Heads up! We’re working hard to be accurate – but these are unusual times, so please always check before heading out.
Some of the best nasi padang stalls in Singapore can be found on the second floor of Geylang Serai Market. Make your way up and there’s one in particular that catches the eye. Maybe it’s the snaking queue or the neon sign that glows above its staggering array of dishes, each plate stacked on top of the other – either way, there’s no denying that Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang has a presence.
Originating from Padang in West Sumatra (the name also translates to ‘rice from Padang’), the Indonesian dish features steamed white rice and your choice of meats, fish and vegetables often cooked with plenty of spices. Nasi padang is usually enjoyed in the ‘hidang’ (banquet) style, where a waiter brings you dozens of dishes and you can choose which to eat (and pay for). The other way to indulge in nasi padang is the one we’re most accustomed to – order a plate of rice, point at the dishes you want and heap on the sambal – just like cai png.
But unlike Chinese economy rice, nasi padang dishes utilise chillies, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, turmeric and an assortment of native herbs. Luckily for the stall’s owner, Razak Ismail, all of these ingredients are easily found within the market.
“All our suppliers are downstairs. We try to help one another as much as we can. Still, prices are constantly fluctuating, but what to do?” Razak says while questioning the vegetable seller about a delivery he just received.
The stall is named after his mother, who passed away seven years ago due to an illness. She was the founder of the business and the family continues to run things for now. “I’m the last of the generation, my children have careers and don’t want to be a hawker,” he says.
Quality is what you get in Hajjah Mona’s nasi padang. The beef in the rendang is tender and sits in a luscious spicy coconut stew, milder dishes like the opor ayam (chicken in coconut gravy) and gulai daun singkong (cassava leaves stew) are full of flavour despite their simplicity.
It all comes down to the cooking method. Indonesian cooking is complex and takes a lot of time. So if you happen to catch a whiff of something delicious at 1am in Geylang Serai Market, it's probably Razak starting on prep because unlike other one-dish hawker stalls, Hajjah Mona serves about 15 to 20 dishes a day.
Some of his best-sellers include rawon (tender meat chunks in aromatic buah keluak gravy), asam pedas (a spicy fish stew) and limpa rendang (spleen in coconut stew). His rawon recipe is based on the original East Java version, where the dark broth is thicker and more savoury. He explains that you can't get all the ingredients in Singapore so he makes the effort to get them in Indonesia. The asam pedas lauk is tangy and herbal, and the spleen fully absorbs all the spices it’s cooked in. It’s inspiring to listen to Razak explain where specific Indonesian dishes come from – he clearly still has his heart in his craft.