An icon turns 50

An icon turns 50

Duty trumps dreams in the ongoing story of Samy's Curry, the iconic Indian restaurant at Dempsey.

A daughter gave up her dream of being a chemist and a son of being a lawyer to step in and manage the family business.

When Madam Nagayjothi Mahendran was 18, she realised that her desire to be a chemist would remain a pipe dream.

Her father, Mr Mahendran Samy, the boss of Samy's Curry, had a heart attack.

And after scoring an "A" for Chemistry in her A levels, Madam Nagayjothi abandoned her plan to go to university.

Later, she took the leap into helping with her ailing father's business.

Now 29, she is the boss of Samy's Curry, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, marking time from when her late grandfather started a roadside stall on Tank Road.

She told The New Paper: "Many people thought that I was too young to manage the business and customers would run away because they didn't trust me.

"I felt like I was too young, too. But I was the only person my father could rely on and it is my responsibility to keep the family business going."

Madam Nagayjothi and her younger brother, Mr Veerasamy Mahendran, 22, have been helping in the restaurant since they were in primary school.

She recalled dropping plates of food she was about to serve the customers.

"It was really embarrassing," said Madam Nagayjothi, who lives in an executive flat in Bendemeer with her husband, her younger brother and parents.

Madam Nagayjothi and her husband, Mr M. Pandiyan, 32, senior manager of the restaurant, do not have children.

Madam Nagayjothi had no plans to take over the family business.

"After my dad's heart attack, I knew I had to step up because I was the eldest child and my responsibility was to support my family," she said.

Her mother, Madam Veera Sathi, mans the till.

Madam Nagayjothi took over as the director of Samy's Curry in 2008.

Ironically, the boss of one of Singapore's most famous restaurants admits that she can't cook its signature fish head curry.

"I used to cook only Maggi mee," the former Yishun Junior College student joked.

Her father's story mirrors hers.

Mr Mahendran, 55, was forced to take over the family business after Mr M. Veerasamy died in his sleep.

Fresh out of the army at 20 and just about to be wed, Mr Mahendran was too taken aback by his father's sudden death to think about anything else.

His wedding, arranged by his father just a month before his death, was going to be held the following week.

"I still feel sad that he couldn't make it to my wedding," said Mr Mahendran, who felt that his sadness would not go away until he fulfilled his responsibilty as a son to take over the business.


He learnt to run an Indian food business with just his father's practical cooking lessons in mind.

"My dream was to become a lawyer. Having a dream is one thing, fate is another," he said.

Fifty years on, Samy's Curry remains one of the most talked about restaurants in Singapore, possibly because of its addictive masala chicken and authentic Indian style dining.

Local food expert KF Seetoh said that Samy's has lasted so long because it is a household name and the recipes have been passed on from generations.

Mr Mahendran said they still use fresh banana leaves as they give off a nice aroma to the rice.

He said playfully: "If my children ever change the banana leaves to plates in the future, I'll climb out of my grave and haunt them for it."

Did you know?

When Samy's Curry started out as a roadside stall on Tank Road, Indian immigrants could choose to settle the bill when they got paid at the end of the week.

On an average day, Samy's serves up to 120 fish heads in curry.

The recipes of all the curries at Samy's have remained unchanged, and they have always been served on fresh banana leaves.

There is only one copy of the recipes, which is saved in a USB flash drive. Madam Nagayjothi keeps the flash drive with her at all times.

When Samy's Curry was in the Civil Service Club, non-members had to pay an entrance fee of 50 cents. This practice stopped in 2005, when the club relocated.

It's more than curry at Samy's

Samy's Curry is like home to Mr Conrad Raj, 66, and his friends.

For at least 30 years, the makan kakis have been going there several times a month to catch up over its iconic dishes masala chicken and fish head curry.

The retired reporter, best known for his investigative stories with The Business Times, said that Samy's Curry is not only a place to dine in but also where friends gather and bond.

Mr Conrad recalled their first visit to Samy's Curry, after some friends recommended the place for good food and a homey ambience.

He said: "There are many Indian restaurants in Singapore, but not all of them have iconic dishes like at Samy's Curry. It has an atmosphere that is hard to compete with."

The group of friends, including Mr Peter Madhavan, who is in his 50s, and Mr Wee Jim Hock, 76, always make time to catch up over fish head curry and rice on fresh banana leaves.

They are so familiar with Samy's Curry that they treat the waiters like brothers and the owner, Mr Mahendran Veerasamy, like their saviour to good food.

Mr S. Kumar, 56, is always ready to drive to Samy's Curry whenever his friends call him up for dinner.

The managing director of Huntington Communications said: "In a way, Samy's made Dempsey what it is now."

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