International Plaza is one of the older places in the Central Business District (CBD). Completed in 1976, it’s been dominating the skyline in the CBD for a while now. But now, it shares the skyline with bigger, shinier monuments to commerce and finance. Still, it houses a good size of CBD’s office workers and some very good food.
One of the most unassuming places on the first floor is Dor’s Nyonya Place.
The first thing you notice about the stall is the deep green countertop which separates the kitchen from the customers. Bar stools are pushed up against the countertop, their round plush seats sporting barely discernible geometric shapes. Ah, the 90s. The next thing you’ll notice are the bowls of noodles displayed on a shelf. Each bowl is only moments away from being a complete meal.
Then there’s Dor herself, an older lady with a full head of short hair, her silver-speckled fringe curled elegantly upwards. When I complimented her on her coiffure, she haughtily replied, “It’s natural.”
Now, if you let Dor know what noodles you’d like, she’ll grab a bowl and pour homemade gravy in it and sprinkle some green onions and fried shallots on it.
The set up is essential for speed. Dor, which is short for Doris, says there used to be three of them working the stall. These days it’s just her and her husband. They are both in their 70s.
As someone who has worked in the area, I can confirm that there’s brisk business to be done selling breakfast to people on-the-go. For anyone wanting a tasty, home-cooked Malay-Chinese breakfast that is also economical, Dor’s has been their go to for years, sometimes decades.
Dor says she doesn’t come to work so early anymore.
“No point,” She huffed. “No customers.”
While she used to come to work at 5 am, these days she settles for 7 am. It’s enough time for her to cook batches of barley for drinking and make her own sambal and mee rebus gravy.
Doris told me she started Dor’s Nyonya Place because her husband’s trading business flopped. Her mother taught her to cook and she must have been a similar, hard woman of high standards, because Doris became a great cook herself. So much so that her friends and neighbours nagged her into setting up her own stall. So she did.
With the start of the Circuit Breaker came the beginning of Doris’s woes.
It’s not an unfamiliar story, since so many in the Food & Beverage industry were hard-hit. But for Doris, it’s different because she’s been there since 1983. Dor’s Nyonya Place survived the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. It was the little place that could. But it wasn’t easy, because Doris has always been, in her own words, a “fussy woman”.
She is uncompromising when it comes to the quality of her food. She is steadfast in her belief that her food must not only be good, it must also be affordable. It is a point of pride for her that hers is one of the most economical places to dine at in the area. There was a time, she said, when Dor’s Nyonya Place sold $1 porridge in the mornings, with ikan bilis. She also sold Nasi Padang for a time.
But health concerns forced her to simplify her menu. Some years ago, she had to have a coronary bypass surgery to unblock three arteries supplying blood to her heart. It was her husband who convinced her to cut down on the menu, to reduce the possibility of overwork.
But keeping her food affordable is something Doris will not budge on. Her four main dishes, Mee Rebus, Mee Siam, Assam Laksa and Lontong are all $3.80 each. For comparison, a bowl of pork or beef rice from a stall a mere 10 paces away would cost you $10.
When I asked her how long it took her to decide to call it quits, a steely look came into her eyes. It was a quick decision, she said. Her husband and herself were getting older. The Circuit Breaker, implemented earlier this year in April, prompted them to shut their doors for two whole months. They lost all that income and they were still losing money. Why not quit before they went completely under?
There were also other factors, which I suspect had chipped away at Doris’s will over time.
COVID-19 might be the bale of straw that broke the camel’s back but it isn’t the only factor. Even though she is a clearly a tough old bird, everyone has feelings. Dor clearly works very hard at her craft and her success hasn’t come without its share of pain. Regulars who’ve eaten her food for years have balked when she gently reminded them that she would need to raise her prices, in light of the price of produce going up. Neighbours have pestered her for a particular recipe. When she eventually relented, tired of being hassled, they went right ahead and set up shop next to her. Fortunately, Doris will have the last laugh – she did not give the complete recipe away.
As for what will happen to the rest of her recipes, she told me she will be holding on to them. A friend of her eldest son is thinking of taking over the business but so far it is only an idea.
“What will happen to Dor’s Nyonya Place?” I asked.
“When I am gone, you will still find Mee Siam,” She told me. “You will still find Mee Rebus. But it won’t be the same. It won’t be like mine.”