From Hawker Centre to Mall: The Birth of Rojak Fondue
by Safiah Alias Feb 23, 2017
All his life as a young boy, Abdhus Salam watched his parents, Mr Akber Ali and Mdm Kuraisha Beevi, toil away shaping the orange, yellow and red pieces of dough balls, and stirring the familiar red sauce for rojak where numerous ingredients are used. Over 30 years, Mr Akber Ali made a name for himself with his simple singular hawker stall, now located at Ayer Rajah Food Centre at West Coast Drive. His rojak regularly feeds overseas Singaporeans who miss local food through Singapore Days organised by the Prime Minister's Office at Australia, London, USA, and China. Even with all that love from Singaporeans at home and abroad, as his age progressed, he wanted to retire.
A wall decor inside Ministry of Rojak, Pasir Ris. On the left is Akber Ali, on the right is Abdhus Salam.
However his son, whom the stall was named after, felt that it was a loss, or in Singapore speak 'so sayang', to watch his dad's legacy go like that. He wanted to continue the heritage of rojak. Armed with an honours degree in engineering from National University of Singapore, he identified the problems with the hawker stall, and thought of how to make those problems go away, while delivering the same taste of good rojak.
The Rojak Fondue
This is how the Rojak Fondue was born, in a shop that he opened with the support of his family, and especially his wife, former secondary school teacher, Nadira Binte Ahamed Basir. The shop is now aptly called Ministry of Rojak. [label style="darkred"]Read till the end to find out how you can get a free drink when you eat at Ministry of Rojak![/label]
This. Is. The Rojak Fondue.
To make sure his rojak business was sustainable, Abdhus Salam could not see it continue as a hawker stall. In an interview with him and his wife, Nadira, he told us of the four problems that made him move to a mall and give birth to Ministry of Rojak.
Why hawker stalls are not sustainable in the long run
1. Difficulty getting workers
Not many Singaporeans want to work in hawker centres, so many hawkers want to turn to willing foreign workers. Regulated by the NEA, hawkers were not allowed to hire foreigners. All hawkers and their workers have to be Singaporeans. "This made it really difficult to hire workers. If any of the few workers we had suddenly calls in sick, we have to call our family to cover up for that worker," said Nadirah, 28.
2. Long hours ate up into family time.
Because they had few workers, the family had to spent long hours at the rojak stall, from 3am to 11pm. "Once I married Salam, I rarely saw him. I only saw him at night at that was so briefly!," said Nadirah.
3. Uncomfortable ambience
"In a hawker centre, there is no ambience which makes you stand out. You buy your food and you just sit anywhere that is available," said Abdhus Salaam, 30. It can be uncomfortable for some people because the floor can get wet, or dirty with food, some days it can be hot. It can take a while for people to clean up.
All these reasons made him come up with a new concept.
"When me and Nadirah go out for dates, we go to places like Swenson's, I always think of how I can bring the food I grew up with, the simple rojak, could be enjoyed in comfortable seating, and with cooling air-conditioned environment. Not to the point of fine dining though! But just comfortable enough," maintains Salam. The first outlet of Ministry of Rojak looks comfortable, the decoration is nostalgic and the air-con is definitely welcoming.
But surely there are challenges opening up in a shopping mall?
1. Mountains of paperwork
"Of course! The worst thing is that there is so much paperwork to do! Application for approval from National Environment Agency, approvals from Ministry of Manpower, and liasing with the mall management," says Nadirah, a former Chemistry teacher. Even while working as a teacher she had always been involved with the family business, taking online orders for rojak delivery and catering.
2. Less flexibility under Mall management
"We have to get everything approved by them, from electrical layout, to piping, from decor to layout to opening hours. They even wanted to know where we were going to display our rojak!" said Nadirah.
3. 5 Times Higher Rent
The rental is also five times higher than that at the hawker centre- reaching five figures. However the business won some and lost some.
4. Adapting to Electric Stoves
"As our outlet is so near Pasir Ris MRT, it's facing the train track, we were not allowed to use gas, and we were quite put down by this because for over 30 years we used gas! We were only allowed to use electricity," Electric stoves don’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. They provide less precise temperature control, less even heating (especially the kind with the coils), and less overall power than gas stoves. Turning on a gas stove gets you an instant, constant flame that you can adjust visually – no wondering if the stove is on or off, hot or cold, or if it’s on the right setting. The flames produced by a natural gas stove also cook food more quickly and evenly, because the flames spread themselves along the bottom and sides of the pan. "We realised that using electric stove was much much cheaper compared to gas stove, so it worked out in the end! It's also less hot in here!" laughs Nadirah.
However, since the rent and labour is more expensive now, won't the rojak also be more expensive?
"We do hike up the price but only by 10 to 20 cents per piece. Our rojak sauce is still free flow though and you know, a billion ingredients go into making it! I heard that once Chef Bob (or Chef Shahrizal Salleh) came to eat and refilled his bowl of sauce seven times!" The generosity of our second-generation hawkers trying to bring heritage food to the next level cannot be denied and as supportive Singaporeans we shall do our best to support our local halal-foodpreneurs. Especially when the rojak tastes good while the ambience is pretty cool. Lastly, we just had to know now that the place looks posh, the question on my mind was is there any difference between the rojak at the hawker stall Abdhus Salaam Rojak, and at Ministry of Rojak?
Same-same or a bit different?
"Well our customers say that Salam makes the sauce a bit spicier here so those who like it spicy will come to Pasir Ris. Otherwise, everything is handmade fresh in the morning because food if it's not made fresh it won't taste the same!" said Nadirah.
So what's the future plans for Ministry of Rojak?
"We're going to open a new branch in Yishun, and we plan to venture overseas as well because now we are finally ready after testing the business model in Singapore. We want to be just like Old Chang Kee and introduce Singapore rojak globally! We also want to build the business better and pass it onto our children," said Nadirah, mother of two boys Muhamman Rayhan Rashaad, 4, & Muhammad Nazim, 10 months. Rayhan is already prepared. When he enters the shop he wants to help and calls it his shop. At four years old this young chap already volunteers to clear the tables. It seems like the Rojak blood runs deep in this family. We can all have full faith in their success. All the best Nadirah & Salam!
Address: 1 Pasir Ris Central St 3 #01-30, Singapore 518457
Opening hours: Refer here
Ministry of Rojak is a Muslim-owned establishment, verified on halalfoodhunt.com, a listing portal of halal food businesses.
They also offer 1 Free Drink for every meal with minimum $20 spent when you flash them our FRIENDS with halalfoodhunt.com Card.
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