When one thinks of the foods available in Southeast Asia, the mind goes to lemongrass, chicken rice, and coconut curries. It’s considered a given that you will be forgoing many Western necessities like cheese during your visit, but you soldier on, hoping it will be worth it (spoiler alert – it is!).
Travelling in Southeast Asia is about being exposed to a constant virtual cacophony of amazing smells and flavors, and nowhere is this more the case than the melting pot of the region, Singapore. There may not be another locale with such a density and diversity of restaurants, food stalls and hawker centers – Singapore is filled with crazy deliciousness. Populated primarily by people of Chinese, Malay and Indian ancestry, this city-state is the shipping center of the region, always attracting many cultures and influences. One important fact to keep in mind is that Singapore imports between 80- 90 percent of all of its food since the island’s terrain is completely unsuited to agriculture.
Founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company as a port for spices, opium and tea, Singapore retains many obvious Western influences in its architecture, city planning, and the parliamentary system, but it’s only recently that Western cheeses have been readily available to the residents of the Lion City. While iconic and well known cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Brie and Roquefort are available in cryovac at the better grocery chains, specialty, cut-to-order cheeses have only been on offer for the last few years.
This is a typical kiosk at the local grocery. Pre-packs arranged rather haphazardly.
Today there are two excellent cheese shops that sell to the public in the city. The Cheese Shop of Singapore, and The Cheese Ark. While both stores take their responsibility to cheese seriously, and the passions are evident, their approaches are quite different. Neither shop is located in the downtown business district or near tony Orchard Road, where you will find expensive designer shops of all kinds (think Cartier, Louboutin, Dior), and loads of tourists.
The island’s premier cheese shops are there for the local customers. One shop is nestled in a residential neighborhood and the other in a funky hip reclaimed building, a trend we also see in the States. I did not, however, see anyone dressed ironically as a 1930’s train conductor, so there’s that. Perhaps it’s a caning offense…
The Cheese Shop of Singapore is the older of the two stores. It boasts a sleek storefront located in a neighborhood of mixed residential and commercial buildings in the “Little Vietnam” neighborhood. (I had a very good Bun Thit Nyong down the street from the shop… I digress, sorry). The Cheese Shop is owned and run by Brit Chris Moores and his wife. Chris has been in Singapore for six years, and has owned the shop for three-and-a-half years. He cites the annoyance he initially felt at carting cheese in his suitcase on return visits, and the frustration at the poor care and knowledge of available product as his inspiration of taking on the challenge of sourcing and creating a Western-style shop in this heart of Eastern commerce. While he did work in a cheese shop in Bristol in the 1990s, he was located to Singapore by his English employer, and his shop reflects his British roots.
The Cheese Shop has a very familiar Western feel to it. It is clean and bright, with cheeses displayed on and off refrigeration. Signage indicates the name, milk type and price. To my surprise, after doing the currency and unit conversions, the pricing is comparable to what shops charge in the US. For example, Morbier runs S$6/100 grams, which would translate to about US$19/lb, a wheel of La Tur runs about $12 USD. Moores imports his product from European suppliers, to get a better diversity in his shipments.
Incidentally, Moores also had a visit last year from an American dairy group. The visitors brought him Caveman Blue from Rogue Creamery, Roth Case Grand Cru and the Nicasio Square, all of which he sampled to his customers, and Moores would be receptive to have American cheeses in his case if he could find a reliable supply chain. HUGE HINT HERE, Americans!
Moores at the helm of The Cheese Shop
The founder of The Cheese Ark has a different story. Ai Ming Syu is a Singapore native, and a former advertising executive. In her 20’s, she took a trip to Italy, and while there was bowled over not by a finished cheese, but by a curd. A warm, jiggly, in the vat curd both enlightened and angered Syu. That’s when she realized that she had been lied to about what cheese was her entire life! She experienced the evolution of that cheese from curd to wheel, and has been a passionate advocate ever since. Today her mission is to make sure that everyone experiences real cheese at least once in their lifetime – not the rubbery processed product that too often was called “cheese”. Anything else is a fraud, observes Syu. How can you not love that sentiment?
The Cheese Ark is a reflection of its iconoclastic owner. The shop is located in Pasarbella at the Grandstand, a former horse racing arena. You’ll find it down a particle board hallway indicated by a sign advertising “This Way to Rare Cheese”. Pasarbella is best described as a modern/rustic food hall – it’s loaded with cool micro-breweries, wine shops, crafts and artisan foods. Ai Ming Syu, not coming from a cheese background, makes her own rules. She eschews signage for cheeses, since she takes her role as cheese ambassador very seriously. “Customers take their guidance from me, it’s a huge responsibility!” She prefers to engage the customer personally, and makes recommendations based on the conversations she has with them. Her passion is evident in all of her selections.
Entrance to The Cheese Ark, and seating to enjoy your selections.
Ai Ming Syu in her shop
Most of the cheeses at the Cheese Ark range between S$9-13 for 100 grams ($26-35/lb in USD). Her selection is eclectic, and while it’s obvious she has a predilection for the Alpine cheeses of Switzerland, Italy and France, nationality isn’t her primary concern. She sources makers that are “adamant and stubborn about their ways” (I see this trait in Syu herself), and notes that many traditional makers have “gone bust”. Hence, the name of her shop, the Cheese Ark, suggests a link to the past. Her aim is to preserve traditional cheeses that follow ancient recipes and techniques. She buys direct from makers exclusively, as part of her ethic to aid the producers only. Her narrative is about the origins of cheese, the traditions, and she is always on the lookout. In all my “fromagey years”, I’ve never met such an ardent promoter of traditional cheese- I love this about her.
The two shops offer samples to help customers make informed decisions, and both shops sell wholesale. Each offers a selection of mostly cow’s milk, but plenty of sheep and goat’s milk cheese. They are far enough from each other not to encroach on their respective customer bases. The mix of western expats and locals varies. Chris Moores of The Cheese Shop puts it this way: “Expats are great, are already familiar with much of the product, and are daily buyers. For now, the locals see cheese as a special occasion product. But expats leave, and the locals will be what sustains the business long term, so I am always working to convert them into regular cheese consumers.” They both cite truffle cheeses as their big sellers of the moment, but do keep in mind these interviews were conducted in early January.
Since “local” is not an option, how difficult is it to get product into the country? As mentioned before, Singapore imports almost everything, especially food. One would think that would make cheese importing more difficult, but actually the reverse is true. Cheese is a product poorly understood by overwhelmed local regulators, and since it hasn’t shown itself to be a problem, they have been pretty hands-off. But it’s “not difficult to imagine a situation where a new rule will happen next week”, says Syu. Moores states that the rules reflect rules of the UK, generally. For instance, raw milk is banned, like the UK, but raw milk cheese is not.
While not cheese, I feel compelled to add that The Cheese Ark sells pasteurized goat’s milk that’s made in Singapore. Given that there is almost no designated farmland on the island, I was pretty surprised to find any local product.
When visiting Singapore, whether for business or pleasure, remember to stay hydrated, enjoy the amazing opportunities to feast on so much cultural diversity, but when you have a cheese craving – you’re covered.
The Cheese Shop
267 Joo Chiat Road #01-01
Phone 65 9069 3471
The Cheese Ark
Ai Ming Syu
200 Turf Club Road
Pasarbella #02-06 Stall number #02-K28
Phone 65 9175 0090