On Mama Judy Singapore Hawker’s opening day, the diner sitting next to me noticed my enthusiasm for a curry puff ($4.50). After I described the delicious blend of spices, the crispness of the pastry, and the tender melding of potato and chicken, he ordered one for himself. Gathered outside at tables on the small brick courtyard, happy customers eagerly indulged in Mama Judy Wee’s cooking. A server behind the counter explained how many of them have been devoted to Mama Judy since the days of her pandemic pop-ups.
At the end of a long day in her new kitchen, Mama Judy—as her fans and friends call her—spoke with me about her cooking. The chef’s approach to making dishes from Singapore is summed up on the restaurant’s website as “unapologetically authentic.” What makes the food authentic to Mama Judy has as much to do with the ingredients as it does with bringing culinary memories back to Singaporeans who live in the United States.
“Food fills up your tummy,” she said, “but it also brings back memories and connections.” When customers eat her food, Mama Judy wants them to feel as if their mothers and grandmothers made it. The recipes themselves can be traced to the chef’s own personal sense of nostalgia; they’re passed down from her mother.
“When I was young, I remember hanging out in the kitchen with her,” Mama Judy said. “I saw what seasoning she added to the wok, what meat to add, what vegetable.” While her mother chopped up the ingredients, she stirred everything together. Making meals with her mother left a lasting impression on her and provided her with the knowledge to make those dishes.
Fusion dishes don’t qualify as authentic in Mama Judy’s kitchen. “I’ve been to a restaurant that has a laksa broth, but they actually made it with ravioli instead of noodles,” she said. “When I make my rice dumpling with a bamboo leaf and sticky rice, people love it. They say, ‘Oh, this tastes like home.’”
According to the menu and my taste buds, a curry chicken and rice dish ($13.50) is a marriage of Indian spices and “the Malay way of making a spice paste.” Mama Judy and her busy kitchen staff cook the chicken until the meat slides right off the bone. But the spice paste is the primary way to distinguish the sauce from an Indian curry. The difference is subtle and likely more noticeable to someone who grew up savoring those particular Malaysian spices.
Before opening Singapore Hawker, Mama Judy researched the Bay Area to find out if any other restaurants made dishes comparable to hers. She found food she considered Malaysian-centric, often with too many dishes on the menu. The plan for Mama Judy’s menu is to rotate new dishes in and out on a monthly basis. She plans to focus on making three entrées, desserts, homemade beverages and premade sides.
Mama Judy’s desserts inspire the same level of nostalgia in her customers as her savory dishes do. For diners who may be unfamiliar with gula melaka sago ($6), it’s a startling melange of flavors and textures—tiny tapioca pearls bathed in a coconut milk that’s infused with pandan leaves and palm sugar. It’s a liquid that’s also chewy. Kueh lapis, another dessert that’s a visual marvel, has a mochi-like texture. Made from layers of steamed cake, it resembles a slice of rainbow.
The chef also makes soy bean milk, which is not the same as soy milk. “I use organic soy beans and soak them overnight,” Mama Judy said. Then she strains it before cooking the milk with sugar and pandan. The infusion of flavors lightens and sweetens the drink. It’s a refreshing change from those familiar containers of soy milk.
Mama Judy is considering the idea of making a dessert with durian, but it’s a hard sell to anyone who isn’t in love with the flavor. “I don’t think durian is accepted by a lot of people, because of its strong smell,” she said. “I just mostly make coconut-based types of desserts.”