SMRT Worker By Day, Putu Piring Hawker By Night

Sprightly 69-year-old Madam Katijah is one awesome multitasking makcik. She works at SMRT in the mornings, then sells putu piring — traditional Malay steamed rice flour cakes with gula melaka — in the afternoons. (A version of this story first appeared in Issue 1391, June 15, 2017.)

This mod 11-seat café serving ice-blended drinks with local flavours along Baghdad Street may not seem like much. But look further inside, and you’ll see a cute makcik behind a mobile steaming cart whipping up little white cakes. She’s making putu piring. "Piring" is Malay for plate, alluding to the circular shape of the snack.


Think the Malay version of kueh tutu — but way yummier. Tender rice flour cakes are filled with rich palm sugar and steamed till the filling melts into a gooey, caramelly mess. They’re served with grated coconut. These sedap handmade treats are rare these days. The most delicious ones we know of are from the famous Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring. But now, this two-month-old joint offers the cakes in a more central location.


The lovely, chatty putu piring chef here is Madam Katijah, 69. She rents a tiny corner of the café from boss Noor Abdul Latiff, 69, who owns Ole Ole. Noor is a former flight steward with Singapore Airlines, and his daughter and son-in-law are the people behind nearby Fika Café, a chic halal joint serving Swedish grub .


In the mornings, Madam Katijah works at SMRT as a station officer, and comes to Ole Ole every afternoon except Monday to make some extra cash. She closes shop around 8pm. Her husband, Mohd Salleh (above pic), 70, quietly helps her with the prep work. Madam Katijah first started selling these cakes twenty years ago at her own stall at the Singapore Swimming Club at Tanjong Rhu, where she was based for ten years, and later moved to Adam Road, Joo Chiat, and most recently Pasir Panjang Food Centre, where the landlord eventually took back the space last year. She took on a job at SMRT soon after that. She started selling putu piring again at Ole Ole when a friend introduced her to Noor, who sublet her a space at his cafe. 

It's a tough business, but Katijah says she sticks with it because she's been making these cakes since she was a girl. She was taught by her grandmother, and said it took a long time to master the cooking times: "I used to always burn my hands from the steam!" she says. She adds that this heritage snack is so hard to find nowadays because it's difficult, fussy work. The secret, she shares, lies in using the best ingredients, and in mastering the correct steaming time as overcooked cakes turn out too “wet”. And please, don't talk to her about kueh tutu. "Aiyah, that one the Chinese copy from us lah!" she laughs. According to her, kueh tutu uses a different kind of flour, and replaces the traditional palm sugar filling with grated coconut or peanuts.

ON THE MENU: Putu piring, of course. Each order gets you four pieces, wrapped in waxed paper, along with grated coconut and snips of pandan leaf. Request for yours to be made a la minute. The rice flour mix is spooned into a muslin-lined metal mould and filled with grated palm sugar. Also, there's Ole Ole's selection of ice-blended drinks, or the usual koptiam stuff like teh tarik.

THE FOOD:


Putu Piring, $2 for four

These freshly steamed cakes are softer and more delicate than kueh tutu. But unlike the usual caramelly gula melaka we are used to, the palm sugar filling here is a mix of tart, sweet, and savoury flavours. Madam Kalijah says it's 'cos she uses gula jawa palm sugar from Indonesia and not gula melaka from Malacca. She insists the latter has a less complex flavour. Salt is added to the grated coconut accompaniment, which adds a nice savoury note. We only wish the gula melaka filling were more lusciously gooey like the famous Haig Road one.

 

Chendol with Durian, $6.50

Pimped up chendol: coconut milk and gula melaka lurking beneath finely shaved ice, red beans, sago, pandan jelly ‘worms’, and a dollop of rich durian paste. Decadent. 

 

Soursop Ice Blended, $5

Soursop pulp, milk, ice, and a touch of lime juice are blitzed with ice to make this frosty drink. It’s studded with little yoghurt jelly pearls (called “raindrops”). Too bad it was too sweet and milky with no flavour of the fruit whatsoever when our colleague had it on another occasion.

 

Avocado Gula Melaka Ice Blended, $5

Avocado puree blended with ice and milk, then poured into a cup with a small pool of gula melaka. Creamy and alluringly earthy. 

BOTTOM LINE: Putu piring is a fast-disppearing Malay snack, so eat it while you can. The ones here, though not the best we've tried, are tasty enough and made with so much love by Madam Katijah and her husband. Meanwhile, the icy drinks with a local twist are hit-or-miss. $


21 Baghdad St, S199660. Tel: (Ole Ole) 9062-9627, (Salaz Putu Piring) 9390-5842. Open daily 10am-8pm (putu piring available Tue-Fri 4pm-8pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm-8pm). Last orders at closing. www.facebook.com/salazputupiring

 

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