Comfort food for some, a nostalgic food for others — this simple bite-sized savoury snack wrapped in coconut leaves continues to be pertinent in Singapore, the food lover’s paradise.
Mr Normanshah, an ex-soldier turned hawker, wakes up at 3.00am every morning to ensure his business runs smoothly for the day. From collecting fresh produce at Pasir Panjang to checking on his production house, Mr Normanshah has to prepare everything before his first patrons come in at 9.00am.
OTAK-OTAK TO SINGAPOREANS
Otak-otak is known to have both Malay and Peranakan origins. It’s a versatile dish that can be eaten on its own as a snack, or accompany other dishes such as nasi lemak or laksa. Otak-otak is a national heritage of Singapore. Often, it is associated with being a celebratory dish that families eat. From birthday parties to get-togethers, otak-otak is a uniquely Singaporean delicacy that is a must-have at events.
Otak-otak proves to remain relevant in an ever-changing society because it acts as a time capsule. Although life is moving and society is evolving, the burst of otak-otak flavour and spice will always remind one of the nostalgic and sentimental moments of the past.
HISTORY OF OTAK-OTAK KAMPUNG
The famous long-standing store Otak-Otak Kampung has been making their mouth-watering delicacy since the 1950s. The original owner of Otak-Otak Kampung, Wak Murset, kickstarted this career with an original recipe from his grandmother, which created the strong foundation of Otak-Otak Kampung. The ingredients used differ from modern otak-otak as it uses ingredients that were easy to find around the kampung.
There are over 20 ingredients used to make this dish which included fish that were freshly caught by the nelayans, or fishermen, freshly picked onions, and even coconut. Otak-Otak Kampung adopts a unique Peranakan nyonya-style that most Singaporeans eat at Pasar Malams. This is because their otak-otak utilises chunks of fish, rather than a blended fish paste. They also do not use flour or eggs which would avoid the rubbery texture seen in Pasar Malam otak-otak.
Wak Murset used his grandmother’s recipe and sold his otak-otak in a stall before permanently moving to Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre where Otak-Otak Kampung now permanently resides.
With Wak Murset selling his otak-otak for decades, he has built quite a large customer base. Patrons regularly come by their store to reminisce about the taste of kampung style otak-otak that can rarely be found elsewhere.
A regular customer who wants to be referred to as Lili said: “I’m nearing my 50s and I’ve been coming here since I was a teen. I bring my kids here to have them experience the food I ate when I was their age.”
When asked why she often travels from Jurong to Paya Lebar to patronise Otak-Otak Kampung she said: “Everything here is different from the ones sold at pasar malams. It’s a different colour, texture and taste. You can taste the coconut in their food and it crumbles which I like instead of it feeling like rubber.”
Wak Murset’s ventures have grown from selling his grandmother’s recipe from a stall to now a hawker store at Geylang Serai. However, he has decided to retire from the business in 2018. The store has now been taken over by a former soldier who was once a regular customer of Otak-Otak Kampung.
OTAK-OTAK KAMPUNG’S NEW ERA
Normanshah’s history with Otak-Otak Kampung goes way back. Normanshah recalls there being a very long queue even back then as he had been a loyal patron of Otak-Otak Kampung since he was younger.
Hawkerpreneur Normanshah and wife dived head-first into the hawker business with zero knowledge. Prior to owning Otak-Otak Kampung, Normanshah had been a soldier in the army for 25 years while his wife had been an educator for 10 years. A drastic job change meant learning the rules of business from scratch.
“I did not choose the hawker career, the hawker career chose me,” Mr Normanshah answered when asked what prompted him to make a career change.
He was not seeking the opportunity to own the store but it came up when the original owner told his father-in-law that he was planning to sell the business. The original owner wanted to sell the business or close the shop. Mr Normanshah decided that it would be wise for him to take over so that it would not “die a natural death”.
Mr Normanshah took over the business in late 2018 where the store has evolved very much since then, but the deliciously nostalgic taste never changed. Otak-Otak Kampung has received a makeover with a new banner created by her daughter who is studying Communication Design at Temasek Polytechnic. The original Otak-Otak Kampung banner was blue and cluttered with text. The new owner went for a more minimalistic look with just the text “Otak-Otak Kampung” in green and brown in front of a white background.
Their goal with this redesign was to look fresh and modern to appeal to the younger generation. This is because the store is already well known by the older ones through word of mouth and due to the longevity of the store. They wanted to garner the younger ones through mediums such as social media which believed it is the best way to continue the legacy of the store.
