1959 x SHENTONISTA — A Taste Of History

Faziah, cook and co-owner of Nain Food Stall. Faziah wears a shawl designed by Lully Selb, and her food is served on plates by Supermama. 

Maintaining a business that harks back to the kampung days of old is no easy task, but it’s something that Faziah and her family have done over the past 60 years. Founded by Faziah’s grandfather, Nain Food Stall is a recognisable landmark to anyone who passes through Sims Vista Market & Food Centre, and they take pride not only in the quality of the food that they serve, but also in the warmth that they dole out alongside their generous servings. Faziah tells us that it’s a tough job—she often wakes up at three in the morning to start prep work—but it’s one that she finds rewarding. Her story is one of determination, progress, and sailing through the toughest of times with your loved ones firmly by your side.

As a third-generation hawker, you grew up helping your grandfather in the stall—how has the business changed over these years?
We started the business back in the 1960’s, when there were still kampungs around. Back then, it was just a few of us running the stall. I actually grew up cooking with my grandfather, and over time we had to shift locations since we started getting more customers. It’s bigger now, but the number of customers has been getting lesser. It’s not easy to run the business, since there’re so many food options now, but for the most part we have tried to preserve our grandfather’s recipes.

What’s the best part about being able to work with your family? Are there any challenges?
There’s no challenge actually: working with family is always more fun, because we know each other so well. At the start, we had to learn how to take each other’s jokes—we work very long hours, and if we don’t understand that someone’s just joking, we’d spend hours being angry at each other. Now, we never take anything to heart.

You’ve been preserving your grandfather’s recipes for a long time—have you ever thought about modernising any of the traditional dishes, or updating the business in any way?
Our food fits the neighbourhood. Fusion food sometimes don’t taste as good as ours, because we’ve been working on our recipes for so many years. I think food shouldn’t be too complicated. We don’t cook fancy or fine dining food, but it’s still a complete meal.

You’ve been in this neighbourhood for a while—do you see yourself continuing here, and in this profession, until you retire?
We shifted here in the early ’80’s because we wanted a bigger stall. Nowadays, rental is really high everywhere, and we’ve gotten used to the people here and the environment, so I don’t think we’ll shift out. I don’t think there’s anything I will enjoy more than cooking, especially at this age (laughs), but I hope the business will still be in the family even after I retire.

Share with us some of your favourite memories about the shop.
We make new memories every day, because we enjoy working here! So there are a lot of good memories. We have some favourite customers, and some regulars who always eat with us. Our oldest customers shifted out of the neighbourhood, but even then they still come back once in a while.

Which is your favourite dish to eat/cook, and why?
Asam pedas (spicy and sour fish stew), rendang (spicy beef), ayam sambal (sambal chicken) and sambal ikan (sambal fish)—I like cooking all the spicier food (laughs). I think I grew up cooking all these dishes as well, which is why they’re my favourites.

Run us through your daily routine.
We wake up at 3AM and come down to the shop to start preparing. We can’t prep food at home because of hygiene reasons, so we try to start cooking here as early as possible. Dishes like the rendang take a long time to cook. We open the stall at 10AM, once the food has been prepared, and we only stop for a break at 3PM, once the lunch crowd is gone. We have dinner service too, but my family takes shifts to run it—most days, I go back home to cook for the rest of my family.

What do you think is the hardest part about running a stall? What keeps you going when you wake up every morning?
Our hours are not easy, but it’s fun to talk to our customers. When you enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t feel the tiredness. At our stall, if you notice carefully, we never sit down. We always try to stand up and make sure we’re doing something, so that our energy level never goes down. People might think it’s an easy job because they’ve never tried it. There are a lot of considerations—sometimes the price of the food has to increase because the price of the ingredients goes up, but the customers will make noise at a 50c change. People only think about price when they eat at a hawker stall—when they eat at McDonald’s or have western food, this is never an issue. Hawker food takes effort to cook too, and more people need to realise this.

Personally, what do you think makes Nain Food Stall different from all the other nasi padang stalls?
We’re a Malay mixed rice stall, so I think it’s more accurate to call us nasi campur. Nasi padang actually refers to something more Indonesian, but I think customers are used to saying nasi padang at this point. Our sambal ikan recipe has been passed down since my grandfather’s time, so our food has a lot of history, and we’ve been working on the taste for many years.

Since you’ve been running a business successfully for so many years, what’s one advice you’d give younger people who are just starting out?
You need to be responsible and committed to your job and customer. It’s not enough just to be polite; you have to be friendly too. It’s important to bring fun into every interaction, so that the customers keep returning.

You’ve grown up along with Singapore—what do you think has been the biggest transformation the country has witnessed since your childhood days?
I miss my kampung days: I grew up with a lot of people, and we came together to work, so the environment is different. But of course, Singapore is a lot safer now, and a good country for my children to grow up in.

To you, personally, what does it mean to be Singaporean?
Always earning your living (laughs). It’s a country where your work takes up a lot of your life, so it’s important that you enjoy your life the best way you can. Life is difficult, but it still has to go on.

What’s a Singaporean value that you feel you can identify with, and why?
Determination—I want my shop to always get better, and to have more people visit us. We’re always trying new items to attract customers, like mee soto (noodle soup) or laksa, so that our regular customers can try new items too. I also value unity—Nain Food Stall is a family business, and I think we’ve survived for so long because everyone works together to help the business succeed.

Faziah wears a shawl designed by Lully Selb, and the delicious food from Nain Food Stall is served on plates by Supermama. Stand a chance to win these for yourself—find out more about the #My1959 collaborations and giveaways at www.sg/1959. Contest ends 31st December 2019.

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