When famous foreign food brands make their way to Singapore, diners head out in droves to try dishes which would normally require a plane ticket to get to.
Those which triggered long queues when they opened include month-old Kin Kin Pan Mee from Malaysia in MacPherson Road and year-old Jollibee from the Philippines at Lucky Plaza.
Others which are also brand names in their home countries include Madam Kwan's from Malaysia, Wrap & Roll from Vietnam, Nara Thai from Thailand and Gerry's Grill from the Philippines.
Restaurateurs say maintaining the same quality of food in Singapore can be a challenge, especially if the ingredients are not available here.
Wrap & Roll manager Jacinta Lee, 26, says: "Consistency is very important and we maintain it through following, as closely as possible, the franchise recipe from Vietnam. We import more than 50 per cent of our ingredients.
"Local chefs are sent to Vietnam for training and the franchisor regularly sends its chefs here to train ours."
Wrap & Roll has two outlets here and will open a third one at One@KentRidge (National University Hospital Medical Centre) next month.
It will also be adding six dishes to the menu, including a hotly requested pho and vegetarian mushroom hotpot, next month.
Nara Thai managing director John Wangwanitkul, 32, says most of the Thai ingredients used at the restaurant at Ion Orchard can be found in Singapore.
He says: "It's really the cooking method which is key to maintaining the authentic taste. If an ingredient is really not available, we will produce it from scratch.
A second Nara opens at Westgate in Jurong East on Wednesday, and there are plans to sell snacks at the outlet, like at the restaurant in Bangkok.
Opening overseas can be challenging, what with navigating each country's restrictions and laws, understanding the target demographics and training service staff and chefs, say those who run Singapore brands BreadTalk and Ya Kun, both of which have a huge presence overseas.
The BreadTalk Group has more than 800 outlets across eight brands in 15 territories around the world. Later this year, it will be expanding into Cambodia.
Ms Joyce Koh, the group's senior vice-president of brand development who is in her 30s, says: "In countries such as China, the diversity is greater and the buying behaviour and spending power can differ greatly across different cities. It is important for us to understand taste profiles so during research and development, our chefs can come up with innovative products at least six months before a store opens."
For example, in Urumqi, China, BreadTalk came up with a special lamb kebab bun to cater to the predominantly Muslim population, who enjoy lamb kebabs.
As for training staff, Ms Koh adds: "We train our franchisees and partners to ensure they understand our concepts, brand values, and replicate products which adhere to the recipes and tastes. We have to impart technical and management skills so they know what the brand is all about. Typically, they will come for six months' training before they set up the store."
Ya Kun International executive chairman Adrin Loi, 58, taps the expertise of his franchisees to source for supplies overseas and to select local vendors.
He says: "Prudence is required in considering investment overseas. There are many pitfalls which can be avoided if research is carried out earlier. It is also helpful to learn it first-hand by visiting the country."
For all the hype surrounding overseas imports here, the proof is in the eating.
SundayLife! speaks to diners of South-east Asian restaurants which have opened here to see whether the branches in Singapore are up to scratch.
Wrap & Roll
Country of origin: Vietnam
Singapore outlets: B3-19 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, and B1-11 The Star Vista, 1 Vista Exchange Green. A third one opens at One@KentRidge (National University Hospital Medical Centre) next month.
Open: 10am to 10pm daily at Ion Orchard; 11am to 10pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 11am to 10.30pm (Fridays and Saturdays) and 10am to 10pm (Sundays) at The Star Vista
Highlights: Best-selling items include fresh spring rolls with mushrooms (from $5.90); Vietnamese beef hotpot ($16.90); lotus shoot salad ($8.90); and rice vermicelli with grilled pork and deep-fried spring rolls ($12.90)
Diners say: Vietnamese accountant Nhung Nguyen, 28, who has lived in Singapore for three years, says: "The broth for the fish noodle soup is not as flavourful as the version in Vietnam. We normally have a lot of sauces to go with our dishes, so maybe there aren't the sauces here to cook with. The general impression of Wrap & Roll in Ho Chi Minh City is that the food is average, just a place to go to for convenience."
