Sordid allegations of black magic, dramatic accounts of hired thugs, and a restraining order: the incredible rivalry between two prominent biryani restaurants in Singapore is over one hundred years old and still going strong.
Easily distinguishable by its bright yellow signboards and brilliant green walls with matching traditional windows - Zam Zam serves up the island’s most sought after Indian Muslim cuisine at insanely affordable prices. Devoted diners flock to its North Bridge Road location at all times of the day, sometimes forming snaking queues to enjoy unpretentious meals like hearty meat murtabak, fragrant dhal and fish curries as well as tender-soft mutton biryani.
The place was established in 1908 and still operates on the same business model: an elderly Indian gentleman at the cashier supported by an army of counter and cook staff who anchor an open concept kitchen. But its arch rival Victory is right next door, touting an almost identical menu with a slightly more modest appearance.
Exterior of Zam Zam restaurant in Singapore. PHOTO: YUSUF ABDOL HAMID
Fierce competition between the two peaked in 2015, when Zam Zam’s owner, a charismatic Singaporean named Zackeer Abbass Khan, was charged with conspiring with “business associates” and a hired enforcer to mastermind a vicious attack on his nemesis Liakath Ali Mohamed Ibrahim of Victory for a flat fee of $2,000. The knifing left Liakath with deep gashes on his nose and a permanent scar above his upper lip that extended to his cheek.
Bizarre allegations of “supernatural activities” were also thrown into the mix after Zackeer and his staff revealed security camera footage that appeared to capture masked men scattering a white powdery substance outside their premises. Victory workers have vehemently denied their claims and any involvement in the matter.
A Zam Zam worker waits for customers. PHOTO: YUSUF ABDOL HAMID
“In the case of Victory and Zam Zam, both are household names with a rivalry spanning almost 100 years but there is no place in our society for gratuitous violence,” said judge Mathew Joseph who presided over the case. “Zackeer may be rich and influential but his case is a reminder that one should not allow one’s anger to cloud judgement as the resulting consequences can be severe.”
Journalists covering Zackeer’s trials also noted an apparent lack of remorse in court, where he provided “inconsistent evidence” and maintained that he was “wrongfully accused.”
For his crimes, Zackeer was sentenced to six years imprisonment and six strokes of the cane. He was also slapped with a physical restraining order, prohibiting him from entering the area where the restaurants are located. But his resentment did not stop there: he was charged again in November for physically threatening one of Liakath’s employees, allegedly warning the man that he “would not rule out killing him” because “he was already going to jail”. Reports of intimidation and ongoing tensions between the restaurants have been regularly covered in local media.
A worker for Victory restaurant in Singapore stands on the street. PHOTO: YUSUF ABDOL HAMID
Interest in the local spat has now reached new heights, making headlines in India and Malaysia where the cuisine is widely celebrated as part of the famed mamak culture. Mamak, meaning “uncle,” doesn’t just refer to the thousands of al-fresco roadside eateries scattered around megacities like Kuala Lumpur and bigger states like Penang and Johor. It is a lifestyle on its own, one that’s grown synonymous with the Malaysian identity.
“Mamak culture is a way of life,” said Malaysian journalist and author Jahabar Sadiq. Jahabar, whose 2017 book, “Kandaqstan: The Empire of Taste, The Melting Pot of Flavors” paid tribute to various mamak shops and eateries, traced the culture’s humble beginnings back to the 1980s when Malaysians were first introduced to satellite TV.
“These 24-hour Indian Muslim shops sprouted up, showing live soccer matches and wrestling matches in between those,” he said. “That's just to set the context of mamak culture which is far newer and younger than the legendary Indian Muslim restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore.”
A meal worth fighting for? A plate of mutton murtabak in Zam Zam restaurant in Singapore. PHOTO: YUSUF ABDOL HAMID
Jahabar, who has also visited both Zam Zam and Victory in Singapore, said he learned about the criminal proceedings from media coverage and found the actions from both sides to be “totally bizarre.”
“Just as Singapore has Victory and Zam Zam, there are tonnes of legendary Indian Muslim restaurants scattered across Malaysia but no one has ever resorted to anything more than just ignoring each other in business,” he said.
VICE World News reached out to both restaurants. A representative from Victory said that the current situation was “peaceful” while staff from Zam Zam declined to comment.
A worker at Victory restaurant prepares dough. PHOTO: YUSUF ABDOL HAMID
On a recent afternoon, a VICE World News reporter visited both restaurants to check on the state of the rivalry. It was doing just fine. Dozens of staff from both restaurants rushed toward arriving customers - clearly undeterred by police warnings about tout tactics.
Rashid, a worker at a nearby restaurant named Al-Tasneem, said his neighbors at Zam Zam and Victory were “no longer on talking terms.”
“Business was always very competitive, even from the beginning. There has always been tension in the area but COVID-19 made everything worse. Even with the lockdown lifted, business remained bad - there are so few customers and competition has only gotten stronger. It all adds to the pressure we feel,” Rashid said.
“The violence has scared customers away.”