Almost nightly, especially on weekends, a queue forms in an unassuming corner of a row of shophouses along Bussorah Street, in the heart of touristy Kampong Glam. Snaking into the dark alley next to this hole-in-a-wall, eager patrons, both young and old, and from all walks of life, stand in line waiting for their turn to order what the stall is known for – sarbat tea.
“Some of my regular customers come three to four times in a day,” said Mohammad Asgar, current owner and chief sarbat tea maker of the stall. “They come with their friends, or sometimes family, and chit chat over a few cups of teh sarbat”.
For the uninitiated, sarbat tea – or teh sarbat, as it is popularly known as in Singapore – is a type of strong pulled black tea mixed with milk and flavoured with ginger. While the frothy beverage is common in India, the recipe is tweaked according to each individual’s taste. In fact, Asgar was quick to point out that not all sarbat tea tastes the same. “Nobody can make the tea that tastes the same, or as good, as ours. That is why they keep coming back to us”.
The art of making good sarbat tea, he explained, is in the amount of ginger extract added, and the tea-pulling skills of the tea master. Asgar said that it is a skill he learnt from his uncle, Kabiruddin, who co-founded the stall in 1977 with his good friend and business partner, Zamir Ahmad. To perfect the skill, Asgar, who hails from Uttar Pradesh in India, trained and practised tirelessly for a month, pulling tea and serving customers under the supervision of the two owners, both of whom he calls his uncles.
“Thanks be to God, I was a fast learner, so I did not make many mistakes,” he recalled, with a laugh. “But there were times, especially during the beginning of my training, that I’ve spilled the tea all over my hands while pulling”.
That was eight years ago. Today, the student, who started as a salaried employee of the stall and earning S$2,500 a month, has become the master. On a daily basis, he makes at least 1,000 cups of tea and coffee. More than three-quarters of it, he says, are the famous sarbat tea.
WEDDING SHOOTS AT THE STALL
It is 11am on a recent Thursday morning when CNA Lifestyle caught up with the jovial 49-year-old. Despite it being early in the day and during the month of Ramadan, a line has already formed in front of the drinks counter.
“Nobody can make the tea that tastes the same, or as good, as ours. That is why they keep coming back to us”.
Behind the newly installed hot water dispenser, Asgar is seen busy pulling and making cups of sarbat tea. He has been up since 4.30am and started serving his first customer since 6.30 that morning. A quick scan of the patrons shows a diverse crowd of Chinese, Indians, as well as European tourists. For a corner shop that, up till last July, did not even have a proper name, let alone a sign board, this is pretty impressive.
“The name Bhai Sarbat actually came from our customers,” Asgar said, as he finally finds a breather to sit down. “Bhai means brother in Urdu, and it was used as a calling card for my uncles whenever the customers wanted to get their attention and to order drinks”.
He added: “For more than 30 years, we never had a name. But everyone calls us ‘Bhai Sarbat’ when they mention us to their friends, so I decided that that should be our official name, too”.
Indeed, the stall has become sort of a landmark for those who frequent the neighbourhood since its early days. So much so, it has become a popular location for wedding shoots amongst the Malays. “You know, some of them come here on their dates. Or they have dinner at nearby restaurants and come here to end off the night."
Does he find it odd that people are taking their wedding pictures with the stall as a location? No, he said, adding that the stall holds “special memories for these people, so it feels good to have played a part in their union”.
“Besides, it is good publicity because they put on their Instagram and then more people want to find out and come to our stall."
FROM TAXI DRIVERS TO PARENTS
Not much is known publicly about the history of the Bhai Sarbat stall or its two founders. However, the story goes that both founders started the tea-making business by selling tea from a pushcart, when they first arrived in Singapore from Uttar Pradesh in the late 1950s.
“You know, some of them come here on their dates. Or they have dinner at nearby restaurants and come here to end off the night."
After almost two decades of moving from place to place selling tea, the two friends saved enough to rent a shop space in what we now know today as Bussorah Street.
Back then, Asgar shared, its regulars were mostly taxi drivers who were bringing tourists to visit the area, or driving their passengers to the neighbouring Arab Street and Haji Lane. From there, they would take a break and congregate at the stall and order a cup (or two) of sarbat tea. While the old timers are still regulars, these days, however, the younger generation makes up a large portion of its patrons.
“Some of the younger customers came with their parents as a child, and so they now come back to hang out with their friends here,” he said.
A STALL WITH AN INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT
In 2017, after decades of manning the stall, Kabiruddin suffered a bad fall. Due to his condition, the 78-year-old handed over the reins of the stall to Asgar before moving back to India to retire and be with his family.
Since taking over the business, Asgar has enlisted the help of his family members. His wife, Hassinah, helps with the administrative details as well as the overall running of the stall, while his eldest son, Zaki, 19, has already picked up the techniques of making the perfect cup of sarbat tea.
“Some of the customers are very happy with Zaki making the tea for them. They say it tastes good, too,” he said with smile, beaming with pride. “This means that I can pass down the stall to him in the future”.
He has also taken the takeover as an opportunity to slowly revamp the 42-year-old stall by not only giving it an official name and adding a signboard to its exterior but also to expand on what the stall offers. The menu has gone from just the standard coffee shop drinks and snacks to include proper food dishes, such as mee goreng, roti prata and murtabak.
With the help of one of his regular customers, he has also started an Instagram account (@bhaisarbat) for the stall late last year. Currently, the account comprises a balance between mood shots of the stall with, at times, funny accompanying captions and pictures of the various people who patronise the stall.
When asked what his future plans are, Asgar revealed that he wants to tap on the Bhai Sarbat brand by opening a restaurant. While he has yet to figure out the details, or when this dream will materialise, he believes that that is the way forward to add to the growth of the brand. “I have to think about employing more staff. That is many more cups of tea I have to sell”.
For now, though, he has already started on the branding – a Bhai Sarbat logo which he designed himself. He points to the small picture at the top of the drinks refrigerator. It is a star with an illustration of a man pulling tea in the centre. “That’s me,” he said, pointing to the illustration. “You see there are many bhais around but there is only one star Bhai Sarbat”.