As their food business turns 30 this year, widowed mother Gina Rajan and her son Daniel recall the ups and downs of navigating the vicissitudes of Singapore’s hawker food scene

James Rajan may be long gone, but the memories of him are alive as ever in the hearts and minds of his loved ones. When asked about her late husband, Gina Rajan could go on all day. “That man was very mad about food. He loved to cook as much as he loved to eat. He could cook anything from scratch, even without a recipe. There was once he made Hokkien mee… He took all the trouble to boil the prawn heads to make the stock, and it turned out better than any other Hokkien mee dish sold outside,” says Gina, 59, a soft smile playing on her lips.

But his favourite indulgence was perhaps vadai (pronounced as “vah-dey”) — a crispy, deep-fried lentil fritter originating from South India that is often paired with green chilli. According to Gina, it was a lifelong obsession of James’, so much so that he had to have the snack on a daily basis. It was therefore no surprise when he began making and frying up his own. Together, the pair began selling James’ vadai, along with other local dishes such as mee goreng and nasi lemak, door to door in their Geylang Bahru residential estate in the 1980s, before the authorities required one to apply for a licence for the sale of food.

On the move
It was not long before James and Gina decided to set up their first stall in Geylang Bahru in 1987. James, who was in real estate, would prepare the vadai ingredients and batter while Gina did the deep-frying. Known affectionately by their customers as “Geylang Bahru Vadai”, their signature snack eventually gained fame and a loyal following by word of mouth, and drew snaking queues each afternoon when the couple opened shop after the main tenant’s breakfast shift.

“The business was originally called Born Again Vadai,” explains Daniel James, the youngest of Gina’s three sons. “This was later changed to BA Vadai for short. But neither of these names worked for us as a brand, nor did our customers fancy them. It was actually a customer who shared his thoughts with us about having it named after my mum, and it sat well with my dad, given his affection for her. I guess that played a part [in the renaming process]: men, and their love for their wives.” When Daniel is not helping his mother at the stall, the 28-year-old works as a creative director at a boutique web design company that he co-founded.

But James and Gina’s luck soon began to wane as their business stumbled over the years that followed, owing to multiple relocations.

It began when Gina’s Vadai moved to MacPherson Food Court in 1995 after a decade at Geylang Bahru. Following the former’s closure for renovation in 1997, James and Gina took their craft to the pasar malam (night market) around Singapore for two years, eventually settling at The Market Place, a food court in Simpang Bedok, in 1999.

“After Geylang Bahru and before Simpang Bedok, we were moving around a little more than we should have for a business. However, the circumstances were such at that point. During the time that we did not have a fixed location, we lost a lot of our customers, and this affected us as a brand as well,” says Daniel.

Bittersweet nostalgia
Daniel, then in primary school, would rush home straight after class to help out at the stall, often working late into the night as he accompanied his father to deliver food. Together with his family members, he would sleep on fold-out beach chairs at the Simpang Bedok food court and wake early in the morning to head out with his father on more delivery errands before returning to school.

“My family would always bring a change of clothes with us [in case we didn’t go home for the night]. It was almost as if we were living at Simpang Bedok. Yes, we were struggling then, but they are still very fond memories to me,” he says.

After seven years of operating at Simpang Bedok, the business moved to East Coast Road, followed by Suntec City mall, and back to East Coast Road at the now-defunct coffee house, Carlton Restaurant. It was also during this period that James, 52, died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009.

Both mother and son are convinced that James had somehow anticipated his own demise. Heartbroken over a property deal gone wrong — one that robbed him of a hefty commission that he and his family had been looking forward to — James seemed to have been making preparations to leave the food business entirely to his wife and children or, in Daniel’s words, given up.

“He had given his word to our sons to pay for their education, their weddings… We were supposed to move overseas [with the money earned from the commission] and set up shop there. You could say that 95% of the preparations [for the move] were already made,” recounts Gina ruefully.

She and Daniel proceed to describe, in vivid detail, the very day James passed away: how he pleaded with his eldest son, David, to get married and settle down; how he ate all his favourite dishes and snacks that day; and, most of all, his parting message to his wife.

“On the day he passed away, he told me: ‘I’m leaving the business and children to you. I’m very sorry I never bought anything for you; I never saved any money for you. But I still have the business to give you all.’ Those were his last words to me, but I could only react by scolding him and asking him to change the subject because I thought he was just being silly,” shares Gina.

