Still queuing up at Kovan or Tanjong Katong for your weekly dose of Ponggol Nasi Lemak? How about heading down to Jalan Besar for your fix – skipping the queues, the heat, but still with the same great tasting plate of Nasi Lemak?
Looking slightly out of place within the enclave of quaint shops in the Jalan Besar area, Ponggol Nasi Lemak, with its brightly-lit interior and friendly bright red sign looks something like a fast food joint. Stepping into the two-storeyed, air-conditioned shop and looking at the dishes placed behind the counter instead of within customers’ pointing reach, ‘good ol’ Ponggol Nasi Lemak’ is hardly something you’d think of; yes, a disconcerting feeling slowly but surely creeps upon you.
With new house-made sorbets and a Hibiscus Iced Tea, it’s no wonder Edmund – the current 3rd generation owner of Ponggol Nasi Lemak – admits that customers often doubt the genuity of their new and latest stall.
Edmund intentionally modelled the new store to resemble a fast food outlet.
“The intention was to create a different concept to feed a larger crowd – here, queues move much faster, and set meals enable speedier lunches for the office crowd. The new items were also created to complement our old-time favourites, and with everything made in-house with our intense care for quality, you’ll be assured of getting the same old Ponggol Nasi Lemak you’d probably have to queue for at our other stalls.”
Indeed, the concept of automation (and air-conditioning) may prove to be an uneasy one for patrons of old-time hawker stalls, because haven’t we all experienced a store’s over-expansion leading to a drop in food quality?
Such a fear however, is unfounded here at Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s newest joint.
Chatting with Edmund, we hear – and taste – this family’s passion and integrity for providing customers with consistent and high food quality, and uncover just what it is that makes Ponggol Nasi Lemak something that people want to return to over and over again, regardless of the endless queues or bad weather.
Tell us more about how Ponggol Nasi Lemak started!
My grandparents initially started out selling food like duck rice and mixed vegetable rice. In the late 70s however they ventured into Nasi Lemak, but did it pre-packed style wrapping it in banana leaves and distributing them to hawker stalls.
Their nasi lemak slowly gained popularity, and fortunately due to some production problems, they eventually decided to move to a proper shop house converting it into a retail business. Business simply kicked off, and as the business got bigger and bigger, more family members got involved until it became a family-run thing.
How or when did you get into the business?
I have been involved since I was 7; after NS I did interior designing for 3-4 years but things didn’t quite work out. I then went back to the family business just to help out and pass time, but gradually was handed more responsibilities, becoming more involved until I eventually decided to stick to it. I’m also now the only person involved in the 3rd generation.
Since this is a family-run business, who does what in the operations?
Each shop has a family member stationed there (sort of as a head-person) to overlook operations and do most of the cooking for the rice and chili, just to ensure consistency of the recipe.
What’s the hardest part of running a family-owned business?
It’s definitely the decision-making process, because there are just so many people to pass the decision through. However, that’s also the best part – with so many people reviewing ideas or even giving new ones, you can be sure that it will more or less work out because there are so many experienced family members giving their input.
When did the idea of a new outlet with a new concept start?
The F&B environment has really changed a lot. Everyone wants a better environment these days – both the staff and customers. No staff wants to be toiling over the same pot for over 10 hours, and with age catching up with most of my relatives – some are close to 60 – they were starting to get tired. Furthermore, there is also the issue of consistency. The old ways of doing things are quite inefficient and do not always ensure the best results, so we decided to adopt the process of automation for some of our food items. We took a lot of advice from professionals and eventually settled on a ‘fast food’ concept. Many people snub this idea, but we see no shame in adopting such a concept, because fast food chains are actually one of the best in maintaining a standard of consistency.
There is often the misconception that the use of machines in cooking will result in a worse or different-tasting product, but on the contrary, the use of automation may actually help to improve the taste. For example, a machine can help to control the heat at a consistent level, whereas the manual method may result in over or under-cooking.
There are limitations of course, such as in the case of stir-frying. That is why we still manually cook our vegetables using a wok, as is with our kuning fish. Kuning fish requires a heat that is higher than the like of chicken wings, and that sort of heat cannot be achieved with an automated deep fryer, hence we still choose to do it manually.
