Shentonista Eats — Patience & Pride

In a very simple definition, nasi padang is basically steamed rice served with a choice of pre-cooked dishes. But that would be an underwhelming description of a whole smorgasbord of mouthwatering vegetables, meat, seafood, and more, all intensely flavoured and painstakingly prepared. And few places do nasi padang with as much love and authenticity as Sabar Menanti II. The restaurant has roots in Minang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, and started as a pushcart business by Mr. Haji Marlian Athar along Kandahar Street, back in the 1920s. Today, that business is continued by Mr. Marlian’s six children, each with their own establishment—one of which is Sabar Menanti II, helmed by Mdm. Maryulis Bagindor Marlian. Her son, Iszahar, or Isz as he’s more fondly known, helps out with the restaurant, and together, they hope to bring nasi padang and its storied past to a new generation.

The whole experience of ordering your food just adds to the enjoyment—waiting patiently in line, as the name sabar menanti suggests, you first get a whiff of the variety of aromatic spices used in every dish. Peering round the others in front of you, you’re treated to a glimpse of an impressive array of food—Sabar Menanti II serves up to 27 different types of dishes every day—all coloured in rich shades by chilli, squid ink, turmeric, and more. The tough part comes next: deciding whether to go for time-tested classics like ayam opor (grilled chicken in coconut milk) or more intriguing dishes like opor nangka (young jackfruit and beef tripe cooked in curry gravy). Whatever you eventually choose, however, you know you’re in good hands. With Mdm. Maryulis’ special touch, it’s a taste of home, as Isz says, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Can you tell us about the origins and journey of Sabar Menanti II?

Isz (I): My grandparents came to Singapore from Minang in West Sumatra, Indonesia, and they started a pushcart business along Kandahar Street back in the 1920s. My mum, the eldest daughter and now a Singaporean, followed her parents from Sumatra then. The first shop opened in Kandahar Street in the 1950s, and my grandparents didn’t have much help so back then, their children—three boys and two girls—were very involved with the business. Each of my mum’s siblings run their own businesses now, all all selling nasi padang. We used to supply food to the Indonesian sailors back in the old days and one of them, who was probably a relative, came by and left a signboard which said ‘Sabar Menanti’ and that became the brand. I think it’s a very simple, appropriate name for the restaurant.

Mdm. Maryulis (M): The early days were a struggle—I still had to go to school after helping my parents with the food preparation in the wee hours of the morning. I was practically sleeping during classes. It was tiring, but being the eldest daughter in the family, I had to step up to help my parents. The learning process was natural; when you’re the first in the family to start cooking, you’d better learn quickly. I’ve grown older along with my customers; I’ve seen, with my very own eyes, a customer of mine go from being in a baby cot to ordering food for her wedding. It’s very touching.

We understand that your siblings run separate nasi padang restaurants. Were there difficulties after the various restaurants opened?

M: Competition is healthy. It keeps us humble and reminds ourselves to be better. We all have our own clientele, and I have two of my brothers helping me at the restaurant now. We want to be small but strong. To me, consistency in taste is important. My son is very service-oriented so it’s a good match. My daughter can cook as well, so the recipes stay within the family. But I do have chefs to help me with the business as I can’t possibly cook everything. I started running my own show very late, in my 40s. It was a struggle, and I have people who have been with me ever since. Look after them like your own family and they will struggle and manage the business like their own as well.

Any interesting happenings related Sabar Menanti over the years?

I: The brand name has travelled overseas and we’ve had many Indonesians—including actors and actresses—coming around to the shop. Our President is quite a frequent visitor and we’ve also had many other Malay ministers and their bodyguards visit. (American chef) Anthony Bourdain came by to have lontong once before and he was actually brought to the shop by (local actor) Najib Ali. He stays quite nearby, and I think our shop is one of his usual breakfast places. The thing about my mum is that she never has a camera on her. Either that or she gets too excited so she never had the chance to take pictures with them.

