Take an old family recipe, add a sprinkle of innovation and you get a taste of the new generation of chefs transforming Singapore’s vibrant culinary scene
There was a time, not so long ago, when fine dining in Singapore invariably meant a swanky address along Orchard Road, starched table linen, expensive artwork on the walls, a fancy wine list and a European menu where the words “seasonal” and “artisanal” appeared with mind-numbing regularity. Hawker or traditional street food tended to be confined to basement food courts or colourful, smoky and noisy hawker centres. Meanwhile, local ethnic fare of the sort one’s grandmother cooks at home was usually found only in homespun, blandly furnished eateries in the suburbs.
To some extent, this stark culinary divide still holds true, especially in the island state’s glitzy malls and hotels. Indeed, Singaporeans take hawker centres and homely eateries for granted — a convenient pit stop to grab a quick, cheap lunch or to refuel on the way home after work. The food, after all, is comforting and familiar, ranging from creamy rust-red laksa, hot bowls of congee and crisp rotis to curries and steaming platters of fish doused with soy sauce and slivers of ginger. The prices are easy on the wallet, too, and the convenience is perfectly suited to an increasingly erratic 24/7 lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Singapore’s growing confidence as diners, or even pride in its own backyard, that a growing number of Singaporeans — with more than a sprinkling of the beau monde among them — are revisiting the island’s suburbs and the old eating haunts of their childhood. Travelling in packs with a copy of their trusty Makansutra (the local hawker version of Zagat) in hand, they hunt down eateries in unfashionable districts that serve up old-fashioned comfort food in vast quantities and with tremendous verve.
Equally gratifying is the emergence of a new generation of young chefs who are mining Singapore’s rich culinary traditions and re-imagining familiar favourites in a thoroughly modern yet familiar way. At Labyrinth (www.labyrinth.com.sg), for instance, 30-year-old Han Liguang is crafting a brand of neo-Singaporean cuisine that sucks up Eurasian, Malay, Chinese and Indian influences and repackages them into gastronomic surprises. The most popular dish on his menu is a chilli crab, a beloved staple, here reconfigured as deep-fried, soft-shelled crab that’s served with a saffron-hued oval of garlicky, spicy ice cream. The combination of flavours is as authentic as the visual presentation is unorthodox.
At Creatures (www.creatures.com.sg), set in an attractive, mood-lit shophouse in one of the country’s most notorious red-light districts in Little India, KK Chong and Dennis Chong head up a kitchen that sends out unusual amalgams of familiar hawker and ethnic staples. Who ever heard of serving pork and prawn buah keluak — usually a spicy inky Peranakan concoction thickened with candlenuts — on top of crisp shards of roti prata, a kind of Indian breakfast crêpe? Or Hainanese crispy fried chicken, here marinated with garam masala, that’s served with Chinese noodles tossed with soy? At Candlenut (www.candlenut.com.sg), 31-year-old chef Malcolm Lee up-ends Peranakan classics by sending out spring rolls filled with spicy prawns and candied winter melon dipped in kalamansi lime cream, and fork-tender charcoal-grilled Spanish pork that’s marinated with sweet dark soy and saw-tooth coriander, then cooked sous vide for 12 hours.
The effect of this marrying of new culinary techniques with local flavours and ingredients — or, in the case of Creatures, crazy juxtapositions of different dishes — is an outrageously skilful makeover: the dish remains completely recognisable in its taste, but is dressed up in a way that elicits smiles and nostalgic wonder at the creative imagination of the kitchen.
For industry watchers such as Aun Koh, chairman of the Ate Group, a Singaporean creative and marketing agency that specialises in food and beverages, this kind of emotion and re-imagination is essential. “Evolution is vital for a cuisine,” he says. “If not, all we are, all we become, are relics — museum exhibits that are nice for foreigners to visit and experience. But we lose our relevance in the global conversations that are driving today’s restaurant and culinary scenes. Cuisine, as a major part of Singaporean culture, needs to evolve. But this growth must take place in an environment that is led by people who understand our roots, our history, the taste, the techniques and the circumstances that created the dishes that have been rooted in our unconscious.”
Jaime Ee, the revered local food critic at The Business Times, agrees. “Chefs need roots. Most young Singaporean chefs don’t have that — they watch too much MasterChef and take the World’s 50 Best list too seriously. Whose grandmother is cooler than René Redzepi?” she demands rhetorically. “You need chefs who are comfortable enough in their own skin to look into their own backyard for inspiration and who are talented enough to develop an original culinary voice, but one that comes from within, not something manufactured to fit into a made-in-Singapore marketing campaign.”
