Aliya Widjaya

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]liya Widjaya never thought she would be running her own business. The founder of Ratu Lemper came to Singapore from Jakarta, Indonesia, when she was just 12 years old. After her studies here, she went on to do her business degree in the US before returning to Singapore to work. In 2008, she left her job to care for her firstborn.

On a random day in 2015, Widjaya had a sudden craving for lemper – an Indonesian snack made of steamed glutinous rice filled with chicken and other ingredients, rolled up in a banana leaf, then steamed or grilled. She decided to try her hand at recreating the familiar flavours from her childhood.

Aliya Widjaya makes everything from scratch in her small shop near Haji Lane. The lemper has to be portioned and individually wrapped in banana leaves that are hand-cut to size.

“I was missing home terribly. Lemper was comfort food for me, but I had never made lemper before,” shares the 34-year-old. “I can’t remember how the first batch tasted, but I remember tweaking the recipe many times before I was happy with it.

“Initially, the sticky rice was too hard, too grainy, too salty, or not chewy enough. Or the filling was either bland, too sweet or too salty.”

After months of trial and error at home, the mother of two boys, aged four and ten, finally came up with a winning recipe – a fluffy rectangular “sandwich” of glutinous rice infused with coconut milk, filled with savoury spiced chicken, and wrapped in banana leaf. She also created an extra spicy chicken filling that packs quite the punch, and a full-bodied beef rendang filling.

These rectangular-shaped savoury bites require plenty of meticulous prep work and a large dose of patience.

Widjaya explains that lemper sold in Indonesia tends to lean towards the sweet side, but as she loves spicy food, she decided to add chilli padi into the filling. Friends and family who tasted the lemper were impressed and encouraged her to sell them, calling her “lemper queen”, which inspired the name Ratu Lemper (meaning Queen of Lemper in Bahasa Indonesia).

Initially, she did not think anyone would be interested, but went ahead to post a photo of the homemade snack on her personal Facebook page. To her surprise, she received her first order in May 2015, and soon she was in business. As demand picked up, the insistence on preparing everything by hand from scratch took its toll on her. Even after her husband and elder son were roped in to help out, the volume of orders was still too much to handle for their home kitchen.

Eventually, she found a space at Baghdad Street, and opened in May 2016. These days, Widjaya runs the shop with a couple of assistants, and her husband helps out whenever possible.

At Ratu Lemper, the spice paste, meat filling and glutinous rice are freshly prepared

Everything, from lemper to kueh such as kaswi kaya (made of kaya custard and gula melaka), is prepared in-house. Though plastic lemper wrappers are a commercially available option to replace banana leaves, Widjaya refuses to use them, to ensure the lemper would keep its distinct fragrance.

She shares that preparing the snack is not just about respecting traditions and appreciating the craft; above all, she wants to cook for her customers the same way she cooks for her family.

As a result, there are times when Widjaya and her staff suffer from backaches and numbness in their limbs from the tiring work, but this tenacious businesswoman would not have it any other way.

16 Baghdad Street.Tel: 6493-2549