THE NEXT GREAT SINGAPORE CUISINE?
Local chefs dissect the complexity of Mod-sin cuisine and its future
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.