WOK THE LINE
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.