Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Islamic, a Singapore Original

Nasi Bryani comes with an option of meat: chicken, mutton or fish.

Growing up in 60s and 70s Singapore, the Islamic Restaurant was, to me, an Aladdin’s Cave redolent with the mystery and exoticism of Old Arabia; filled not with loot and precious gems, but with a sumptuous treasure no less…of the culinary kind!

Not many restaurants in Singapore (I reckon a dozen or so?) can lay claim to being a culinary institution. In my book, Islamic Restaurant is in this elite.

“The Islamic ” -- as it’s more usually referred to – was founded in 1914, making it nearly 100 years old. The man who founded it was M. Abdul Rahman, an Indian masterchef who cut his teeth working for a wealthy Arab family, the Alsagoffs. The Alsagoffs were early owners of the Raffles Hotel and famous in Singapore history for their philanthropy.

According to the story, the masterchef’s deft fusions of the Indian and Arab cuisines so tantalized his employers that he decided to strike out on his own. Thus was born the Islamic. Although it has relocated a couple of times over its history, the restaurant has always been famously housed in one of the 2-storey prewar shophouses that line North Bridge Road, across from the Sultan Mosque.

In its heyday in the 50s to 70s, the Islamic was a place to be seen. British colonials and wealthy locals dined there, and its guest list was graced with Presidents of Singapore, top judges and government officials, and regional royal families. I remember attending the lavish wedding dinners of some friends at the restaurant in the 1960s. To me, its décor and ambience counted almost as much as the food.

Tomato in Sweet Syrup
I loved the sconce lights, pewter ware, damask drapery, and framed Quranic inscriptions on the walls. It was cozy and dim; the rich fabrics and jewel-like colors became weatherworn over the years, I remember; but it only seemed to add to the atmosphere. While eating, you would sometimes hear the muezzin’s musical call at prayer times from the nearby mosque. This made dining at the Islamic magical.

But let’s talk about the food. Of this, Nasi Beryani remains the Islamic’s most famed. From the Persian word for “roasted/fried before cooking”, Beryani is a rice-based dish made with spices, rice, and meat and vegetables. And of the many types of Beryani in existence, the Islamic’s is unique, combining both Indian and Arab methods of cooking in a well-guarded secret recipe, created by the founder, M. Abdul Rahman, himself.

Mutton Samma
My personal favorites, however, include the hard-to-find Tomato in Sweet Syrup, a wonderful starter as well as a great dip for the Roti Mariam. Another must for me, since the 1960s, has been the Mutton Samma, mutton slow-cooked in thick gravy and spicy-peppery in flavor. Also superb are the Chicken Mysore (a favorite with the Sultan of Brunei, I’m told) and the Mutton Mysore. In fact, the best way to sample the Islamic’s 200-item menu is to have plain rice with two or three accompanying dishes of meat, fish or vegetables – as I often do.

Roti Mariam
Now to the Roti Mariam. A woman at Kampong Glam created this unique ‘roti’ (bread) and sold it on a pushcart. The Islamic later employed her, and included her roti on the menu. Roti Mariam is named after her, and is available at the Islamic and nowhere else. It tastes like a cross between naan and prata, and is eaten with plain sugar, milk, or curry.

Today the Islamic is into its third-generation of owners, and no longer the habitué of just the mighty and well heeled, but everybody. And, may I add, long may it live and prosper!

Islamic Restaurant

745 North Bridge Road

Singapore 198713

Tel: 65-6298 7563