The humble curry puff is one of Singapore’s classic local snacks, found in coffee shops and snack stalls across the island. Commonly filled with a savoury potato and meat mixture, it is easily adapted to suit different tastes and makes for a satisfying snack at virtually any time of the day. We sat down for a chat (and a bite) with the Hussein sisters, whose family-run bakery has been churning out their famous curry puffs for decades and now sells a host of other delectable baked goods as well.

Upon stepping into Indian Muslim Bakery & Confectionery, the familiar scent of biryani spices wraps around you like a warm hug. Curry puffs of various shapes and sizes, their filo pastry shells baked to a deep saffron, welcome you from the display behind the counter. Bite into one and the pastry collapses into a mass of delicate shards, revealing chunks of tender potato and rich beef inside. It’s aromatic, comforting and devastatingly good.

It’s no surprise, then, that this curry puff has been the bakery’s best-seller for decades. Madam Huraizah “Reza” bte Mahmood Hussein, 49, one of the bakery’s Managing Directors, grew animated as she recounted the development of their star product.

“My mum and dad came up with the recipe around 40 years ago. They wanted something different from just your plain potato curry puff; something that people would keep coming back for. They came up with beef and chicken curry puffs, and added biryani curry powder, onions and green chilli. And people started coming – a lot!” she enthused.

Reza (L) and her sister Hazra (R) at the bakery’s counter. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.

Nestled in the residential enclave of Joo Chiat, Indian Muslim Bakery & Confectionery has been serving its customers out of the same single-storey building for over 75 years. Reza’s grandfather, Shaik Jan Bux, began running the bakery in 1942; today, Reza manages it with two of her sisters and their mother.

“I don’t remember him too well, but he was a very strict kind of person,” said Reza of her grandfather. “If he saw us grandchildren running around the bakery, he would shout — he couldn’t see very well although he wore these thick spectacles — and we would run away and hide until he went off. We used to play hide and seek among the flour stacks, but of course we don’t do that anymore,” she laughed.

Reza and her sisters have spent their entire lives around the bakery, having grown up in the house just next door. Asked when she started helping out in the shop, Reza looked momentarily stumped, unable to recall a time when she wasn’t doing so. “I was born here, so we’ve always just been here lah…if you want to ask specifically how old, I don’t know, just from young!” she said.

In Reza’s grandfather’s day, the bakery sold mainly bread, particularly sandwich bread and French loaves; this was before supermarket shelves were stocked with ready-sliced loaves all year round. To keep up with demand —  especially during Lunar New Year when Chinese-run bakeries would close for weeks at a time —  the bakery’s ancient stone ovens would operate 24 hours a day.

With the rise of large commercial bakeries, however, the business was forced to shift its focus, and the family began experimenting with curry puffs and even popiah, which they supplied to stallholders hawking snacks to football fans at the nearby National Stadium.

“In those days, my sisters and I used to work from 4 am to 6 pm just making popiah! By the thousands, you know. Maybe 2,000 pieces a day, and just three or four of us making it,” said Reza. “In those days, we didn’t use the freezer much, so we couldn’t make it beforehand and we’d have to start on the day itself. One person would make the skin, one would fill the popiah, and my father would do the frying. We even shaved the turnips by hand.”

Making curry puffs was a similarly laborious process. “In those days, everything was handmade. It was all manual labour,” recounted Reza. “We had this big table, maybe 3 metres long, with all the flour heaped on top. People would stand all around it and we would mix the dough.”

One of the bakery’s employees folding and filling curry puffs. Some of its employees have been working there for over 20 years. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.

Reza and her sisters were drafted in to lend a hand whenever help was needed, whether it was cutting up potatoes, kneading mutton fat into the dough or heating up the ovens. “It wasn’t easy to work on that, you know. You need skill —  we all had to learn —  but it wasn’t that fast. You had to heat up the burner for 45 minutes and there was just one small vent for air and another for light, and you had to put your face up to these things. It was so hot,” she said.

