Meet a Fan: Jianli Tay
At least half a dozen Michelin-starred chefs have graced our sunny shores within the past six months to scout new restaurant locations. Expanding to Singapore, in their minds, is probably a sound business strategy; after all, Boulud, Puck, Robuchon and Tetsuya are already here.
For this interview though, fine dining is off the menu – we’re not here to wax lyrically about a mound of mashed sweet potatoes covered in triple-fried pork scratchings served on a brick of tamarind gel.
Instead, we’re focusing on what we believe will legitimately put Singapore in the culinary hall of fame: high quality food inspired by our nation’s heritage that is served in a wickedly fun environment. After all, isn’t a night out far more pleasurable when you can enjoy delicious food and discuss the highs and lows of life with friends instead of jointly providing a mind-numbing commentary on the dishes?
Jianli Tay, co-owner of crab shack Momma Kong’s agrees. “People come here for the whole dining experience” he states, “it’s the combination of our authentic Singaporean style of cooking with excellent service in a clean and casual shophouse setting that draws customers in”.
And he’s not kidding – even when we arrived in the early evening at his Mosque Street establishment on a rainy Wednesday, tables, stomachs and smiles were absolutely full. Jianli was busy juggling orders and arranging seating in a Tetris-esque manner, but being the consummate gentleman that he is, graciously took the time out of his hectic schedule to answer our questions.
Q: First of all, congratulations on recently celebrating Momma Kong’s second anniversary! That’s a big achievement – it is said 75% of new food and beverage outlets in Singapore close within twelve months. Why do you think Momma Kong’s has been able to avoid that fate?
A: Thanks! I think it starts with the strong heritage behind our food. My cousin and co-founder Edmund derived Momma Kong’s recipes from his mother’s cooking. We’re talking about traditional food preparation and cooking methods refined with minor tweaks here and there over the span of half a century! Customers have said the Momma Kong’s experience is incredible because the food brings back fond childhood memories, but at the same time these nostalgic feelings are starkly juxtaposed with our modern environment.
Q: That’s really awesome. Speaking about Momma Kong’s ambience, I know you studied electrical engineering at university and Edmund has a background in industrial design, but how did you piece together this fun-loving and casual culture at Momma Kong’s? I don’t think I’ve been to any other seafood restaurant that has a playlist that I would pay to get my hands on.
A: Haha! We didn’t purposely intend to develop any particular type of culture. I guess it’s just a reflection of the personalities of Edmund, the team and myself who work here. So for our playlist, we just play music that we like. Another example is our bar, which we put in since I enjoy having a drink or two. I personally alternate between our Asahi draft beer and Nikka whisky, but we also have other brands of beers, whiskies and wine.
Q: I’ve heard of beer and wine complementing seafood since it’s not too heavy, but what’s the rationale behind whisky?
A: Nikka goes well with our food too because it’s not too smoky and overpowering. But that’s beside the point. Momma Kong’s is really just a place to eat good food and unwind with your buddies, and I think whisky helps with that.
Q: Ah yes. One other major difference I’ve noticed between Momma Kong’s and traditional seafood restaurants is how you treat customers.
A: Yup, I think our staff define Momma Kong’s more so than our food, the music, the modern, clean setting, so it’s important to have good and friendly service. I learned this when I was a student in London. Restaurants there are tiny and there are so many of them around serving decent food. I noticed the successful ones didn’t rely on random walk-ins. The key was good service, from presentation skills to how you take orders. So we make it a point to pay attention to the details when it comes to our diners.
We especially don’t try to upsell our crabs; if it’s a sizeable table of diners we’ll recommend our set of three crabs, which is more value for money. In terms of demeanor, we’re naturally very casual. We definitely did not want Momma Kong’s to be one of those hushed cathedrals with waiters gliding silently around the room. I think these are the little things our customers appreciate.
Q: Right on. Everyone (Lonely Planet, The Straits Times, Missus Chewy, Miss Tam Chiak, Eat Pray Flying, Pop Spoken, Kumory, etc. the list goes on and on) has given Momma Kong’s glowing reviews and there has been unanimous praise for your triumvirate of Black Pepper Crab, Red Chilli Crab and Crab Bee Hoon Soup. What else is in the works?
A: Head Chef Low has been hard at work on our latest crab dish, the Nonya Curry Crab. He’s been on a rigorous two-month trial and error process, but he’s finally ready to debut it! The Nonya Curry Crab features fresh Sri Lankan crab cooked with lemon grass, pineapple and yellow ginger, resulting in tender meat with a hint of sweetness and an incredible depth of flavour.
Q: Wow, I can’t wait! Now let’s say I have the misfortune of dining at Momma Kong’s with someone who doesn’t take crab. Are there any other options?
A: We have light bites, small plates, fried rice, noodles and vegetables too. Try the grilled whole squid drizzled with capsicum olive oil, some diners come here just for that.
Q: To wrap up, can you tell us what are the future plans for Momma Kong’s?
A: We would love to expand within Singapore, and hopefully internationally too! But for now, we want to continue what we’re doing and become everyone’s go-to crab place.
34 Mosque Street
Tel: 6225.CRAB (2722)
Daily 5.00pm to 11.00pm
Interview by You and No Other’s Augustine Goh