Malay cuisine is one that is complex, laborious but utterly satisfying when done right. If you’ve ever tried hunting for a place that serves traditional Malay recipes, then look no further than Aroma Kampung, located in Joo Chiat Complex.
When you walk in, you’ll be greeted by numerous woks showcasing a delectable spread of traditional Malay dishes. Chef and owner Siti Khadijah Shaifuddin (or Kak Ijah, for short) is a personable character with plenty of stories to share with those who are keen in learning about her business and her immense love for cooking family recipes.
From the get-go, Kak Ijah clarified with us that her restaurant doesn’t serve nasi padang, which many have coined her cuisine. “What I serve is traditional Malay kampung food. It’s different from nasi padang, because I don’t serve a lot of the dishes that you find in those stalls. In fact, there are a lot of dishes [here] that you can hardly find in Singapore“, she elaborated.
Over here, you can choose to eat it buffet-style for $25.90/$15.90 from Monday to Thursday and $27.90/$17.90 from Friday to Sunday. Alternatively, you can also select certain dishes and pay ala carte price. They also have rice sets that start from $10.
My eyes were drawn to this towering salad bar, filled with greens such as cucumber sticks, bitter gourd, bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes and many more.
There were 13 different sambals, all cooked by Kak Ijah herself, every evening at 11pm. The sambals range from sweet to salty to fishy, making it quite a culinary adventure trying each one.
Out of all of the sauces, the sambal kicap is my favourite. Not only because it was sweet, but because it paired well with almost every other dish in the buffet line. I cannot recall how many times I returned to refill my plate with just that sambal alone.
The sambal budu should get adventurous gourmands going. Budu is a fish sauce and one of the best known fermented seafood products in Kelantan and Terrenganu. As such, the taste is one that not everyone can truly appreciate. It’s a mix of fishy and bitter (to me), but I reckon there are others out there who would have a knack for this rather exotic sambal.
The next interesting sambal that I tasted was the sambal cincalok. It is made with fermented shrimp sauce, with a potent pungency on the nose. Surprisingly, this I could stomach. I wouldn’t say I liked it, but I can see how it could potentially work to add a balance of saltiness to sweeter dishes.
Another interesting sambal is the sambal tempoyak. I’ve heard about it, but I have never tried it — till now. Just by sight, it may look like any regular harmless chilli. But inspect it with your nose, and you’ll find yourself hit with an imposing scent. That would be fermented durian.
I absolutely adore the king of fruits, but this was on a whole different level of foul smells. To the untrained, one would think it’s sambal gone bad, but it’s meant to smell and taste as such, which means only the bold would go for this.
Moving on to the dishes in the buffet line (and trust me, there were many!), I started with the familiar, such as Beef Rendang, Assam Pedas, Ayam Lemak Chilli Padi, Gong Gong and Siput Sedut.
The Beef Rendang is hands down, the best version of the dish I’ve tasted anywhere. And the best part? It’s pretty spicy. Most rendangs I’ve tried at local stalls are under-seasoned and flat. But this checked the list for spicy, sweet, salty and even tangy.
The Assam Pedas rendition is very powerful on the assam aspect and that’s because Kak Ijah intentionally made it so. Her buffet line isn’t merely a random selection of dishes for the sake of eating; every dish is made with the intention of balancing and complementing the other. For every spicy or bold-flavoured dish, there will be a milder dish to mellow out the palate.
For example, the Ayam Lemak Chilli Padi may seem tame to some, but that’s because she eliminated the use of ajinomoto to bring out its true flavours, as well as bring balance to the buffet spread.
“Everything cannot be heavy, if not you won’t get to enjoy and taste the difference in each dish“, Kak Ijah explained.
The Aroma Kampung’s Siput Sedut will get crustacean connoisseurs clamouring to fill their plates with this rich, savoury dish (as I witnessed with other diners while I was there). The flesh may be little, but the gravy makes the extra effort to suck the hell out of the shells well worth it.
Other notable dishes to consider would be the Sambal Telur (egg in sambal), Lemak Daun Ubi (tapioca leaves in coconut gravy) and fried chicken skins. The chicken skins were deep-fried to a crisp, and went delightfully well with the variety of sambals; I dipped them in almost everything! There was also an unlikely Lamb Masala, which was so thick and mouth-watering, I had no choice but to go for seconds.
Aroma Kampung may seem like another run-of-the-mill Malay buffet line, but you’re more than likely to come across a dish that you’ve not heard of or have a hard time finding in Singapore. Kak Ijah beamed with pride when she chatted endlessly about the hours she puts into her business, and shows no signs of slowing down.
At an already-affordable price tag, she only wishes fewer diners would ask for a friendly discount and instead, encourage them to take time to appreciate the earnest dishes she serves. So, spread the word and immerse yourself in an educational and downright delicious spread of Malay kampung tradition.
Expected damage: $10 – $30 per pax