S’porean chef in US taught herself laksa, rendang & chilli crab so S’poreans overseas can have taste of home

Stories of Us: Emily Lim tells us why she started selling hawker food in San Francisco and how she wants to represent Singapore overseas.

Alfie Kwa | July 03, 2021, 03:43 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

Fancy slurping up a bowl of lemak laksa or perhaps a steaming plate of chicken rice in San Francisco, California?

Well, you can have your fill of these Singaporean hawker dishes — and we’re not referring to the dubious Singapore Noodle-type. We’re talking about laksa that is made with real coconut milk and Hokkien Mee that bursts with the fragrance of pork lard — thanks to Dabao Singapore, an online food business set up by Singapore native Emily Lim.

Birthed during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the business has grown from cooking out of a home kitchen to a professional one over the past year, offering a delectable range of dishes like these:

Laksa noodles. Image via Dabao Singapore.

Chicken rice. Image via Dabao Singapore.

Nasi Lemak. Image via Dabao Singapore.

Left her marketing job to train at culinary school

The straight-talking and personable chef laughed freely during our interview, displaying a passion that is clearly mirrored in her love for food.

The 29-year-old Lim had always known that food is her first love.

She chuckled, recounting how she, as a young girl, stumbled upon a cake-designing contest at a shopping mall many years ago, joined it on a whim, and won fourth place among a bunch of “aunties”.

Despite her interest in the culinary arts, she decided to take up a diploma in mass communications in Ngee Ann Polytechnic and got a full time marketing job instead.

It paid the bills but after slogging away at her job for slightly over a year , Lim realised that marketing wasn't the path for her.

“I wasn't bad at it and I was making the company money, but I just was like, I don't feel satisfied and feel innately happy.”

World Street Food Summit 2013. Image via Emily Lim.

And so at 21, Lim made the momentous decision to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore.

It was not easy. She had to gain experience in the F&B industry by taking up part-time stints as a cook, cleaner and dishwasher at hostel kitchens and bars — all while still working at her full-time marketing job.

It was a laborious journey, she added, but it was a good gauge of whether one could survive in the cut-throat food and beverage (F&B) industry.

Many people break, Lim said, adding that the F&B industry “is not an easy industry for everybody”.

But she persevered:

“If you give a sh*t about something you want to get into, you will do it.”

She ultimately gained enough industry experience to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Singapore, working her way through 12-hour school days before graduating with a bachelors’ degree in Culinary Arts Management.

The budding chef then moved to America and has since worked at top restaurants like Alexander's Steakhouse, ALX by Alexander's Steakhouse, All Spice and JAAN.

Everything was going the way she hoped it would be.

She was climbing up the industry ladder, working at top-notch restaurants and even joined popular American restaurateur, Guy Fieri on his reality show “Guy's Grocery Games”.

On Guy Fieri’s reality show “Guy's Grocery Games. Image via Emily Lim.

But, that all changed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

From losing her job to setting up Dabao Singapore, an “asset to community”

Dabao Singapore team preparing food. Image via Emily Lim.

Lim was let go from her job with a restaurant in March 2020. However, she wanted to remain in the U.S., which would be impossible without a job.

Starting a new business was, in her words, a necessity: Without a Green Card, the new business would allow her to remain in the U.S. under an E2 visa.

However, more than just being able to stay put in San Francisco, Lim said that a key part of starting Dabao Singapore was to support the community around her, especially her friends from the F&B industry who were laid off and had no means of supporting themselves.

One of them is Jessie Lugo who was let go from the same restaurant Emily used to work at. Now, Lugo works with Emily as a sous chef at Dabao Singapore, learning how to cook hawker food.

She could recruit her friends as chefs and pay them a reasonable wage during these hard times. Besides, Lim said that she had always wanted to start a business; the pandemic merely accelerated her plans.

Investing a small fortune of USD$70,000 into renting a kitchen, buying equipment and hiring staff, Lim was ready to start her journey as a business owner.

In some ways, Lim’s business was started at the right time and place.

“I realised that there are a lot of Singaporeans and Malaysians who are stuck in San Francisco and cannot go back. They ... felt super scared.”