Due to Otak-otak Kampung being known solely through word of mouth, Mr Normanshah had to start their social media presence from scratch. This would prove useful for future obstacles that would emerge. He started an Instagram and Facebook page to gain an audience online which slowly has been gaining traction over the years.
THE LEAP OF FAITH
Being a new business owner certainly comes with its set of challenges. He was new to the hawker industry and certainly was taking a leap of faith with his wife into this venture. However, despite the challenges it was evident that he would not give up.
“To open up a business, you need a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work. With these two combined, you can make it anywhere,” said Mr Normanshah.
His routine consists of waking up as early as 3 in the morning to head down to the markets at Pasir Panjang to hand-pick the freshest and best ingredients. He also has to standby at Bedok to await his deliveries of the otak-otak leaves that come all the way from Malaysia. There are about 20 to 30 baskets full of otak-otak leaves that he has to collect all alone.
Besides the regular exhaustive challenge of running this long-standing business in his first year owning it, COVID-19 came into the factor in 2020.
He had to adapt to a situation he has never been in before. He had to adapt to the pandemic. With little to no customers coming to his store to purchase his food, he had to figure out a way to bring the food to the customers.
“During the first two weeks of the circuit breaker, we were hit pretty bad,” said Mr Normanshah
The social media presence that he has created since taking over comes in handy. He leverage the audience he created and advertised that he was now doing deliveries. This allowed customers to receive their otak-otak without ever leaving their home, avoiding chances of getting the COVID19 virus.
It took a month before business started to stabilise and after time, the store has been running better than ever, even before the pre-COVID-19 virus.
APPEALING TO DIFFERENT GENERATIONS
Spanning over 60 years, Otak-Otak Kampung acts as a historical time capsule. From kampung age Singapore to now bustling modern Singapore, Otak-Otak Kampung is still remaining strong. What’s the secret behind it?
“I’ll buy it when I come to Geylang. I’ll buy a few pieces and sit down with my teh o and enjoy,” says Ng’aisha Meyo, 73, who goes to Otak-Otak Kampung whenever she goes to Geylang Serai Market.
When asked why she enjoyed the otak-otak, she said that the main reason was the spiciness. Being a fan of spicy food, she enjoys how the otak-otak has a tinge of spiciness. The affordable price was another factor to her frequent buying.
On the contrary, Zurina Hashim, age 43, enjoys buying otak-otak from Otak-Otak Kampung as a celebratory dish.
“I don’t frequently buy otak-otak except for special occasions like family gatherings. To me, I don’t mind the price as long as the quality is good,” Zurina Hashim states, a patron who found out about Otak-Otak Kampung a few years back from word of mouth.
Aforementioned, Mr Normanshah has a few existing methods in place including the rise of social media presence and changing the banner to a more minimalistic outlook to appeal to the younger generation.
Otak-otak can just be eaten by itself as a snack or with rice but Mr Normanshah explained that in order to capture the younger generation, he’s suggested a new method. By putting otak-otak and cheese in between bread and toasting it, a delicious sandwich is a product.
The secret behind Otak-Otak Kampung’s success is the otak-otak’s versatility. The traditional local food can be eaten spicy or mild, eaten every day as a snack or only ordered for special occasions, eaten with all its natural flavours or as a fusion food. While letting the older generation enjoy the otak’s original flavour, it allows an allowance for the younger generation to experiment with new flavours.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
The future for Otak-Otak Kampung looks uncertain but exciting. Otak-Otak Kampung has been successful in Singapore. With it being around for years and making thousands of people happy with a single dish, Mr Normanshah has plans of expanding this business to our neighbouring country.
“We are working with our Kuala Lumpur (KL) partners to open up or to expand Otak-Otak Kampung in KL,” Mr Normanshah answered when asked what his plans for the business are for the next 5 years.
Other than external plans of expansion, Mr Normanshah has intentions of passing on this business to his daughters or nieces and nephews. By grooming them early on with knowledge and the nooks and crannies of business, Mr Normanshah and wife hope for them to be well-equipped and prepared.
Danial Jeffery, Mr Normanshah’s nephew is currently doing his internship at Otak-otak Kampung. Not only is he applying what he has learnt in Republic Polytechnic as a Diploma of Engineering System & Management student but he is also learning the ropes of the business from his uncle. By helping out at the store and interning there, Mr Normanshah hopes for them to gain valuable experiences and learn. Once the situation of his expansion store in KL is confirmed and stabilises, he plans on handing over Singapore operations to his nephews, Danial and his brother Akid.
“Yes, it’s hard but it’s all part of the journey and experience – knowing what you do will put a smile on the customer’s face,” Mr Normanshah claimed.