'I longed for the flavours of home': Singaporean who moved to London sets up business selling thunder tea rice

'I longed for the flavours of home': Singaporean who moved to London sets up business selling thunder tea rice
Maki, 32, posing next to some of the food she prepared for Thunder Tea.

It's been 12 years since Maki left Singapore to pursue her love for photography overseas. 

Since then, the 32-year-old photographer and film director has lived in places like Italy, Barcelona, Madrid and New York City. 

She currently resides in London, where she's stayed for almost six years. 

While it's been an exhilarating ride, Maki admitted to AsiaOne that she sometimes found herself homesick. 

And to cope, she would prepare thunder tea rice — her grandmother's all-time favourite dish — for herself.

"When I first moved away from Singapore 12 years ago, I longed for the flavours of home," Maki told us. 

"I couldn’t find thunder tea rice anywhere so I started making it to remedy my homesickness." 

Maki shared that her grandmother used to make the dish with home-grown herbs and ingredients from their family's farm at Lim Chu Kang. 

Growing up, her parents and grandparents taught her how to make the dish, too.

And now, she runs a supper club — which is a dining establishment that also functions as a social club — called Thunder Tea with her English partner in London, selling the nostalgic dish. 

"It has always been a dream of mine to bring the food from home to London," she shared. 

No background in F&B? No problem 

Back in Singapore, Maki's parents are hawkers who own a humble noodle stall at Bukit Batok

While she did occasionally help them out in the kitchen, she didn't have much experience when it came to F&B. 

But even then, she witnessed for herself how tough the industry is. 

"I remembered going home after helping out for just half a day, and I was completely shattered," she recounted. 

Her boyfriend and partner, who previously worked as a data scientist, was even more lost when it came to running an F&B business. 

"When we first started, we didn’t know anything about managing a food business. There was no ready handbook nor did we attend a culinary school," shared Maki.

Despite their lack of background in food, the couple's differing skillsets actually complemented each other and they managed to make the business work. It also helped that they shared a passion for cooking.

"When we first started, we both put together a few hundreds into investing in research and development — experimenting with different recipes and making sure they all taste really delicious!

"We both have really useful skills sets that we put into this business so we saved a lot on building the website, videos, marketing, graphic design, et cetera, as we did all of these ourselves," explained Maki. 

One challenge they faced when setting up the business was trying to adapt Maki's family recipes into plant-based ones as many Singaporean and Malaysian food are heavily meat-based.

Currently, apart from thunder tea rice, they also sell other vegetarian and plant-based Singapore and Malaysia dishes like yam rings, nasi lemak, curry puff, rojak and otak-otak. 

"But we certainly made it work! Serving vegan food allows us to be more sustainable and helps us to reduce our carbon footprint. It's better for the earth and also your health!" shared Maki, adding that they also source their produce from local farms and businesses.

As of now, Thunder Tea has no fixed physical store, but there are plans to have one in the near future. 

Prices are also not fixed and depend on the location they're hosting the meal at. But Maki shared that it usually starts from £50 (S$85) per person for four courses. 

In the meantime, Maki and her partner have been working with local restaurants and homegrown brands in London to run the business. 

They still work their full-time jobs and Maki has just wrapped up shooting for a campaign for Dr Martens. 

"I love being a photographer and it’s an absolute dream to be able to do this while also working on Thunder Tea," she said. 

But would she leave her job as a photographer and turn this F&B venture into something full-time? 

"I do enjoy my current job and have no plans to quit but would love to do both at the same time," Maki told us. 

A leap of faith

Before moving overseas, Maki studied at Singapore Polytechnic and worked for two local fashion start-ups in the industry for a year. 

But it didn't feel right. 

So, in 2013, at the tender age of 22, she made the life-changing decision to buy a one way ticket to Italy to pursue her passion in photography. 

While it was something Maki was sure that she wanted, her parents were skeptical. 

"When I first told them that I was going to pursue a career in photography, my parents never really understood why," she told us.

"From their perspective, having a regular job was the sure-fire path to success."

Despite their doubts, they never denied Maki the opportunity to pursue her dreams. 

They were only convinced of her choice during the second year of her diploma course. Maki was given a chance to represent Singapore in an international photography competition, where she spent time in Egypt documenting local life.

"It was probably when my parents received a video message from me in Egypt, telling them that I had won the first runner-up award in the competition, that they finally accepted my choice of career," Maki recounted.

"I remembered my sister telling me how my father leapt for joy when he saw my message. With the grant, I bought my first camera have never stopped shooting since then." 

If you're inspired by Maki, She has some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. 

"Following your dreams might take unexpected turns but it feels good to wake up every single day with a sense of purpose," she shared. 

"Granted, it takes a lot of hard work, and you have to make tough, life-changing decisions, but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t trade my dream for all the money in the world."

ALSO READ: This YouTuber bought $50 worth of Singapore hawker food in London and gave his honest review


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