Malay eatery goes tech to go back to its roots

SINGAPORE - Traditional Malay cuisine and high-tech vacuum cookers may not sound like they go hand in hand. But up-and-coming restaurant Mamanda has found this combination actually works a treat.

When Mr Zulkarnine Hafiz opened Mamanda in Sultan Gate, in Arab Street, in August last year, he aimed to be the first in Singapore to offer Malay food in a fine-dining setting.

But he knew this innovative concept was not going to be easy to pull off. Firstly, many Malay dishes are quite difficult and time-consuming to prepare. Beef rendang, for example, can take up to seven hours to cook. Secondly, the quality of the food can also vary widely from chef to chef.

That is why most Malay eateries tend to be small, family-run affairs offering no-frills, over-the-counter service.

If Mamanda were to up the game, it would have to completely rethink the concept of the Malay restaurant. "So I knew we had to use technology to overcome this," said Mr Zulkarnine, 44.

He turned to Spring Singapore for help, tapping the capability development grant to hire consultants who helped him figure out how the restaurant could harness technology to create a high-end restaurant experience while still staying true to the traditional roots of Malay cuisine.

The grant also helped Mamanda pay for training for its staff and to buy the necessary equipment for its kitchen.

This included a blast freezer, a combi-oven and a sous vide machine, which uses vacuum-sealed bags and water to cook anything from vegetables to meat.

The combi-oven can also cook various dishes at the same time and has even helped to reduce wastage, Mr Zulkarnine said. The oven also cuts the need for Mamanda to have different chefs dedicated to cooking specific dishes.

And since the equipment is all automated, kitchen staff can multi-task more efficiently.

In fact, the time saved from using these high-tech tools has allowed Mamanda to dig deeper into tradition, Mr Zulkarnine said.

"Previously the staff may have taken short cuts such as using artificial flavouring or colouring in their dishes, but now they have time to experiment and learn how to create those traditional flavours from scratch," he said.

"Pandan flavour, for example, is quite difficult to extract but now instead of using a chemical flavouring, our kitchen uses actual pandan leaves. We're going all the way back to our roots."

By harnessing technology from the get-go, Mr Zulkarnine estimates that Mamanda's costs are 30 per cent lower than if it had gone the old-fashioned route.

Its dishes also take half the time to prepare and its kitchen capacity is 40 per cent higher, he said. Overall, productivity has improved by 30 per cent.

Despite these encouraging numbers, Mamanda still has further to go to boost its productivity, Mr Zulkarnine said.

For now, only about a third of the items on its menu can be prepared using the high-tech equipment while the rest have to be cooked the old-fashioned way.

The restaurant is in the process of figuring out how to transfer these dishes to the new method.

It is also working to gradually change customers' mindset.

"Sometimes when I tell people how fast we cook our food they compare us with instant rendang even though we make everything from scratch," he said.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.