Nasi ambeng, a celebratory Malay dish popular from the 1960s to 1980s, is making a comeback.
The traditional Javanese sharing dish is made up of a mountain of rice with different meat and vegetable dishes, served on gigantic platters. The dish is usually shared among four to six people.
Once a common sight at religious festivals and weddings, nasi ambeng was in danger of quietly fading out.
However, in 2010, Roszy’s Tiffin House in Goldhill Centre started offering the dish. The restaurant has since closed, but starting three years ago, eateries such as Selera Kampung Cuisine in Yishun, Mamanda Restaurant in Kampong Glam and Pu3 Restaurant in Bencoolen Street began serving nasi ambeng, on top of other Malay dishes.
The trend has caught on with at least five eateries serving nasi ambeng in the past year.
Newer players even specialise in the communal dish.
These include two-month-old Padi@Bussorah in Bussorah Street and Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah in Upper Changi Road. The platters comprise seven to 14 dishes, including ayam lemak chilli padi, beef rendang, sambal goreng, sambal sotong, begedil, paru (cow lungs) and urap (mixed vegetables tossed in grated coconut).
Most eateries say nasi ambeng is popular among middle-aged diners as it brings back memories of tucking into the dish with family and neighbours in kampungs.
Ms Adhana Kamis, 46, co-owner of Hajjah Mariam Cafe in Westgate mall, was one of them. She is incorporating a slice of her family’s tradition by serving nasi ambeng on vintage floral enamel platters, or dulangs. They are from her family’s collection and antique shops.
“Customers feel nostalgic and want to relive good old memories of eating from a shared platter.”
The eatery sells up to 70 platters daily.
Mr Adam Malikh Zainul, 48, co-owner of Padi@Bussorah, says nasi ambeng epitomises “makan berdamai”, a culture of bonding through food.
“Hectic lifestyles have led to fewer opportunities to dine together and this dish fosters a spirit of togetherness and interaction,” he says.
The restaurant has enjoyed brisk business, selling up to 600 platters a month, including deliveries to office and community events.
The restaurant is expanding the concept of serving food on shared platters and will introduce nasi briyani and seafood served on platters soon.
Young adults are also catching on to the nasi ambeng trend, posting photos of the dish on social media.
About 70 per cent of Pu3’s customers are young adults, many of them seeking the novelty of eating from a common platter with friends. This prompted owner Puteri Norlela, 41, to take photos of each dining group and posting them on the restaurant’s Facebook page as keepsakes for customers.
Besides Singaporeans, tourists have also been curious to try the dish.
She has seen an increase in 20 per cent of customers who are tourists over the past two years. They come from China and Europe and arrive in tour groups or have read about the shop online.
“I am happy to see that another Malay dish is getting recognised,” she says. “Most tourists know about chicken rice, chilli crab and, when it comes to Malay food, it is always satay. We need more dishes that represent Malay culture.”
To stand out from the competition, eateries are setting themselves apart by tweaking the ingredients in nasi ambeng.
The nasi ambeng at Nur Indah Padang Cuisine in Changi Village features mee goreng, which is similar to versions served in Malaysia. It also infuses Padang- cooking style in dishes such as cow lungs: Instead of frying them, co-owner Hajjah Roziah Adon, 55, simmers the offal with sweet soya sauce and spices such as cumin.
Madam Hajjah Roziah, who jumped on the bandwagon in December last year, says: “With nasi ambeng going viral these days, we will lose out if we do not do something different.”
Some restaurateurs say the market for nasi ambeng here is getting saturated.
Ms Harfa Abdul Karim, 47, director of Makmur Restaurant in North Bridge Road, which included nasi ambeng permanently in its menu this January, thinks the dish is popular now as diners are soaking up the festivities of Hari Raya Puasa.
She says: “Like bubble tea, nasi ambeng is just another food trend, which may last for another two years.”
However, Ms Ummi Abdullah, 35, owner of Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah, believes that nasi ambeng is here to stay. Her shop sells about 200 platters daily.
“Nasi ambeng is like a nasi padang on a platter, which consists of a wider variety of Malay staple dishes.”
Diners like the convenience and variety of tucking into nasi ambeng.
Language instructor Sarifa Makong Aly, 54, says: “Cooking nasi ambeng at home is time- consuming as it can take up to three hours to prepare and fry the ingredients. I can order one platter when entertaining guests at home and it saves time on washing up.”
Mr Muhammad Fadhil Ahmad, 28, a nurse, who eats nasi ambeng once a month, says: “I like to sample the tasting portions of different dishes and I feel full after a meal.
Secretary Junaidah Ahmad, 43, says: “Food is much tastier when eaten with hands in a group. I also enjoy the wide variety of ingredients, instead of cramming three or four ingredients on a plate when ordering nasi padang.”