Medicinal Bread? A Singapore Bakery Says Their Rolls Will Keep You Healthy
By Dave Fox
Tiong Bahru, Singapore
[I recorded a segment earlier this week with the television news network, Channel NewsAsia, about how to become a travel writer. Program host Steve Lai and I set out in Tiong Bahru, a Singapore neighborhood that is off the radar of most tourists, in search of a story. This is what we found.]
Whether you’ve tried it or not, you’ve probably heard of Traditional Chinese Medicine. You have probably also heard of bread. (All the cool kids are eating it these days.)
But what if you could bake medicine into bread? What if you could avoid popping pills, as is the habit in Western medicine, or enduring pungent, bitter soups and teas, as is done with many Chinese medicinal techniques, and instead, gobble a tasty snack?
Coreen Wong is trying to make that possible.
Ms. Wong owns Dough and Grains, a Singapore bakery that supplements its dough with herbs believed to have medicinal healing qualities. The bakery offers a wide variety of buns and loaves targeting different health needs.
While she draws on Chinese medicine for her ingredients, she is quick to stress she approaches baking differently from typical Chinese medicine practices.
Most people who rely on Traditional Chinese Medicine, she says, turn to it when they are sick. Practitioners prescribe potent herbal blends, a large part of which are expelled without health benefits because the body cannot process large amounts in a single dose.
The breads at Dough and Grains contain lower levels of herbs – amounts Ms. Wong says the body can fully absorb. They are intended to be eaten daily, rather than only when you are ill.
“It’s a lifestyle,” she explains. “We project all of these things as wellness rather than medicine. It’s more like how you eat right. Rather than eating your ordinary bread, why not eat a wellness bread?”
One of her more popular buns, the Black Pearl, is baked with an herb called shou wu, something Chinese medicine practitioners say revitalizes brain cells and prevents heart disease.
“Shou wu is a very pungent herb that people don’t like to brew into soups,” says Ms. Wong. So she adds bamboo charcoal, which she says neutralizes the herb’s pungency. She also adds walnuts, which she says make the bread taste good, and have similar benefits to shou wu.
Another popular item, her Wolfberry-Chrysanthemum Bread, is intended to combat fatigue.
“After staring at a computer for the whole day, you get tired eyes,” she says. “After a long night, the Wolfberry Chrysanthemum will help you.”
Concocting her recipes wasn’t a simple matter of adding herbs to her baking. Ms. Wong says she did meticulous experimenting, a baker’s alchemy of sorts, to find the most beneficial ingredients.
She says it took a hundred attempts before getting her Wolfberry Chrisanthemum recipe right.
“If you go to a medical hall, you can see like 20 kinds of wolfberry,” she says. “Certain kinds of wolfberry [affect the] reaction to the dough and the yeast, so when you mix the wrong kind of wolfberry, it actually ferments.”
Her Yin and Yang buns contain both black and white sesame seeds. In her research, she learned black sesame is best absorbed finely ground, whereas white sesame seeds should be consumed whole because, “They are actually absorbed like a time capsule.”
She also uses a more abstract ingredient she says larger bakeries neglect.
“We bake with our soul. [Our breads] actually have a soul within them.”
To many, that might sound contrived, but Ms. Wong believes strongly the attitude of her bakers affects the quality.
She refers to her bakers as “my boys,” and says, “I always remind my boys, ‘If you don’t feel happy, please don’t touch the dough, because the consumer will actually taste your sourness within the bread.”
And she claims her customers can taste the difference.
“A lot of consumers give me feedback that my bread is full of thoughts – that they could feel the thoughts.” When they eat her bread, she says, “They feel happy.”
A popular chain of bread stores in Singapore tried to copy her concept, she says, but they were unsuccessful.
“After we were open for like five months, they actually came out with a whole range of traditional Chinese herb breads, but it didn’t work well. Why? Because their intention is not right. Their intention is, ‘Oh, it’s just a gimmick. We should go with the trend and earn more money.’ But once they mix it wrong, it actually tastes bad. For example, different herbs can’t join together. They will become toxic.”
While she might pour happy thoughts into her bread, her business was born out of an unhappy situation. Four years ago, at age 35, Ms. Wong was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She turned to Chinese medicine to survive.
“I don’t quite believe in Western medicine,” she says. “I went through one chemotherapy session but didn’t do well. I felt that it actually did more damage than healing myself. So I did some research and [found that] traditional Chinese herbs can actually help you to nourish and build up your antibodies. Western medicine just destroys it. They are not corrective.”
She attributes her recovery to herbal remedies and a vigilantly positive attitude.
After two years of ingesting what she calls “dark and bitter soup,” she began pondering more palatable ways to incorporate herbal remedies into food. She considered noodles and rice, both Singaporean staples, but she wanted something simpler that people could eat at any time.
“So then something struck me,” she says. “Bread! Bread is something people can eat any time, any day, every day…. and you can do wonders with bread.”
With that thought, Dough and Grains was born.
She opened her first shop two years ago in Tiong Bahru, one of the few remaining places in Singapore where it is illegal to knock down old buildings to build new ones. In the original core of Tiong Bahru, no buildings exceed five stories – an anomaly on this densely populated island of skyscrapers. The neighborhood’s old-school feel, in a nation competing for hyper-modernity, has made it popular among alternative, start-up businesses.
Recently, Ms. Wong opened a second branch of her bakery at Chinatown Point, a constantly crowded shopping mall in a busier part of town, where she says business is also booming.
She has considered opening additional branches; however, she says she wants to expand slowly. Some people have suggested she automate aspects of the baking process to streamline productivity. She has not done that because she fears it would compromise the quality of her bread.
“You ask me what I want in life? To fulfill more dreams,” she says. “We want to stay on this mission of ours, bringing happiness to people, using bread.”
The original outlet of Dough and Grains is located at 71 Seng Poh Road in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru neighborhood.
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