Ms Aisha (middle) and her parents.
It has been on the verge of closing, but the fourth-generation owners are determined to preserve the famed Haig Road Putu Piring for a new generation.
She was living her dream as a pastry chef in America. But with her family’s business, Haig Road Putu Piring, on the verge of closure, she came back to help save this iconic heritage dessert. Read the story of the family that has been behind it for 4 generations.
SINGAPORE: Ms Aisha Hashim was the only young lady among the women at their stall. Every day, while layering rice flour and gula Melaka into little steaming pyramids, she would catch sight of the cook at the adjacent chicken rice stall.
He often would be looking at her.
Mr Nizam Iskandar had never before seen the fluffy rice cake dessert she was selling. But that was not what intrigued him the most. “What’s this young girl doing there?” he thought to himself.
She was, as he found out soon enough, in the family business of putu piring. “During his lunch, he would come over,” she recalled. “He would ask so many questions about putu piring.” It was, he confessed, a way to get to know her.
By a quirk of fate one generation apart, Ms Aisha’s parents met in almost exactly the same way that she met her husband eight years ago.
“My late mother sold gado gado at that time, and (my wife’s) mother sold putu piring (at) the same stall,” said Mr Hashim Jumaat, 66. “That’s where the relationship started.”
He went on to earn the nickname Mr Putu Piring by building up his wife’s family business into the famed Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring – a business his daughter and son-in-law now manage.
They are featured in an On The Red Dot series about Singapore’s fading heritage and the men and women who strive to keep it alive (watch it here).
SINCE WORLD WAR TWO
Putu piring – which translates literally as dessert plate – has been the family’s bread and butter for four generations, since the Japanese Occupation, when Ms Aisha’s great-grandmother started selling it in Syed Alwi Road.
“Every day, without fail, once (my mother) got to school, she’d just say ‘Good morning, teacher’ and she’d just fly off to where her grandmother … opened the business,” Ms Aisha, 34, said with a laugh.
“During that time, making putu piring wasn’t an easy task. They had to grate their own coconut every day in the morning.” Her mother would also bring the charcoal for steaming the putu piring inside coconut husks.
Growing up, Ms Aisha recalled:
Every morning, I could smell the steamed rice flour with pandan leaves. (In) the late afternoon, the caramel sugar of freshly-chopped gula Melaka. The aroma is, like, wow.
Her turn at getting hands on came after her Primary School Leaving Examination.
“During that one month before I moved to Secondary One, that’s when my dad asked me, ‘Do you want to help at the stall?’” she recounted. “Because I asked for a lot of things, like Walkman, discman.
“My dad has this thinking of not pampering his children – they want it, they work for it. That’s how and that’s when I started helping with putu piring.”
A DREAM GIVEN UP?
Ms Aisha’s dream, however, was to become a pastry chef. After she finished secondary school, she joined Shatec to do her diploma in pastry and baking.
She went on to work for a year as a pastry maker at the Hilton hotel before helping her parents with their business, making preparations at the same time to continue her dreams in the United States.
She furthered her education at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. And when her studies were completed, she joined Boston Harbor Hotel in Massachusetts.
With her talent, she became the hotel’s assistant pastry chef. “When I managed to raise its restaurant’s dessert (rating) from three stars to four stars, then I felt as if I achieved something,” she said. “Finally, I did something.”
The income from her parents’ putu piring business saw her through her studies in the US to her first career success.
It was the same dish that brought her back to Singapore – sooner than expected. “When my mum called, I was happy to hear her voice,” Ms Aisha said.
“But her voice was different. She said, ‘Aisha, I want to tell you something’
Her parents had to look for a new location for their Haig Road stall, which dated back to 1985, and they needed her to help recce for a place.
So the dutiful daughter returned home, and they moved the business in 2009 to Mr Teh Tarik in nearby Onan Road, where she met her husband.
Mr Nizam remembers it well. After he got to know his wife-to-be, he approached her parents to take their relationship further.
“Her father liked me because I was a good worker. That’s what he said. So … I wanted to prove to him that I can help build up the business.” As Mr Hashim did all those years ago.
But Mr Nizam could not have done it without Ms Aisha, who soon realised that taking her family business forward was “a bigger task than (being) a pastry chef”.
“I accomplished something better,” she said on reflection.
WATCH: The making of a sweet affair (3:11)