The Ratu Lemper Story: On Childhood, Family & Questions About My Faith
by Safiah Alias Sep 19, 2016
Within 5 minutes of waiting in Ratu Lemper for Alia Widjaya to be ready for her interview, there were already 10 customers walking in to buy lempers from Alia Widjaya and her husband Amin Yusoff. Such was the popularity of her lempers. What was the magic ingredient? When I asked her she said it was love. "Serve only what you will serve to your family." There is no MSG, and everything is made freshly on the day itself, replenishing the lempers when the stock is low. Now that is love. "I want to guarantee freshness till the evening. Cutting corners is not an option. My husband buys the pulut (glutinous rice) and santan (coconut milk) on a daily basis, to make sure of the freshness."
Satisfying a childhood craving
After moving to Singapore at the age of 13, Alia really missed this savoury snack commonly found on the the streets of Indonesia. Lemper is made from glutinous rice (pulut), with shredded and seasoned chicken, beef, or ambon. Whenever this happened, her parents would go out to find one. When Alia declared Islam as her faith, it was more difficult for her to satisfy these childhood cravings. There was no halal lemper available, and so Alia made a few on her own. She started bringing them when she attended family functions. They were so good and true the childhood taste that her Indonesian relatives encouraged her to sell them. She started with 100 lempers, and found that was a challenge itself. But she loved doing it and selling it to customers. Using a Happycall steam machine and working from home with only Instagram as a marketing channel, she managed to build up a consistent customer base who loved her lempers and kept ordering more and more. And soon word spread.
The "royal" treatment from family
It was her family too who was the inspiration behind the name. "They sarcastically kept calling me Alia, the ratu lemper (meaning Queen of Lemper)," said Alia "and the name stuck. I decided to use that name for my shop." Daily, the pulut has to be soaked overnight. "This was something I didn't know about. I thought you cook pulut just like you cook beras. So I learned many things by trial and error until I got to the right taste," says Alia. "I could only cook 100 pieces per batch with the happycall steamer. After some time, we upgraded to a bamboo steamer and this is what I use until today. The lempers are only made in limited batches so I can control the quality. My husband has to continue stirring the filling for one hour. Things got burnt many many times in the kitchen!"
Adjusting to Singaporeans' tastebuds
"The original one is harder. Our pulut is too soft for Indonesian's tastebuds. It's too spicy too! Lemper naturally differs from one state to another. In Javanese, it's sweeter, in Medan and Padang, it's salty and savoury. But our Singaporeans like it spicy!" Because of this, Alia has prepared lemper in flavours which are Original, Spicy and Extra Spicy. The extra spicy one really has the chilli kicking your tongue. She is also preparing many other types of flavours. The original lemper is also a circular roll and secured with a toothpick. "I shape my lempers in a rectangular shape so that I can put more fillings in. Only then do I feel satisfied and my customers will come back." I do testify to this. The fillings are generous!
Spicy chicken-filled lemper
Expanding to a physical shop, trusting family first.
As consumers demands grew, they surveyed around for a shop and found one at 16 Baghdad Street. Staffing the Baghdad Street outlet are Alia's family. Her mother-in-law, aunty, and husband are the ones in the kitchen. Right now her mother in law, her aunty and husband are the ones in the kitchen. "I trust them the most to ensure that the ingredients and cooking process are of the highest possible quality. Previously I'm only feeding my family, but now I'm feeding many people. I need to make sure the standards and quality are high." The shop has a beautiful decor. Simple and classy, which feels much like an Indonesian keraton, or a royal palace, very befitting of the Ratu Lemper brand. The kuehs and lempers are displayed neatly behind a glasscase. When you enter the shop, there are black ceiling boards with verses from the Quran painted in gold. On the right, there is a bookshelf with publications from the Muslim Convert Association of Singapore (Darul Arqam Singapore) which customers can take for free.
On questions about her faith
"I converted to Islam before I got married. After being a corporate, I worked at Darul Arqam. I still volunteer there as an editor and proofreader. The funny thing is that people asked me if I am Muslim when I'm selling my lemper, probably because my name used to be Carol Widjaya and I look Chinese. They notice that I don't have a halal certificate and that I don't look like a local Malay. But I've attended courses on halal by Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SMCCI), and by Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) so that I can improve my knowledge and improve standard of food preparation and food hygiene. Yes it's funny and embarassing sometimes, but I guess that's my challenge." We are guessing Alia's knowledge on halal and hygienic preparation far exceeds anyone of us! Just because Alia doesn't look like a typical Muslim doesn't mean she's not! Ask the right questions and you will get the right answers yah?
The Huge Sacrifice
Besides questions about her religion from the public, there is the issue of her and her husband leaving their children, aged 8 and 2, at home. "I am in the shop from 8am till 12midnight- Tuesday til Fridays. When I have to be in the shop on weekends my children will ask me not to go. They don't see enough of us. But this is the sacrifice we have to make right now." Do they ever get sick of the lemper she makes? "Luckily no, not yet! They still love having it after school! You can just put in the fridge and it can store for a few days."
Working with my husband
We couldn't help but notice the working chemistry Alia had with her husband while in the shop serving customers. How is it like working with her husband? "I advise people not to work with their husbands if they can! There have been shouting matches and all that but at the end of they day who can I trust the most if not my husband? Who can I be myself the most if not around him? I'm thankful lah." "It has always been a dream for me to do this so that I can see her all the time," says husband Amin. "He's kidding you!" laughs Alia.
Customers from afar love food made with love
As we bit into the soft and spicy lemper later on, we could fill our tummies and hearts filled with the love that Alia and her family put into her cooking. Cooking made with love sure tastes different! Says Siti Norlela, a customer in her mid-30s, "I'm buying the lemper ayam, the spicy one. I came here from Woodlands just to get this temper. I heard so much good things about it on social media, so I can't wait to try this!"
Ratu Lemper is located at 16 Baghdad St, Singapore 199655.
For most updated opening hours and address of Ratu Lemper, click here.
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