The owners of a modest Nasi Padang store share their nostalgia for the yesteryears through humble, heart-warming fare.
In recent years, the long, winding stretches of Sembawang Road like many other parts of the island has gradually gotten a facelift. Vast plains of untouched dense grassland have made way for the development of high-rise housing projects. To date, sections of the area remain lined with hoarding – an indication that more construction is underway.
Amidst what’s left of the untouched land and new housing development projects, stands a row of seemingly misplaced shop houses. Built around 1965, the row of shop houses coined the Sembawang Strip is what remains of the former Sembawang Village – a settlement located along Sembawang Road.
After World War II, Sembawang Village had transformed into a bustling entertainment strip lined with bars and food eateries. These watering holes satiated the appetites of visiting sailors who were housed at a naval base a stone’s throw away. In the 1970s when the British withdrew their military forces from Singapore, the buzzing bars fell silent. Eventually most of the shophouses were demolished, leaving behind a modest stretch of bars and an open air coffee shop that still remain open today.
Although modern developments continue to encroach along its peripheries, the Sembawang Strip offers a step back into Singapore’s past. Located at the corner of the Sembawang Strip is an open air coffee shop home to Nur Fah Muslim Corner – a humble nasi padang stall that has been around for the past 25 years.
It is the labour of love of husband and wife duo Rosly Abu Bakrin, 65 and Salbiah Hj.Bro, 61. When the couple found themselves in between jobs in their 30s, they made the decision to step foot into the food business in a neighbourhood they both grew up in and fell in love in.
Growing up, Rosly and Salbiah’s families were a part of the Malay community that populated the northern coast of Singapore in the 50’s and 60’s. Like the stuff of an old school tele drama, a love story unfolded between the couple who lived down the road from one another. “When she would pass by my house after work, I would look out for her and that’s where it all started,” Rosly recalled his kampung love affair in-between laughs.
While the kampung has long been demolished, Rosly and Salbiah have kept the spirit of the community very much alive at their nasi padang stall. Salbiah, who does the cooking at the store, inherited her cooking skills from her father who used to fish for his own produce and cook for the entire village on special occasions. The flavours of Salbiah’s food are nostalgic of the kampung feasts her father used to cook up.
“We have not changed the recipe in over 20 something years. I have continued to serve kampung dishes like jackfruit, cow tripe, tapioca leaves, and black squid,” explained Salbiah. When asked how her nasi padang dishes differ from the other offerings around the island, Salbiah shrugged, “I am not sure, I do things my own way here.”
Salbiah’s “own way” is food dished straight from the heart. The pair, in their 60s, start their mornings at 4am to make an early trip to the market to shop for groceries for the day. “When at the market, Salbiah takes charge of the poultry section while I take charge of the dry provisions,” shared Rosly. Back at the stall, cooking for the day – typically a four-hour toil – commences by 5:30am. At Nur Fah Muslim Corner, Salbiah and Rosly, with the assistance of their kitchen staff, dish out an astonishing array of about 50 dishes, even more on the weekends. By 12:30pm on most days, the couple would have sold out of their dishes.
In the earlier years, Salbiah and Rosly managed the stall by themselves, in between caring for their three children. “The first 10 years were very, very hard. I would wake up early, come to the shop, and after we’re done at the shop, I’d have to go home and take care of the kids,” recalled Salbiah.
Throughout the hardships, Salbiah and Rosly have remained each other’s steadfast support systems. “Like any couple, we have our quarrels but we have one rule. We don’t bring any unhappiness back home,” said Salbiah.
The longevity of Nur Fah Muslim Corner is a testament to the unweavering bond between the couple and their shared love for the food that they serve. While the pair have hired help since the early years of the stall, the kitchen never runs without the supervision of Salbiah.
The stall holds a special place in both their hearts. “Either one of us is always at the stall to watch over it,” said Salbiah. Despite the long hours and physically demanding work, the couple has no plans of retiring from the business. The Sembawang Strip and its neighbouring areas offer them a sense of home.
“On Fridays and the weekends, I still have old friends who come down here and we chit-chat about the old times. It makes me happy,” said Rosly. “All my friends are around here, I know so many people, it never gets lonely,” Salbiah chimed in.
With neither of their children keen on carrying on the family business, Rosly and Salbiah intend to continue for as long as they can. “I made this empire, it’s so sayang (Malay for “what a pity”). I still hope that one day one of my children will change their minds,” admitted Salbiah.
Catch the couple in this episode of the Under My Block series and discover other hidden gems in the North of Singapore.
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