It’s not terribly often that the humble supporting actor outshines the superstar lead, but that has certainly been the case for New Ubin Seafood’s most well-loved dish: The Heart Attack Fried Rice.
It’s a heart-warming story, really: Head honcho Pang Seng Meng, better known as SM Pang, would always cook up steaks for his family and friends, and, not wanting the tasty drippings to go to waste, he decided to fry some rice in the oil, along with some dark sauce. Charred beef trimmings added texture and flavour to the carbohydrates.
At the restaurant, guests spied the family dining on the steak dish and asked about it, so they were given some to share.
After the dish hit the menu, “A lot of people asked for just the rice. We decided we couldn’t serve it because we’d run out of beef fat and our sales would drop,” SM shared.
And that’s the story of how a zi char establishment with “seafood” in its name came to be known for its beef dish: The USDA Black Angus ‘Choice’ Rib-Eye (from S$80 for 500g) served on a wooden board with Idaho potato wedges and Heart Attack Fried Rice.
“I have this penchant for giving dishes in-your-face names,” SM chuckled. Another signature dish is the Boss Bee Hoon. “When people ask me how the name came about, I say, ‘It’s done the way my wife likes it. Because she’s the boss.’” He added, “It’s just a marketing thing – it doesn’t matter who’s the boss!”
ADVENTUROUS PALATES RUN IN THE FAMILY
These days, at 63, SM is the restaurant’s chief operating officer, while his son Alexander, 34, is the chief executive officer.
The father-and-son team oversee the running of the business as well as the development of the menu. And there’s plenty to keep them busy: They recently opened the third New Ubin Seafood restaurant, at four-star hotel Ramada By Wyndham Singapore At Zhongshan Park, in December last year.
A deep appreciation for food has always run in the family.
SM recalls having helped his grandmother in the kitchen of her house since the age of three, being put to work stirring kaya as it cooked. “I could never do it properly because I would fall asleep. You burn the kaya, so you get punished by your grandmother; when you get home, you get punished by your mother, because she had been waiting for the kaya,” he quipped.
But it was in that same kitchen that he learnt the art of cooking over charcoal, pounding chillies by hand and perfecting heritage recipes for dishes such as ayam buah keluak.
“My father is Teochew and my mother is Peranakan, so I grew up in a household that liked steamed food as well as all the sambal. It was a good mismatch because you appreciate the diversity of cooking and everything in between,” he said.
“My father was adventurous. He had a love for oysters. I remember trying my first oysters at three. And I remember one big quarrel when he brought back oysters from Fitzpatrick’s, which was an old supermarket, and my mother had to shuck them all, and she was very, very upset with him.”
Alexander appreciates the value of being born into “in a food-centric family”. “I was lucky to grow up with a very exposed palate, and I cooked from a very young age,” he said, adding that his grandmother and great aunt were well known Nyonya chefs in their time.
Although he has received no formal training, “by the time I was seven or eight, I would be doing our Christmas dinners. And my dad used to host a lot of makan sessions at home. I took a leaf out of his book, so I was hosting my friends for dinner from the age of 14 or 15 – full sit-down dinners, maybe about seven or eight courses, starting with a soup, and then maybe foie gras with raspberry reduction.”
Interrupting, his father divulged: “Also, he was trying to impress his girlfriends.”
“Without much success, lah,” chuckled Alexander, who is now married with two young children (his wife is involved with marketing the business, too). “But when it came to pursuing a career, I went into law, and I practiced from 2011 until 2017.” At junior partner level, he left the practice to join the family business. “I wanted to help my dad build this brand he had developed, which has been his life’s work for the past 15 years,” he said.
Do they ever fight? “Oh, constantly,” said SM offhandedly. “We are both very Type A, so we have to learn to accommodate each other. I think we’ve done it quite well.”
Alexander said, “I come from a professional background… Sometimes I’m afraid to break certain barriers or norms. My dad is the one who tells me, ‘Why do you bother so much with this glass ceiling in your head?’”
One dessert on the menu, a lava cake named Chocolate Alexander, encapsulates the playful side of their relationship.
“That’s my father trying to make fun of me,” Alexander said, with a wry laugh. “A very long time ago, when we didn’t really do desserts, I wanted to do a simple chocolate fondant. My father went and named it Chocolate Alexander – alamak. When I was at my law firm, every time I went to the restroom, people would say, ‘Oh, Chocolate Alexander coming up.’
FROM PULAU UBIN TO THE WORLD
Although the Pangs have built the brand as we know it today, the Ubin Seafood name actually goes back to the 1980s, when the zi char eatery was established on Pulau Ubin to cater to hungry water skiers from Punggol.
When the residents of the island were relocated to the mainland in the 90s, the restaurant moved to Tanglin Halt, and subsequently to a few other locations including Sixth Avenue and Marina Country Club.
It wasn’t until 2004 that SM, who has a background in pharmaceuticals, became involved with the business. “I was retired and had nothing to do. Then my wife decided that she would invest with them,” he said.
“The original cook is still working for us, but he’s no longer cooking… He built the original jetty on the north shore of Ubin Island by hand.”
In 2007, the Pangs opened New Ubin Seafood at Sin Ming Industrial Estate, which was when the establishment started to gain renown.
And in fact, before the signature beef dish was introduced, “Ubin Seafood was not known for anything special,” SM recalled. “When you talk about chilli crab, there’s a position in mind of who is the best. So, if you’re trying to persuade someone that your chilli crab is better than this other person’s, which they’ve eaten all their life, it’s very difficult. But you want to be famous for something. For us – beef, lah. Everybody said, ‘Hey, that seafood restaurant that serves beef.’ So, they come here, they have the beef, and then they realise other things are very good, too.”
Although they are positioned as a zi char restaurant, Alexander explained, they also offer cuisines such as Indian, Peranakan and Italian – in short, all the foods they personally love.
“We realised we had so much to share with the public,” SM said. “As the cuisine was evolving, we realised that there was such a vacuum in the F&B culture when it came to Singapore food. We are more than modern zi char because we incorporate most of the things that Singaporeans love to eat."
He added: "The thing about zi char is that it’s quick stir fry – that’s still there – but we are more than that, because we have to be. To be truly Singaporean, you have to be more than that. So, we serve South Indian food like vadai, nasi briyani and chicken masala. We do Peranakan food, because my mother’s side of the family is Peranakan. So I think we are the only restaurant – and most of our guests will tell you this – in which people can sit down and have a Singaporean meal.”
The restaurant also offers wine pairings, which came about “because we love wines and whiskies and anything spiritual,” SM quipped. “Now, we do a monthly wine dinner and also use that as a test bed for new dishes.”
REDEFINING SINGAPORE CUISINE
It’s all part of the Pangs’ desire to give their guests a truly enjoyable Singaporean experience – and, as a happy byproduct of circumstance, that has translated into opportunities for New Ubin Seafood to be invited to cook guest dinners in global culinary cities such as Paris and San Sebastian; to be featured in the Michelin Guide; and to work with the Singapore Tourism Board.
“I would say that there is no real definition of what Singapore food is – and that’s the exciting part. What we have are styles of cooking that are very unique to Southeast Asia, and have slowly taken root in Singapore and formed their own tree," Alexander said.
“Post independence, we had a very strong wave of American influence: One of the most Singaporean cultural experiences is the McDonald’s breakfast. The penetration rate of McDonald’s in Singapore is one of the highest in the world per capita. So, the question of ‘What is Singapore food?’ is really an open question that we are seeking to answer. Yes, we position ourselves as serving zi char – we want to preserve that heritage – but we also want to explore what it means to be Singaporean, and a lot of the time, that means what people like to eat.”
And being able to showcase New Ubin’s food on an increasingly large stage serves a larger purpose, he said.
“The Singapore identity is still very young. Part of the identity is culinary. It’s almost like a duty I feel is incumbent on us – to help develop that, and give the Singapore identity some meaning internationally, as well as locally. We are proud to be Singaporean and we want the international spotlight to be on the talent that is available here, and the uniqueness we can bring to ourselves and to the community at large.”
It’s also important to use the platform to champion the local F&B industry, he continued, and to “use the stage that we have to elevate Singaporeans”. For instance, “A gentleman who came in to work with us as front-of-house waitstaff is now our head of HR and finance… We want to be able to give them that path.”
With three restaurants now open – as well as offshoot Garang Grill – New Ubin Seafood isn’t stopping here. As offers for overseas franchises keep coming in, it’s only a matter of time before they find the right partners to work with. The Pangs also hope to open a central kitchen by the third quarter of the year so that they can go into catering, as well as offer products such as their own ice creams, smoked meats and, yes, even the kaya that caused three-year-old SM such pain.
That would surely have put a smile on his grandmother’s face.
New Ubin Seafood is at 63 Hillview Avenue; Chijmes, 30 Victoria Street; and Ramada by Wyndham Singapore at Zhongshan Park, 16 Ah Hood Road.