Neighbour: Malik and Aminah

We speak to the mother and son team behind Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak about poker, food and the family trade.

Text by Charlene Chan
Photography by Jovian Lim

In all of my nasi lemak-related memories, “Let’s eat nasi lemak,” has been synonymous with a trip to Adam Road Food Centre. But while Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak is where I’ve satisfied numerous lunchtime cravings for the dish, I would have been hard pressed to provide its name until recently, when I stopped by one afternoon to speak with Malik and Aminah about their family trade. It is this level of regard for a food stall—where its food precedes its name—that has come to define many of my favourite eateries.

The best nasi lemak delights each of your senses in turn. The satisfying crunch of batter enveloping a chicken wing. The cool bite of cucumber breaking through the grease. The brilliant yellow of an egg yolk—still runny—soaking into fragrant rice. Each set meal at Selera Rasa offers any combination of these ingredients, or all of them, if you wish. What remains constant is the sambal that accompanies every serving. Third-generation owner, Malik, informs me that fresh batches of the chili are made every other day using the family recipe. Between his mother Aminah and himself, they provide enough of the spicy-sweet paste to feed their thousands of hungry customers.

Having set his sights on becoming a pilot, taking over the reins from his father was not something Malik had thought he would do. In fact, it was just a week before he was due to take part in a second round of interviews for a job as a commercial pilot that his father asked him to join the business. Over the years, he’s become familiar with the tricks of the trade. To select the finest raw chilies, for example, Malik recommends biting into its seed, observing how the heat of the spice radiates throughout one’s mouth. To check for the best rice, one needs only to take note of its scent, or scoop up a handful of the grain, paying attention to the way each one lingers against the skin before falling away.

Stepping away from the counter after a brief chat with her younger son, Aminah shares that they used to make goreng pisang, laksa and mee siam years ago. Later, as their business picked up, they decided to focus solely on nasi lemak. Along the way, they noticed customers referring to their set meals using poker hands, and decided to adopt those names for efficiency. This would eventually become one of the defining characteristics I’d use to direct new visitors to Selera Rasa; Full House was a phrase I’d uttered long before I held a deck of cards in my hands.

These days, maintaining the business is a family affair. Together with all four of his siblings, Malik keeps their multiple outlets running without a hitch; they’ve come a long way from when his grandmother used to sell packets of the dish in her kampung. He says with a hint of pride that he’s also managed to put his own stamp on the family’s recipe, swapping out regular white rice for the long-grained Basmati. And while his father might have established the Adam Road stall, Malik has expanded their brood to include a second branch at Ang Mo Kio, as well as more than 10 outlets under the Crave brand.

At one point during our conversation, we are interrupted by a fellow hawker, an uncle who makes Hokkien mee at a stall in Toa Payoh. He’s come to visit Malik on his day off, he says, the two of them having met at Singapore Day in Shanghai in 2015. In that moment of easy camaraderie, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t friendships like these that turn mere jobs into lifelong passions, or the one ingredient that will keep our hawker culture alive for decades to come.

Visit Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak at 2 Adam Road, #01-02, Adam Road Food Centre; Blk 603, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 #01-2683; or at Crave outlets islandwide.