Yishun's spice boy

INDU ELANGOVAN

This mass communications graduate has spiced up his life by choosing a path less travelled.

After leaving a white-collar job, Mr Jeya Seelan is making a living practising the ancient art of mixing spices.

The 31-year-old, who runs his own spice stall at a wet market in Yishun, learnt the art from his father.

It is a dying trade in the era of factory-produced spice mixes.

But Mr Jeya isn't just making a living mixing spices.

The business even helped him get married.

One of his regular customers introduced him to the woman who became his wife - Ms Shalini, 31.

She works as a relationship manager in a bank and helps market his products on social media. The couple recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

Mr Jeya gets his spices from all over the world - Spain, Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia but mostly from India. Painstakingly, he blends them himself, mixing curry powders such as chicken and fish, rasam, sambar, masak mera (tomato sauce), kurma, Nonya fish curry mix and Thai green curry mix at his shop - Jeya Spices in Yishun. His spice blends are made from scratch and do not contain any preservatives which may compromise their quality, he says.

It took him two years to learn the art. Initially, he would write down all the recipes and steps in a notebook.

"Mixing spices looks easy but it requires a lot of practice to perfect this art," he said.

His father Jeyaraman Ramanathan, who used to run the shop, was a careful teacher. "When I first started helping out at the shop, my father did not allow me to mix spices in front of the customers," said Mr Jeya. "After long training, he finally trusted me with the task."

Earlier this year, Mr Jeya started running the shop on his own when his father acquired a new shop in Tampines. There, his father now sells spices and groceries with his mother.

Today Mr Jeya knows the recipes of more than 35 spice mixes - how to prepare them and the proportions in which the ingredients should be mixed.

His bestselling products include sambar, chicken and fish and rasam mixes which many people bought during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

His shop also sells vegetables from India, condiments, salted fish and other products needed for cooking.

He has two workers helping him. While he often focuses on mixing the spices, they check the inventory and arrange the products in the shop.

The spice trade marks a complete change for this university graduate. He graduated from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information with a degree in Mass Communications in 2014.

"After my graduation, I worked in corporate communications at Jurong Bird Park," he said. "But, within five months, I knew it was not my calling. I left the job and helped out at my father's shop.

"Working at my father's shop was challenging at the start. It took me a while to get used to everything from the smell of spices to talking to customers. I used to be an introvert. But things have obviously changed," he said with a smile. He is now as chatty as any good salesman.

Within a month of working in his father's shop, he realised that he loved running a business. "One gets a lot of freedom when managing his own business," he said. "I create my own rules, I set the goals and I lead my business. I can implement new ideas whenever I have to."

He wakes up daily at 5.30am and opens his shop at 6am. He finishes work at 8pm. When he returns home, he spends at least an hour on administrative tasks or on research for new spice recipes.

Mr Jeya believes he should never stop learning about the products he is selling or could be selling.

"A customer recently asked if we sold Japanese curry spice mix," he said. "I went home that day and read about Japanese curry but my research did not end there. I tried making Japanese curry in my kitchen."

He makes every effort to keep his customers happy. Even when his shop is packed with customers, he never fails to greet everyone heartily. Speaking fluent English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, he can chat with one and all. And his loyal customers clearly enjoy the small talk. Lively and helpful, he even teaches them how to use his spices to make Indian and Malay dishes.

Besides his winning ways, he is also helped by social media.

His wife often posts photos of his shop, preparations and mixes on Facebook and Instagram which attract more customers.

His brother-in-law, Mr Shankar, is also helping to build a website which will be complete by the end of the year.

Eager to reach out to more people, Mr Jeya also sells his products online and has started a delivery service. He wants to open another store soon.

"I do not know if I will still be doing this business in 10 years' time," he said.

"I may then not have the same passion for the things I love doing now. Time will tell. But, for now, I will do my best to make my business reach its full potential."

 indue@sph.com.sg

"It took me a while to get used to everything from the smell of spices to talking to customers. I used to be an introvert. But things have obviously changed."

- Mr Jeya Seelan

 
 
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