In times of much uncertainty, Lim felt that her food was able to bring them some comfort while they were far away from home.

“All you do is video call people. But it's not enough, right? You need something actually physical. … What's the next best thing you would have? Food!”

Case in point: A Singaporean customer was so overwhelmed after tasting Lim’s Hokkien Mee that he cried.

Hokkien Mee. Image via Dabao Singapore.

That was just one of the many positive reactions Lim received from grateful customers and they motivate her to continue running Dabao Singapore.

“If I could shake leg, be tai tai, drink wine, and hang out, I will f**king do that right now. (This is) for others, that's why it's worth doing.”

Starting a business from scratch

Emily at Aunt’s dry food store. Image via Emily Lim.

Looking at the range of Singaporean hawker food that Dabao Singapore offers, you might be surprised to know that Lim taught herself how to cook them by following and tweaking recipes that she found on blogs like Nyonya Cooking and Rasa Malaysia as well as YouTube channels like the The Meatmen Channel and Spice N’ Pans.

And nope, these weren’t dishes that were taught at the CIA.

She also credits her aunt who operated a dry goods store in Geylang Serai Market for teaching her about Southeast Asian spices.

For instance, did you know that some hawkers add roasted ginger into their fish soup for that extra oomph? You need to roast the ginger until it is caramelised, Lim quipped.

“The manipulations of certain ingredients or certain components in a dish definitely adds complexity to it.”

Thanks to Lim’s aunt, she also became acquainted with ingredients like belacan (fermented shrimp paste), dried chili, lemongrass, galangal, candlenut, dried shrimp, dried anchovies — which she scours San Francisco’s Chinese markets regularly for and use in her cooking.

But there was more to starting her business than just cooking.

It was a steep learning curve for the new business owner as she busied herself with creating the menu, collating orders, buying the ingredients, packing and lastly, finding the best route to deliver orders.

All of these had to be learned from scratch.

One of the biggest challenges Lim faced when starting out was taking a multitude of orders through social media direct messages.

It was so prone to human error and so inefficient, she observed.

Another struggle: Getting food delivered. At one point, Lim had to resort to roping in her friends with cars so that her orders could be delivered on time.

But one year on, Lim and her two full-time staff members are able to run the operation from start to finish without hiccups.

With the help of Singapore Global Network, she’s been able to connect with the Singaporean community in San Francisco, gaining more traction for her business.

Today, Dabao Singapore receives about 60 orders a day, and Lim comes up with new dishes to add to the menu bi-weekly.

People overseas want authentic Singapore food

Singapore chili crab by Dabao Singapore. Image via Dabao Singapore.

A common refrain among Singaporeans when discussing Singaporean food overseas is: “So expensive!”

That’s true. Unlike the streets of Katong, you might be hard pressed to find S$3 laksa in Vancouver or San Francisco.

Lim’s laksa costs USD$20 and she’s not ashamed to justify the price tag. Food businesses have to make a living too, she said:

“They're not out there to rip you off, they need to make a living, pay rent, pay their staff, buy expensive groceries.”

A portion of the earnings from Dabao Singapore goes into paying for Lim’s staff’s wages, which range from USD$20 (S$27) to USD$26 (S$35) — higher than the minimum wage in San Francisco.

A lot of money goes into procuring the ingredients needed for her dishes too, many of which are uncommon spices which can only be found in certain markets in San Francisco.

There’s always the option of cutting corners or adapting her food to Western taste buds but Lim insists on cooking her food the way hawkers cook them in Singapore because she believes in keeping the taste of hawker food real.

Besides, she added, people are more well-travelled nowadays and can tell what’s authentic and what’s not.

Once, she had a Caucasian customer come up to her, asking for Singapore Chilli Crab that they tried when vacationing in Singapore.

So what can we expect from Emily and Dabao Singapore in the future?

Well, aside from sharing Singaporean cuisine, Lim wants to represent this little red dot overseas.

“I want to help bring Singapore up and be an advocate for the hawker food culture. I will be on more TV shows in America and I will purposefully do Singapore food so that more people are exposed to that.”

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top images via Emily Lim & Dabao Singapore. Quotes were edited for clarity.