What does nasi padang mean to you?

I: My god, I love my mum’s food, lah. I mean, look at my size! (laughs) I grew up eating nasi padang and my favourite is ayam opor (grilled chicken in coconut milk) with rice and sambal. The taste of ayam opor reminds me of my childhood and my mum knows that it’s my favourite dish as well. Ever since I was a child, whenever she packs food for me, she’d pack ayam opor. When I return home from school, there’s always ayam opor.

Can you tell us more about nasi padang? Are there any special stories behind the dishes you serve?

I: I think nasi padang caters to the Indonesians in Singapore; 70% of my mum’s customers are Indonesians. We try to keep the ingredients as authentic as possible and that’s what makes them come back. But, due to our diverse cultural landscape, we’ve also tried to cater to different taste preferences over the years. The original nasi padang dishes we had were too spicy and rich for the local Chinese, so we had to tone it down. We’ve also added dishes like sotong merah (squid cooked in chilli paste) and sotong hitam (squid in squid ink with lemongrass) which is more of a kampung, Malaysian dish—you won’t see it in Indonesia. The sotong hitam and sotong merah were special requests from a customer. It was her wedding then and my mum wanted to make it possible as it was her favourite food. According to her, the guests really liked the dish and so they actually became two of our main dishes.

Are there any dishes on the menu that have been here since you first opened?

I: I think one of the dishes that stayed the same throughout is the ikan bakar (grilled fish). It’s one of our signature dishes and the special thing about it is that you can either have it spicy, with green chilli, or with sweet black sauce and onions. It’s a special dish to us and it’s been here since forever.

What is your personal favourite nasi padang combination?

I: Ayam bakar (Indonesian grilled chicken), sambal terung (brinjal in chilli) and just a sunny-side-up egg together with sambal belado (Indonesian chilli). It’s a combination that my mum would always pack for me when I was young. That was my first taste of nasi padang. The chicken is not spicy and it’s kid-friendly! I actually started to enjoy chilli when I was in pre-school, like my son now. My mother used to feed me with her hands—I was quite spoilt as a child (laughs)—but
her bare hands were also my favourite utensils back then. Now, when I bring nasi padang back home (you also need to pack it with banana leaves), I feed my kids with my hands too—it just tastes better. My wife hates it because she thinks I’m spoiling them.

Are there any misconceptions about nasi padang?

I: There are a lot of people who cannot differentiate between nasi padang and nasi melayu. We do have customers who ask us if we can do other dishes that are not nasi-padang-related, but we try to keep it focused. Also, rendang, a common nasi padang dish, is supposed to be almost dry, as opposed to being drenched in gravy. Of course, you can’t escape the oil that comes out from the beef—that makes the beef more juicy. However, if you see a rendang soaked in watery gravy, that’s actually not how it should be prepared because there’s a missing secret ingredient, which is one of ingredients you cannot get in Singapore. A lot of my mum’s ingredients are bought from Indonesia.

What’s the day-to-day process of your work?

M: I start by going to the wet market at 5AM, and the business opens at 7AM. I start serving and making people happy with the food. (laughs) At 3.30PM I head to the dry market. I’m home by 6PM and I go to sleep by 9.30PM. It’s been the same procedure for the last 40 years!

How much ingredients go into a day’s worth of food? What are some dishes that take the longest time to cook/prepare?

I: We basically start from raw ingredients like 50kg of rice, and about 30kg of fish and meat, of which we’d end up cooking maybe 10-15kg. Of course, there are other raw ingredients like onions, potatoes, condiments, and spices, which complement the cooking. The dish which takes the longest time to cook, in my opinion, is the rendang, because it involves many stages of preparation. We first have to tenderise the raw beef and this usually takes a good half-a-day. After that, we prepare the spices and ingredients to cook and sauté the meat with. We then use the special spices imported from Indonesia to absorb the moisture of the rendang so it can be dry like how it’s supposed to be. The rest of the dishes are more straightforward.

