If you still associate tea-drinking with genteel old ladies picking up fine bone china with their pinky fingers upturned, you need to meet Rehan Amarasuriya. The 31-year-old is practically jumping with energy – and we don’t think it is the caffeine.
The youthful general manager of home-grown tea brand 1872 Clipper Tea Co is full of ideas about how to change the way tea is consumed. In fact, he was the person who came up with the idea of dispensing cold brew tea on tap at the Ion Orchard tea bar, a first in Singapore.
Amarasuriya didn’t think he would join the family’s tea business at first. He says: “I wanted to be a banker!” But a few immersive months in the family’s Sri Lanka tea plantation and processing facilities later, he was fascinated by the world of tea. Today, it takes him around the world and even inspires him to shake up tea cocktails.
Where has the tea business taken you?
1872 Clipper Tea is available in Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, but we also have business in Europe and Russia. I travel quite a lot – I think I did 40 flights last year! Given the rate that I travel for work, I don’t really plan holidays. Going to Bali for a friend’s bachelor party or a wedding is a break for me. But I would like to change that and plan a holiday for myself. I like to experience the local culture of different places, especially to learn more about the local cuisine and study the history of the place.
Which country’s tea drinking practices do you find most fascinating?
I would have to say Singapore because of how the tea culture has been changing, and how there is still so much potential for it to evolve further. It has been great playing a role in strengthening the tea culture in Singapore. We are always looking at new ways to consume, experience and understand tea. We want our brand to facilitate this learning process by creating rich, exploratory experiences that kindle the curiosity for tea and to bring people together. Speaking of new tea experiences, we understand that you like shaking up cocktails.
Are there any tea concoctions you’ve shaken up?
During 1872 Clipper Tea’s Food Hotel Asia (FHA) tradeshow last year, we got a mixologist to create tea-infused cocktails for us. I learnt a few tricks, and it was fun to learn the shaking technique from the bartender as well. I made the Perk Me Up, which uses our Refreshing Tea Break blend, lime juice, mint leaf, Bacardi and Refreshing Tea Break syrup. I’ve re-created the drink at home with my roommates, and we sometimes try to tweak the recipes.
Is there a place you visit so often that it is like a second home to you?
That would be Sri Lanka. Our family visits the country for holidays since I was a child, and it has always felt very comfortable – even at the height of the war, when there was military all over the place. The fact that my great-great grandfather was from there, that our roots are based there, definitely has an impact.
Which other country has charmed you?
I am the type of traveller who leans towards returning to a familiar place and one such place is Taiwan. I have travelled all over Taiwan for business, and have observed a very vibrant food scene. There are always new, trendy restaurants and bars to visit, and the service is always great. I particularly like this chain of restaurants selling lurou fan (braised pork rice). The interior design of the restaurant makes you feel like you are walking into an old house, and there is always an ah ma (granny) out at the front of the shop, cooking the pork. It is a nice concept that isn’t too kitschy, and the food is well-priced and good. My best dining experiences are usually not at the most expensive places, but places that offer good value – and authenticity!
What do you seek when dining out for pleasure?
I like to seek out hidden gems. Wanton Seng’s Noodle Bar, two streets down from Senso (one of the restaurants under BP de Silva group), is a refreshing concept to me because it is something the masses can relate to, done in a slightly upmarket way. Another place I frequent is a hole-in-the-wall bak chor mee stall under an HDB block near my apartment – I discovered it while exploring the neighbourhood when I moved in three years ago. It is not super outstanding in any one way, but it is exceptionally balanced and very consistent. Also, his portions are just that little bit smaller so that it leaves you wanting more. I always order a $5 portion because I will end up eating a second bowl otherwise! I cannot tell you where it is because the wait is getting crazy – sometimes up to an hour!
What about meals at your parents’ home? Or your own signature dish?
My mother and grandmother cook Sri Lankan food at home, and it is true comfort food for me. Sri Lankan curries are a lot lighter than their thick Indian counterparts. Kiri hodi – which translates roughly to mean “milk curry” – is a basic gravy that we eat with everything from rice to string hoppers. This can also be mixed into chicken curry, and that blend of flavours is amazing. My grandmother also makes pol sambola, which is a side salad of sorts, made of dried coconut flakes, chilli, lime and chopped onion. There is also a dish called wambatu moju, which is like a deep-fried brinjal salad. And of course, there are string hoppers. We get it perhaps once a month, and it’s super special because I can’t have it anywhere else in Singapore! My signature dish is salmon pasta made with salmon roe and smoked salmon. The magic lies in the cream sauce made with eggs and parmesan. And I top it with some seaweed.
PICTURE SHOT AT: SENSO RISTORANTE & BAR This 17-year-old dining institution in Club Street transports one to Europe in more ways than one. Housed within a neo-classical colonial building that was formerly a convent, the place has a unique charm. The setting is perfect for enjoying authentic Italian fare, executed to fine-dining standards, including classics such as a carpaccio di manzo topped with lavish shavings of truffle and parmesan, and a perfectly al dente taglierini served with fresh Boston lobster.