THE NEXT GREAT SIN­GA­PORE CUI­SINE?

Lo­cal chefs dis­sect the com­plex­ity of Mod-sin cui­sine and its fu­ture

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

Wak­ing up to a bowl of thin egg noo­dles, slathered in a spicy, tart con­coc­tion of sam­bal, braised mush­rooms and black vine­gar, is a rit­ual to many Sin­ga­pore­ans. Bak Chor Mee (minced meat noo­dles) didn’t start out tast­ing this way. Orig­i­nally a Teochew dish, where thick egg noo­dles are sub­merged in rich yet clear pork broth and topped with minced pork, it has since been adapted into a dry ver­sion with black vine­gar and sam­bal; the lat­ter a com­mon in­gre­di­ent used by the Malays.

While the two ver­sions con­tinue to co-ex­ist, the com­fort food has meta­mor­phosed into Mod-sin (mod­ern Sin­ga­porean) dishes like Bak Chor Mee Pasta by Shen Tan or Bjorn Shen’s B.C.M Grilled Cheese for Loof, where a sour­dough grilled cheese is stuffed gen­er­ously with minced meat.

Ev­i­dently, lo­cal dishes passed down from gen­er­a­tions be­fore con­tinue to be rein­vented by Sin­ga­porean chefs, though some still stick to their guns to main­tain au­then­tic­ity – think Vi­o­let Oon of Na­tional Kitchen by Vi­o­let Oon or Damian D'silva with his Eurasian-per­anakan plates at Folk­lore – as it was en­joyed way be­fore the is­land city’s in­de­pen­dence. This is a glimpse into Sin­ga­pore’s evolv­ing food scene where the past and present in­flu­ences con­verge. But it also begs the ques­tions: What is Sin­ga­porean cui­sine? Who are the chefs cham­pi­oning it? Where is the cui­sine headed?

A bless­ing in dis­guise

Dis­sect­ing Sin­ga­porean cui­sine in minute de­tail is no easy task. Han Li Guang, the avant-garde chef be­hind one Miche­lin-starred Labyrinth ex­plains, “There is no defin­ing dish when it comes to Sin­ga­pore. In Ja­pan, there’s sushi or ra­men; in Bangkok, there’s pad thai; and Korea has bibim­bap. Our na­tional dishes are of­ten tagged to their coun­try of ori­gins, al­beit hav­ing evolved into a ver­sion unique to us. Clas­sics like Hainanese Chicken Rice (Hainan), Bak Kut Teh (Fu­jian or Klang) or Roti Prata (Chennai) are some ex­am­ples.” D’silva, a cham­pion of Sin­ga­pore her­itage food, adds on, “Our culi­nary her­itage con­sists of more than just that (hawker food) – and the world needs to know that.” He is re­fer­ring to dishes, par­tic­u­larly of Eurasian and Per­anakan des­cent, cre­ated us­ing zeal­ously guarded fam­ily recipes shared within home kitchens. Old-school dishes just like his grandma used to make, such as Sam­bal Buah Keluak Fried Rice, Masak Nanas (prawn and pineap­ple curry) or Hati Babi Bungkus (minced pork and liver wrapped in caul fat) are not some­thing one can or­der from, say, Lau Pa Sat or Amoy Street Food Cen­tre.

Some see this crazy di­ver­sity as a crutch, but it could very well be the unique ad­van­tage Sin­ga­pore, a young coun­try of just 53 years, needs to stand out on the in­ter­na­tional culi­nary stage. Han is op­ti­mistic and agrees. “What makes us amaz­ing is that we have no fixed def­i­ni­tion.”

