This article was first published in The New York Times Style Magazine on 14 March 2019.
All great partnerships have to start somewhere. For spice makers Anthony Leow and his daughter Leow Min Ling, their passion for crafting unique spice blends each began when they observed their own father selling spices.
“I picked up my knowledge on spices as I helped my father over the years,” says Anthony. “I was 19, the eldest in the family, and whenever I was not serving the nation, I would help them out.”
Chronicling to the late 1970s, a time when people were evicted out of dilapidated Kampung — a rural village or settlement of sorts — to HDB flats, Anthony’s father was the first spice merchant in the family. “In the past, each family has their own recipes and grannies would come by to get their own customised mix of spices. Over time, I gradually learnt these combinations,” says Anthony. “I started ‘Liao Jia Xiang Trading’ to bring these spice recipes to supermarkets in 1986.”
Remembering the days when she would spend quality time with her father along supermarket aisles and factory visits, Min Ling’s passion with spices grew with age. “Growing up in this spice family, I have always been exposed to a variety of spices. I was in my own world,” says Min Ling. It was not until when she was in her late teens when her father, Anthony, permitted her to practice the craft and teach her the nuts and bolts of the trade.
Despite harbouring a passion for spices from an early age, Min Ling has never imagined taking on a full-time stint with her father. She had wanted to work as a marketer after she completed her studies. “After I graduated, my father asked me to come help. It got me thinking. If I have to give 100% to other people’s business, why not give 100% to my family’s?” she says. “This is my first full-time job. To me, it’s fun, challenging, and I still get to do marketing.”
Over the years, the commercialisation of ready-made pastes has become increasingly aggrandised with more players entering the market. If anything, it seems that the age-old craft of spice mixing in the 21st century no longer holds the same appeal as before.
In 2006, the then 45-year-old Anthony decided to close ‘Liao Jia Xiang Trading’, only to rebrand it ‘Anthony The Spice Maker’ with a new website and his first outlet situated at the famous Chinatown Complex in 2009. Established with modernity in mind, the outlet stands out against the surrounding wet market vendors, featuring a contemporary and chic interior which houses shelves of spice blends that are delicately enclosed in individual brown paper bags.
In recent times, more consumers are beginning to indicate an interest in consuming fresher and healthier produce. Coupled with the industry’s growing emphasis on eating dishes of cultural significance, the human palate has since undergone some changes. And such changes are then perhaps what drive discerning consumers to leave a shelf space for Anthony’s all-natural spice blends.
“What I have in my recipes are lessons I have accumulated over the years from thousands of grannies,” Anthony says. The Singaporean Curry, he adds, has several renditions. As each family uses different spice mixes, the challenge for Anthony then was to create a blend that is unique to Singapore and would be loved by households all around. “The ‘Curry Powder Singapura’ is the product that combines my years of experience interacting with so many different grannies,” he reveals.
Today, 25-year-old Min Ling is a bona fide second-generation seller at ‘Anthony The Spice Maker’. It is a family business, and this very definition of ‘family’ also trickles down to its clientele too. With old regulars bringing in new family additions to the store, customers, in several instances, are generations deep. Additionally, the duo has also started to attract a young and cosmopolitan crowd.
Well-versed with searching up ways to pair spices and seeking new culinary experiences, these are consumers who are knowledgable and would surf the net to purchase their goods. Essentially, they are everything Min Ling is looking for in would-be customers and she appeals to the group by displaying proprietary content — recipes for Singaporean classics and videos of cooking tutorials — published on their website.
“I get to see how spices and food bring people together. No matter how well-to-do you are, you still have to eat. You still add spice to your food, to make your life better.” Min Ling adds, while her father nods in assent.
To talk about the interaction between Anthony and Min Ling is to indulge in a bout of interesting banter, a mood reflective of the duo’s tight-knitted chemistry. Anthony’s open-mindedness and humour are perhaps reasons that coax Min Ling to break boundaries and cultivate an innovative spirit. “I like to say my father is very forward-looking. He is not the traditional man. For every new idea I would discuss with him, he would always be open to it. We are on the same page most of the time,” Min Ling says.
“We’ve always discussed [ideas and trends] together,” Anthony chimes in. “Even if we disagree, we will talk and understand each other.”
Such candour and unreservedness were probably what spurred Min Ling to create ‘Masala Chai’, an aromatic concoction comprising cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and clove, last year. “I wanted her to come up with something of her,” Anthony recalls. “When she came up with the ‘Masala Chai’ concept and explained it to me, I said, ‘Okay, can.”
Yet, grabbing hold of consumers’ interest is no easy feat in 2019. For Min Ling, who had graduated with a marketing degree in 2017, her ideas have, at times, failed to yield results. “I know a spice gift set makes for a good present, souvenir and housewarming gift. We had these spice gift sets in the market for a period of time. But it didn’t work,” Min Ling says. “[My father] saw that coming and he let me do it.”
In doing so, Anthony’s educational philosophy becomes clear: explore, fail and learn. “I know there are certain areas that would work. So I told her to try, but reminded her that she may not succeed,” Anthony says smiling. Put differently, there is no one dominant voice within the confines at “Anthony The Spice Maker”. Instead, an open conversation, and a fairly jocular one too, is changing up the way the duo innovate and mix spices.
At ‘Anthony The Spice Maker’, the father and daughter duo have blurred the lines between an employer and an employee. Humble and open, relaxed yet professional, they continue to modernise the age-old craft of spice mixing with an unwavering passion, determined to expand the breadth of our palates and bring the flavours of other cultures to the dining table.
All Images by Tung Pham