SINGAPORE: At the end of the snaking queue down by Hjh Maimunah Restaurant on Joo Chiat Road, rows of food await the hungry patrons - from trays of lemak-stewed meats, to an array of sambal-doused dishes.
It's a dining experience meant to evoke something “from the kampung”, as its young second-generation owners proudly put it. A bit ironic, you might think - given that most kampung life in Singapore had disappeared by the time the three Didih siblings, all in their early 30s, were born.
But then again, Ismail, Mastura and Maria grew up around the smells, flavours and bustle of the family restaurant founded by their mother. They spent their June holidays serving traditional kampung food whipped up from recipes from around the region, and cleaning up after customers.
“The food we serve is something that you would want to eat every day,” said Mr Ismail, now 32. “I like seeing customers enjoy the food we serve. It really makes me happy.”
These days, the three siblings have taken over from mum the running of what has become one of Singapore’s best-loved family-run Malay restaurants. And it seems appropriate that they are now tasked with promoting the legacy of kampung cooking to a new generation who, Mr Ismail laments, “prefer cupcakes over kuih, burgers over a plate of rice”.
And they have to grow the business while staying firmly true to the traditional ways of preparing dishes, which is what won the restaurant its wall of accolades and the honour of the Michelin Bib Gourmand Award in 2016.
Watch: How they feed 2,000 people everyday (4:42)
AN IDEA THAT CAME FROM MECCA
The family’s business now encompasses two restaurants and a catering service – but it all began as a small set-up in 1992 when Madam Mahiran Abdul Rahman, 52, opened a cafe at Beach Road.
She named it Hjh Maimunah after her mother, a successful business woman who organised trips to Mecca for pilgrims - an enterprising feat for a woman in the 1960s.
A side business was to cater food for the pilgrims. “You know Singaporeans, they cannot eat the local food for 40-50 days straight, so we had to cook for them. We would bring all the ingredients from Singapore to the Middle East,” Mdm Mahiran said.
That was how she realised there was something about serving and feeding people that she enjoyed. With her mother’s encouragement, she decided to try her hand at running her own business, and thus Hjh Maimunah restaurant was born.
“I had only five people doing the marketing, cooking, serving and washing. And back then, I was not good at cooking - other people cooked and I just helped,” she said. “I was 22 and I didn’t know what I wanted actually. I just enjoyed watching people eat.”
As staff came and left, they introduced their own recipes which later became the restaurant’s signature dishes. Items like their tahu telur and barbecued chicken were introduced by former chefs who also brought with them other rare recipes from towns in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Mdm Mahiran believes that this played a pivotal role in the restaurant’s success - serving unique and authentic kampung food that is not usually found in other Malay stalls in Singapore.
“We don’t call ourselves a nasi padang restaurant, because our food is not just from Padang. We are kampung cuisine, from different kampungs (around Southeast Asia),” Mdm Mahiran insisted.
BRINGING THE KAMPUNG BACK TO THE PEOPLE
Indeed, they have earned themselves a reputation as one of the most authentic Malay restaurants in Singapore, as witnessed by its popularity among the many Malay families, especially those of the older generation, who come by for their fix of old-time food.
Certain herbs and vegetables have to be specially sourced from small-time traders in Indonesia, who would come by boat to deliver sacks of their produce. Such items include pucuk paku - fern leaves which can be stir-fried or served in coconut milk gravy; and ulam raja - a herb which is tossed into a refreshing salad.
“We tell them we need something, and they bring it over. It’s a personal relationship. Sometimes they would bring things that we didn’t order, and say it is seasonal, just picked from the garden. These ingredients are literally from the kampung,” said Mr Ismail.
Other old-time favourites include beans like jering or petai, which tend to be unpopular among younger customers because they find it “smelly” or “unfamiliar”, said Mdm Mahiran.
We have tried the real kampung style of dishes but nowadays, the younger people just don’t know how to eat! There are a lot of dishes now that are vanishing.
“We don’t want this kind of food to vanish just like that. This is something unique, and we want people to know that we ate this kind of food in the past,” said Mdm Mahiran.
FEEDING 2,000 PEOPLE EVERYDAY
But the challenge now is for Mr Ismail and his siblings to grow the business while still doing things the traditional way. For Malay food, this can be quite a logistical nightmare.