But Singaporean lawyer Jessica Yik, 25, enjoyed her meal at Wrap & Roll when she was on holiday in the country a few years ago. She tried the banh xeo (Vietnamese crispy pancakes, left) and noodle dishes.
She says: "The Wrap & Roll in Singapore is as good as that in Vietnam, in terms of the flavours, service and environment. It was one of my best meals in Ho Chi Minh City and comparable with other meals I ate there.
"It could consider serving pho, but I guess that's not what the brand is about."
Country of origin: Thailand
Singapore outlets: B3-21 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn. The second restaurant, at 03-07 Westgate, Gateway Drive, opens on Wednesday
Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily at Ion Orchard
Info: Call 6634-5787 (Ion Orchard) or go to www.narathai.com.sg
Highlights: Dishes such as Tom Yum Kung ($19.90), river prawns in spicy lemongrass and lime soup; steamed whole sea bass with spicy chilli lime sauce ($32.90); and stir-fried soft shell crab with yellow curry ($18.90)
Diners say: Mr Kenneth Lim, 43, senior manager of channel and alliance marketing for Trend Micro Asia Pacific, dines monthly at Nara Thai in Bangkok. His favourite dishes include mango salad, Thai prawn cakes, the soft shell crab with yellow curry and deep-fried sea bass with peppercorns.
He says: "The ambience and concept in Singapore are similar to those of the Bangkok establishment and it manages to retain the same food quality and standards. The Singapore branch also innovates to fit into our local context. For example, it rolled out a Lunar New Year menu which included our yusheng (raw fish salad), but done Thai-style, with lots of pomelo tossed in Thai sauce.
"I hope its future outlets will be bigger, for family dining."
Thai economist Akkharaphol Chabchitrchaidol, 35, who has been based in Singapore since October 2011, counts dishes such as deep-fried rice crackers with pork dip and deep-fried bread topped with minced pork as some of his favourites.
He says: "I was happy to find that a lot of the dishes I like are available at the Singapore branch as well. I like that the food tastes the same as in Bangkok, which is the most important thing. Prices here are more expensive, but reasonable for a meal in Singapore.
"Perhaps it could consider bringing in Thai snacks which we can buy home like those it has in Bangkok, such as fried seasoned fish skin."
Country of origin: The Philippines
Singapore outlets: 01-12 StarHub Centre, 51 Cuppage Road; Makansutra Gluttons Bay, 8 Raffles Avenue; and Rasapura Masters, B2-50 Marina Bay Sands, 2 Bayfront Avenue
Open: Noon to 10pm daily at StarHub Centre and Rasapura Masters; 5pm to 2am (Mondays to Saturdays) and 4pm to 1am (Sundays) at Makansutra Gluttons Bay
Highlights: Popular dishes include Inihaw Na Pusit ($14.95), grilled squid; Crispy Pata ($23.95), crispy pork knuckles; Pork Sisig ($10.95), fried pork head parts served on a hotplate; and Beef Kaldereta ($12.95), beef stew
Diners say: Filipino IT consultant Maila Morfe, 31, who has been working in Singapore for six years, dines at Gerry's Grill when she craves food from her home country.
She says: "My favourite items are the sisig dishes, which are served on sizzling hot plates. Sometimes the food can be inconsistent and I can taste the difference in flavours. Also, I find that for the kaldereta, the beef chunks are not as thick as those in the Philippines. I would go to Gerry's Grill when I'm out with friends or if my Singaporean friends want to try Filipino food."
Country of origin: The Philippines
Singapore outlet: 06-048A Lucky Plaza, 304 Orchard Road
Open: 9am to 9pm daily
Highlights: Its signature crispy fried chicken, Chickenjoy ($6.60 for a two-piece set). Other items include the Yumburger ($6 for a set meal) and Jollibee Spaghetti ($4 for a set meal)
Diners say: Singaporean IT consultant Anthony Benedicto, 28, who was born in the Philippines, dines at Jollibee here twice every three months. Back in the Philippines, he eats at Jollibee twice a month.
