In an unassuming corner of a neighbourhood coffee shop, Almalic Faisal faces a snaking queue. Unfazed, he patiently turns his hands expertly to flip and twirl a piece of dough: left to right and right to left, until it is stretched thin and nearly four times its original size.
This art of making a good roti prata – a crisp, flaky croissant-pancake – is what the 33-year-old has been learning under his father’s watchful eye for nearly a decade. Yet his dad still comes up behind him occasionally to tut softly under his breath.
“He will come and say, ‘this one prata ah?’ and shake his head and walk away… His standard is very high,” says Faisal, who shares that by his father’s standards, the bread should be much softer on the inside.
“It’s not about speed. It’s the rotation of the hands, how the surface of the dough hits the sizzling plate, and how you fold the prata,” he explains.
Together with his younger brother, Mohamed Dufail, 30, the siblings are third-generation hawkers. Their family business began in 1933 when their grandfather arrived in Singapore from India and started selling prata by the streets. When their father, Haji Mohammed, took over, he set up shop in Cluny Road before moving to the current location in Sin Ming in 1993.
“Few people knew we moved here, and there was scant business for the first six months. Some days, my dad would come home with practically no income, after paying the workers their daily wage,” says Mohamed.
These days, getting your morning prata fix at their stall means braving a 30-minute wait for the crispy fare, best enjoyed piping hot. In the queue are faces the brothers recognise instantly, some of whom grew up eating their prata. “There is this guy who has been coming for nearly 20 years, almost every weekend,” shares Mohamed. “I know right away when I see him that he likes his prata fresh, and extra crispy.”
Despite the overwhelming demand, father and sons still insist on making their dough by hand daily. The dough is usually prepared at 6pm the evening before, and takes an hour to make.
“The most challenging thing about making the dough without a machine is working nearly 30kg of mixture with just two hands,” says Mohamed. Only one man works the mixture to keep it consistent. After that, the dough is left to rest for 45 minutes before it is kneaded and shaped into balls.
The signature coin prata is the magic that happens when the dough is tossed by deft hands. The prata is crispy on the outside, yet gives way easily to a soft, chewy centre. The brothers also keep to using fresh fish and chicken in the spicy curries that complete this breakfast.
“Some people keep asking us ‘where’s my prata?’ after two minutes. This is not McDonald’s, where even your order takes about five minutes to arrive.”
– Mohamed Dufail
“Some people keep asking us ‘where’s my prata?’ after two minutes. This is not McDonald’s, where even your order takes about five minutes to arrive,” says Mohamed. Take plain and egg prata, for instance. He explains: “The plain prata actually takes longer to make because we have to flip and fold the dough a few times. For the egg, we just flip once, crack in the egg, then fold and put it on the pan.
“People don’t understand this, and will complain if the guy behind them gets his egg prata first.”
To be sure, what makes a satisfying morning for many has come at a personal cost to the brothers. Both have no personal time and are usually too tired at the end of the day to do more than have a light dinner and hit the sack.
“My friends, even my mother, asked why I wanted to come (to the stall) and suffer,” says Mohamed. “But I don’t want to waste my dad’s 40 years of hardship and the name he has built. Sin Ming Roti Prata will disappear if we don’t take over.”
Eventually, though, the brothers plan to take the business bigger scale, and move to a restaurant. “It won’t be so soon. We’re looking for a space, and we need to be sure we have the manpower,” says Mohamed. “I also want to do my own production – manufacture the dough and sell it.”
Sin Ming Roti Prata
#01-51 Jin Fa Kopitiam, 24 Sin Ming Road.