When Alan and Carol Han opened The Old Raffles Place in Collingwood in 2000, it was supposed to be a small cafe, their retirement project.
“In that industry, when you’re approaching 60, people see that as retirement age, but we wanted to keep working so we decided to start a little breakfast cafe and it snowballed into something unexpected,” says Carol.
The Hans, who were both born in Singapore, have been married for almost five decades. They spent most of their careers in hospitality, working in some of the best hotels in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Australia. They even met while working at one of these hotels: he was in the kitchen, she was a server.
They named their cafe after the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, and started serving coffee and simple dishes like bacon and eggs. “But the name ‘Raffles’ caught the attention of students and local Asians and they started asking for carrot cake and Hokkien mee, food that relates to Singapore, so the place started changing and that’s how the journey began,” explains Alan.
“We decided to make food that’s fairly authentic and reminds us of the gold old days.”
Before you even order, you’ll get an inkling that the restaurant is something special. Colourful signage outside advertises “Classic Singapore Dishes”, “Fried Hokkien Mee” and “Hainanese Chicken Rice”. Once you enter, you almost have to walk through the kitchen to get into the dining room, decorated with fairly lights and old photos and newspapers articles on Singapore.
Then, there’s the food. When I ask about their most popular dishes, Alan replies that it depends on the cultural background of the customers. “If they’re Asian, nine out of ten people will ask for the carrot cake, because it represents Singapore. Everyone there grew up eating carrot cake. You can eat it from morning to night,” he says.
Carrot cake, or chai tow kway, doesn’t have anything to do with the dessert. White radish and rice flour are mixed and shaped into cubes, which are then fried with kecap manis, garlic, eggs, bean sprouts and chilli (upon request).
"Nine out of ten people will ask for the carrot cake, because it represents Singapore."
A hawker staple, this dish is made by Carol. “I add more radish than most recipes. We’re generous with all the ingredients, generous with the egg, we’re not stingy with the good ingredients,” she says. She also makes other starters like lobak, which is spiced minced pork encased in a fried bean-curd skin, as well as desserts.
Alan makes the sauces, including sambal, and oversees their chef, David Chin. “You need a good chef behind the wok. Asian cooking is all about the guy behind the wok,” says Alan.
He praises Chin’s Penang char kway teow, which is not as sweet and has a bit more of a kick than the Singapore char kway teow.
Other dishes you’ll want to order: the laksa, the Hainanese chicken rice and the Hokkien mee. The latter is a staple of Singaporean cuisine made with yellow Hokkien noodles, rice vermicelli, prawn, squid and pork belly braised in prawn broth.
“Australian customers, they go for the beef rendang, the chicken curry, the pork ribs, and the roti murtabak. It has minced beef marinated with curry spices and egg in a roti, like a toastie, they really love that,” says Alan.
No matter what you pick, Alan and Carol love to chat about the origins of a dish, or how it is made.
Luckily for us, almost 20 years into their “retirement project”, they’re not planning to stop anytime soon.
“We keep going …” says Alan.
“Until we’re dead!” Carol interjects, with a laugh.
“Obviously, if health is an issue, we’ll stop, we do this because we love it. But how much gardening can you do when you retire?”
68-70 Johnston Street, Collingwood VIC, (03) 9417 4450
Wed – Fri midday – 2:30 pm, 5 pm – 9:30 pm
Sat midday – 4 pm, 5 pm – 9:30 pm
Sun midday - 4 pm, 5 pm- 9 pm
A delicious mix seafood and egg make these fried noodles the best example of Singaporean cooking. In classic style, this recipe uses two types of noodles: thick yellow Hokkien and thin vermicelli.
Despite the name, this Singaporean street food favourite doesn’t contain any carrot at all. Instead, white radish makes the base of this comforting savoury cake which is crisp on the outside while soft and chewy in the centre.
"Inspiration for this dish came from a number of sources: the traditional tiffin carriers come from Peranakan culture; the caramel mousse is an ode to my favourite sweet treat in Singapore – kaya toast." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore
"Thunder tea is a mix of vegetables, served together with rice, and a tea poured over the top. I remember making make this dish called lei cha, which translates as thunder tea. Tea can really bring out some umami flavours and is therefore well suited to a savoury dish." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore