Neighbour: The Thams

Text and photography by Letitia Tan

I.

Rolina, I am amused and charmed to find out, stems from a Singlish slant on Novena where Tham Niat Tong’s handmade curry puffs gained popularity in the 1960s. He first learnt how to assemble the puff from a sailor who shared his Hainanese roots and empathised with his struggles. In 1976, with accumulated savings, Tham and his family moved to a shop house in Ang Mo Kio selling their star pastry alongside an assortment of traditional cakes. Manpower constraints made preparing a range of foods challenging and the Thams eventually returned to focusing on the curry puff that started it all. Fresh out of national service, the Tham’s son, Bren, enrolled in a baking school in Thailand to better understand the pastry.

Rolina Curry Puffs Neighbour the thams

II.

It is 1970. Bren Tham and his three siblings are home after school, helping their parents to spoon the prepped mixture of curried potatoes, shredded chicken and eggs onto flattened dough circles. He wrestles with the dough, fingers flailing, struggling to weave a braid with the circle’s oily edges to seal the curried mixture. He watches the pastry unravel as it simmers in warm oil later, diced potatoes bobbing in a brown sea. You know why, his father, Tham Niat Tong, gently chides. Because you never press properly.

Rolina Curry Puffs Neighbour the thams

It is 2015. He weaves Rolina curry puff’s signature thin braid deftly. It no longer unravels when he lowers it in oil. He lets it simmer for 20 minutes, taking its time to develop a golden tan. Its fabled braid makes for a tasty, happy crunch and it’s not hard to see why children gnaw this off, leaving the homemade curried mixture of chicken, potatoes and egg that hug the edges of the pastry’s thin, crisp wall for their parents. And for all its time spent stewing in oil, it is surprisingly light. It is also, as he rightfully warns, spicier than the average curry puff.

Visit Rolina at 49A Serangoon Garden Market & Food Centre #01-33, or Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market and Food Centre #02-15, for chicken and/or sardine curry puffs.

Read more in The U Press N˚11 (Singapore edition).