CURRY lovers, take note: One of Singapore's top Indian Muslim restaurants is giving out free food on March 20.
Singapore Zam Zam, a popular eatery in North Bridge Road, will give out 1,500 packets of mutton briyani from noon to 3pm to celebrate Prophet Muhammad's birthday and the restaurant's very own 100th anniversary.
Long queues are expected, and all 61 staff members will help out for the event.
This is the first time that the restaurant is having such a giveaway. But then again, few restaurants here lay claim to a 100-year history.
Its present boss, Mr Sulaiman C.V., 57, is the third-generation owner. He took over the business from his father, Haji Karim, more than 20 years ago.
Haji Karim, 84, who has retired to his ancestral village of Kannur in India, also inherited the shop from his uncle and father, Haji Abu and Mr Abdul Kader.
Now, the eatery, which is open from 8am to 11pm every day, is a culinary landmark in a row of shophouses facing the Sultan Mosque. It serves tasty murtabaks (eggs, meat and onions wrapped in layers of dough, and fried on a hot plate, prices start at $3), briyani rice with dishes ($4.50) and mee goreng ($3.50). About 500 murtabaks fly off the pan on weekdays, and 1,000 are sold on weekends.
|STILL YUMMY: Singapore Zam Zam is known for its briyani, mee goreng and murtabaks. Mr Sulaiman C.V. (above) is the 100-year-old shop's third-generation owner, having inherited it from his father (pictured).
At lunch time, office workers and tourists jostle for elbow space on the tables. On weekends, families cram into the two-storey shophouse, and tuck lustily into the murtabaks.
The bustle spills outdoors: Cars stop by for takeaways, while quick-moving staff take orders.
Keeping an eye on all the action is Mr Sulaiman, who is cashier and waiter all rolled into one.
He says: 'I enjoy my work. I talk to customers and move around, so time passes quickly. It's not a boring job.
'I sit down only at 11.30pm. I count the money and close shop. I get home at 12.30am and sleep.'
Singapore Zam Zam started out as simply Singapore restaurant. It changed its name in 1985 to Singapore Zam Zam after taking over the space where its neighbouring eatery, Zam Zam restaurant, used to be.
Its proud signboard proclaims that it was 'established in 1908', and the company is registered with the authorities with this date. Mr Sulaiman says his father and grandfather before him used the same year in their old signboards.
According to family lore, Mr Sulaiman's grandfather, Mr Abdul, moved from Kannur, Kerala, to Singapore for a better life. In the fateful year of 1908, he set up a restaurant called Singapore in North Bridge Road.
Mr Abdul, like many other Malayalee Muslim Indians, a group who speak the Malayalam language, settled in the Kampong Glam area.
They opened small eateries selling halal Indian food there, such as prata, briyani rice and murtabak. Other restaurants along North Bridge Road, such as Victory and the now-defunct Zam Zam, were set up around the same time.
The business was passed on to Mr Abdul's brother, Haji Abu, and then to Mr Abdul's son, Haji Karim. They grew rich enough to buy six shophouses in the same road in the 1980s, renting them out to other hawkers.
In 1985, to do a major renovation of the shophouses, they vacated the tenants, including a restaurant called Zam Zam, which folded.
Singapore restaurant then took over the space where Zam Zam used to be, and incorporated Zam Zam into its name. The other shophouses were sold.
Mr Sulaiman, who studied up to Secondary 4, came into the business in 1985 when his ailing father - who was suffering from heart disease and diabetes - asked him to take over.
He was a court clerk in a law firm then, but agreed despite 'having other plans'. Why? He says matter-of-factly: 'He is my father, I must respect him.'
His father, who now lives in Kannur with his wife in a four-bedroom house, is still the company's chairman, and Mr Sulaiman, as a director, draws a salary.
Mr Sulaiman lives in a condominium in Kembangan with his wife and two daughters, 24 and 19, and drives to work in a silver BMW.
The restaurant has always been part of his life. As a student, he would drop by every morning to pick up a steaming murtabak or a packet of briyani rice on the way to school.
They used charcoal to cook then, and the walls of the shophouse were always covered in soot. 'It was so ugly,' recalls Mr Sulaiman, not without fondness.
Much has changed in the decor over the years, but the menu has remained constant, eschewing the gimmicky new ingredients such as cheese and chocolate.
The regulars love it. The Sultan of Johor, says Mr Sulaiman, is one, dropping by every month. He comes without much fanfare, except for road scouts who surround his vehicle. A bodyguard comes out to buy a packet of mutton murtabak.
Madam Avabee Hawa, 56, is also a fan. For the past six years, the consultant who works in the area has been frequenting the restaurant almost every day 'for its variety of food'.
'Sometimes when I travel abroad, I miss the food. I head straight here to eat when I arrive in Singapore.'
Says tennis coach Irfan Zach, 32, who eats there about seven times a month: 'They are very specialised in what they do, and the standard of their food is maintained. If you want murtabak in Singapore, you go only to Zam Zam.'
There are also regular visitors from abroad. Says Malaysian pilot Omar Aziz, 50, who visits a relative here regularly: 'I make it a point to come here to eat every time I am in Singapore. Why? Ask my father and my grandfather. We all love the food here.'
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 9, 2008.