There are only two instances where I would go to Geylang. The first would be during the yearly Ramadan bazaar, and the other times are on a strict “for me to know, for you to find out” basis. With Cafe Mariam, I might have just found my third reason.
Eunos MRT is the closest stop to Cafe Mariam, but since I stay in Woodlands, it doesn’t change the fact that it was a potentially two hour-ride to and fro. I hit the jackpot when my eating buddies agreed to go there by car, and since Cafe Mariam only operates from 11am to 3pm on Monday to Thursdays, we did all we could to avoid the lunch crowd.
Cafe Mariam isn’t just your run-off-the-mill briyani restaurant. Its owner and chef, Hassan, has briyani flowing through his bloodline. His father and uncle are the bosses of the famous Islamic Restaurant, established in 1921 by Hassan’s grandfather. To say the man knows his stuff would be a massive understatement. Hassan also scorches the meat using two butane torches before serving.
I realised the seats were quite limited, so one could only imagine the chaos that ensued during lunchtime. The menu too was limited, with only briyani and mandi rice being offered with different protein options.
What I tried at Cafe Mariam
I had the Mutton Briyani (S$9) to start off with. It was served with a small cup of curry and a side of acar (sour and spicy vegetables). I could see the chunks of mutton covered under layers of basmati rice very clearly. It was like a mountain of goodness, urging me to explore it.
Apart from being served on a platter, it didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I’d say it was lacking in papadoms and a cucumber-based acar, but hey I’m not the briyani whisperer. Unfortunately, my first bite was an underwhelming one. I expected the strong flavours of nutmeg, mace and fennel seeds to hit my senses, but what I got was but a whiff.
Thankfully, as the number of spoonfuls grew, so did the flavours. Finally, I had that fragrant briyani aroma that I was so accustomed to whenever I ate this dish. Could this be the authentic briyani experience that everyone has been raving about? However, I was let down by the lack of saffron spice, though it could have been down to the batch that I had (0.5 grams of saffron cost S$12.15!).
Unlike the rice, I couldn’t get used to the curry, which had been served on the side. There was a strong tomato-ey taste that didn’t agree with me, even when I had it with the rice.
Cafe Mariam did not skimp on the mutton portions. I counted at least five lamb chunks and a portion of a rib. The chunks were also expertly cut; it was full of meat with very little fat, unlike most briyani stalls that I know of. The meat was really tender and had strong hints of cinnamon and cumin.
I found the gameyness of the mutton to be just nice, though my eating buddies thought it was slightly too much for them. Oh well, more mutton for me!
Next, I had the Chicken Mandi Rice (S$7.50), which was also served on the same platter. It wasn’t robust-looking and had the appearance of steamed rice. It was served with a side of salad consisting of tomatoes, cabbage shreds, carrots and olives. Two sauces were also given: a homemade yoghurt sauce and spicy green sauce.
The rice tasted strongly of ghee (clarified butter) with a slight smokey touch towards the end. I thought it was going to taste like how it looked (aka like washed-out briyani), but I was pleasantly wrong. There were also pieces of peppercorns and cloves that added to the overall fragrance of the dish.
The subtle and neutral-tasting mandi rice was accompanied by complementing sauces. The homemade yoghurt provided a milky and tangy touch to each spoonful, and was refreshing. The other chilli sauce actually reminded me of salsa, as it tasted like jalapenos and even provided the same heat. Suffice to say, the kick made an already delightful bite an addicting one.
I would advise against pouring the sauces directly on the dish, as you might miss out on the subtlety that the rice provides. Plus, when consumed in huge dollops, it might overpower any other taste especially with the heat.
I am very rarely impressed by chicken, but Cafe Mariam made theirs the highlight of my lunch. Initially, I had thought that the light torching from the butane torch was merely for show, but the smokey flavour really permeated the entire piece of chicken. The charred part of the skin also gave it a slight yet satisfying crunch.
I was also surprised at how easily the meat slid off from the bone with only the use of my spoon— I never had chicken this well cooked! The chicken was juicy and tasted naturally sweet. Towards the end, I found the perfect combo of salsa and yoghurt with every bite of rice and chicken.
Have I had flavourful chicken before? Yes, but I have never had the chance to appreciate such wonderfully executed chicken meat until today.
Finally, to wash everything down, I had Teh (S$1.50). Like the food, the hot milk tea was balanced in its flavors. The cold weather made this drink even more satisfying as the sweetness helped to cut through the rich flavours of rice and meat.
Cafe Mariam serves delicious and authentic briyani and mandi rice at a good price with generous portion sizes. What more can I say? Definitely make Cafe Mariam one of your choices if you were to eat out as a group or if you’re looking for a cool budget date idea.
If I could only recommend one dish, make sure you try the Chicken Mandi Rice and thank me later. As for the location, the food coma that ensues after a meal makes travelling part of the dining experience at Cafe Mariam.
Expected damage: S$7.50 – S$16.50 per pax
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