Singapore's Islamic Restaurant turns 100

IRSHATH MOHAMED

There are hundreds of restaurants serving briyani in Singapore. But to many, the rich Indian dish is closely associated with Islamic Restaurant, which turns 100 years old on April 4.

Islamic was founded in 1921 by Mr Abdul Rahiman, who was once the master chef of the Alsagoff family, who were wealthy and influential Arab traders in Singapore.

The founder's grandson Kaliloor Rahaman Abdul Wahab, 59, runs the business now.

The recipe still remains a secret and is known to only selected family members. It is believed to be a proportion of various spices that Mr Kaliloor's grandfather passed down.

"Making briyani involves commonly known masala and spices which almost all restaurants and households use," said Mr Kaliloor. "Those ingredients also make up 90 per cent of Islamic's briyani. The rest is known only to close family members."

They get together twice a year to make the spice mixture. Various spices are bought from wholesalers and mixed in required quantities. The mixture is then sent to the mill for grinding, after which it is made into a paste and stored in the restaurant's kitchen for daily cooking.

Islamic started with one table in a shophouse at North Bridge Road. "Those days there were four or five food stalls on the ground floor of the shophouse," said Mr Kaliloor, who took charge of the business in 2008.

Mr Rahiman observed that sales was good and bought four more shophouses along North Bridge Road.

The restaurant was run by, among others, Mr Kaliloor's father, who was the youngest son of the 10 children Mr Rahiman had with his three wives.

In later years, the four shops were sold to settle the family estate. Mr Kaliloor and his cousins managed to buy two of the shophouses back to continue the business.

In 2008, those two were also sold, before Mr Kaliloor decided to operate out of a two-storey shophouse at 745 North Bridge Road, before moving to the current premises at 735 North Bridge Road last year.

His son helps him with the business now.

"We are looking to franchise the business and also enter food manufacturing," said Mr Kaliloor, who is also the co-founder of the Singapore Halal Culinary Federation, which is an organisation that helps Muslim chefs to be recognised globally.

The briyani served by Islamic is known for its freshness, taste, smell, quality and consistency.

Mr Kaliloor attributes its continuing popularity to the constant adoption of new technology. "For the past 30 years, I have been tapping on new technology to make things easier for us," he said.

His approach has reduced manpower, cost, time, energy and stress. "I do not need a chef now. I only need an operator and technician," he said.

"I do not need a central kitchen either. The space at the back of the shophouse is enough," said Mr Kaliloor.

He uses his smartphone from home to turn on the machines and start some processes like marination early in the morning.

"My staff need to come in only at 7am to start cooking," he said. "At other restaurants, chefs have to start work as early as 5am to get the food ready for lunch."

Mr Kaliloor always invests in newer versions of the machines.

"During my father's time, manpower was very crucial," he said. "We needed the best chefs to cook the meals. Now everyone working in our restaurant can do it."

He decided to go with the machines after he learnt that fast-food chains could produce food consistent in taste without speciality chefs.

"Only about 5 per cent meat is lost with our cooking method," he said. "Usually, about 25 per cent meat is lost when cooked by regular methods.

According to Mr Kaliloor, technology also helps with better distribution of masala across the briyani.

Islamic is regularly patronised by political leaders and celebrities, including those from neighbouring countries.

"The Sultan of Johor and leaders from other states in Malaysia come to our restaurant to enjoy the briyani," said Mr Kaliloor.

"We also deliver the briyani to them - including the Sultan of Brunei who loves our briyani."

To celebrate its centenary, Islamic has been handing out 2,021 free meals to healthcare workers. The distribution at six hospitals and six polyclinics started on March 10.

On April 4, customers will also be treated to free briyani packets from 11am to 1pm.

"Initially we planned to give out 2,021 packets of chicken briyani to indicate the year 2021," said Mr Kaliloor. "Now it seems we will be giving about 4,000 packets free."

According to the third-generation owner, giving back to the community is also a trait that has been passed down by the founder.

Mr Rahiman, who came to Singapore from a small village called Enangudi in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district in 1900, used to cook free meals for starving people during World War II.

"My grandfather was known to be a charitable person," said Mr Kaliloor. "Even today our family is well respected in his birthplace because of his philanthropy."

irshathm@sph.com.sg

"For the past 30 years, I have been tapping on new technology to make things easier for us." - Mr Kaliloor Rahaman Abdul Wahab

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