TAN Swee Hoe’s crowning as the rojak king during the Battle of Penang Hawker Masters 2012 capped off four decades of hard work mixing and dishing up the popular local delicacy.
Though the triumph came much as a surprise, the 51- year-old considers it the pinnacle of a career, whose early years were fraught with challenges and brushes with council authorities.
Tan fondly remembers helping out at his father’s rojak stall along the Gurney Drive promenade as a 12-year-old back in 1973, when there were fewer than 10 hawkers plying their trade there.
The numbers soon ballooned, and enforcement officers frequently made the rounds to issue summonses to those operating without permits. And that often resulted in games of chase.
“We were on constant lookout for enforcement officers each day. The moment we saw them, we packed up and pedalled our carts away as fast as we could.
“Sometimes we would escape, but sometimes the unstable carts would topple over, and we got caught and had to pay the fines,” he quipped.
That all changed when the hawkers were moved to the Anjung Gurney food court in the 1990s, and issued valid licences.
Tan soon took over the business from his father and, no longer needing to look over his shoulder, began to make a name for himself.
His stall which bears his name, located near the middle of the open-air food court, started commanding a loyal clientele, thanks mainly to his shrimp paste gravy, which he says has been tweaked with a few secret ingredients.
“I was constantly trying to find ways to improve my father’s gravy recipe, and eventually found a winning formula. My wife helps me prepare it, and each batch takes four hours to cook.
“I’ve even had some rojak hawkers from as far as Kuala Lumpur or Johor purchasing the gravy from me in bulk, to use at their own stalls,” Tan explained, refusing to divulge any more about the recipe.
He attributes his win in the hawker battle, held at Penang Times Square recently, to his special gravy, and said the triumph has increased business by as much as 20%. Many came to patronise his stall after reading about him in the newspapers.
“Before this, business was especially slow on rainy days. But recently, I’ve had many who came to take away my rojak, regardless of the weather.
“Even when I go to the market to buy vegetables and fruits each morning, the traders would come up to me and congratulate me.
“I never expected to win, and merely joined the contest to see where my rojak stood among competitors. When they announ-ced my name, I could hardly believe it,” Tan said, revelling in his newfound fame.
Tan’s rojak stall is located at Lot No. 52 in the Anjung Gurney food court, and operates from 5pm until midnight daily. It is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. To contact him, call 016-4957932.