The brightly coloured fried dough fritters known as Indian rojak is much loved by Singaporeans. For Sabeek Mohamed Yusof, however, the dish is also a reminder of his father and the work his father put in to make the food that helped feed thousands of people over the decades.
Mention Indian rojak (“mixed” in Malay) and most Singaporean foodies immediately think of brightly coloured dough fritters with a sweet and spicy chili dip, a sweat-inducing delight in tropical Singapore.
But for Mr Sabeek Mohamed Yusof, 45, this Indian hawker dish also represents memories of his father. Mr A.S. Mohamed Yusof spent 20 years selling Indian rojak at the Albert Centre Market and Food Centre from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Like clockwork, Mr A.S. Mohamed Yusof began his day at 8am when he headed to the market to purchase fresh rojak ingredients, Mr Sabeek recalled.
“Then he brings the ingredients to the stall for the cook to start preparing the food while he goes home for a quick breakfast before returning to the stall,” Mr Sabeek said, adding that the family lived in the vicinity.
Mr A.S. Mohamed Yusof at his Indian rojak store near the Albert Centre Market and Food Centre in the late 1970s. Image source: Sabeek Mohamed Yusof
His father painstakingly prepared the food, setting aside enough ingredients for eight to nine main rojak varieties. The fritters could be made with flour, onions and grated coconut; flour and vegetables; or flour and prawns. Other components of the Indian rojak include potatoes and eggs coated with batter.
But the secret was in the sauce. What made one Indian rojak stall stand out from another was the recipe of the secret sauce, Mr Sabeek said.
And even today, Mr Sabeek remains tightlipped about the secret that his father passed down to him, stating simply that: “The sauce is made from sweet potatoes, peanuts, sesame and so on.”
The work was hard and the hours were long, he recalled. The stall opened at 11am to catch the early lunch crowd and he would not see his father until late at night, past 11pm.
Back in the late 1970s, each dish of Indian rojak cost around 30 cents. His father ran the stall with a cook and one or two other workers who served the food. Mr Sabeek had initially set out on a path different from his father, completing school and taking up a job at a food catering company. But the unexpected and sudden death of his father in 1994 made him leave the stable job to take over his father’s stall.
“It was all so sudden at that time, and I was the only son, so it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Indian rojak as it is known today was invented by early migrants from the Indian town of Thuckalay. These Indian settlers kneaded and prepared the dough in a certain way to give the pieces a distinctive texture and taste, said Mr Sabeek.
The early Indian rojak street hawkers were based in Waterloo Street. As the business grew, more migrants from the South Indian town came to Singapore, attracted by the promise of a better life, said Mr Sabeek. His ancestors were also from Thuckalay.
Over time, these Indian rojak hawkers expanded to other parts of Singapore, popularising the dish. At the Siraj Famous Waterloo Street Indian Rojak, Mr Sabeek ensures that the food prepared is in the same tradition as his ancestors and father.
But while Mr Sabeek has tried to keep the simple dish true to tradition, everything else about hawker food has changed.
Mr Sabeek Mohamed Yusof at his store at Albert Centre Market & Food Centre serving up Indian rojak to his regulars during lunch time. Image source: Mr Sabeek Mohamed Yusof
Food options are plenty and people have their pick of cuisine, taste and even the ambience – choices that the previous generation of Singaporeans did not get.
In fact, shifts in consumption patterns brought about by increasing numbers of food stalls and restaurants in the vicinity of Albert Centre have resulted in shorter operating hours at the hawker centre.
The work is hard and the hours are long – Mr Sabeek and his team work for 10 hours a day every day.
“Making rojak is a lot of hard work because of the variety and [detailed] preparation. These days, there are not so many people going into this [making Indian rojak],” he said.
“On the other hand, this is good for us because there is less competition. So if people want Indian rojak, they have to come regardless of where they live.”
Many of his loyal customers are middle-aged former students of St Joseph’s Institution (which used to occupy the building of the present Singapore Art Museum) who have fond memories of eating the Indian rojak that his father made.
“They remember their school days and they come [for the rojak]. Some send their children to buy for them,” he says.
If there is one life lesson that Mr Sabeek has learnt from his father in his hawker trade, it is simply that hard work pays off. The work is difficult and challenging, but the stall has provided for his family over the years.
However, if you ask Mr Sabeek whether he wishes his children to continue the tradition, he smiles and shakes his head.
“They are doing quite well in their studies, and I don’t want to interfere in their career choices,” he said.
“They may help out if they wish but not professionally. It’s tough and you want your children to lead a better life.”
Written by: Elaine Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign