There is a saying that you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
For Gan Ming Kiat, the phrase is particularly apt when used in reference to heritage food. Which is why the young chef is wasting no time in dishing up the heritage flavours he grew up with at his modern-Singaporean-cum-Peranakan eatery Mustard Seed in Singapore.
But heritage food means different things to different people. For Gan, it’s food of significance - to a family or a nation’s culture and history - marked by treasured recipes passed down from one generation to another.
To Willin Low, founder of Mod Sin (modern Singaporean cuisine), heritage food is the food of our forefathers - food that tells the story of “who we were”. Damian D’Silva, the head chef of Straits Clan, concurs. “Heritage food is about embracing one’s roots,” says the MasterChef Singapore judge, who learnt cooking from his Peranakan grandmother and Eurasian grandfather.
For Singapore in particular, he adds, it is an amalgamation of traditional recipes spanning Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Indian and Eurasian - as well as Teochew and Hakka amongst others. “It goes beyond what people often misunderstand as local food such as chicken rice or laksa. Heritage cuisine is an important aspect of our national identity, one that is expansive and multi-faceted, coloured by our collective diversity and difference,” D’Silva says. “If we lose this, we lose a big part of who we are as Singaporeans.”
Photo courtesy of Mustard Seed Restaurant.
Sadly for the cosmopolitan city of 5.7 million, heritage food appears to be falling out of favour with younger chefs. “Compared to cuisines such as French, Japanese or Italian, local heritage cuisine is very much under-represented in Singapore now,” D’Silva says, adding that the act of making heritage specialities is often tedious and time-consuming. “The preparation alone (slicing herbs, deboning fish, making rempah from scratch) can take hours, after which some dishes are slow-cooked over the stove.”
And then, there is an added issue of the locals’ willingness to pay. Unlike some other cuisines, it remains a challenge to charge premium prices for local heritage food, even if it requires far greater time and effort to prepare. This mindset and price ceiling, says D’Silva, may discourage younger chefs from wanting to learn about heritage dishes or even open such restaurants in Singapore.
Low agrees. If Singaporeans are not willing to pay a higher price for heritage food, he says, fewer chefs will feel it’s “financially worthwhile” to spend so much time making heritage food. “It becomes a vicious cycle.” That’s not to mention, Low says, how heritage food may not be considered cool or trendy.