Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice
worth getting in line for
7 May 2015
NOT MERE HERD INSTINCT
Have you ever joined a queue for food simply because “if there‘s a queue, it must be good“? Standing in line for chow requires dedication and commitment, and many around the world are willing to brave icy cold winds or a blazing hot sun to partake of grub that has attained ‘legend‘ status. It might be akin to queuing for tickets to Dave Matthews.
Loo‘s Hainanese Curry Rice in Singapore is one such food rock star and a place to which people literally flock. Whatever the weather. Loo‘s is just one stall tucked into a kopitiam (old-school coffee-shop) on the corner of Seng Poh Road and Eng Watt Street in Tiong Bahru Estate. It serves dishes with rice. For want of a better description, it‘s “point point food“; you point at what you want and they scoop it onto your plate. And then they whack on some of their legendary curry. Its signature dishes include deep fried pork chops, sambal prawn (big juicy prawns in a spicy curry-like sauce), sambal sotong (tender squid in a similarly spicy curry-like sauce) and chap chye (braised cabbage). Which equates to 30 kilos of pork, 7kg of prawns, 20kg of sotong and 40kg of cabbage. Daily.
Run with German-like efficiency, Loo‘s is a modest family business owned by the unassuming and congenial Mr Loo. Mackerel had the privilege of speaking with the 56-year-old boss man and chef who continues to work 15-hour days.
PRESERVING THE HAINANESE TRADITION
Mackerel: When was Loo‘s Hainanese Curry Rice established?
Loo: My father started the business in 1946. I took it over because I wanted to continue the Hainanese food culture. I started working with my Dad after serving National Service.
Mackerel: How long did it take you to perfect your curry recipe? Who taught you how to cook?
Loo: It took me over a decade to master the curry recipe. It was my Dad who taught me to cook.
Mackerel: How many years has Loo‘s been in Tiong Bahru? How has the neighbourhood changed over the years?
Loo: My Dad started the business at Tanjong Pagar. He moved it to Telok Blangah for 12 years before eventually settling down in Tiong Bahru. This is my 23rd year in Tiong Bahru. The estate was an aging neighbourhood until the younger folk moved in with their cafes and other businesses. The place is more vibrant now.
Mackerel: What‘s the most popular combo meal?
Loo: Pork chop, cabbage and sambal sotong.
Mackerel: What‘s the most popular dish? What‘s your personal favourite and why?
Loo: The big customer favourite is the pork chop. For me, my favourite is the sambal prawn. For one thing, it‘s my creation. And such delicacies are hard to find nowadays.
Mackerel: Do you plan to add new dishes?
Loo: Not at the moment. I prefer to keep things traditional. And my customers love the traditional dishes.
Mr Loo keeps it real. His signature dishes (top) from left to right: Deep fried pork chops. The meat is tender and smooth. Don't ask us how he does it; sambal prawn; sambal sotong.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Mackerel: It‘s very tiring work. What keeps you motivated every day?
Loo: Definitely it is a tiring job! What motivates me is seeing my customers eating with satisfaction. I also want to preserve the Hainanese food culture; that keeps me motivated.
Mackerel: When do you intend to retire? Who will continue the business when you do?
Loo: I haven‘t really given retirement that much thought, but my daughter would be a good candidate to take it over. We‘ve already talked about what she could do with it. Catering might be one way to go.
SALT OF THE EARTH
Mackerel: Do you think it‘s possible for the hawker culture to continue in Singapore? Or will it soon be a thing of the past?
Loo: Singapore‘s hawker culture is like an endangered species. And I‘m referring to small businesses like mine that don‘t have a highly automated central kitchen. Due to the long hours and low profit margins, the younger generation is unwilling to take over from the older generation when it comes time for them to retire. I think if we put in the effort to change people‘s mindsets and perhaps rethink business models, hawker culture could still be workable. [End of interview]
Speaking with people like Mr Loo reminds us that a good product is what businesses need to succeed. What are we left with when we strip away the hyped-up marketing, fancy packaging and expensive PR? One hopes it’s a product born of passion, toil and talent; like Mr Loo’s pork chops and sambal sotong.
Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice is open daily, from 8.45am to about 2.30pm. They are closed every other Thursday.
Address: Blk 71 Eng Watt Street, Tiong Bahru Estate, Singapore 160071