SINGAPORE: Ms Aisha Hashim was the only young lady among the women at their stall. Every day, while layering rice flour and gula Melaka into little steaming pyramids, she would catch sight of the cook at the adjacent chicken rice stall.
He often would be looking at her.
Mr Nizam Iskandar had never before seen the fluffy rice cake dessert she was selling. But that was not what intrigued him the most. “What’s this young girl doing there?” he thought to himself.
She was, as he found out soon enough, in the family business of putu piring. “During his lunch, he would come over,” she recalled. “He would ask so many questions about putu piring.” It was, he confessed, a way to get to know her.
By a quirk of fate one generation apart, Ms Aisha’s parents met in almost exactly the same way that she met her husband eight years ago.
“My late mother sold gado gado at that time, and (my wife’s) mother sold putu piring (at) the same stall,” said Mr Hashim Jumaat, 66. “That’s where the relationship started.”
He went on to earn the nickname Mr Putu Piring by building up his wife’s family business into the famed Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring - a business his daughter and son-in-law now manage.
They are featured in an On The Red Dot series about Singapore's fading heritage and the men and women who strive to keep it alive (watch it here).
SINCE WORLD WAR TWO
Putu piring - which translates literally as dessert plate - has been the family’s bread and butter for four generations, since the Japanese Occupation, when Ms Aisha’s great-grandmother started selling it in Syed Alwi Road.
“Every day, without fail, once (my mother) got to school, she’d just say ‘Good morning, teacher’ and she’d just fly off to where her grandmother … opened the business,” Ms Aisha, 34, said with a laugh.
“During that time, making putu piring wasn’t an easy task. They had to grate their own coconut every day in the morning.” Her mother would also bring the charcoal for steaming the putu piring inside coconut husks.
Growing up, Ms Aisha recalled:
Every morning, I could smell the steamed rice flour with pandan leaves. (In) the late afternoon, the caramel sugar of freshly-chopped gula Melaka. The aroma is, like, wow.
Her turn at getting hands on came after her Primary School Leaving Examination.
“During that one month before I moved to Secondary One, that’s when my dad asked me, ‘Do you want to help at the stall?’” she recounted. “Because I asked for a lot of things, like Walkman, discman.
"My dad has this thinking of not pampering his children – they want it, they work for it. That’s how and that’s when I started helping with putu piring."
A DREAM GIVEN UP?
Ms Aisha’s dream, however, was to become a pastry chef. After she finished secondary school, she joined Shatec to do her diploma in pastry and baking.
She went on to work for a year as a pastry maker at the Hilton hotel before helping her parents with their business, making preparations at the same time to continue her dreams in the United States.
She furthered her education at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. And when her studies were completed, she joined Boston Harbor Hotel in Massachusetts.
With her talent, she became the hotel’s assistant pastry chef. “When I managed to raise its restaurant’s dessert (rating) from three stars to four stars, then I felt as if I achieved something,” she said. “Finally, I did something.”
The income from her parents’ putu piring business saw her through her studies in the US to her first career success.
It was the same dish that brought her back to Singapore - sooner than expected. “When my mum called, I was happy to hear her voice,” Ms Aisha said.
But her voice was different. She said, ‘Aisha, I want to tell you something'.
Her parents had to look for a new location for their Haig Road stall, which dated back to 1985, and they needed her to help recce for a place.
So the dutiful daughter returned home, and they moved the business in 2009 to Mr Teh Tarik in nearby Onan Road, where she met her husband.
Mr Nizam remembers it well. After he got to know his wife-to-be, he approached her parents to take their relationship further.
“Her father liked me because I was a good worker. That’s what he said. So … I wanted to prove to him that I can help build up the business.” As Mr Hashim did all those years ago.
But Mr Nizam could not have done it without Ms Aisha, who soon realised that taking her family business forward was “a bigger task than (being) a pastry chef”.
“I accomplished something better,” she said on reflection.