This be­lief ex­tends into Mod-sin fare, a term coined by Willin Low of Wild Rocket circa 2005, where tra­di­tional Sin­ga­pore flavours and in­gre­di­ents are pre­sented on a vastly dif­fer­ent plat­form. And what’s in­trigu­ing about it? This ex­per­i­men­tal new sub­set of Sin­ga­pore cui­sine has no text­book def­i­ni­tion as well. Han im­presses with his out-of-the-box think­ing in dishes like the Labyrinth Ro­jak us­ing 10 dif­fer­ent types of herbs, flow­ers and sprouts from lo­cally-based Ed­i­ble Gar­den City to recre­ate the Chi­nese-malay snack of­ten found in hawker cen­tres. Pri­vate chef Tan serves a Sweet Png Kueh pan-fried in brown but­ter and topped with cashew nut ice cream that’s un­like the pink, savoury Teochew rice cake. Mal­colm Lee's mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Per­anakan cui­sine over at one Miche­lin-starred Can­dlenut is a prime ex­am­ple of how time-hon­oured dishes have a place in the cur­rent and fu­ture din­ing land­scape of Sin­ga­pore (and, per­haps, the world). “It is great that ev­ery­one has their own style. Think of it this way: we have been given an en­tire box of crayons to draw with. There are no rules and the fu­ture of Mod-sin cui­sine is as bright as you want it,” en­thuses Tan.

“We went through the foun­da­tion stage of cre­at­ing some­thing that is truly ours, and then af­ter many years, came the next wave of food flavours, Modsin. What might the food scene look like in a decade? I’m not sure, but all I know is that I got to keep do­ing what I’m do­ing – serv­ing my dishes to fam­i­lies,”

“Our culi­nary her­itage con­sists of more than just that (hawker food) – and the world needs to know that.” One of the peren­nial cham­pi­ons of Sin­ga­pore's her­itage dishes, Damian D'silva at his restau­rant, Folk­lore.

Pre­serv­ing Sin­ga­pore’s her­itage in style

But even as chefs con­tinue to push the en­ve­lope of how laksa or chilli crab should be cooked, the key is cel­e­brat­ing the spirit of the orig­i­nal cui­sine. “With­out tra­di­tion, there would be no base for mod­ern cui­sine to build upon,” says Low. A firm un­der­stand­ing of the var­i­ous cuisines mak­ing up Sin­ga­pore’s is nec­es­sary. Low in­terned at the famed Roxy Laksa (one of Sin­ga­pore’s ear­li­est Ka­tong Laksa ped­dlers, dat­ing to 1952) for three months. The re­sult: Low cre­ated Laksa, a sump­tu­ous hand­made span­ner crab and chest­nut ravi­oli swim­ming in the fiery, briny broth topped with a pesto of laksa leaves and can­dlenut.

Chefs have the tal­ent to tap on nos­tal­gia and use it to in­spire inim­itable plates that strike emo­tional res­o­nance with din­ers. “Mod­ern dishes must still be re­lat­able and, yet, rel­e­vant to what the new age of din­ers want to see on their plates,” Lee ra­tio­nalises. D’silva chimes in, “As the in­gre­di­ent avail­abil­ity and palates now dif­fer from gen­er­a­tions be­fore, I’ve changed or added new com­po­nents to tra­di­tional recipes.”

“There is no defin­ing dish when it comes to Sin­ga­pore. In Ja­pan, there’s sushi or ra­men; in Bangkok, there’s pad thai; and Korea has bibim­bap. To make mat­ters worse, our na­tional dishes are of­ten tagged to their coun­try of ori­gins, al­beit hav­ing evolved into a ver­sion unique to us. Hawker fare like Hainanese Chicken Rice (Hainan), Bak Kut Teh (Fu­jian or Klang) or Roti Prata (Chennai) are some ex­am­ples.”

“The beauty of not hav­ing a bench­mark for Mod-sin? It gives the cook­ing style the free­dom to in­no­vate and evolve.” “It is great that ev­ery­one has their own style. Think of it this way: We have been given an en­tire box of crayons to draw with. There are no rules and the fu­ture of Mod-sin cui­sine is as bright as you want it.”

“Mod­ern dishes must still be re­lat­able and, yet, rel­e­vant to what the new age of din­ers want to see on their plates,” Buah Keluak of Braised Lo­cal Chicken with Black Nut Sam­bal

“With­out tra­di­tion, there would be no base for mod­ern cui­sine to build upon.” Willin Low of Wild Rocket coined the term Mod-sin in 2005 to de­scribe his style of cook­ing

The next wave

This begs an­other ques­tion: be­tween the old culi­nary guards and am­bas­sadors of Mod-sin cui­sine, which camp can best prop­a­gate Sin­ga­pore’s culi­nary fu­ture? The an­swer is, un­sur­pris­ingly, both.

