The dumpling is typically dubbed as a staple Chinese food in Singapore.
From dim sum to soup, the dumpling always seems to make an appearance, whether as the star or an accompaniment.
For Nadirah Tan, 28, who is a Chinese Muslim revert, she fondly remembers growing up eating countless dumplings together with red hot chilli oil to douse the dumplings in.
Not surprisingly, dumplings are the focal point of her Instagram home-based business, Nad’s Dumplings.
According to Nadirah (or Weiting as her closest friends still call her), she used to crave for just dumplings alone, so much so that she decided she should just make them herself.
But making dumplings, much less make a business out of it, was never her game plan.
In retail for six years
In 2013, upon graduation from polytechnic with a Diploma in Visual Communication, Nadirah applied for and got a part-time job at Uniqlo, a Japanese casual wear retailer.
At the time, the job was something to keep her occupied while she “figured out what to do with my life.”
But life had other plans for her.
She eventually stayed in the company for six years and climbed up the ranks as a full-time employee, fulfilling various roles such as a visual merchandiser and store supervisor.
Those formative years of her career were tough, but they also taught her valuable lessons that came with working in the retail line such as customer service, backend operations and branding.
At the end of 2019, Nadirah decided to leave her job to take a few months break.
The gruelling hours in retail meant she forfeited quality time with family and friends, so for her, the break was a long time coming.
“For once, I could enjoy the year-end holidays after working throughout the holidays for many years,” she recalls.
But then, Covid-19 hit.
An extended (circuit) break-er
Covid-19 threw a curveball at Nadirah who had intended to return to the workforce after the break.
Suddenly, job opportunities became scarce and life came to a standstill.
With all the unexpected free time that she had, especially during Circuit Breaker, Nadirah began experimenting with cooking and quickly realised she enjoyed it.
She experimented cooking different things, but dumplings were what she loved the most.
“I was always searching for halal dumplings in supermarkets and restaurants,” Nadirah says. “It’s something that I can eat every day…so it struck me, why don’t I just make them myself?”
Hence, she started making her own dumplings from scratch.
Initially, Nadirah was not intending to sell dumplings long term, or even at all.
Making the dumplings was an activity to fill up her time while she continued on the job search.
But when she posted on her personal Instagram that she was making dumplings, friends started asking if she was selling them.
Over a short period of time, Nadirah’s dumplings became very well-known and loved by her friends, who cajoled her into selling it to the mass market.
“That’s when I realised there’s demand for halal dumplings, and that’s how it all started,” Nadirah explains. “I started selling in March on my personal account. But within a month, I opened a separate business account when demand started to pick up.”
Rolling up her sleeves to make dumplings full-time
Nadirah always intended for her dumplings to be eaten hot as that is when they are most delicious.
However, if she were to send her customers cooked dumplings, they might not be as hot anymore and will not taste as good when they reach her customers.
Furthermore, people have their own favourite ways of eating cooked dumplings, be it pan fried, steamed or boiled.
So, to eliminate potential customer dissatisfaction, Nadirah only sells frozen dumplings.
The bubbly business owner, whose dumpling preference is “definitely pan fried”, quickly realised she still bit off more than she can chew, even after deciding on the frozen route.
“It was tedious. As I don’t buy anything pre-made, cutting up the ingredients takes a lot of time to ensure they are cut into very fine pieces. I’ve never chopped so many vegetables in my life! So I take pride in the fact that my dumplings are all handmade from scratch.”Nadirah Tan, owner of Nad’s Dumplings
The process was so time-consuming that it got Nadirah thinking there has to be a better way.
She went on Taobao to search for equipment specifically for dumpling making but could only find factory-grade machine.
Limited by space constraints at home, Nadirah knew a big machine will not be possible.
Despite that, the one-woman business has come quite a long way since the days she could only make one hundred dumplings a week.
These days, that number has gone up to a thousand.
When asked how long it takes her to make one dumpling, she confidently said six seconds but humbly backtracked her answer to ten seconds when this author expressed his shock.
But that is only because the dumplings look very immaculate and uniform.
“I wanted my dumplings to be more visually appealing,” Nadirah explains. “How do I appeal to an audience that is only seeing my products on Instagram, a platform that is driven by aesthetically pleasing photos?”
Whilst the dumplings in most casual eateries only have simple folds or pressed along the edges, hers are done in a neat crescent moon shape, with pleats running from the right corner to left corner.
“I don’t suka-suka anyhow do,” Nadirah explains. “I’m not only selling dumplings; it’s something that I’m very proud of and I want customers to appreciate the hard work put into making them.”
The method of folding, which Nadirah admits is slightly more advanced, lends itself well to the visual platform on which her dumplings reside.
“The dumplings are Instagrammable….provided they’re cooked properly,” she says.
For now, Nadirah only offers a standard dumpling made of minced chicken, spring onion, napa cabbage, shitake mushroom and home made marinade.
She sells them in boxes of 20 pieces at a price of $20 per box.
Admittedly, these are pricier than most store bought frozen dumplings, but Nadirah believes the price is justified given the time and effort she spends on making them fresh and preservatives-free.
Marrying authentic Chinese chilli oil with the dumplings
Dumplings are typically eaten with a chilli oil dip, and Nad’s Dumplings also offers this condiment as part of her menu.
Similar to the dumplings, the chilli oil is also 100% home made.
But being the perfectionist that she is, Nadirah stays aways from online recipes that claim to be “effortless or simplified”.
“A lot of people have the misconception that chilli oil is spicy. But actually, once you boil the oil and add the chilli flakes, the spiciness will be gone. It won’t taste as spicy anymore. But I realised I need to cater to people who love spicy so I had to refine the recipe. I came up with so many recipes, wasted so many chilli oil until finally I perfected it. But it actually increased my cost even more because I use more ingredients.”Nadirah Tan, owner of Nad’s Dumplings
And being far away from China also means the specific ingredients used for authentic chilli oil are neither easy to come by nor cheap.
For instance, Nadirah uses an uncommon type of chilli to blend her own chilli flakes.
“The chillis typically found here are usually from India or Malaysia and are not suitable for authentic Chinese chilli oil,” explains Nadirah. “I had to source for the right type of chilli from China. But shipment doesn’t come often because not many people here ask for it.”
Add to that other spices like Szechuan pepper corn and simmering the oil for at least an hour, and you have a premium chilli oil that Nadirah packages and sells for $6.
Again, admittedly this is a steeper price to pay for a condiment, but you are likely getting more robust and sophisticated flavours than your standard chilli padi and soy sauce combo.
HBBs supporting other HBBs
When asked what has changed since she started the business, Nadirah admits that she now has a newfound appreciation for home-based businesses.
Prior to starting the business, Nadirah could never fathom the seemingly overpriced items sold by some HBBs.
Now that she is a HBB herself, she understands the high costs associated with supplies, time and effort put into a business.
To show her support for other HBBs, Nadirah now shares items she bought from them on her business Instagram account so that her followers will know about them too.
“I usually order from at least one HBB per week, and when I go out to do my deliveries, I will collect from them along the way and eat it for dinner,” Nadirah says.
In return, some HBBs also buy from Nad’s Dumplings and promote the dumplings on their own Instagram accounts.
This method of cross promotion seems to have paid off so far, with Nad’s Dumplings selling out every time preorders open.
The next logical step, it seems, is for Nadirah to move into a central kitchen to increase production capacity.
She acknowledges this, and even has plans to expand her menu to potentially other flavours and vegan options.
For now, she is taking the business one step at a time and will only consider moving on to the next phase until the business is a little bit more established.
To place an order, fill up the order form on @nadsdumplings. Take note that orders are for weekends only.
Photos by Nad’s Dumplings.