WATCH: The making of a sweet affair (3:11)
KEEPING THE STEAM ALIVE
The couple have now expanded the business to four shops across Singapore selling about 7,000 pieces of putu piring a day. They turned a dying trade into a thriving business, though it has come at a price.
While putu piring may seem like a simple dessert – steamed rice flour, melted gula Melaka, grated coconut and pandan leaves – the process of making it is labour- and time-intensive. “Normally, I work for 12 to 16 hours,” Mr Nizam shared.
“Every morning at 6.30am to 7am, I need to drive the van from home to the main kitchen in the factory … to pick up all the ingredients and supply to all the outlets.”
He must also supervise the staff closely at their central kitchen to ensure quality control. “Some of them are very new. They might not have (the) experience to see whether the flour is cooked or still not really cooked,” he said.
That situation has come about because of the difficulty in finding manpower, especially younger workers. As Ms Aisha put it: “Last time, workers found us, but now we have to find them.” It is a challenge facing many hawkerpreneurs nowadays.
Then there is the rental cost. “It used to be S$500 (before 2009), and now it’s 10 times more,” she lamented. This is why her shops also sell other items such as handmade cookies, rojak, fermented tapioca and glutinous rice.
Only by hiring more foreigners – since it is hard to find locals willing to put in such long hours – have Ms Aisha and Mr Nizam been able to take more days off now, beyond Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji.
Their business has changed slightly in other ways too. Where once the gula Melaka was chopped by hand, there is now a machine that does the job. And the coconut husks have been replaced by stainless steel moulds.
Mr Hashim is all for evolution. After all, he has gone from using charcoal to kerosene to liquefied petroleum gas to the electric stove. Automation, he said, has to follow.
Ms Aisha has even experimented with fusion putu piring at her Ang Mo Kio outlet.
“We started a new flavour – chocolate-flavoured putu piring,” she said. “Because over there, I can see there are a few schools. Students like to purchase that, so we might introduce a few other fillings.”
There is no doubt, however, that the gula Melaka filling is the best seller. “Definitely, the taste of tradition is better,” she said proudly.
THE FUTURE OF TRADITION
To keep her traditional dessert going strong among youngsters, she also uses social media to reach out to them.
For example, when she does catering - especially when they visit schools throughout the week Racial Harmony Day is held - she would post about putu piring to educate the students. They are curious about the “rare” dessert, she has observed, which gives her a chance to explain it to them in person too.
Her elder sister, Norhashimawati Hashim, 39, a nurse educator in the National University Hospital, grew up enjoying her parents’ delicacy but admits that she did not expect the business to grow legs.
“I thought when the older generation is no longer (around), the younger generation wouldn’t know how to appreciate (putu piring). So I thought it would just die off,” she said.
Her father shared that about 90 per cent of his customers are Chinese, “and they love the putu piring”.
I have customers who are also from America, from Korea, from Japan, from all over the world.
"They come here (his stall) just to (get) putu piring. They need something different, you know,” Mr Hashim added.
To him, the dessert is truly representative of Singapore. It's a sentiment that resonates with American Eve Felder, who has been living here since 2010.
“Eating putu piring reminds me of when I first arrived,” said Ms Felder, the managing director of the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore. “I was unbelievably blown away.
"The soft texture of the cake… the perfect amount of warm gula Melaka and then the coconut that’s freshly grated.
If we lose these desserts, we’ve lost an incredible heritage food.
Ms Aisha and her husband are already thinking of changes – more automation, as Mr Hashim has said – that could make it easier for their children to take over the business in future.
But they know it will not be easy, and Ms Aisha is prepared if her children want another career. “I understand (making) putu piring isn’t an easy job. I’ll let them be what they want to be,” she said.
“(But) when I see putu piring, I remember the pictures of my great-grandmother and the stories of my mum … (and) my marriage.
“And of course, it’s one of the Malay culture’s kueh. We don’t want it to just be gone forever.”
More facets of Singapore's fading heritage and the efforts to keep them alive, on On The Red Dot here.