The traditional methods are not always sustainable, and because we want to keep the brand of Ponggol Nasi Lemak alive for as long as possible, everyone knew that a change had to be made.
Were there any objections then? (e.g. from the older generation)
It took quite a bit of time for them to accept and approve the idea of a new concept, but after a while they saw (and tasted for themselves) how this fast food concept could be a good thing, and so gave it their support.
How do you then strike a balance between retaining the old Ponggol Nasi Lemak that customers are acquainted with, and moving forward with the new Ponggol Nasi Lemak without losing sense of what Ponggol Nasi Lemak was?
That’s why we’ll always keep the All-Time Favourites that have been around for over 30 years. We’ll only add new dishes, but will not remove the old ones that our customers love so much. Furthermore, we are still using the same recipes as we did from over 30 years ago, so it will still very much be the same Ponggol Nasi Lemak because of the same concept of excellence in quality.
Why is your Nasi Lemak pricier than others?
We want to maintain the same concept of always wanting to present the best to our customers. For example, we source only the best ingredients, such as purchasing live prawns daily for our Crispy Battered Whole Prawn to ensure optimal freshness, and also Japanese squid instead of local ones for the Grilled Japanese Squid for a more intense flavour. Even our condiments are top-notch, because we believe that even the accompanying sauces shouldn’t be compromised on. The preparation process is very time and labour consuming and we seek to find a more efficient process in the near future, but till then, we will not settle for less just to cut costs.
These translate to higher prices, but it is these little details that set Ponggol Nasi Lemak apart from other competitors, because we simply do not think it’s right to compromise on quality and taste just to offer a lower price. (Writer’s note: Their chicken wings may be slightly pricier than others, but we dare say it’s the best we’ve ever had – using fresh chicken really does make a difference.) This is the way that we do our things. This is Ponggol Nasi Lemak. Some people understand this and some people don’t.
Is there something you’ve learnt and kept from the older generation?
We never compromise on our food. We believe very strongly in the saying “If even you won’t eat it, then don’t serve it to customers.” That is how we ensure that our staff maintain the high quality of food standards we have set. We do everything to our best ability; it’s just ingrained in us.
Reviews so far have been good though. Are there any difficulties you and your team face in maintaining a standard of consistency in this branch?
No, not really, but initially it was more of learning how to operate the machines. We were actually ready in March 2014, but decided to take another 9 months to really fine-tune the business, from minor details like air-con temperature to ensure food freshness and customer comfort, to adjust the machines to suit our needs.
Very adventurous about the sorbet and ice creams! Why not simply purchase it instead of making your own?
We wanted customers to end their meal on a light and refreshing note (hence also the Hibiscus Iced Tea), and we thought: what better way to make it a complete experience than to end it off with a dessert?
The thing about sorbet is that it needs to be very fresh, but because the sorbet market is not very big, there aren’t a lot of suppliers to choose from. Using 100% pure fruit puree as we do now, we find that really helps to ensure the taste and freshness of the sorbet. Also, we wanted to create our own identity, and hence came up with interesting and unusual flavours such as lemongrass-lime and raspberry-mango.
I’m also a strong believer of the saying “If you want something done, then do it yourself”.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your nasi lemak journey?
I think it’s not something of a one-off challenge, but more of something that I face every day. It’s the struggle against yourself – knowing that life can be a lot easier, or that I could have grabbed onto other opportunities that would have offered me an ‘easier’ life; some days it gets to you.
What, in your opinion makes good nasi lemak?
Simply the basic components – rice, coconut, and chili. Not only do the ingredients have to be fresh, but they also have to be at the optimal condition. For example, the rice grains must be at the right ‘age’, not too young or too old. The coconut milk must also be from coconuts that are just ripe.
Favourite hawker dish?
Anything with noodles! – Even though I work a lot with rice – see rice until scared already! (laughs)
What’s next for PNL?
We’re definitely looking into expansion (although more of overseas than locally). We are a bit more conservative about the local market, because Singapore as a whole is not very conducive to the F&B environment. All in all however, we want to wait until everything (this new concept especially) is stable and perfect first because – as you probably know by now – what we want to maintain is our concept of consistency.
Ponggol Nasi Lemak is located at: 371 Jalan Besar, #01-01, Singapore 208998
Opening hours: Noon – 11pm daily, closed every Thursday