“Screw the French Press…we have the sock.”
– Ya Kun Kaya Toast on its coffee formula
“Runny and wet…wet and runny.”
– Ya Kun Kaya Toast on its boiled eggs
Singapore: Eggs for breakfast make my day. Scrambled or sunny side up – no salt – were always my choices until I discovered boiled eggs by Ya Kun about five years ago, which pushed sunny and scrambled to the bottom of my favourite breakfast items list. The technique of Ya Kun puts a craving-forming spin to boiled eggs; the white part is perfectly runny and the yolk is in between raw and sponge-like. The eggs by Ya Kun are paired with sweet tea, or coffee, and charcoal-grilled brown bread smothered in kaya and butter. Kaya toast with butter makes up Set A, which I regularly ordered until I switched to Set B, the butter-sugar toast set. I have yet to convince myself to be more adventurous and try Sets C (French toast), D (cheese toast), E (cheezy French toast) and F (Kaya peanut toast).
This Singaporean breakfast has satisfied the hunger pangs of locals and expatriates who prefer a lighter repast in the morning to the usual bee-hoon (vermicelli) with luncheon meat and fried egg breakfast for ages. The ubiquitous outlets around Singapore have made it convenient for Ya Kun fans to get their fill of coffee, toast and eggs compared to more than 80 years ago when founder Loi Ah Kun singlehandedly managed his coffee stall at Telok Ayer Basin after his two partners bade him goodbye so they could start their own ventures.
Ah Kun left Hainan Island for Singapore in 1926. This very mature 15-year-old was focused on making a go of his new life in a new country. He quickly set up his own food business, selling coffee, tea, toast and eggs to anyone from coolies, merchants, money lender to police officers. The arrival of Ah Kun’s wife – he met her during one of his frequent visits to Hainan – in 1936 heralded the birth of the iconic Ya Kun kaya toast. Her kaya-making skills lent a distinct flavour to the char-grilled toast; the thick egg-coconut spread tickled the taste buds with its sweet buttery taste. Meanwhile, Ah Kun didn’t lose time in upping the notch of his breakfast menu, too. He tweaked his coffee formula by fire-roasting the coffee beans, this time, with Planta margarine and sugar, which had coffee drinkers coming back over and over again.
The other twin of the success of Ya Kun – the hanyu pin yin equivalent of Ah Kun – is Ah Kun’s perseverance dovetailed with a gentle and gracious demeanour. His loyalty to his customers, in fact, drives home a crucial point on the issue of customer service especially in this day and age – that loyalty begets loyalty. Ah Kun literally slept on the counter top of his stall so as not to be late in serving breakfast at 5am. “Irate customers never floored him. With a serene smile and a resigned shrug, he kept at the chores. Ah Kun served more than food for the body. He dished out kindness as well. To those in want, he freely gave. To those who read, he distributed dailies. To those who were regulars, he extended credit,” wrote Ya Kun historian Jennifer Looi.
The original stall at Telok Ayer no longer stands. It moved to Lau Pau Sat after 15 years and remained there for another 15 years only to move again in 1984 to a street across Telok Ayer to make way for the renovation of the food centre. By 1998, Far East Square became its permanent home base with Ah Kun’s children behind the counter.
From a single stall more than 80 years ago, a Ya Kun outlet is within reach of those who have a yen for toast and eggs with coffee or tea. I usually frequent the ones at Tiong Bahru Plaza and Killiney Road. It’s a bit of struggle to get a seat at time but that doesn’t faze me. I know I’m in for a splendid meal and waiting is not a problem. Within 10 minutes or so of waiting (generally speaking), I stir the tea with condensed milk, put a drop or two of soy sauce on the eggs and spread the rectangular butter across the quartered bread. I’m ready to dig into my S$4.20-breakfast.