That night, James was watching television in the living room when he began to complain of a burning sensation in his chest. Initially, his family mistook it for indigestion before realising that it was something much more serious. “We were sitting outside the ER [emergency room] talking and joking with each other, taking for granted that my father would come out alive. But it didn’t turn out that way,” says Daniel.

Following the passing of James, the stall was closed for 40 days before Gina and her sons resumed business. But things were not the same. The original vadai recipe, among many others, was never written down but only committed to the memories of individual family members.

Gina had previously relied on her husband to prepare the stall’s food ingredients for nearly two decades and had started doing it herself only after James began egging her on to do so shortly before he died. Despite her lack of experience and confidence in making the vadai, Gina, with the help of her three sons, gradually got back on her feet as the years passed.

“Not all of the recipes are written down, although I have been telling my mother to do so for donkey’s years,” says Daniel. “Back then at Macpherson, we sold prata at our stall, and my eldest brother, David, is the only person who knows the recipe for it and how to knead the dough. Another good example is our spicy muruku [a crunchy Indian snack]. Only my dad knew the recipe, and we thought it was lost with him. For years, we have been trying to ‘get back’ the recipe by trial and error with me guessing the ingredients, as I think I inherited my dad’s taste buds. We’ve got quite close to achieving that recently.”

Following the closure of Carlton Restaurant in 2014, it was more than two years before Gina decided to reopen the business at Dunman Food Centre earlier this year. To Daniel, the hiatus came as a chance for his mother to take a break from the business, along with the memories of her husband that came with it. “The break gave mum a lot more time with family and relatives. She also signed up for courses like ‘How to make Japanese sushi and soups’, and even took the opportunity to get some English and Mathematics certifications too,” Daniel shares with great pride.

Starting afresh
With Gina’s Vadai finally up and running again at its new location, Gina and her elder sister continue to tend to the stall on a daily basis. Daniel has taken a backseat in the business to focus on the marketing and operational aspects instead.

It was also with the relaunch of Gina’s Vadai this year that a new logo was unveiled. A hand-illustrated mascot of an Indian man flashing a thumbs-up sign with a vadai in hand now graces the Dunman store front — a refreshed trademark of the original design, which was conceptualised and drawn by the late James on tissue paper and later improved on by his friend Mark. The depiction of green chilli had also been re incorporated from a previous logo, in a nod to its traditional pairing with vadai in Singapore.

Even the logotype for Gina’s name bears special meaning to the family, as it contains a mixture of handwriting styles belonging to Daniel and his parents.

“The ‘G’ comes from my mum’s handwriting and bears a little resemblance to her own signature, while the ‘I’ and ‘N’ belong to my dad. The ‘A’ is a mixture of both my parents’ handwritings, while the ‘S’ is my own. These were taken from actual written characters and scanned documents. Together, the word ‘Gina’s’ was structured to appear like smoke to incorporate the ‘freshly fried’ philosophy of the brand, and also to give it a little more of a Mexican, Arabic or Indian style,” he explains.

For Daniel, time has passed so quickly that he admits to not even realising how this year marked the 30th anniversary of Gina’s Vadai until it came up in the interview with Options. “I guess we did commemorate the milestone [albeit unknowingly] with the opening of our new stall at Dunman, the rebranding of the business, and an insightful and exciting collaboration we held at Moosehead,” he says, referring to the business’ July tie-up with a Mediterranean restaurant as part of the latter’s Supper Series campaign, which aims to support local cuisine via one-off collaborations with Singapore’s hawkers.

Today, Gina’s Vadai offers nine variations of vadai, with crabstick and cheese among its signature offerings. The recipe for tofu vadai came to Gina in a vision, she says, while another features a mixture of peanuts and ikan bilis (dried anchovies), inspired by the nasi lemak that she and her husband used to sell.

Looking ahead, Daniel hopes to expand into manufacturing and mass-producing not only vadai but also the brand’s homemade sauces and pastes. But Gina is still yearning for a window of opportunity that was once open to them: to venture beyond Singapore.

“I’ve already started to plan what to sell overseas,” enthuses Gina, who says she is looking to expand into Europe, Australia or even Canada — where she and her late husband previously considered moving to. “Ultimately, it is still my dream. Something that [James and I] shared, and I am still holding on to it… We miss him so much; sometimes it feels like he never left.”

This article appeared in Issue 803 (Oct 30) of The Edge Singapore.

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