What’s particularly interesting about this new generation of chefs is that most of them aren’t formally trained. Han Liguang, for instance, went to the London School of Economics and worked for CitiBank and Goldman Sachs before he apprenticed with Tom Kerridge. Bowing to family imperatives, Malcolm Lee majored in business management at Singapore Management University before opening Candlenut. KK Chong is an IT specialist, while Dennis Chong is a photographer by profession. In some ways, this lack of formal training may account for the unexpected surprises that keep emerging from the kitchens of these Young Turks. Unrestrained by rules and tradition and guided mostly by taste and memory, they are able to freestyle with a joyfully chaotic freedom that might not otherwise have been possible.
But what unites these chefs is their disdain for the word “modern” to describe their cooking, despite using the kind of equipment one normally associates with the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià — liquid nitrogen, dehydrators, smokers and so on. Like Han’s, Lee’s kitchen is stocked with all the gadgets of an experimental kitchen, although he is careful about how he cooks with them. “If modern technology helps to improve the flavour of a dish, then we’ll use it. If not, we don’t,” he says. “My aim is to make a familiar dish as good as my grandmother would have made it, but in a modern way.” Sometimes, this involves using ingredients that would raise Gran’s eyebrows, such as short ribs, brisket or lamb shanks for a rendang curry that is traditionally made with cheap beef cuts.
Similarly, although Han’s cooking involves a distinct element of molecular gastronomy, he insists that neo-Singaporean cooking (as he terms it) is not about satay burgers or chilli crab pasta: “It’s about keeping the purity and elements of the original dish and reconstructing it without any foreign elements such as pasta.” His menu is a joyful evocation of Alice in Wonderland’s tea party, where a Chinese century-egg congee turns out to be a disguised dessert of soya-bean milk, salted egg custard, dark palm sugar masquerading as soya sauce and crushed black sesame as pepper. His version of mee-pok, a breakfast favourite of noodles tossed with minced pork and sliced fishcake, is a revelation: the noodles are made from reconstituted squid and the fish cake from seared and lightly battered Hokkaido scallops.
Jaime Ee counts herself as a particular fan of Han. “He brings to his food a unique blend of playfulness, instinct and meticulous attention to detail that sets him apart from the others,” she enthuses. “You can taste ego in a lot of chefs’ food, but with Han it’s very real, even if his food is like an amusement-park ride on a plate. It’s a very refreshing, honest approach that you don’t see often.” She is also impressed that “there’s substance behind it. There’s a lot of thinking and technique behind his deconstruction of familiar favourites, such as nasi lemak and chilli crab. The fact that he had no yardstick for comparison and was never a professional chef — to stick to his convictions and make such a big gamble — is pretty brave.”
Malcolm Lee empathises with Ee’s sentiment. When he told his mother that he wanted to cook for a living, she cried. Han’s family pushed him to become a banker — for them, to choose the long hours, the lack of a social life and the existential loneliness of a chef as a career made no sense at all. Yet, for appreciative gourmets like Aun Koh, there is plenty to be grateful for. “I really like how Liguang and Malcolm and other chefs, such as Willin Low and Jeremy Nguee, are taking the flavours that we grew up with and are finding interesting ways to make them more appealing, more distinguished, more exciting,” he says. “And they are doing this, for the most part, without being pretentious or precious about it.”
The hokey adage that “if you build it, they will come”, applies here. Creatures is packed each night with a youthful crowd. Invariably, the restaurant does two sittings. Labyrinth is dotted with dating couples and curious tourists, while Candlenut is booked solid with more traditionalists newly converted to Lee’s evening ah-ma-kase menu. As dining settings go, they are worlds away from the hawker-stall’s humble origins or the familiar comforts of a matriarch’s kitchen, but what has not changed is the Singaporean diner’s enthusiasm.
As KF Seetoh, one of Singapore’s foremost food experts and founder of Makansutra restaurant guides, has pointed out: “This whole new generation wants something different. People want variety, a new rhythm to the same old song.”Meanwhile, Malcolm Lee, as he trawls through the wet markets for grey peppercorns, salted coconut and wing beans for that evening’s menu, is a contented man: “My mother is no longer crying.”
Where else does Aun Koh, foodie man about town, go for a hit of Singaporean cuisine from the new generation of chefs?
“A relatively new and very humble place. The dishes are modern spins on comfort foods, many of them very local.”
“Sadly, none of chef Nixon Low’s modern Singaporean food is on the daily menu. For that, you have to book at least three days in advance. His food showcases his love of local food and his classical European training.”
“This isn’t a restaurant so much as a pop-up masterminded by Jeremy Nguee. If you hire Jeremy for a party, he will create the experience for you, including his super-high-end laksa served tsukemen-style and with the very best side dishes.”
“Willin Low hates being described as the papa of ‘Mod Sin’, but he was probably the chef who first proudly wore the term. His current degustation menu, in his recently renovated restaurant, is always a treat.”