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Heritage Food Stories: Cheng's 27

We're taking to the streets to rediscover some of our favourite local heritage restaurants! This week, we speak to Dawn Cheng, the third-generation boss of Hainanese eatery Cheng's 27 in Tiong Bahru.

Think of family restaurants and Cheng’s 27, will probably come to mind. This little Hainanese eatery along Tiong Bahru's trendy Yong Siak stretch is more popularly known for their artisanal kayas and gula melaka chiffon cakes, but there's lots more to what they offer!

Run entirely by the Cheng family, you'll also find clean zi char dishes and a delicious version of the traditional Hainanese chicken chop. We recently caught up with third-generation boss Dawn Cheng to learn more.

Hi Dawn! Cheng's has been in Tiong Bahru since 1989. Whose idea was it to start the business?

The original Cheng's was actually founded by my grandparents along Pekin Street during the 1940s or 1950s, serving Hainanese zi char style dishes. The government were buying over many of the shophouses later, so my mother shifted here in 1989.

Was there renovation done to modernise things? Cause it looks quite refreshed now.

My mom was originally doing all of the cooking, but my youngest brother now helps out. We all started helping out when we were a bit older - I actually have been doing this for 20 years - but we officially took over from our parents about 7 years ago. Then we changed the branding from Cheng's Delicacies because older people found it hard to pronounce "delicacies". Now we have a much larger variety of food beyond the chicken chop rice, more of a whole zi char menu with desserts: the kuehs, the kaya, and the chiffon cake.

How would you describe your style of food?

I always tell my customers that it’s wholesome home-style food. We make our own stocks and use less oil and salt, so it’s not something you eat and then feel its too jelak. It’s like eating at your family home. We also don’t reuse our oils so the cost might be higher, but it’s something our customers appreciate and come back for. This is food that I will feed my daughter, and it's something we've been doing since my grandparents' time, and why our business can go from one generation to another generation.

The crowd-favourite Crispy Chicken Chop w Curry Sauce ($9)

What’s some dishes on your menu you’ll never get sick of?

The steamed pork belly and green mustard duck soup!

Those are also your signatures, right? How far back do your recipes go?

Yeah, our menu is actually small and simple. What you see on the menu is the best we have. The chicken chop is actually a very old recipe, and we use curry instead of the traditional Hainanese sweet and sour sauce. Also, the green mustard soup and the chap chye are very old - most of them go back to our grandmother’s time. We want to keep to the old recipes as much as possible and keep a tight grip on heritage. 

How about the kuehs, cake, and kaya? 

My mom used to supply to Bengawan Solo, but it involved a lot of work and waking up at 3am in the morning. After a few years, they called it quits and we started offering our own. Very popular here is the tapioca kueh - no added flour, just pure steamed grated tapioca. And also the kueh lapis, without any colouring, and kueh kosui. For my cakes I use organic coconut oil and cold-pressed pandan juice instead of pandan essence, so they are a lot more fragrant for the cakes. And also pure gula melaka, which is more natural and has less bad sugar.

Cheng's new Natural Strawberry Chiffon Cake ($60/26cm cake) uses up to 500 grams of fresh strawberries.

Are there difficulties running a family F&B business? 

I think it’s only natural to have difficulties or disagreements, whether you're in a family setting or corporate world. For us, work is work, and we don’t take issues to heart. It’s not that I’m against you or anything, we’re all just trying to solve a problem. We’ll sit down, talk about it, and share our concerns.

How do you see the future of Cheng’s 27, succession-wise?

My daughter is only 7, so, for now, I am teaching my daughter what is good kaya, good kueh, and imparting the love for good wholesome food. Beyond that, anything is possible. If we have outsiders who can help us expand to the next level, maybe bring our kaya and cakes international, we’ll be happy to join hands. As long as they have the same core beliefs and values and believe in premium ingredients and good cooking.

How about expansion plans?

We had plans for expansion but we'll be playing by ear at this time because workers are hard to come by now. I also want to preserve this heritage and accumulate good karma for the next generation. We have to ride on the bandwagon and make sure the next-gen gets to learn, eat, and cook these types of food. Maybe a recipe book, or even create a YouTube channel to teach them. Anything is possible!

Read our Burpple community's reviews of Cheng's 27 here!