He says: "The flavour is the same as that in the Philippines and the food remains affordable. However, the menu choices are limited and its iconic dishes, such as Palabok Fiesta (bihon rice noodles served with palabok or shrimp sauce and topped with pork rinds, tinapa or smoked fish flakes, sauteed pork, shrimp and slices of egg) and Peach Mango Pie, are notably absent."
Mr Benjamin Chen, 28, who is self-employed, says: "I find that the Jollibee in the Philippines tastes nicer and is cheaper. The seasoning on the chicken here doesn't seem as flavourful as that in the Philippines."
Kin Kin Pan Mee
Country of origin: Malaysia
Singapore outlet: 534 MacPherson Road
Open: 11am to 9pm daily
Highlights: Its $5 signature dry ban mian, topped with crispy ikan bilis, fried shallots, meatballs, minced meat, poached egg and tossed in its special chilli flakes
Diners say: Penang-born equity analyst Adrian Toh, 27, who has been based in Singapore for eight months, has eaten at all three Kin Kin outlets in Malaysia. On his first visit to Kin Kin here, a week after its opening, the noodles had been sold out by 3pm and he had to return on the weekend to stand in line before the shop opened.
He says: "The biggest difference is in the chilli, which is the most important part of the noodles. The chilli flakes in Malaysia are completely dry, but the ones here are wet with chilli oil. I would say the flavour is about 80 per cent similar to that in the Malaysia outlets. I don't eat its fishballs because back in Malaysia you only eat the fishballs to fill your stomach while waiting for the noodles.
"I don't mind eating it again, but it's quite inconvenient to get to."
Ipoh-born finance analyst Kenneth Yeow, 28, who has been working here for two years, prefers the Kin Kin outlet here.
He says: "I feel that the Malaysian one has more monosodium glutamate in the minced pork and chilli. I also like that Kin Kin here has more optional ingredients such as abalone. Service is better and eating in air-conditioned comfort makes a difference too.
"However, the chilli here is more oily and the ratio of noodles to minced pork is a bit too much. They should have less noodles. They also need to maintain the consistency of the egg. During my second visit, it was almost hard-boiled."
Country of origin: Malaysia
Singapore outlet: 01-155 VivoCity, 1 Harbourfront Walk
Open: 11am to 10.30pm daily
Info: Call 6271-9989
Highlights: Signature items such as nasi bojari ($18.90), with assam prawns, beef rendang and deep-fried chicken drumstick; nasi lemak ($13.90), which includes aromatic coconut rice, chicken curry, sambal ikan bilis, hard-boiled egg and achar; satay (chicken $11.90, beef $13.90); and rojak ($10.90)
Diners say: Singaporean researcher Cheryl Li, 29, who ate at Madam Kwan's in Kuala Lumpur last October, tried the Singapore branch last week.
She says: "The satay is of the same standard as that in Malaysia. The meat is tasty, juicy and meaty. But I think the char kway teow and rojak taste better in Malaysia. I don't think I will eat here again unless I'm craving the satay, which is my favourite dish."
Singaporean chief marketing officer Conrad Chua, 42, says: "I feel that the dishes in Malaysia are more lemak (rich) and fragrant. But the flavours here are close enough. It is also more expensive here and the portions are slightly smaller. But the nasi lemak is always good and I don't mind eating at Madam Kwan's more often if it is not crowded."
A must-have for Ms Ng Sim Leng, a head of legal (Asia) for a global fundhouse who is in her 30s, is the chendol from Madam Kwan's here and in Malaysia.
She says: "The chendol in Malaysia is always made with freshly extracted coconut milk, but it doesn't taste the same here. I also like the assam laksa. I will still go to Madam Kwan's if I have a craving or if I happen to be at VivoCity."
This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.
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