BY MELODY ZACCHEUS AND PEARL LEE, Straits Times
GORENG pisang hawker Abdullah Omar can rattle off the 15 types of bananas commonly imported from Malaysia into Singapore.
Of the lot, the 66-year-old said Singaporeans are crazy for pisang raja – a sweet and creamy breed which complements the deep-fried fritter’s savoury shell.
It is this in-depth knowledge about the fruit and his customers’ taste that has made him one of the more popular goreng pisang sellers in Singapore.
His stall has been listed in travel magazines and got him featured in a 2013 exhibition and book titled Not For Sale: Singapore’s Remaining Heritage Street Food Vendors.
Mr Abdullah picked up the tools of his trade as a young boy from his mother, who used to sell goreng pisang in Jalan Eunos, a Malay settlement village.
By the age of 18, he decided that he wanted to set up a stall of his own. To start out, he needed $500 to buy a pushcart, which was a big sum in the mid-1960s.
“It took me three years to save money from the commission I made helping my mother and a curry puff man to promote their stalls. My friends also chipped in,” he says.
For almost a decade from 1969, Mr Abdullah plied his trade outside Rex Theatre. Each fritter was sold for 10 cents.
While business was good, it was also illegal in those days and he always had to be on his toes.
He says: “Ministry of Environment officers used to chase illegal hawkers like us away. Each summon was $20… That was a lot of money in those days.”
These days, he starts work at 11am and ends at 6pm, selling 30kg of the snack every week at his stall, Noor Asian Food H.S. Abdullah, in Tekka Market. The stall was allocated to him by the Government.
With the onset of old age, Mr Abdullah’s eyesight is failing him. He could do with more days off, he admits, but says that he continues to operate his stall for the sake of his customers.
“I wouldn’t want a customer who has come all the way from Jurong to leave empty-handed and disappointed,” he says.
“It’s not the recipe that is particularly special but the technique. The oil must be at the right temperature,” he says, adding that he also takes into account customer feedback.
Today, his goreng pisang sell for between 60 cents and $1.20 each. He makes about $1,100 every month.
Keeping the stall running and slaving over a hot stove have taken their toll on Mr Abdullah.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” he says.
He handed over the frying of the fritters to his wife, Madam Samijah Bakri, in 2005. And it is unlikely that their four grown-up children, who all hold professional jobs in various industries, will join the trade.
After work, the husband- and-wife pair return to their home, a three-room flat in Marsiling where they have lived for 30 years.
Mr Abdullah and his family moved into their flat in 1984 – after spending the previous decade living in a four-room rental flat nearby. It was a move that many of their friends had thought was “crazy”.
He says: “Friends thought we were crazy to want to live in such an ulu place.”
Back then, Marsiling was a rural area cut off from urban Singapore. It was home to farms, hilly terrain and even a jungle.
“It was inconvenient to get around. Getting out of the estate required us to take an illegal shortcut through the jungle on motorbike… We would encounter snakes and monkeys along the way,” he says.
Today, the jungle has been cleared and replaced by tall concrete buildings filled with amenities such as coffee shops, hair salons and bakeries.
“It’s a quiet and nice neighbourhood. Everyone is friendly with each other,” he says.
The couple trust their neighbours, who are Chinese, enough to leave their keys with them.
“We have known them since we were here in 1984,” chimes in Madam Samijah, 62, who shares her homemade kueh with them.
Their children have urged them to move to a newer flat. But for Mr Abdullah, Woodlands is home.
“If we get a new place, we will be in debt again. And we don’t want that,” he says.
Every night after dinner, Mr Abdullah – who understands Mandarin, speaks a smattering of Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew and is fluent in Malay and English – reads the Malay newspaper to his wife as her eyesight is weak.
At 11pm, they watch the news together in quiet companionship.
He says: “We want to know what’s going on in the world. We think we’re having it hard, but in comparison, our lives are good.”