Makansutra: Savour smoky briyani at Cafe Mariam
Food here is infused with bold flavours and smokiness
Mr Hassan Abdul Majeed has worked with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. He has worked in cruise ship kitchens and has even moulded sushi and ramen in his 20-year career in the culinary industry.
But it is at Cafe Mariam, in this cramped little food shop with limited seating, that he feels he belongs, serving his family's briyani recipes.
The place may not even look anything like a well-thought-out Western or Japanese kitchen, but he lets his food do the talking.
There are only three types of nasi briyani available. "There's no menu, just what you see stuck on the door," said Mr Hassan, 37, who goes on about just how different they are.
There is Chicken Dum Briyani ($6.50), Mutton Briyani ($7.50) and the Arab-style Mandi Briyani (price depends on size).
I tried a duo platter set of Dum and Mandi with chicken and mutton and it was indeed different - and alluring.
I tore into the Mandi Briyani first and it had a delightful smokiness, as if it had been done over a wood fire in some clay tagine pot or a Josper oven, but no.
Mr Hassan showed me how he did it and I was wowed by his technique.
The mutton chunks are simmered till soft in a stew pot, and upon order, he torches the soft meat for roastiness and it retains the juiciness inside (ditto for the spiced braised chicken).
The mutton's gaminess is gentle as the meat is braised and the aromatics and herbs are light. The fluffy long-grained basmati does not overwhelm and the boldness of the ghee (clarified butter) and mutton stock bursts through each bite.
It had a bold yet humble flavour, done simply with mutton stock and ghee.
The hint of saffron used in the Dum Briyani is thoughtful.
Chunks of meat are buried in the mound of briyani and the set comes with yogurt, dhal curry and an explosive green chilli chutney. Mix it in at your own peril.
I asked why he had moved to this stall - which he has been operating for 18 months - from his stellar background, and Mr Hassan said he wanted people to "eat my freedom and independence" as he wields his legacy as his own boss.
I pressed on, asking what he had gleaned during his stint here and "humility" was the answer.
He once saw a customer sitting patiently when the food was served as she waited for her husband to take a two-cigarette break before they gleefully tore into the meal.
He said: "It may be a simple observation, but I see the depth of the humbleness and contentment in that act. I need to learn more from that."
We all do, brother.
116 Changi Road, #01-03
11am to 3pm on weekdays; closes by 2pm on weekends (prayer break noon to 2pm on Fridays)