I’ve tried tteok (rice cakes), sikhye (sweet rice beverage), and bingsu (shaved ice dessert). Southeast Asians are not big fans of the taffy-like, sticky texture of glutinous rice. Personally, I enjoyed the taste of Korean tteok. Sikhye, which I tasted along with the rice cakes, was exactly what its definition states: a sweet (and for me, strange and unfamiliar) beverage that has rice in it. The Korean dessert that I liked the most, by far, is bingsu. The bingsu sold at Korean dessert franchise look as beautiful as they taste good. When friends from my hometown visit Korea, I take them to the café sometimes. I almost forgot! Koreans say that when traveling in Singapore, they like eating Singaporean-style shaved ice, which is shaved into flat, long pieces. On the contrary, Singaporeans think that Korean bingsu is very original (laughs).


< pic 2 >Chef Ng Keng Leng (on the bottom left) with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching


Q. Tell us about the day that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife visited your café. Did they visit without advance notice?

Actually, I was contacted by the Singaporean Embassy in Korea long before their visit. I was told that during Prime Minister Lee and his wife’s visit to Korea for the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit, the Singaporean ambassador will be bringing them to my café. Starting from one week before the visit, Korean police officers and Singaporean bodyguards regularly checked the indoor areas of the café for security purposes. It was not a surprise visit (laughs). 

   Prime Minister Lee and his wife and the ambassador had avocado beverages, avocado rice cakes, and pandan cake. They were all very interested in my operation of a traditional Singapore-style café in Korea and especially liked the fact that everything on the menu—in other words, everything that is served to Korean consumers—is made by hand. We had a long conversation about the difficulties of running a café and also about Korea’s wonderful cultural attractions and customs.


Q. You have operated a café in Korea for a long time now. Can you think of any incident that was especially memorable?

A lot of Korean companies contacted me [about a business partnership]. They were all very famous companies. Unfortunately, I had to refuse all of their proposals. To open a shop in a department store, there was a massive list of things I had to do, including getting a food manufacturing permit and hiring more employees for the factory, distribution, and to man the shop. Because I am a foreign resident, I realized it would be difficult if not impossible to handle all of these things. I was at a crossroad: I could choose to become an entrepreneur or stay in my role as a chef of a local eatery. For now, I have chosen the latter. I’m flattered that my store was sought out by prominent Korean companies, and I sometimes regret that I didn’t take them up on their offer.


Q. You took part in the 2017 ASEAN Culinary Festival, which was held at COEX to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, as the representative of Singapore. How did that feel?

The event lasted for four days. It was a festival for which each ASEAN country’s government invited their most famous chefs to Korea to serve food and dessert to visitors, who came from all over the world. The Singapore Tourism Board strongly recommended my store, which is how I was able to participate. I was immensely honored and pleased to take part in such a large event and represent Singapore. It was a satisfying and very precious experience to serve and introduce Singaporean desserts and beverages, like milk tea and kaya toast, to a global audience.


Q. What aspects of Singaporean and Korean culture do you think are similar and/or different?

The most visible differences are that Singapore has a smaller landmass than Korea, that we have summer year-round, and that our society is multi-ethnic (as opposed to Korea’s still relatively homogenous society). Culturally, as someone who cooks for a living, the biggest difference between Singapore and Korea is their food. Singaporean food reflects the culinary cultures of many different ethnic groups, which makes our ingredients extremely diverse. On the other hand, Korean cuisine doesn’t seem to have much outside influence. 

   One cultural trait we have in common is Confucianism. Both countries value filial piety and tend to live in family groups rather than alone. Singaporeans also celebrate Chuseok, Lunar New Year, and Dongji (winter solstice). The only difference is that in Korea, people eat red bean porridge on winter solstice day. In Singapore, we eat a rice cake called tang yuan. (laughs)



< pic 3 >Singapore-style black sesame rice balls and peanut rice balls
< pic 4 >Pandan cake


Q. What was the hardest part of living in Korea when you first arrived? How did you address/solve this challenge?

When I first came to Korea, I didn’t know any Korean. It was like being a child all over again. It was tough because Singaporeans use English as an official language, but Koreans do not really use English on a daily basis. It was also difficult to obtain a business visa. The application process was complicated. As a rule, you have to first open your store and then apply for a business visa at the Ministry of Justice. I still remember how nervous I was because the employee said that there was no prior example of a foreigner operating a café as a foreign company, and so they couldn’t guarantee that I’d be issued the visa at all! What I feared most was that, after having prepared so long and hard to open my store, I may have to close it and return to Singapore if I couldn’t get a visa. There were some obstacles along the way, but I was able to overcome them all with my efforts and the help of friends.


Q. With overseas travel currently not viable because of COVID-19, your desserts are even more special in that they offer a taste of Singapore for Koreans. Is there anything you want to try out or do after COVID-19 hopefully dies down?

The COVID-19 crisis made me realize the importance of exchanges between people. COVID-19 is making it more difficult for Korean consumers to come into contact with Singaporean desserts and beverages, which the vast majority is unfamiliar with. I feel that people need more time to get used to the idea of a chef serving foreign food that is not readily available in Korea. At some point, I want to try selling my products online so that more Koreans can easily access the fascinating world of Singaporean desserts.


Q. The ASEAN Culture House introduces the cultures and latest trends of the 10 ASEAN countries—including, of course, Singapore. We also try to enhance international exchanges through various activities and events. As a Singaporean living in Korea, do you have any particular expectations for or requests from the ACH?

My store has a consistent stream of visitors, including people from Southeast Asia and many other countries. It is not simply a place to eat but a gathering place for the community where people share information on delicious Korean foods and on various aspects of daily life. I think it would be wonderful if the ACH could create this type of community space in the format of an online café so that the many foreigners currently living in Korea can have a safe place to socialize and exchange information.


Q. As you know, there are many Singaporeans and ASEAN citizens who live in Korea or another country, far away from home. Before we finish, do you have any advice for them?

It’s not easy at first, because so many things about Korea—food, language, etc.—are very different from the culture of your home country. But no matter where you live, as long as you keep trying to accept that country’s way of life and do your best in all things, I am confident that you will be able to settle successfully in your new home.