With two restaurants and a catering arm of the business, their team of chefs have to whip up more than 40 dishes and 20 types of kuih daily, serving up to 2,000 customers.
Preparation starts at 12am in their central kitchen, when their kuih chef begins work. One by one, they would roll out balls of ondeh-ondeh (pandan glutinous rice balls), make delicately thin sheets of kuih dadar crepes, while simultaneously juggling tasks like deep-frying their kuih keria (sweet potato donuts) to a perfect golden crisp..
“Everything needs to be fresh. We never keep anything overnight. So they have to painstakingly create one kuih after another. And everything is made in limited portions,” said Mr Ismail.
Then at 2.30am, another team of chefs gets started on the rendang, sambal goreng pengantin (stewed offal fried with sambal), and other dishes which require a longer cooking time.
That’s not to forget the different types of rempah and sambal which are also freshly made, requiring up to 100kg of chili and 15kg of garlic each day.
“It’s actually typical home cooked food, it’s just that it’s not that easy to prepare - it involves a lot of ingredients and a lot of work,” said eldest daughter Ms Mastura Didih, 31.
To make things more efficient, they use industrial woks with automated stirrers for their stews, and combi ovens to cook meats that would otherwise have to be boiled for hours.
But when it comes to taste, no short cuts are taken. “For the rendang, we use fresh coconut milk. We also make our own grated coconut for dishes like urap and serundeng. It’s all from scratch,” said Ms Mastura.
Mr Ismail added: “We find ways to be more efficient, so that we can contain the price of our product, but we will never use subpar ingredients or cut corners just so we can be cheaper.”
WHY IS NASI PADANG SO EXPENSIVE?
However, some of their regular customers have been complaining about the rising prices in recent years. A basic meal with one meat and two vegetable dishes would cost about S$5, but the price can go up to S$15 for a meal with more premium options.
“It’s always a compromise trying to meet the customer’s expectations to fight off the rising costs. But we are not selling cheap food, and to retain a certain quality, we have to get the best ingredients from the market,” said Mr Ismail.
For example, they get all of their gula melaka from specific villages in Indonesia, which then goes through another round of processing in their central kitchen. It’s extra work for them, but they believe it gives their kuih a “richer” taste.
Sometimes we are compared to economy rice - my Chinese friends always ask why Malay food is so much more expensive. I will ask - what do they serve at an economy rice stall? A lot of simple stir-fries, and a lot of the sauces are oyster sauce, oyster sauce, oyster sauce.
“So I believe it’s really about educating people about what goes into preparing food at a nasi padang stall. It’s a lot more tedious, and the spices are very expensive,” said Mr Ismail.
“Once you appreciate the cuisine, you will be able to understand why it's priced the way it is. Our margins are very slim, if you ask us.”
APPEALING TO A YOUNGER CROWD
Still, bigger problems lie ahead. “It’s actually drawing new customers that is our biggest challenge in the next five years. Retaining customers is no problem,” said Mr Ismail.
One of the reasons - tough competition in the food and beverage industry, especially with the endless choices that consumers have today, including hip Western options. Ms Mastura said: “The same person who can spend $4.50 on a cupcake would complain about the price of nasi padang.”
Her brother noted:
People are willing to pay because it’s Insta-worthy. Our challenge is how do we make ourselves Insta-worthy too? Our food is messy and to take a good photo is a bit difficult.
But an earlier attempt at appealing to that audience did not work out either. Said Ms Mastura: “We wanted to make it a little bit more high-end, with table service. But when people came in, they still wanted to queue up to look at the food. Eventually we had to shift back to our old style.”
With an unwavering spirit though, the three siblings are surging on, as though setting out to be purveyors of their cuisine.
“Whenever people think of Malay food, they will definitely think of us, and because of that, we have a huge responsibility to retain certain aspects of our food,” said Mr Ismail.
“Asian cuisine is so unique in its own way - it's so much more complicated. I would really like to see more people continue to appreciate traditional food,” he added.
The three of them also have their eyes set on bigger goals. “I’m always thinking of how we can diversify our business - hopefully we can go international, it’s something we have always thought of,” said Ms Masturah.