Food and Beverage
Rendang Village is an informal café on the outskirts of Singapore’s Little India district. Serving traditional Malaysian fare, it was opened by two Malaysian immigrants. Scroll down for an interview with the proprietors.
Jalan Besar is lined with two- to four-storey shop houses, similar to the ones you would find in Clarke Quay, which is pronounced “key” not “kway”. But few of the shop houses have been dolled up.
Mostly they house hardware stores, days spas, karaoke lounges, and pubs. I also stumbled across a storefront gym, a 24-hour market that doesn’t accept credit cards, and a Buddhist meditation centre.
While many of the 1920s to 1940s era structures DO house food and beverage outlets – just like the ones in Clark Quay – none of them have Michelin stars.
There are also plenty of places to spend the night. But instead of four or five star hotels, you will find modest hostelries, one or two bed-and-breakfasts, and LOTS and LOTS of hostels targeting backpackers.
As I explored the neighborhood further, I discovered yet more meditation centres, several open air food courts, and a stately Christian church.
There was also an extravagant Hindu temple with devotees removing their sandals, leaving them on the sidewalk, and washing their feet before walking inside.
Inside the crowded temple one Hindu priest was playing an instruments that appeared and sounded like a clarinet. Another would occasionally beat a drum.
Hunger pangs started to indicate that it was time for lunch. I was hoping to try Malaysian fare. I returned to my hotel to retrieve my notebook so I could take notes when I finally found a place.
As I searched for a spot to have lunch, I stumbled across what appeared to be a Malaysian restaurant. I went inside, and it was.
So far I had had Indian food and Chinese food, but no Malaysian food – which represents the third culinary element of Singapore’s tripartite cultural makeup.
And I had already been in the Lion City for more than one week! I decided to give the place a try.
Main courses ran from Asam Laksa and Nasi Lemak with Fried Chicken to Chicken Rendang, Beef Rendang, Fish Head Curry, Paprika Chicken, Fried Calamari, and a couple of other dishes. There were also several side dishes, beverages, and desserts.
The main courses were arrayed on a steam table. The side dishes were set out on in glass serving trays.
I opted for the Chicken Rendang, asking for it NOT to be chopped, and two vegetarian side dishes. I also ordered iced milk tea, which has become my beverage of choice in Singapore.
When my plate arrived, I took one bite of the Chicken Rendang and thought that it had to be the MOST delicious thing I had tasted since I arrived in Singapore nine days earlier.
In addition to chicken rendang, I had two vegetarian dishes. One of the dishes comprised cabbage, tree ears (a type of fungus), and carrots.
There was another ingredient, which I thought was tofu skin. It had a similar taste and texture. But when I asked about it, I was told it was another type of tree fungus.
The other dish had something that I thought was green chilies, but they were actually something called "ladies' fingers", which had the taste and texture of okra.
The other ingredients were Bermuda (or red) onions and red chilies. I preferred the former dish. I'm not a big fan of okra. It has a gummy texture, which I don't particularly care for.
Before leaving and paying my bill, I asked for the names of the dishes I had eaten so I could mention them in the post I was planning to write on where to eat in a typical working class part of Singapore.
Then I asked when the restaurant had opened. When I learned that it had only opened a few weeks before, and that the proprietors were newly arrived emigres from Malaysia – seeking their fortune in Singapore – I thought, “Sound like they’ve got a story to tell!”
Introducing Adam Yap Kok-fai and Didson Yap Kok-yew.
It was Saturday afternoon and business at Rendang Village – along with all of the other food and beverage outlets in this part of town – was slow. I asked if we could sit down and have a talk. They readily agreed.
I learned that the two men were brothers. They were from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they had worked in finance.
Feeling that their careers had reached a dead-end, they decided to move to Singapore and go into business for themselves. Excerpts from our conversation follow:
ATWHK: Why would you give up seemingly secure jobs in Kuala Lumpur to try your luck opening a business in Singapore?
Adam: “For me, I think finance is a sunset industry. There is job cutting everywhere. We had a bit of money, so we thought we would give it a try and open a business.”
Didson: “For me, I wanted to start my own business. I had been stagnant in finance for quite some time.
ATWHK: But why Singapore?
Adam: “A lot of Chinese people like spicy food, and Singapore is close to home.”
Didson: “Also, our sister had already immigrated to Singapore and given birth to a baby. We wanted to have fun with her, and we’ve brought our parents to Singapore, as well.”
ATWHK: Why a restaurant?
Adam: “We could have opened a boutique selling clothes or other kinds of products. But the food and beverage industry offers a low entry barrier for setting up a business.
“There are no complications collecting payment. When you sell food, you get paid right away.
“Less money is needed for advertising because our product will speak for itself.
“Also, I like to cook, which is one of the main issues. So that is why we decided to open a restaurant rather than another kind of business."
Didson: “My brother is very passionate about cooking!”
