Tucked away in a humble little corner of FoodHub@Bedok, sits Yanji Seafood Soup. Watching as a customer walks up to the counter, the two-man team behind the operations spring into action. Preparing a bowl of their Dory Seafood Soup, the familiar roar of the stove and clinking of pots fill the air.
Some might be familiar with the name, some might not, but Yanji Seafood Soup is one of the pioneers of seafood soup in Singapore, having served customers for 39 years. What started off as a means for Elder Chia Chioh Koh to make ends meet to feed his family ended up becoming a household name, with their regulars including restaurant chefs and home cooks.
With the opening of their very first restaurant at the former Woodlands Food Centre, business was scarce at the start; seafood soup was a rarity outside of an air-conditioned restaurant setting, and customers would eschew it in favour of familiar favourites like mixed rice and Hokkien Mee.
Elder Chia was undeterred however, and kept at it. Priced at just S$2 a bowl, no more than a plate of Char Kway Teow at the time, he slowly managed to win customers over with his cooking methods and use of premium ingredients.
One of the most well-known parts of Yanji is their broth, with ingredients such as old hen, pork ribs, Chinese ham and Japanese scallops slow-cooked for up to six hours, resulting in a broth that is flavourful and leaves you wanting more.
But how can you bring something that’s already this good to the next level? Elder Chia decided to add in minced pork with dried mushrooms, along with dried sole fish, and that was when the dish became a hit.
Being the youngest of three, Mr Chia Tok Whee was also the closest to his father, whose passion for food and interest in concocting his own recipe rubbed off on Mr Chia. “His curiosity about ingredients, cooking methods and how they all come together only further piqued my interest in food.”
In 1998, Mr Chia quit his sales job to help his father with the growth of Yanji amidst growing popularity and interest in their brand. But with no prior cooking experience, he had to learn everything from the basics, from selecting only the best ingredients to mastering the timing and controlling the heat. It was an arduous process for him.
Elder Chia was a perfectionist at heart, and Mr Chia learnt that the hard way, shedding almost ten kilograms while trying to meet his father’s expectations, which were so high; He wouldn’t serve a bowl of food that he himself wouldn’t eat.
On the learning process, Mr Chia had this to say: “More than just cooking a good bowl of seafood soup, my father taught me one important value, and that is to never serve a dish you will not eat yourself. He was a tough taskmaster, but that’s how I kept learning.”
After the passing of Elder Chia in 2002, Mr Chia took over the business to fulfil his father’s dream of expanding Yanji Seafood Soup across Singapore.
“I get up at 7am and start the day by visiting the stalls to help make the soup,” Mr Chia replied when asked about how he starts his day. “I start cooking the rice and start preparing the minced beef, fish, chilli and seafood items for lunch. I’m usually done by 10am.”
While a typical day already starts off busy, it doesn’t get any easier for Mr Chia, with his only break of the day coming after the lunch crowd subsides. After his short break, it’s back to work, preparing for dinner by sorting ingredients for easy storing and serving.
His work ends at 8.45pm, to which he has a late dinner, and then he heads home to unwind by reading some Tom Clancy before it all repeats again the very next day.
It may not seem like the lifestyle many want, especially at the start when business was scarce, which made things a lot more difficult for him. “I had no customer base to start with, plus seafood soup was also not that common in those days.” But as they say, “Hard work always pays off”, and soon, he had a big break.
In the early 2000s, Mediacorp constantly featured food stores on their shows, and a producer had heard of Yanji. So he decided to feature them on a show, which was when Yanji was thrust into the spotlight, and customers outside of Woodlands flocked to Mr Chia’s store for his food.
Through that surge in popularity, he has earned enough money to open more stores, and as of today, Yanji Seafood Soup has as many as three different outlets across Singapore, which means that his late father’s dreams have been fulfilled.
Looking ahead to the future, Mr Chia wants to live by his father’s views and grow the business as much as he can, while also feeding the community well without making any form of compromise on taste, killing two birds with one stone.
But times will change, which inevitably means that brands will have to change in order to stay relevant. Mr Chia knows this, which is why they are always on the lookout for new ingredients that can improve the broth, but nevertheless, they are also at the same time, cautious of completely altering the taste that so many know and love.
“Due consideration is given to how each and every ingredient, from its freshness to proportion, complements the broth. Updating the menu with new ingredients could alter the overall taste of the dish.” He noted.
When retirement comes calling however, Mr Chia, like his mother, hopes to remain a part of the business in one way or another. Helping them secure the best ingredients, getting the best staff and ensuring that they are treated well are just some of the things that he foresees himself doing. But at the moment, aged just 49, he still has a way to go before considering retirement.
The latest Yanji Seafood Soup expansion resides at the FoodHub Coffee Shop in Bedok, their first outlet in the East area. So we had an opportunity to try out their famed dishes – the Dory Seafood Soup (S$7.50) and the Crayfish with Red Grouper Fish (S$18.50) and boy, were we in for a treat.
I personally don’t quite enjoy anything seafood-related, since most places don’t prepare it well, more often than not, having a fishy aftertaste which I strongly detest. But Yanji was different.
We walked up to the store on a hot sweltering day – seafood soup didn’t seem like the best dish to have when a cool, ice-cold dessert would’ve been the go-to choice for many. We placed our order and had a seat, before getting our food – one Dory Seafood Soup and one Crayfish with Red Grouper Fish, within 15 minutes.
Their dory fish was wonderfully cooked, and was tender and soft. Best of all, no fishy aftertaste! With large prawns and their own minced meat with mushrooms inside, it was a treat to have together with the Thai chilli sauce that they provided. Their crayfish was also juicy and extremely easy to peel away from the shell.
Moving on to their broth, which is what they’re known for. It was extremely flavorful and once again, had no fishy taste. The soup’s richness was genuinely out-of-this-world, and I just found myself returning for another spoonful. Before I knew it, the bowl was near empty. Despite the humidity, the deliciousness of the dishes made it an enjoyable meal.
Yanji gets a solid recommendation from me for making something that is usually so hard to prepare, so enjoyable to eat for even those that don’t usually enjoy seafood; it’s excellent for those who want to try seafood soup for the first time. Furthermore, their prices won’t burn a hole in your pocket, with a bowl of Dory Seafood Soup costing just S$7.50, which is considerably cheaper than most places nowadays.
Location: Foodhub @ Bedok, 209 New Upper Changi Road 01, Singapore 460209
Opening hours: Daily from 11am to 9pm
If you want to look at their menu, you can check out Yanji Seafood Soup’s Official Website! They are also available on GrabFood, so a piping-hot bowl of seafood soup is never too far away.
Photos by Russell Loh of the DANAMIC Team. Additional visuals courtesy of Yanji Seafood Soup.