Early one Wednesday morning, I found myself at Marine Terrace Market & Food Centre to try a dish that came highly recommended by my Makan Kaki, Gayle Leong of Asian Specialty Gelato Store, Ice Ke Lim. At her urging to get there early to avoid missing out, I was one was of the first of a steady stream of customers at Ole Ole Bumbu, a family-run Nasi Padang stall in Marine Terrace.
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There, I met affable and chatty matriarch and chef Eliza Abdul Mutalib, who regaled me with tales of her culinary-crazy upbringing, as well as her love for cooking and for her customers. Take the name of her stall, which she created herself by combining the Malay word for spices (bumbu) with the world of sports. “You know, like the football cheer? Ole, Ole, Ole, let’s go! Simple to remember, yet lots of meanings,” she said. Also, in Indonesia, ole ole can mean souvenirs or as Eliza explained, “Tidbits are also called ole ole.”
The stall’s name certainly had layers of meaning, but would their lontong bring the same in flavour? I was very keen to find out if the spices were indeed worth cheering about. Perfectly confident, Eliza proclaimed that her lontong was a cut above the rest because she grinds all her spices from scratch.
Garlic and onion are added along with two other “secret” ingredients that Eliza willingly divulged, “Lemongrass and dried prawns. Not the small ones, not udang grago. Those are $5 or $6 per kg. Ours is special and can cost $18 to $20 per kg! It makes a lot of difference to the taste. There’s more sweetness from the prawn. I sauté it for longer so the flavour and fragrance really comes out.”
A whole lot of grinding also goes on for Eliza’s lontong toppers. First, her sambal, made from dried red chillies and belacan (fermented shrimp paste) is sauteed with ikan billis (dried anchovies) for a flavour boost. Next, her serunding (fried, spiced coconut sambal) gets the same treatment with dried shrimp and dried fish. “I add ikan parang that’s dried and ground. One packet costs $50!” Eliza revealed.
The resulting lontong base is not too chilli hot, but balanced enough to let the other spices sing. For that essential richness, coconut milk is the next important ingredient. Eliza explained, “Lontong gravy has to be creamy and thick, never watery. After it’s been boiling for four, five hours, the santan will separate, so I always add in more and mix it properly.”
In a unique move that harks back to “the olden days”, Eliza also includes chunks of young jackfruit for their meaty yet tender texture, along with cabbage, long bean and turnip. During festive seasons like Hari Raya and Chinese New Year, she also throws in extras like carrots and baby corn.
Glass noodles are also a must to thicken the gravy and for a slippery-smooth, crunchy texture. A hard-boiled egg and fried tau kwa (firm tofu) round off the list, the latter of which has to be cooked with skill for a crisp exterior and soft interior. According to Eliza, “Fry it quick and hot, then it’s beautiful.”
The final ingredient that gives the dish its name is the compressed rice cakes. Traditionally cooked in banana leaf, Eliza finds the current factory-produced kind too hard, so the lontong served at Ole Ole Bumbu comes from their supplier in packets that they boil themselves for a soft, almost melting texure. Four big pieces go into each $3 serving – a bargain for all the work that goes into one lovingly assembled plate of lontong.
A veritable buffet in one overflowing plate, Eliza’s emphasis on premium ingredients and the flavoursome extras really did make her lontong special. The gravy was rich and creamy without being too cloying, its gentle spices warming the tongue. The vegetables, especially the young jackfruit, added interesting body and had soaked up all the lovely flavours. The rice cakes were very tender and velvety from absorbing the gravy.
The toppings of anchovy sambal and serunding gave the entire dish added dimension and depth – savoury, sweet and above all, lots of umami from the dried fish and dried shrimp. Ole Ole Bumbu’s lontong was Singaporean soul food at its best. Heart, comforting and dangerously habit-forming, I had to stop myself from drinking the gravy down to the last drop and licking the plate clean.
Another option is the lontong kering, which I vowed to return to try after discovering this dry version can be paired with nasi padang classics including my favourite paru (beef lung for $5.50), prawn sambal ($6 or $7) or Eliza’s famous beef rendang ($5.50). No surprise then when she told me that during Chinese New Year, the lontong orders are “crazy”. Tubs and tubs are prepared, ready for customer pick-up. Daughter Emilia joked, “Even I have to call to reserve lontong from my own mother!”
Ole Ole Bumbu has been catering to residents at Marine Terrace food Centre for a decade now, but lontong is just the tip of the iceberg. On Eliza’s list of her most popular dishes are her daily breakfast mee goreng that sells out within an hour, her old-school dry mee siam for weekends only, white “birthday” fried bee hoon on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as her Nyonya laksa which is only available twice a year during Chinese New Year and Ramadan.
Cooking in bulk comes easily to Eliza because she comes from a large family – her mother was a chef at the old Cairnhill Hotel and two of her brothers are also chefs. “It’s in the blood,” said Eliza. At Ole Ole Bumbu, one could say blood is thicker than lontong, as Eliza insists on keeping everything in the family. As a former fashion buyer, she cannot help but keep returning to her passion. She confessed, “Every five years I would come back to selling food. I think this way, everyone will have jobs. Everyone in the family gets to work.”
Nasi padang is what unites this family and in the permanent Ole Ole Bumbu team are Eliza, her husband, a former singer and guitarist Abdul Razak, her son Fadly and her elder brother Jeffrey Tan. Eliza can be quite the one-woman-show, but admits that roping in family has been a tremendous help, “We have no problems working hand in hand. I never believe in taking on other staff. All my recipes stay in the family.”
Ole Ole Bumbu is undeniably friendly in service, friendly on the wallet and their lontong is most definitely friendly to the tastebuds. True to their name, every time you eat there, you’re likely to take with you good memories as a souvenir of your experience. Eating Eliza’s lontong was like winning the Euro, Premier League and World Cup all at once. Those flavours and spices were definitely worth cheering about.
Ole Ole Bumbu is located at Marine Terrace Market & Food Centre, 50A Marine Terrace, #01-307, Singapore 441050.
It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays, 6am -1pm, closed on Mondays.