For many, Serangoon Garden Bakery & Confectionery is a veritable institution that has been delighting generations with their freshly-baked buns.
There’s something endlessly comforting about fresh bread. That warm, yeasty fragrance and the warm embrace of carbohydrates that one experiences in childhood and carries with them well into old age. For Singaporeans, it’s undoubtedly milk bread, an Asian invention that makes use of tangzhong, a paste made by cooking flour with water. Also known as a water roux, tangzhong improves the texture of bread by helping the dough hold moisture.
You’ll find the same fluffy, squishy milk buns in traditional bakeries all over the island. Made in accordance with local tastes, the staple is a combination of pillowy-soft crumb and sweet flavour that the Asian palate considers luxurious. It’s the antithesis of the unyielding, tangy-savoury profile of today’s artisanal sourdough loaves, and is yet still a firm favourite among Singaporeans.
Giving the daily bread
Over in Serangoon Gardens, Uncle Sim Bak Sun is a fixture, and has been for the past 42 years that he’s been running Serangoon Garden Bakery & Confectionery. The spritely septuagenarian even recalls the exact day when he moved from a shophouse in Maju avenue into Serangoon Gardens Market—2nd January 1995. “I have been selling my buns in Serangoon Gardens for a long time. When the landlord sold the shophouse…we opened our stall here in the market, and we have no plans to move,” he says.
This is no romantic, idealistic story of a baker who went in search of life’s meaning in dough and ovens though. “I was looking for a job at that point of time, found [a job as a baker], and just stuck with it. There really isn’t much to it,” Sim declares. He might sound a little dismissive of his chosen career, but for many of Sim’s generation, work was more necessity and opportunity than passion. Sticking with it though, has found Sim generations of fans that travel down to the area just for his bread.
For many of these people, a visit to Sim’s stall is to taste a slice (well, piece) of nostalgia. “I have many regular customers who come very often. And many of them have been eating my buns since young, now they bring their grandchildren to buy them too.”
While nostalgia can be a powerful thing that often colours a bias for certain dishes or foods, the bread at Serangoon Garden Bakery & Confectionery is the real deal. Sim reveals that the secret to his moreish buns isn’t really much of a secret at all: “Everyone knows how to make these things, it doesn’t take much skill. What matters is whether you are willing to use higher-quality ingredients, whether you’re willing to be generous with your ingredients.”
For example, one of their most popular buns is filled with hae bi hiam—a spicy, aromatic sambal prepared with dried shrimp—that they fry in the store themselves. “We have a chef that fries the hae bi hiam here. We don’t take the ready-made ones from other people. So there’s someone that fries the hae bi hiam, and someone that makes the bread. Each person has their own expertise,” shares Sim.
This attention to detail and quality also applies to the other flavours at the store. Sim proudly declares that they only use real butter in their butter-sugar buns, as opposed to the more-used common margarine. Ham and cheese buns also sell well, thanks to the generous piece of cheese that goes into the buns.
Good old flavours
In fact, ham and cheese might be the most Western flavour that they have. The stall has been somewhat immune to the vagaries of the notoriously fickle, novelty-chasing Singaporean market. Classic flavours like palm sugar grated coconut; luncheon meat; and orh nee (sweet yam paste) all reign supreme. Other highlights include the otah and curry potato buns; the sweet-ish bread serves as the perfect foil for the piquant, chunky grilled fish cake and moist, boldly spiced curry potatoes.
A total of 10 employees—some of whom have been with Sim for over 30 years—work in different shifts at the store, although there are always about three to four working in perfect tandem at any one time; baking, turning out loaves and buns, and packing bread all with speedy efficiency. Work begins way before the crack of dawn at 3am so that the bread can be baked in time for the first customers, who start streaming in at sunrise in search of breakfast.
Because so many people come by for bread, fresh buns are constantly being churned out of the oven—so chances to score a fresh batch are quite high, and the trip down is very much worth it. The experience of getting a box of just-baked buns is sheer joy: there’s a tender, almost-nurturing warmness to the pieces of bread that nestle in their hawker food cardboard container. You can even smell it a fair ways off, and it always signals a good breakfast or mid-afternoon snack.
It’s a pity then, that Sim has no plans for succession, saying, “I’m already in my 70s, I have no ‘future’! Eat my buns and take photos while you still can, you never know if these will be our last days…” It’s a little pessimistic, and slightly depressing—so we’ll have our luncheon meat buns, and wax lyrical as much as possible in the meantime.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2019 issue – The Art of Craft.