What aspects of the business do you manage?

I: Presently, I’m assisting my mum in the administrative part of the business, handling whatever that is required by the government. I help to do the negotiations for some corporate catering , but for day-to-day catering, my mum actually manages by herself. I’m also trying to slowly change the outlook of the business so we can attract a younger audience.

Why is that so?

I: Right now, while people love our food, I don’t regularly see customers below the age of 25. I’m thinking of changing the concept of the business bit by bit. My mum is pretty old-school and she’s not really receptive to change so I’m just doing the external part to make the shop look more fresh. After that I’d like to change a few things here and there. For example, I’d like to integrate technology more. Instead of ordering over the counter, perhaps customers can come by, sit down, and order from their phones instead. But my mum always says that the special thing about nasi padang is that you always have to experience it all. I also think that’s the interesting part; you need to be in the queue, look at the food, and decide ‘yes, today I’m going to have this combo’. It’s very personal.

M: Most of my customers are from the older generation. My son told me that these days it’s a lot of concept-selling but I’m staying true to my beliefs. I run a restaurant, and I feed people to make them happy, not for them to have a nice picture on their phone. I know some day things will change but at least the fundamentals are right.

What do you think makes your nasi padang stand out from all the rest?

I: I think one of the biggest selling points would be how we started the business a long time back. Back in the 1980’s, there weren’t a lot of nasi padang restaurants in Singapore other than Rendezvous or Pariaman. The name ‘Sabar Menanti’ has become a household name for nasi padang. Originally, our restaurant was located right at the corner of Kandahar Street. During those days, our restaurant was so popular that it frequently caused traffic congestions. I find it funny because some people tried to complain to the traffic police but then again, the traffic policemen were our frequent customers as well so they kind of ignored it. (laughs)

What does Sabar Menanti mean to you?

I: Sabar Menanti’s food feels like home to me. There are instances where I don’t feel like going out to eat with my friends and that’s when I’ll head back to have my mum’s food. Even when she cooks at home, the food tastes the same. If I just ignore the amount of customers at the shop, it’s like a space for my mum and me. If she needs to speak to me and I need to talk to her, we sit down at the shop to talk.

M: I grew up with Sabar Menanti and have been a part of it since childhood. I’m 63 years old now so you can imagine I’ve committed more than 50 years of my life to the business.

Do you have any plans to expand or move into a bigger space to accommodate more customers?

I: We’re still looking for an area but we do not want to expand to a scale such that we’re not able to manage the business and the taste of the food. My mum believes that we are a trattoria (family-run business), as the Italians call it, and we have to maintain that because we don’t want people to alter the recipes or taste of the food. We want to serve the food the same way it was back in the ’80’s.

Will there be a time you when take over the business?

I: I’ve been talking about this with my mum for five years now but every year, I’m extending my timeline given to her because I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now—ship broking. It gives me a sense of satisfaction when it comes to negotiating, meeting with people, and creating a new business for the company as well. My mum always tells me that running a business is different because you can actually expand the business and what you reap at the end of the day depends on what you sow. When you work for people, there’s always a limitation to what you can get at the end of the day. I love nasi padang and I know I can do well if I were to manage it but since she’s still able to run the show I’ll just help her from the back for now. I’m slowly taking on more responsibilities but for now, I’m just doing whatever I can. Juggling two businesses is difficult but my boss is understanding, and he doesn’t think I’m moonlighting or anything. (laughs) He frequents my mum’s shop as well and knows that it’s just my duty as a son. I always tell him that I don’t earn anything from the shop and my mom handles it single-handedly with her brothers. It’s just that sometimes it gets difficult to give orders to her brothers. It’s easier to bully me, lah, in that sense. (laughs) But she knows that I’m working as well so when she needs me, I have to be ready.

Sabar Menanti II
747 North Bridge Rd, Singapore 198715
Open daily except for the last Sunday of every month
Opening hours: 7.00AM to 4.30PM

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