In­no­va­tion is cru­cial for South­east Asian cook­ing if it is to stay rel­e­vant to the mod­ern diner, says Kan­tha Chookiat, ex­ec­u­tive chef of River Wok restau­rant


Chef Kan­tha Chookiat shares why in­no­va­tion is cru­cial for South­east Asian cook­ing

With fresh pro­duce that is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, the great­est ap­peal of South­east Asian cook­ing prob­a­bly lies in the com­bi­na­tion of herbs and spices na­tive to this re­gion. The bal­ance and com­bi­na­tion of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavours make the cuisines of this part of the world dis­tinctly unique. Un­for­tu­nately, I feel that we are not ad­ven­tur­ous enough when it comes to con­tem­po­rary cook­ing styles that push be­yond the tra­di­tional pa­ram­e­ters of Asian cuisines.

For ex­am­ple, most Thai chefs only learn from other Thai chefs. They pass on tra­di­tional ways of cook­ing, and most are un­in­ter­ested in em­bark­ing on less con­ven­tional styles of cook­ing or other cuisines. Many of them are con­tented with just the orig­i­nal form of the cui­sine, and they feel that noth­ing needs to be changed. But shows like Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef are show­ing us a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion of chefs who are young, pas­sion­ate and ready to take the leap be­yond their com­fort zone. Per­haps we can all learn from them.

It is cru­cial for us to con­stantly re-ex­am­ine our­selves and look at mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of tra­di­tional dishes. Restau­rants in Sin­ga­pore such as Ibid, Labyrinth and Wild Rocket are al­ready do­ing very ex­cit­ing things by putting their in­no­va­tive spin on tra­di­tional re­gional cook­ing. Their cre­ativ­ity is some­thing I ad­mire.

Sin­ga­pore­ans are nat­u­rally very fa­mil­iar with the cuisines of South­east Asia in their nu­mer­ous forms and ex­pres­sions. This fa­mil­iar­ity will cer­tainly in­crease in the years to come, thanks to cheaper air travel. It is now very easy to travel to dif­fer­ent coun­tries in the re­gion to ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­plore the dif­fer­ent cuisines in their home en­vi­ron­ments. I feel this con­trib­utes to­wards greater aware­ness and ed­u­ca­tion of South­east Asian cuisines. In turn, as chefs, we will find it eas­ier to show­case the au­then­tic­ity of the food we present.

But Sin­ga­pore’s din­ing crowd is also a highly dis­cern­ing and so­phis­ti­cated one that ex­pects and can ac­cept the de­vel­op­ment of tra­di­tional cui­sine. One way we can cre­ate dishes that cross tra­di­tional bound­aries is to use high-grade in­gre­di­ents such as wagyu or kurobuta pork in our clas­sic South­east Asian favourites. Or we can com­bine clas­sic South­east Asian sauces with dishes such as sal­ads or steak. This opens up a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for din­ers who are look­ing for un­usual Asian din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. But there are draw­backs to this—if the recipes are not care­fully de­vel­oped or if the dishes are not prop­erly crafted, you will quickly lose din­ers’ in­ter­est.

At River Wok, my cur­ries are dif­fer­ent from the tra­di­tional ver­sions. A tra­di­tional Thai curry has eg­g­plant, cau­li­flower and basil leaf and tends to be on the sweeter side. I add pineap­ple, green grapes, cherry toma­toes, and shimeji mush­rooms to bal­ance the dish and cater to most Asian and Cau­casian palates. An­other ex­am­ple, a tra­di­tional koi pa or Lao­tian cold ap­pe­tiser with raw fish, herbs and spices, calls for white fish, but in my kitchen I re­place it with salmon, and I’m happy to say it is well-re­ceived.

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