Combating rising hawker food prices

Laying claim to any food-related award here in Singapore is a tall feat indeed, especially when every other compatriot’s a self-proclaimed critic. For Mr Nur Noi Firqhan, 41, whose competent hands have been running the Sajian Mak Dara hawker stall since 2006, clinching DBS’ Best Malay Food Hawker Award was nothing short of monumental.

Coupled with the fact that the award is conferred by the largest bank in the country, you just know the hawker’s serious about his grub. We went to meet the man behind the stall which has satiated generations with their award-winning nasi lemak and bubur kampung – a porridge dish served alongside accompanying dishes like peanuts, ikan bilis, and salted egg.

Taking over the stall as a young hawker

Geylang Serai Market And Food CentreImage credit: Singapore Tourism Board

Our sights were set for Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre, which is a bustling hotspot known for some of the most authentic Malay cuisine in the East. Sajian Mak Dara is housed on its 2nd floor, where we soon spotted Mr Noi hard at work.

He was dishing out his last plates of food before starting to wind down for the day at around just 1pm, a testament to the stall’s booming popularity. Amidst the undeniable success of his business, we came by to explore the decision-making behind the recent price increase. The first in 15 years, this rise saw his signature nasi lemak going from $4 to $4.50.

Mr Noi Serving A Customer

He wasn’t always as passionate when it came to the hawker business though, which was previously a solo operation manned by his mother some 17 years ago. She simply did not have the funds to hire a pair of extra hands to help out around the stall, and so began Mr Noi’s involvement in the family business when he was only in his mid-20s.

Mr Noi And His Wife In Front Of Sajian Mak Dara

“When we were young, we weren’t interested in this thing,” said Mr Noi, who was joined by his wife, Ms Rahayu Othman for our chat. His other 4 siblings shared the same sentiment, but ultimately the onus of running the stall landed on him when his elderly mother who was well into her 60s decided to call it quits because of old age.

Even before he completely took over the reins, he had to head over to the stall after his previous job as a dispatch rider to help his mother with cleaning up. Ms Rahayu was also soon roped into the business, with the couple’s dates slowly transforming into part-time stints at Sajian Mak Dara.

The hardships of running a hawker stall

Eventually, waking up at 2.30am was part and parcel of Mr Noi’s life. Sajian Mak Dara’s early operating hours – which stretch from 6.30am till 2pm or until they sell out – means that they have a morning crowd to catch. As such, you’ll find Mr Noi arriving at his stall at 3.30am, ready to start the day. 

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Preparing Nasi Lemak

From washing and cooking the rice to marinating and frying the chicken, Mr Noi has a very systematic breakdown of his day-to-day tasks in order to set up shop on time. “Normally around 4.30am, 4.45am, I’ve got 4 stoves. All stoves will be on, so you have to multitask. By 6am, all is done already.” said Mr Noi.

His odd working hours also mean that he doesn’t get to spend as much time with his friends and family as he’d like. However, he still does make the effort to check in with his family, no matter how knackered he might be.

“Every weekend, even though we go back from the shop and we are tired, we have to make time to bring [my daughter] out to spend time with us,” said Mr Noi when speaking about his 9-year-old daughter.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Mr Noi And His Family
Mr Noi and his family on a recent trip to Indonesia.
Image credit: Noi Nur Firqhan via Facebook

His commitment to Sajian Mak Dara also means that ad-hoc holidays with his family are difficult to arrange. Ironically, it is during public holidays that the stall sees an influx of customers.

In order not to miss the surge in business, Mr Noi will only take a week off work during the 3-day quarterly market closures, during which he finally gets the time to relax on an overseas sojourn with the fam.

Increasing his prices by only 50¢ after over 15 years

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Sajian Mak Dara Menu

Now for the big question – why did the stall decide to finally raise its prices after over 15 years of business? In accordance with the rising costs of operating a business, of course. The stall was no more immune to the relentless rate of inflation than any other establishment out there.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Elderly Customer Ordering At Sajian Mak Dara

It was awkward breaking the news of the $0.50 increment to his customers. The stall retained its low prices for as long as they could, to keep their food affordable especially to their aged clientele. “Most of my customers are old aunties,” said Mr. Noi. “Then I just have to tell them, the prices are all going up, rental going up, only the rain goes down,” he quipped.

The decision for the price adjustment was also a symbolic one; one that mirrored a passing of the torch from one generation to another. The stall now operates under Mr Noi’s name, and this warranted an era of change to keep the business up and running. 

Thankfully, this did not put too much of a dent on their business, and just like any other day before the price increase, they were all sold out near the 2pm mark. “I feel guilty, but I have no choice,” Mr Noi remarked. He also added that during the first week of implementing the price changes, thankfully only 1 or 2 customers voiced their complaints.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Sajian Mak Dara Nasi Lemak And Bubur Kampong

It is easy to see why his customers are unfazed by the price hike, though. Mr Noi graciously offered us a taste of his best-sellers, namely the stall’s critically acclaimed nasi lemak ($4.50) and bubur kampung ($5)

To start off, their nasi lemak’s calling card is undoubtedly their sambal chilli, vouched for by a zealous customer before we even had the chance to dig into our food. However, it is the fragrant and fluffy Basmati rice that has won over the hearts of their younger crowd.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Sajian Mak Dara Nasi Lemak

“There’re a lot of customers, when they come back, they said their grandkids remember the taste of their rice, not the chilli,” said Ms Rahayu. Mr Noi added, “It’s our trademark; when customers come back, they said when they go and buy from other place, their kids know this is not from Sajian Mak Dara.”

