Friday, January 20, 2012

Bengawan Solo - An Inside Look

Opening of 1st Bengawan Solo at Marine Terrace
There is an old school Bengawan Solo shop in my Marine Terrace neighbourhood that is just different from the rest that are located in the malls. Someone told me that is the very first outlet, so they have always kept it.

And recently, my friend Joanna introduced me to the Liew family that owns Bengawan Solo, and they confirmed the story. Bengawan Solo opened here in 1979, which makes them as old as Red Star Restaurant down at Chin Swee Road.

The founder Anastasia Liew, now in her 60s, still runs the business with tremendous passion, energy and attention to detail. Her son, Henry Liew, is also working with her, as are five other family members.

Lovely kuehs including a new cranberry lapis!
Now Singaporeans are all very familiar with the brand and the kuehs, cakes and cookies they make. These are so readily available (44 outlets all over Singapore), and so uniformly consistent, that we sometimes tend to dismiss them as "mass-produced" goods. But did you know that some of the items are still handmade?

Yes, there is a central factory up in Woodlands, supplying the outlets. But as the Liews showed us, it's not all machines at work, because there are some things machines just cannot do. And they refuse to compromise the quality of the products, so some things are still painstakingly done by hand.

Their ondeh-ondeh is still made by hand, all 11,900 of them daily!
Their ondeh-ondeh, for example, are rolled and cooked individually - all 11,900 of them per day every day! To do this by machine would require a less desirable texture for the dough, so that was unacceptable.

Have you had fresh and warm ondeh ondeh? It's heavenly!
Have you ever had fresh and warm ondeh ondeh? It's like coddling a sweet piece of heaven in your mouth.

Kueh dadar is also made by hand
The kueh dadar is also made by hand. You can see the saucepans with the crepes or green skin being made, and once these are ready, they add the coconut filling and roll them up.

Kueh Dadar
Hand-made. Every one of them.

The steamed layered kueh goes around a conveyor belt
The lapis sagu has many thin layers. They've got a clever way to make this. Trays and trays of it go around on a conveyor belt being steamed as they go, and a new layer is freshly poured on with each loop. Very efficient.

Kueh Lapis Sagu
And guess what - each of these are hand-cut too. Seriously, there is a guy here that specialises in cutting the lapis sagu, and I saw how he chopped each one of them into uniform pieces with practiced precision. The sagu is too soft for machines to handle, and so they would rather do this by hand, than make lapis sagu that's less delightful to chew.

The round pineapple tarts are finished by hand
The premium (round ones) pineapple tarts are also finished by hand.

Premium pineapple tarts

Well, attention goes not just into the preparation, but also ingredients. Bengawan Solo insists on using freshly pressed coconut milk instead of pre-packed ones, and real pandan juice instead of essence. For their cakes, they mix an Australian premium butter with a certain Dutch butter that costs four times as much but has incredible buttery aroma and taste.

But the most fun part of the factory has got to be the icing room.

The icing room looks most fun
See all the Disney cakes come to life!

So many edible colours!
It's like an art studio in here, with so many fun colours! Edible colours!

Only freshly baked sponge cakes are used for the cakes
Only freshly baked sponge cakes are used. Unlike many places, they don't use cakes that are not baked on the very same day.

This is how they "draw" the Disney characters - tracing an OHP like projection
Ever wonder how they get the likeness down pat for the cartoon characters? They use this thing like an overhead projector to project the image onto a cake and frost the outlines. But even so, it's still not an easy job. Trust me, you still need some skill to do this, and do it quickly.

Someone's getting this cake
There are also the "printed" cakes. Much easier to make, and madly popular. Some little girl called Chloe is getting this one.

And some lucky boy's getting this too
And another lucky boy has got this coming for him. Who doesn't like Toy Story?

3D airplane cake!
Look at this 3D airplane cake! Yes, they are now making 3D cakes as well.

Kueh Lapis (large, 1.2kg)
Their ever popular kueh lapis is also made by hand, using a similar conveyor belt system - a smart way of saving a lot of effort! Instead of opening and closing ovens all the time to pour in each new layer, the cake makers have a whole line of cakes on the move. They add a new layer, send it off to be grilled, and work on the next, and repeat until the cake is completed (takes about 2-3 hours).

There's a prune lapis as well. And they've introduced a cranberry lapis too, which doesn't use any spices, but is fragrantly buttery. I love it! See it in the second photo (the row in the middle of the platter).

Walnut cake - one of our favourites
One of my family's perennial favourites is their walnut cake. It's just one of those simple pleasures in life.

Jolie giving a piece of kueh lapis to Nadine
Nadine and Jolie always run into the Marine Terrace Bengawan Solo shop, yelling, "Cake!"
It's the only shop in the neighbourhood they instinctively love dashing in to.

CNY Sale Tent at 23 Woodlands Link
For Chinese New Year, they have an airconditioned tent outside the factory at 23 Woodlands Link (take shuttle bus 964 from Admiralty MRT or Woodlands interchange), selling CNY goodies at a 10% discount. Visitors have been thronging there for to buy stuff in bulk. They also have festive hampers you can pick up. Interestingly, Bengawan Solo does not raise their prices for the festive season, except for the last two days before Chinese New Year.

It's ironic that they don't make as much profits during Chinese New Year, despite the increased sales. That's because they have to pay a lot of overtime for workers to cope with the orders.

But anyway, here's what we bought.

Special fish keropok or crackers made with fish from Bangka, Indonesia
Fish keropok (ball-shaped) using fish from Bangka (near Palembang) where Anastasia was born. The fish there is particularly sweet, it seems.

Casava Cheese Cookies
Casava Cheese Cookies. These were new to us, and had a most unusual taste. I can't quite describe it, but has a delicate savoury touch from the cheese.

Hae bee hiam dried shrimp rolls
The "hae bee hiam" spicy dried shrimp mini-rolls. So tedious to make, but so easy to eat.

Emping Manis
If you like belinjo crackers, you will love these "Emping Manis" or sweet crackers. They're made from the same fruit.

Philip, Serene, Anastasia Liew and I at Bengawan Solo's office
It was a very enlightening visit, and I now have a new appreciation for Bengawan Solo and the way they are such sticklers for quality. Philip, Serene and I were very pleased to meet Anastasia and Henry Liew. They are wonderful folks. I'll be back hopefully to do a personality profile on Anastasia.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Lunar New Year festivities! 恭喜发财 in the year of the Dragon!

Photo credit: first and last photo from Bengawan Solo.


  1. OMG! First photo is truly a blast from the past - both Bengawan Solo AND Jodhi Bookstore!!

  2. Cool, Jodhi Bookstore too! I'd love to go on a tour on that factory in woodlands.

  3. Yeah, Jodhi bookstore too - I was shocked to see that it's THAT old as well!


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