Vietnamese-Muslim Hawker Who Ran Café In Vietnam Now Sells $5 Halal Beef Pho
The new stall at Old Airport Road Food Centre also sells $4.50 grilled lemongrass chicken rice.
While there’s no shortage of competent Vietnamese grub in Singapore, it’s more challenging to find authentic Vietnamese food that's both halal-certified and affordable.
Emina Mi, a two-week-old hawker stall in Old Airport Road Food Centre, is 31-year-old Emina Abdullah’s answer to that proposition, born out of the Vietnamese-born hawker’s dissatisfaction with halal Vietnamese establishments in Singapore. “I tried [some halal Vietnamese food] – but the taste isn’t the same,” she says. “So after that, I decided to just cook it myself.”
The PR moved to Singapore six years ago after meeting her husband Khairil Samsi, 41. She’s one of few Muslims in Vietnam - they make up less than 0.1 per cent of the population there - who’re concentrated in the southeast region of the country where she was born.
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Though she’s worked a variety of jobs (most recently as a cashier) since coming to Singapore, she has dabbled in home-based catering “for parties and friends” since she left her hometown in Mui Ne, where she ran a small eatery selling beef noodles and other rice dishes. Mui Ne is a resort town on the southeast coast of Vietnam famed for its water sports. “For some reason, it’s very popular with Russians,” shares Khairil with a laugh.
“I haven’t tried much Singaporean food [that’s not halal], but I miss Vietnamese food a lot,” she says. “But cooking [Vietnamese food] is quite easy here. In Singapore, [ingredients are] easy to find.”
We ask if she’s tweaked her recipes at Emina Mi to suit local tastes. “No,” she says plainly. “I’m cooking to suit Vietnamese tastes. Then Singaporeans will know what authentic Vietnamese food tastes like.”
The petite woman pickles, boils and slices everything herself. There’re a lot of things to handle for one person, but she’s proud of what she does.
Some, like pickling mustard greens or marinating chicken, are a little more hands-off – other tasks, like grilling said chicken, or shaping handmade beef and chicken balls, require comparatively more effort. That’s why she’s got only four items on her menu, as each comes with their own components that require prep.
She even knows how to make banh mi from scratch (French loaf and all – she shows us a picture on her phone to prove it), though it’d be “too difficult” to handle this all alone. “No time!” she insists.
She gets some help from her husband, whom she met after a friend introduced them while she was visiting pals in Singapore before relocating. “She was in the garment biz back then. I liaised with her for work, and we hit it off,” Khairil says. Now, he works in commercial real estate while helping Emina with “some backend work, like stall signage, application forms and so on.”
The couple, along with their two young children, live a short distance away from Old Airport Road Food Centre. “We were thinking of [having Emina start] a restaurant, but then we saw this vacant stall,” he says. “I encouraged her to go ahead and try – it’s what she loves doing after all.”
They sank around $12K into the hawker stall, eventually opening Emina Mi on June 18. “There’s some risk, but it’s also an opportunity,” he says. “We started during [Phase 2 HA], so business has been pretty quiet.” They’re in the midst of getting on delivery platforms, which Khairil thinks will be indispensable moving forward.
There hasn’t been too much change after dining-in (up to 2 pax) returned on June 21 either: “It’s too early to say. But on some days, she sells out early. And because I’m working from home, she’ll call me and say, ‘Emergency, go get some ingredients!’” he adds.
Emina Mi sells a tight menu of four items, each with its own set of house-made accompaniments or dipping sauces.
There are two noodle bowls – pho bo (beef noodle soup), a dish Vietnam’s best-known for, and its spicier, less popular cousin, bun bo (spicy beef noodle soup) – along with goi cuon (spring rolls made with rice paper) and com tam (broken rice, served with grilled chicken).
And yes, all the food here is halal. Most dishes aren’t really affected, save for the bun bo – which is sometimes served with pig’s legs, offal and cubes of congealed blood in Vietnam.
She begins cooking the stock in the morning – a simple construction of beef bones, beef shank, and onions along with other herbs and spices (like cinnamon, fennel seeds and cloves), boiled for three hours. The soup stock isn’t as full-bodied as some we’ve had in Vietnam’s various noodle chains, but the flavour’s robust enough for the price. That said, there were some distractingly strong notes of cinnamon in the stronger Ho Chi Minh-style broth.
It’s served with silky-smooth flat rice noodles, some raw veggies like bean sprouts and sliced onion for textural crunch, and chunks of gelatin-rich beef shank. You’re also getting slivers of still-rare beef chuck tender and rough, handmade beef balls – chewy, rather than bouncy and imperfect, but all the better for it.
We enjoy the underdog version of the noodles immensely. The broth, now imbued with chunks of pineapple, lemongrass and chilli oil, is a sweet-spicy, but well-balanced, affair that’s endlessly drinkable, thanks to a hit of sourness from lime. Emina swaps out the accompaniments with another rustic meatball, chicken this time, as well as a springy, fishcake-like chicken meatloaf. The noodles, by default, are thick rice vermicelli noodles, but the hawker says you can opt to swap them if you’d like.
Another traditional Vietnamese dish, fresh spring rolls wrapped in translucent rice paper. Pork is sometimes used, but you’d obviously find none here. Instead, you’re getting fresh sliced prawns, spring onions, bean sprouts and other veg in your rolls – pretty tasty, if you’re a fan of clean-tasting vegetal flavours. However, the corners of the wrap are a bit dry. Dip it in the accompanying carrot, fish sauce and lime juice dip to soften and impart it with a satisfyingly zesty zing.
Broken rice, simply put, are rice grains that’ve fractured during the milling process. They’re considered inferior and therefore, usually cheaper. It’s commonly found in many dishes in Vietnam. Ironically, it was one ingredient Emina had difficulty finding cheap from Vietnam, she she bought Thai broken rice instead.
For those who’ve never tried broken rice, its softer consistency is a little like couscous. Emina’s take on the dish comes with a few simple sides, like a fried egg, chopped raw veg and dipping sauce, as well as other, more interesting add-ons. There’s a smallish chicken chop, marinated in lemongrass and fish sauce before being grilled to a deliciously smoky char; a steamed egg, mushroom and chicken savoury cake of sorts; and pickled mustard greens (a dish she picked up from Vietnam’s sizeable Chinese population). Pretty worth it for $4.50, we think.
Our only grouse is that the chicken chop should’ve been cooked to order (or at least heated up) instead of being pre-grilled and served at room temperature.
Emina Abdullah runs a tight ship considering it’s a one-woman show. Most of her halal Vietnamese fare tastes about as good as those from casual restaurant chains in Singapore, with the tangy, fiery bun bo (spicy beef noodles) emerging as a dark horse crowd pleaser.