Other returning patrons include a foreign worker who has been ordering a plate of nasi lemak every day for the past few months at the break of dawn. When asked by Ms Rahayu if he could really stomach eating the same thing for breakfast for months on end, he responded with an unwavering yes. 

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Accompanying Dishes For Bubur Kampong

The bubur kampung was no slouch either. A piping hot bowl of Sajian Mak Dara’s signature porridge is the perfect comfort food to tide through any torrential downpour, especially given the current monsoon season. “You need to take a little bit of everything and mix it together, and then eat,” Mr. Noi advised.

Sure enough, the hodgepodge of ingredients complemented each other well – from the crunchy peanuts and ikan bilis to the jolting spice of the kang kong. Speaking of which, the dish was not made with chilli wimps like myself in mind; in particular the sambal chilli on the side gave the porridge a viciously spicy kick, but that’s exactly what customers laud it for.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Sambal Chilli For Nasi Lemak And Bubur Kampong At Sajian Mak DaraThe 2 different types of sambal used in the nasi lemak and bubur kampung. Both are made on a daily basis, after cutting, boiling, and blending dry chilli with no added preservatives.

The legendary recipe for their sambal remains unchanged from when Mr Noi’s mother, now in her 80s, was running the stall. Impressively, she still plays an active role by whipping up the meanest batches of sambal from the comfort of home. Needless to say, patrons who grew up eating here are glad that the chilli has retained its distinctive taste throughout the years.

Clinching the coveted DBS PayLah! Hawker Awards

Prior to their win, Mr Noi and his wife were not even aware of their nomination to the DBS PayLah! Awards for Best Malay Food Hawker. They only caught wind of it after a friend told them of their name being in the running for the award.

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Customers At Sajian Mak Dara

The stall took to social media to garner votes, as well as getting their everyday crowd to put in a good word for them. According to Ms Rahayu, it didn’t take any convincing at all for their loyal customers to stand behind them; it’s clear that their food did most of the talking.

Ms Rahayu also shared the pleasant and eye-opening experience they had when DBS sent their team down for a campaign publicity shoot, which later promoted the stall as the eventual winner of the coveted award. “The photoshoot was very bombastic. They had all their equipment, they occupied the whole space. It was a very grand photoshoot.” 

Combating Rising Hawker Food Prices - Sajian Mak Dara DBS Best Malay Food Hawker Award

Mr Noi is no stranger to paying it forward, and plans to use the spotlight to give back to his customers, both new and old. Much like his proverbial baton pass which landed him behind the counter of Sajian Mak Dara, he would like to continue serving his best for generations to come. “For me, it’s just about exposure, and reaching all the age groups.”

Going on to win the whole thing came as a shock to the duo, and they profusely gave their thanks to DBS for their support for not only their stall, but for the community as a whole. Sajian Mak Dara is not the only beneficiary of DBS’ continued involvement in the hawker community.

DBS Adopt-A-Hawker InitiativeThe DBS Adopt-a-Hawker Centre initiative has led to over 67,000 donated meals.
Image credit: DBS

For instance, DBS ran an Adopt-a-Hawker Centre initiative at the height of Covid-19 to help support stall owners in need, especially after the hit in income brought on by Covid-19 restrictions. The initiative involved digital onboarding for the hawkers so that their food could be ordered online, and bulk orders that were then donated to frontliners and low-income families. 

Meanwhile, their 5 Million Hawker Meals initiative has helped shave $3 off, well, 5 million meals for hawker patrons. Every Friday for the past year, the first 100,000 customers who used PayLah! to pay for their meals received cashback of up to $3.

This was exactly what the doctor ordered amidst inflation, not only for customers feeling the pinch of rising food prices, but stall owners whose businesses were impacted over these concerns as well. Good news for hawker food lovers: DBS is extending this initiative till July 2024 to provide more relief amidst rising costs.

DBS PayLah QR Code

Furthermore, in the increasingly tech-driven world, DBS understood the importance of guiding hawkers – many of whom are elderly or not immediately tech-savvy – on technological advancements.

On top of hawker meal subsidies, the bank also conducts digital literacy workshops to help seniors – and the public at large – learn how to access said subsidies, as well as other skills such as digital payments and scam awareness.

DBS Perspectives Musical Tribute To Hawkers Event
Image credit: @dbsbank via Instagram

DBS has no intention of stepping off the throttle when it comes to supporting our hawkers’ legacy and Singapore’s diverse food heritage.

Last December, it held the “DBS Perspectives: Musical Tribute to Hawkers” event at the DBS Foundation Outdoor Theatre at Esplanade, which brought the community together in celebration of our beloved local hawkers over a fun night of live performances and mini games, including hawker-inspired ones like the Teh Tarik Challenge. 

“DBS Perspectives” is a free for all event series by DBS, which aims to bring people from all walks of life together to explore, connect and have fun over meaningful experiences. The bank will be returning with more of such events this year, so do keep room in your stomach for that. 

It’s only thanks to our humble hawkers that we get to enjoy multicultural, local fare at affordable prices. Besides, there’s something just so heartwarming about keeping the hawker spirit ablaze by supporting homegrown businesses. Until then, nasi lemak devout or not, here’s to another year of curing hunger pangs at your neighbourhood hawker centre.

Learn more about DBS Perspectives 2024

This post was brought to you by DBS.
Photography by John Lim.

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