Saving Singapore's Heritage Cuisine

20 November, 2020

Photo courtesy of Bibikgourmand.com

Article
The island imports more than 90% of its food supplies, even if there are 96 registered farms. But a sustainable tasting menu is possible: discover how chef Han Li Guang from Labyrinth restaurant manages to serve it.

At Relish at Frasers Tower, Low brings knowing touches to the nostalgic flavours of Singapore by way of his bold fusion cuisine. Recently, his Japanese-inflected modern-Singapore omakase menu, available from Tuesday to Thursday nights only, features his audaciously riveting take on chicken rice - a mound of chicken rice with poached chicken and spring onion wisps resting on crisp fried chicken skin.

Similarly, Gan thinks about presenting Singaporean food in a modern way although, he confesses, the starting point comes from the flavours and techniques of the city’s heritage food which, he says, forms the backbone of his cuisine.

At Mustard Seed, he serves a rice course that melds two traditional local rice dishes - nasi lemak and nasi ulam. Named Nasi Ulam Lemak, basmati rice is steamed in roasted fish bone stock with freshly squeezed coconut milk and salted fish and topped with deep-fried Japanese senbei cracker-breaded threadfin fillet and a blend of fine-chopped local herbs. 

“My generation has tasted many heritage foods yet witnessed its gradual erosion and disappearance,” Gan says. The good news is, he adds, the very fear of losing these foods is “striking a chord in people” and that there is a “growing awareness in the need to preserve heritage food”.

Low is equally confident. “I am optimistic that young chefs who are learning and working with chefs of other cuisines and styles will one day emerge with their own restaurants and draw on their heritage.” 

Enter Avenue 87, the city’s latest contemporary Asian outing by Glen Tay, the Singaporean former executive sous chef of the three-Michelin-starred Ultraviolet, Shanghai, and his friend Alex Phan, the former head chef of the now-defunct Restaurant Ember.

Instead of executing heritage food in its purest form, the young chefs use heritage food in what Phan describes as the “base idea” while “recreating and expressing the cuisine innovatively to attract the younger dining crowd.”

Celebrating the flavours of the chefs’ growing-up years, the restaurant’s six-course dinner tasting menu features Octopus, a dish that reimagines Singapore’s famed BBQ stingray with a stump of plancha-grilled octopus instead of the cartilaginous fish, slathered thickly in a coat of tomato-based sambal (chilli paste), recipe courtesy of Tay’s mother, alongside a disc of custardy egg yolk confit resting on a riot of stir-fried vegetables.

nasi-ulam-restaurant-kin-singapore-heritage-cuisine

Nasi Ulam at Restaurant Kin

To preserve something is to maintain it in its original or existing state. If preservation of heritage food is to be taken at face value, then the options in Singapore are considerably limited. But over at Restaurant Kin, D’Silva still insists on cooking his recipes using the same traditional techniques he acquired from his grandparents.

When he makes kuehs (traditional Peranakan desserts), he mixes everything by hand. The difference, D’Silva says, is the pressure. “An electric mixer has three speeds but our hand has infinite degrees of speed and pressure - the result is very different.” And instead of using a pressure cooker, D’Silva slow-cooks all his stews and curries; his Gulai Beef Cheek dish, for instance, is braised for a minimum of six hours. This, he says, allows the protein to break down and release its moisture, thus flavouring the curry, which in turn flavours the beef with the spices. 

“We live in a world that is extremely connected, we’re constantly bombarded with trends and always looking to the next new thing,” says DiSilva. “In exchange, we’ve lost touch with our own roots and it’s becoming increasingly rare to find artisans who know how to execute heritage specialties, even within households.”

It is D’Silva’s hope that Singaporeans will reconnect with their heritage and recognise it as something to be preserved and celebrated with future generations. “Hopefully, we’ll start to see Singaporeans, home cooks or chefs, take an interest in their culinary heritage.”

 

Heritage Dishes to Try At Kin

Nasi Ulam

Meaning herb rice, nasi ulam is a light appetiser consisting of wolf herring, fresh sand prawn, salted fish and a riot of indigenous seasonal herbs such as ulam raja (cosmos or The King's Salad), daun kaduk (betel leaf), daun kesom (Vietnamese mint), aromatic ginger (cakur), delicately tossed in a sambal belacan-lemongrass mixture. Served exclusively from Thursdays to Saturdays.

Kerabu Ikan Goreng

Kerabu is a vibrant Malay-style salad of raw vegetables, typically bean sprouts, winged beans and toasted coconut but at Kin, D’Silva reimagines his grandfather’s age-old Malay recipe, a traditional toss of wild-caught Spanish mackerel with fresh tomato, long bean, ginger flower and calamansi.   

Aberjaw

A rare and long-forgotten Eurasian pork ribs stew with fermented beans and bottl gourd recreated from D’Silva’s family recipe.

Feng 

For the festive season only, Kin brings back Feng, a classic Eurasian Christmas dish of pork offal, shallots, ginger and garlic with a homemade curry powder consisting of 18 different spices slow-cooked over charcoal flame. 

Green Curry

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