Their hard work paid off, however, as the family struck gold with their delectable curry puffs. In fact, during the 1980s, the bakery had to issue customers with queue numbers, as the wait for a fresh batch could be as long as 1.5 hours whenever they ran out of stock.

“We couldn’t make that many at one go. Maybe about 200? But people would queue up,” said Reza. “Sometimes they would complain, because we were selling our beef curry puffs for $1.20. People would say it’s so expensive, you can buy nasi lemak for $1.20 also and you’d be full. But they would still queue up,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

Today, the bakery sells nine different varieties of curry puff in both regular and mini sizes, with flavours ranging from the original trio of potato, chicken and beef, to sardine, rendang and black pepper. They even came up with a vegetarian version for Indian customers who wanted something beyond the regular potato variety.

Thanks to its willingness to cater to diverse tastes, the bakery draws customers from across the island and even abroad. Some of their customers come from Johor, Australia and even London, asking for curry puffs to be packed up for them to bring on the journey home. They also have regulars who have patronised their shop for years.

“A lot of customers have seen us from [when we were] young, from thin to fat…they come and tell us, wah, you fat already ah!” laughed Reza.

Feedback from customers also prompted the family to expand their repertoire. About 10 years ago, Reza’s sister Hazra, 40, also a Managing Director of the bakery, began experimenting with making traditional Malay kueh. She now sells these on the weekends and takes custom orders for special occasions such as birthdays and engagement ceremonies.

“People wanted to get everything in one place. They’d come for curry puffs and ask if we sold kueh as well, so I started trying to do it,” shared Hazra. “But it was all trial and error.”

Being self-taught brought its share of hiccups along the way. One of Hazra’s most-requested items today is her multi-layered “doll” kueh, where kueh is made in the shape of a doll’s skirt and topped with an actual toy doll. On one occasion, however, the kueh skirt cracked as she tried to loosen it from the mould.

“It was so scary! We tried to insert the doll and the whole thing broke. And the customers were coming in one or two hours!” said Hazra, exchanging looks with Reza as she recalled the incident. “We just had to try and modify it —  put a ribbon around it, hide the cracked part of the skirt…”

“It was funny,” added Reza.

On her part, Reza manages the orders for customised cakes, which she began accepting around the mid-2000s. “I always liked eating cake when I was young, but I didn’t have time to make them at first because there were too many things to do,” she said. However, after the bakery installed new equipment that mechanised a lot of their work in the 1990s, she was freed up to focus on other products besides curry puffs, and enrolled in a National Institute of Technical Education Certificate (NITEC) course to hone her skills.

“A lot of people asked about cake. Even my baking suppliers. They would tell me, make cake lah, got a lot of money! One cake can sell for $20, $30. But I just didn’t have the time. And those days, 30 years ago, our Malay customers didn’t really like cake, or they would just make it themselves at home.”

“But more people started asking about cake, especially youngsters. They’re always willing to try new things,” said Reza. “Plus my auntie started helping out and she would take care of the counter the whole morning, so I had time to do my cakes.”

One of Reza’s creations. Photo courtesy of Reza Hussein/Indian Muslim Bakery & Confectionery.

A well-thumbed catalogue on the shop counter shows off the results of her efforts. Made in popular flavours such as ondeh-ondeh and red velvet, Reza’s cakes come topped with delicate cream roses and customised fondant decorations. One customer even requested a cake modelled after his father – he provided a photograph and asked her to recreate it – from the old man’s moustache to the licence plate of his Vespa.

“I told him, I can’t make it look exactly like that, I’m not that kind of artist,” laughed Reza. “So he said, OK, just do whatever you can. That was very challenging.” Despite her worries, the cake turned out very well.

Looking to the future, the sisters hope to keep the business within the family. Their children help out in the shop, as they once did: Reza’s 21-year-old daughter assists her with cake orders from time to time, although she has a day job in a childcare centre.

“These kinds of things, we don’t force our children,” said Reza. “My mum and dad, they didn’t force us to go into this. We willingly did it. My daughter is working, so see how, if she wants to join…but I think one of them will. Someone will hang around. That’s what we hope for, lah.”

 

Written by: Sophie Chew

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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