How two brothers breathed new life into Restoran Siti Rabiah

Faisal and Khairuddin revived their parents' restaurant in 2016 with a new menu featuring salted egg penyet, peri-peri chicken and lots of seafood. In under three years, they've expanded to three locations

Managers of RSR Faisal (L) and Khairuddin (R) holding their signature dishes with their parents and founders of RSR Hj Yaakob (2nd L) and Hjh Normah (2nd R) at their newest branch in Kiulap.

Behind the wok of many a small warong is a solitary chef who’s mastered all the staple recipes of the local cuisine, without needing to write any of them down.

For Restoran Siti Rabiah (RSR), that was Hjh Noormah Hj Abd Rahman, who had spent years perfecting the dishes of nasi lemak and rendang from her parents-in-law, one of them a forgotten entrepreneur who had once run one of Brunei’s biggest cattle farms.

At 64-years-old, she thought the days of RSR were done. After opening RSR in Menglait in 1994 with her husband Hj Yaakob Hj Abd Rahman, RSR enjoyed a good run for the better half of a decade, but without a suitable back-up and challenges in recruiting staff, they eventually shut down in the 2000s.

Now 66-years-old, Hjh Normah finds herself back in the kitchen of RSR’s third and biggest branch yet in Kiulap, formerly occupied by the Korean fried chicken franchise Pelicana. “Things are more competitive nowadays,” she points out. “That makes me even more proud that my sons have turned this business around.”

Siti Rabiah is named after Hjh Normah’s late mother-in-law. Hjh Normah continues to oversee operations in the kitchen and cooks whenever the branches are shorthanded.

An unlikely duo

Muhd Faisal is the second eldest and Muhd Khairuddin the youngest of Hj Yaakob and Hjh Normah’s five children. Neither admits to being academically inclined; Faisal didn’t make it past secondary school and Khairuddin dropped out after Year 9.

While Faisal went on to work odd-end jobs, Khairuddin spent his time at home in the kitchen learning from his mother and scouring for recipes on YouTube.

“I learned the (cooking) basics from my mother,” said Khairuddin. “But I also liked to see what was trending amongst Bruneians (overseas) that they couldn’t get here. It was a lot of trial and error.”

He began selling western pastries through Instagram @Lux.cakes_bn and shortly after saw his first real hit with his Nando’s inspired spicy grilled chicken @peri_perichickenbrunei. When @bruneifoodies gave him a shout out on their photo-sharing platform, Khairuddin went on to apologize to the public because all orders had to be picked up from their home in Madewa.

“I didn’t have a driver’s license so I couldn’t do deliveries yet,” he said. “I was only 17-years-old.”

Khairuddin grilling peri-peri chicken. The 24-year-old says he seasons the chicken and accompanying sauce with Nando’s, vinegar, garlic and a separate blend of herbs and spices.

Siti Rabiah reopens in Menglait

Hj Yaakob’s father Hj Abd Rahman Hj Hussin is best remembered as being one of the first Bruneians farmers to build a large scale cattle farm, before branching out to property development and retail.

He was succeeded by his 13 children, and in the building he named after his family Menglait, his son Hj Yakoob decided that he would open up a restaurant in honour of his parents.

“My father and mother (Siti Rabiah) were very much into cooking,” recalls Hj Yakoob. “They always made time (to cook) even if they were busy. My father also opened a restaurant back in the capital before selling it off. I wanted to continue that legacy, especially the recipes they left behind.”

After being unable to sustain RSR, the couple decided to rent out their lot in Menglait instead. After their tenant vacated four years ago, Khairuddin – who had been building up thousands of followers selling grilled chicken from home across three years – suggested they revive RSR with a more modern menu while maintaining the classics like nasi lemak, rendang and fried rice and noodles.

“My brother had a lot of new, creative ideas for the menu which hadn’t really been served in other restaurants in Brunei,” said Faisal. Together, the brothers financed RSR’s opening at the start of 2016 in the same lot that it first opened more than 20 years ago.

RSR’s most popular dishes are their salted egg ayam penyet priced at $6 (L) and their peri-peri chicken for $6.50. Khairuddin claims he was amongst the first to serve and popularize the dish in Brunei.

Viral posts of their three dishes: piripiri chicken, ayam penyet with salted egg sauce and a seafood platter featuring over one kilogramme of stir-fried crabs, prawns, squid and clams drove traffic to RSR in their opening months.

“It started to become clear (based off the traffic after six months) that this (RSR) was a business we could potentially expand to more locations,” said Khairuddin.

RSR moves into prime retail

A second branch, lead by Faisal, opened in Serusop at the start of 2018. Khairuddin then cast his eye to Brunei’s prime retail areas in Gadong and Kiulap. In a bold move, he decided to take up the lot vacated by Pelicana, keeping their dining and kitchen layout across two floors to save costs.

While Setia Kenangan II is arguably one of the most happening spots in the Sultanate, many established eateries – both local and international – have failed to sustain operations at the space.

On the weekends, RSR is routinely at full capacity for lunch and dinner with many customers seen enjoying ‘shell out’ – a customizable, giant grazing platter of stir-fried seafood that only a handful of restaurants serve in the country. But Khairuddin will be measuring how RSR fares during quieter weekdays before he makes any future moves.

“Our Kiulap branch is currently the only (branch) that serves shell out, which is inspired from Malaysia,”¬†says Khairuddin. “While we continue to improve our service and perfect our (existing) menu, I’m always on the lookout to bring new dishes for our customers.”

Watch: Siti Rabiah expands to three locations