From pre-war times to the 21st century, Pek Sin Choon has stood the test of time and, despite the laborious processes, has successfully maintained its traditions for almost a 100 years.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in the September/October ‘Tea Culture’ 2020 issue of Wine & Dine
“You think you know a lot about tea, having worked in a tea shop all your life. But then someone comes along and shows you something new you’ve never come across before in your life,” said Kenry Peh. He represents the current generation overseeing Pek Sin Choon, one of the oldest tea merchants in Singapore; established in 1925, the brand has been recognised by the Singapore Tourism Board.
The instance Peh was referring to was when a customer presented him with a tea that was thought to have been lost since the days of his grandfather. He cites the example to illustrate how the learning process is a never-ending one and helps contribute to the creation of new brews for their clients.
It is also one of the rare businesses that has grown with Singapore’s development. It moved from its pre-war location at Old George Street twice— once to make way for a new Central Expressway exit, the other for the Clarke Quay MRT station— to its current place at Mosque Street.
Earning his stripes
Like his predecessors, Peh started learning the ropes from a young age. As a boy, his grandfather would get them to try different teas at intervals throughout the day. If anyone gave the wrong answer, there would be punishment but if they got it right, they would be given five cents to buy an ice ball to be shared amongst themselves.
Learning to swiftly identify the distinct notes and flavours in different teas as a boy may have initially been to avoid punishment, but he eventually grew to become passionate about the business. “My grandfather never allowed us to give up so easily and this has helped instil a never-surrender attitude that has trained us to learn [through] hardship, patience and to be consistent,” he said.
As he grew older, he got more involved with the business. Up till his mid- 20s, he was only permitted to unpack items and wasn’t allowed to be part of the tea-making process. This changed, however, when the usual worker-in-charge fell sick. Having carefully observed the process over the years, he had no trouble stepping up when called upon. It is a day he reflects on as his ‘tea graduation’.
More than one way to drink tea
A rigorous learning process, even for members of the family, has ensured the mastery of tea survives through generations. It has earned the company recognition within the F&B industry. To date, Pek Sin Choon remains the first choice of bak kut teh eateries in Singapore, dominating a whopping 90 per cent of the market.
Bak kut teh or pork ribs cooked in broth was once considered a treat as meat was a luxury, but the tea typically used in the dish was of the lowest grade. It took some time to convince merchants to buy Pek Sin Choon tea, seeing as theirs was of a better quality and costs five times more. Eventually, taste won them over. “Ours used a blend of northern and southern higher grade tea, but with an adjusted formula that elevated the overall taste and experience of the dish,” Peh explained.
Beyond these humble eateries, the family-owned brand has also seen upscale restaurants like Din Tai Fung and Hai Tien Lo at Pan Pacific Singapore tap on their know-how to create their own personalised blend.
The Special 5 Element Blend Tea served at The Intercontinental’s Man Fu Yuan restaurant is one such example. The tea, which took half a year of research and collaboration to come to fruition, takes ingredients from the five Chinese elements of earth, wood, fire, water and metal; osmanthus flower (earth), rose petals (fire), and burdock roots (wood) are brewed in hot water in a metal pot. “There is a lot of trial-and-error and fine-tuning to achieve not just the desired taste, but also the desired emotion when drinking it. In Man Fu Yuan’s case, their restaurant has a garden theme with butterflies around, so the tea is intended to let guests feel relaxed and at peace,” Peh said.
*Read the full article in the September/October ‘Tea Culture’ 2020 issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter.