The first thing I notice at Nanyang Sauce's boutique are the labels on their traditional range of soy sauce bottles—they say "Golden Swan Brand", complete with the image of a, well, golden swan. Ken Koh, the third generation owner of the sauce company explains, "The company was actually named Nanyang Sauce from the start. It's just that a lot of people were illiterate in the past, so all these sauce makers, or in fact most manufacturers of any product, would put pictures on their labels. So people identified the brands by these pictures. There was a light bulb one, you probably know Tiger brand, and ours is a swan."
Like many others of his generation, Koh entered the family business after a stint or education in an unrelated field. For him, it was 14 years running a corporate teambuilding business. "I knew that it was a matter of time before I entered the family trade. To prepare myself, I did something in a different field so that I would have more exposure, and experience the challenges of starting up, of managing a team and cashflow. I've made friends in the business world, and feel like I'm now in a slightly better position to rejuvenate the brand," shares the enterprising 34-year-old.
Part of Koh's efforts to modernise and market the brand include coming up with new packaging for the sauces, as well as setting up a boutique at 288 East Coast Road—their first brick-and-mortar retail outlet, designed to resemble a "hipster provision shop". There, they hold sauce appreciation workshops, where guests get to taste the varying grades, and styles of soy sauce. At the top of the line is their light and dark virgin brew (头抽) soy sauce, which has been aged 12 months to produce a strongly aromatic and intensely savoury condiment.
Besides time, the other secret to producing a good bottle of soy sauce, Koh tells me, are the earthen vats where the sauce is aged in. They've dubbed these containers "dragon vats", as each one comes embellished with the mythical beast. "Many of these vats have been around since my grandfather started the business in 1959. They've got a 'memory', and become more seasoned with each batch, so the sauce they produce becomes better as time passes. It's a bit like how Chinese chefs value their old woks so much because the woks become more seasoned with each use," shares Koh. At Nanyang Sauce's factory grounds, the vats sit under the tropical sun, fermenting at temperatures upwards of 40°C.
Ken Koh, the progressive owner of NanyangSauce.
Nanyang Sauce’s dark and light virgin brew soy sauces