ATWHK: They say that the three most important considerations when opening a restaurant are location, location, and location. Why did you choose this particular location?
Adam: “Looking for places, we mostly looked on line. Most of the places at shopping malls or downtown were very costly – $20,000 to $30,000 a month (Singapore).
“We called an agent, and he showed us a few locations. This is a place where many of the things we would need to buy are for sale.”
ATWHK: I’ve noticed that there are a lot of hardware stores along this road.
Adam: “Also, it’s quite close to the MRT, shopping malls, a stadium, a sports centre, and bus stops.”
ATWHK: Was it difficult setting up shop in Singapore?
Adam: “Sourcing tables and chairs, cooking utensils, and equipment were small challenges. We also needed to find trustworthy suppliers of food and raw materials."
ATWHK: What has been the biggest challenge setting up shop in Singapore?
“The major challenge has been getting customers to try our food.
This area has a lot of mid-range workers who don’t spend a lot of money on lunch. We are trying to price our food moderately, but chicken rendang is very labour intensive. It takes three to four hours to cook coconut juice down from something watery to something concentrated. Customers might not appreciate how much work goes into it.”
ATWHK: So you cook everything from scratch. You don’t use mixes or canned coconut milk?
Adam: “We blend our own spices. Everything is fresh.”
ATWHK: How many dishes to you have altogether?
Adam: “We have about 15 dishes.”
ATWHK: Which dishes are most popular?
Adam: “There are three: chicken rendang, nasi lemak, and asam laksa.”
ATWHK: I’m afraid I’m not very knowledgeable about Malaysian food – except that it is delicious! Can you explain these dishes to me?
Adam: “Rendang means dry curry. It is thicker than conventional curry. And it has coconut milk.
“Nasi lemak is coconut milk rice. It has a fried chicken drumstick, cucumber, and anchovy.
“Asam laksa is a kind of sweet and sour soup with thick rice noodles. The broth is made from fish. Everything including the head and the tail are ground into a paste. So you have the aroma of the fish.”
ATWHK: Your chicken rendang is delicious! Do you have a secret ingredient?
Adam: “I used chili padie rather than conventional chilies. Chili padie means ‘rice paddy chilies’ because they are very small – the size of a grain of rice. They really boost the aroma of the dish. Most chefs use conventional chilies.”
ATWHK: If that is so, why don’t other chefs use chili padie? Are they difficult to source?
Adam: “Not at all. They are easy to source. But most chefs get their recipes from YouTube. I got mine from my mother-in-law, who is a very good cook. She caters feasts for the entire village during Malaysian festivals.”
Didson: “One of the reasons we chose Singapore is because we want to promote asam laksa here. It is one of our missions.”
ATWHK: What are your plans for the future?
Adam: “We would like to expand into shopping malls, but if we can’t sustain the rent, we will have to close down. We’re giving it six months.”
Didson: “One of the reasons we chose this place is because we can serve a variety of dishes as well as beverages and desserts. If we opened a stall in a shopping mall or a food court, we couldn’t do that.”
ATWHK: Why not? Is this because of government regulations? They say that Singapore is a 'fine' city!
Didson: “If we opened a hawker’s stall selling food, we wouldn’t be allowed to sell beverages. If we opened a coffee shop, we wouldn’t be able to sell food.
“Many of the food court operators sub-let stalls to hawkers, and they limit the number of items that the hawkers can sell."
ATWHK: So it's not about regulations. The food court operators want to create a certain product mix. They don’t want everyone selling the same thing.
Adam: “Yes. If you sell rice dishes, you can’t sell noodles. If you sell noodles, but can’t see rice dishes. We know the challenges. We want to bundle dishes, but it is difficult to get workers to accept this.
ATWHK: You mean like set meals - a soup, a main dish, a beverage?
Adam: “In Malaysia, a spicy dish should be followed by something cooling such as coconut. Would you like to try a coconut milkshake?”
ATWHK: I would love to! Sounds delicious!
Didson heads into the kitchen and returns a few minutes later with enough coconut milkshake for the three of us. I must say, it is both refreshing and delicious. And it really does refresh the mouth after a spicy meal such as the one I just had.
ATWHK: Do you have a target market? A certain demographic that you are catering to?
Didson: “We want to cater to the Muslim community so we don’t sell beer or pork. It’s not enough to offer Halal dishes. The entire kitchen has to be halal. Even the suppliers must be halal certified.”
ATWHK: What are your hours?
Adam: “10 am to 10 pm. The same as everyone else. We are closed Mondays.
ATWHK: And where do you eat on your days off?
Adam: “Most of the time I go to shopping centres and eat at steak houses or fast food outlets. Eating isn’t important to me. Most of the time I’m in a hurry so I have fast food.”
ATWHK: And what kind of food do you like best?
Adam: “Western food. I really like Western food.”
Rendang Village, No. 219 Jalan Besar, Singapore. Telephone: +65 8189-0893.