The title of ‘best’ in relation to food is incredibly subjective, much like having to compare ‘sweet’ with ‘spicy.’ Even narrowing the fields of comparison down to just “sweet” opens the floor to a whole new debate.
All considered – having phenomenal, award-winning success selling a local Indian staple at its most basic form (with today’s ever-increasing thirst for fusion) earns you a spot with the cream of the crop, maybe even the ‘best’.
Rojak, commonly found in Singapore is a salad or mixture of vegetables and other fritters, to be consumed with sauce.
You can find many ethnic variations of the dish in Singapore, although the Indian variation is what will catch your eyes most. After all, who can resist the vibrant colours and vast plethora of items that it offers.
Flour fritters, light meats and finger foods are what primarily makes the Indian street food.
Mr. Abdhus Salam, founder of Ministry of Rojak brought Singaporean Indian Rojak to the world following the legacy of his father, Mr Akber Ali.
The late Mr. Akber ran the famed Abdhus Salam Rojak at Ayer Rajah Food Centre – the very first stall that he used to establish the brand back in 1994.
From Dream To Dreamporium
It’s normal for children to inherit their parents’ businesses. For Abdhus Salam, circumstances proved otherwise.
Although Salam had been aiding his father at their stall in Ayer Rajah since he was 16, the young hawkerpreneur found his calling and graduated with an Honours Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
He progressed as an assistant engineer till his now-late father, Akber faced a heart problem.
After an introspective phase, Salam made a decision that would allow for his own creative freedom: as with many young entrepreneurs, he “wanted to do something different,” while lightening the toll of the business on his father.
His father used to begin preparing daily at 3AM for a stall that would cease operations only at 11PM. Thus the creation – Ministry of Rojak, the heir to his accolade-winning father’s legacy.
Shaking up a brand that sees success in remaining traditional is a road that many would not travel.
However, Salam decided to introduce the concept of his Rojak cafes whilst “maintaining the ingredients of what makes a traditional Indian Rojak experience”.
His formula seems to be working.
The two outlets are bustling with business, and the brand’s flagship Pasir Ris outlet that I’m seated at for this interview is visited by seemingly equal portions of multiple races, unlike other local cuisine outlets whose patrons are often associated with the ethnic backgrounds of the food itself.
Rojak Better Than Rojak
Part of Salam’s attempts to level-up his father’s brand involved gaining the upper hand by investing in premium ingredients. The move probably stems from the awareness of the inconsistencies that come with hawker trade.
“Freshness is a guarantee at Ministry Of Rojak. Our ingredients are all premium, so as long as our recipe’s perfect, taste is maximum.”
As far as attempts to commercialise Indian Rojak go, this seems to be a healthy approach. It’s also a necessity, given that most would normally deem a plate of Rojak as “coffeeshop” fare.
Clearly, Ministry of Rojak’s namesake cuisine is more than just your common incarnation of the dish. When asked if there’s a secret to the stellar taste of their Rojak, the youthful Mr Salam gets sheepish and coy.
“It took me more than three years to come close to picking up my father’s techniques.”
He grins, speaking of how some customers have asked to take gravy home, and others who have teared up at how the taste of Ministry Of Rojak’s food shuttles them right “back to their days of childhood”.
“Sometimes, a good looking chef makes a difference too,” the 31-year-old chuckles.
Fresh, Crisp And Golden
His looks may not have been a constituent in play when Ministry Of Rojak got personally invited by the Prime Minister’s Office to be part of Singapore Food team in 2009.
Singapore Food team assembles some of the country’s best representations of traditional cuisine to be presented at Singapore Day, a yearly affair that’s held in different countries, internationally.
Salam’s shop has tended to the homesickness of many across borders – in places like London, China, San Francisco and Sydney.
To execute this achievement is no mean feat – Salam and his team spend days beforehand racking their brains and doing research on the ingredients at event locales, which are often of different intensity and type than in Singapore.
“If the chilli’s more spicy over there, we need to modify our recipes accordingly so that our food tastes the same as it does here.”
The joint has also been approved and validated by the GreenBook Best food awards, and multiple other award-institutions that rank the best Rojak locations in Singapore.
Salam’s passion is apparent as he says that what he does is a service to his heritage more than anything – to “keep Indian street food an active part of Singapore’s culture”.
Balls Of Flour And Steel
“There are always family members who point out that I have studied so much, and have a degree, or that this isn’t what my father would have wanted for me.”
Some believe he’s moving backwards, closer to his father’s past – a fate his father had worked hard to prevent for his son.
Mr Salam is well aware of the hard work needed to uphold the business – the uphill battle of building the brand for a new era of Singaporeans that prefer the creature comforts of cafes to coffee shops.
Nevertheless, his firm belief that this would be the only way to extend the longevity of this traditionally rooted dish convinced him to move forward with Ministry of Rojak.
“On my end, I think I see it differently: it can be hard now but in the future, once the business is stabilised and, maybe expanded, I could have a better life,” Salam says with more conviction than I expect in a conversation about rojak.
Despite the success of Abdhus Salam Rojak, there was still consternation in the building of a brand for a more contemporary audience. He felt that the solution lay in the quirky possibility of packaging the culturally-defined dish in the chic context of a cafe.
While it had its fair share of doubters, the occupied tables around me is clear indication that not betting on black is the way to go.
And while Salam has exceeded his original goal of setting up a cafe-styled Indian Rojak joint by expanding his reach with a second branch, it seems to me that a man as ambitious as him would have his sights set on greater things.
“Younger people shouldn’t be too wary about taking this industry up, the food trade is a never-dying one.”
Shaping A Country’s Legacy
Salam’s father, Akber, would have been 59 this year. Akber worked at his stall at Ayer Rajah Hawker Centre till the day of his passing.
It’s both clear and heartwarming that Salam carries his father’s endearing, raw passion for the trade.
Now a father himself, Salam is not just a product of the flourishing hawkerpreneur trend. The 31-year-old plans to spend the rest of his years carving and reiterating traditionalism in Singapore’s food culture.
“To make it an international brand – that’s my dream.”
An international chain of Indian Rojak cafes? Raise your eyebrow all you want – you wouldn’t be the first – but I wouldn’t bet against the entrepreneurial spirit of Abdhus Salam.