“Co­ex­is­tence is the only way for­ward.” says Low. Part of what makes a meal mem­o­rable draws from the story a dish, the restau­rant and the chef is telling. Re­gard­less of the pre­sen­ta­tion, the dishes many Sin­ga­porean chefs present are a re­flec­tion of them­selves. Think of it as a trans­la­tion of Sin­ga­pore’s colour­ful story on a plate, one that’s well told by the peo­ple who live and breathe it. And one (lo­cals or tourists) needs to re­alise that there is no sin­gu­lar right way to present the cui­sine. “There’s no need to com­pare. Sim­ply, be proud of all that make up our her­itage,” en­thuses Han. “As we con­tinue to push for­ward, peo­ple will even­tu­ally have the right idea of what we are (as a culi­nary coun­try).”

Restau­rants of in­ter­na­tional ac­claim like Can­dlenut and Na­tional Kitchen by Vi­o­let Oon as well as KF See­toh’s (founder of Makan­su­tra and Sin­ga­pore food cul­ture’s go-to guru) World Street Food Congress have sparked cu­rios­ity in lo­cals and tourists who want in get on what ‘true Sin­ga­porean fare” is. Lee and Han have opened the eyes of many to the ver­sa­til­ity of South­east Asian in­gre­di­ents like buah keluak, gin­ger flower and kaya, whether it's through so­cial me­dia or col­lab­o­ra­tions abroad. Best of all, Sin­ga­pore brands are set­ting up out­posts across the globe - Old Chang Kee in Lon­don and 328 Ka­tong Laksa in Taipei, just to name a few. In Oc­to­ber, Crea­tures will be bring­ing their famed Cray­fish Hokkien Mee to Bei­jing (TEASE by Crea­tures). “Th­ese (over­seas) lo­ca­tions pro­vide a plat­form for din­ers to be­come fa­mil­iarised with our cui­sine,” ex­plains Lee.

So, what will the next gen­er­a­tion of Sin­ga­porean food look like? What’s the next fron­tier be­yond this era’s Mod-sin? Just like be­fore its in­de­pen­dence, this metropoli­tan hub con­tin­ues to gather in­flu­ence - be it cook­ing tech­niques or in­gre­di­ents - from abroad, and chefs (and home­cooks) are be­com­ing more au­da­cious in their cook­ing, per­haps pow­ered by mod­ern con­ve­niences like ready-to-cook rem­pah or Ny­onya curry paste from the likes of Sher­may Lee and Jeremy Nguee. Think Up­side Down Goreng Pisang, Crea­tures’ take on the clas­sic Bri­tish cake, and Tans’ Savoury Mochi in Co­conut Prawn Broth. There's no stop­ping that unique way of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion when it comes to Sin­ga­pore cui­sine. And the world is ready to sit back and watch what this is­land na­tion will of­fer next.

Opor Ayam (chicken cooked in co­conut milk) from Folk­lore

Vi­o­let Oon's Kueh Pie Tee fea­tures bam­boo shoots and turnips poached in prawn bisque.

Vi­o­let Oon who show­cases tra­di­tional Per­anakan cui­sine at Na­tional Kitchen by Vi­o­let Oon.

Mal­colm Lee of­fers a con­tem­po­rary spin on Per­anakan cui­sine at one Miche­lin-starred Can­dlenut Wok-fried Tiger Prawns, Petai Beans, Tamarind and Fried Shal­lots, Can­dlenut

Grandma's Fish Maw Soup made with yel­low tail snap­per fish cake and tex­tures of fish maw and tofu purée from Labyrinth Avant-garde chef Han Li Guang of one Miche­lin­starred Labyrinth

KK and Den­nis Chong of Crea­tures

Pri­vate chef Shen Tan of Own­self­makechef, who serves up her own ren­di­tion of var­i­ous Sin­ga­porean clas­sics.

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