Mod-Sin cuisine continues to evolve as chefs experiment with local flavours and fly our culinary flag. We look at four local flavours that have morphed over the years.
It’s only natural that as society develops, so does our food. In the last 25 years, Singapore’s food scene has found its inspirations from abroad, but now that it has matured, attention is cast back to the long-overlooked gems of home.
Singapore cuisine is a gorgeously redolent tapestry of flavours weaved from the culinary cultures of the Malays, Eurasians, Chinese and Indians—the predominant ethnic groups that traditionally make up Singaporeans. In it lies a vast fount of inspiration and flavours to plumb and experiment and evolve. In recent years, local chefs have taken to exploring, developing and reinterpreting local cuisine, and giving our very unique local ingredients and flavours the attention and elevation they so deserve. At the same time, it’s heartening to see local talents taking ownership of, and writing Singapore’s culinary chapter. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, with the popular yearning for local heritage food in both its classic forms and modern interpretations. We look at four traditional flavours that have benefitted from exploration.
The seed of the Pangium edule tree, buah keluak as an ingredient probably originated from Indonesia, and travelled to Malacca with the Malays and was later adopted by the Peranakans and Eurasians. It is most well known as being a crucial part of the Peranakan dish chicken buah keluak, but it also makes its presence felt in the Eurasian keluak curry and Javanese beef stew called rawon.
It is naturally poisonous with hydrogen cyanide, but as with all culinary history, humans have always found a way to get round certain toxins to make the fruits of nature edible. In this case, it is a matter of soaking the nut for at least five days to leach out the poison, changing the water daily and scrubbing it clean. Indonesians traditionally buried it in ash for 40 days as part of the process, which explains why buah keluak kernels sometimes look ashen and grey.
Lately, buah keluak’s dark, deep, earthy flavours hinting of chocolate, olives, a hint of mushroom and tinged with a slight bitter note, have caught the imagination of Singapore’s chefs. Emmanuel Stroobant of Saint Pierre had served Iberico pork with a complement of buah keluak with foie gras, nashi pears and parsley; while Bacchanalia has offered a buah keluak and walnut pesto with beef. Closer to local palates, chef Damian D’Silva made waves a few years ago with his buah keluak fried rice at now-defunct Immigrants Gastrobar. More recently, chef Willin Low of the former Wild Rocket served up buah keluak chai tau kway at the Singapore Food Festival. But perhaps one of the most far-out creations using this black nut is the buah keluak ice cream that chef Malcolm Lee created at his modern Peranakan, one-Michelin-starred restaurant Candlenut. Playing up the cocoa flavours, he pairs the ice cream with Valrhona chocolate and chilli, and lightens it with a chocolate espuma. “I love the muddy and nutty flavours of it and can eat it every day,” he says of the black nut. But to create this dish was “a two-year process with a lot of trial and error as buah keluak is a very difficult ingredient to incorporate”. Then again, it is relatively versatile and can be paired with “almost anything—pork, chicken, beef, fish, rice, fried carrot cake, Maggi mee with luncheon meat, etc”.
There’s no way one can talk about Singapore cuisine without chilli crab popping into the conversation. Fervently extolled by our tourism board, and the poster crustacean of local cuisine, chilli crab is a dish that has been claimed by many—such as Palm Beach Seafood, Long Beach Seafood restaurant, Roland restaurant, the famous Sin Leong, and even all of Malaysia. The chilli crab we now know of comprises stir-fried crab in a sweet, thick chilli-tomato sauce smoothened with egg white. According to one such urban lore, this was the brainchild of the owner of Dragon Phoenix restaurant who had adapted it in the 1960s from an earlier version by Mdm Cher Yam Tin, who came up with it in the 1950s. At the behest of her husband who had grown rather bored of steamed crabs, she experimented stir-frying crabs in tomato and chilli sauce. Sometime later, they opened the Palm Beach Seafood restaurant with the dish on their menu, and the rest is gastronomic history.
Fast-forward to today, the classic chilli crab has not lost its lustre at seafood restaurants across the island. But this sweet-hot-piquant dish whose fieriness is countered by the delicate flesh of the crab, has also become fodder for experimental chefs. Making waves, for instance, is chef LG Han’s playful take on the dish served at his Michelin-starred restaurant Labyrinth, featuring a soft shell crab sitting on a beach made of mantou crumbs, and a quenelle of chilli crab ice cream on the side. Making it was a long creative process, says chef Han, who describes himself as a local boy at heart, and who loves local food. Breaking down the main flavours and textures of chilli crab, he noted it was mainly sweet and creamy (from the egg) on the forefront, with savoury and spicy flavours bringing up the rear.
Observing that ice cream shares a common ingredient—i.e. egg—that also acts as a thickener and which provides creaminess, Han began to experiment with melding the two. “The challenge is making a spicy ice cream where the spiciness is associated with cold [rather than hot],” he explained. On top of that, he didn’t want cream to be the main flavour; neither did he want to make it a sorbet. “To get the full ice cream texture and the full-on chilli crab flavour in the ice cream was the biggest challenge,” he said. It has since become a signature at Labyrinth.
Of course, he’s not the only one—nor the first. Among chilli crab’s many iterations were those from chef Yong Bing Ngen of Majestic Restaurant, who rolled out chilli crab buns a few years back. Crystal Jade has chilli crab xiaolong bao on their menu, while chef Pang Kok Keong of Antoinette served up chilli crab-filled croissants at his haute French patisserie Antoinette. For the convenience-oriented home cook, the easiest ways to bring chilli crab it into the kitchen is using it as a sauce over noodles, over any assortment of fried and battered seafoods, and in-between breads, buns and the like.
This salty, preserved and deliriously umami duck egg is a Chinese delicacy loved by all. Traditionally, it is served with Teochew porridge as an intense flavour injection, turned into a delicious relish by the Thais, and embedded whole in Chinese mooncakes and bak chang. Dating back to the 5th century AD, salted egg is made by soaking the whole egg—shell and all—in a strong brine solution, burying it in salted charcoal paste and leaving it to dry for an extended period. It is also treated in the Pateros method which involves coating it in a thick layer of clay, salt and water for at least 14 days.
Some time ago, innovative Chinese chefs in Singapore used it to coat deep-fried prawns, chicken and crab. That has since taken root as a restaurant favourite. More recently, salted egg was thrown into the limelight again with the onset of the liu sha bao craze, where Chinese steamed buns were filled with molten salted egg. From there, it spread to molten salted egg lava cake, salted egg macarons, salted egg ice cream, doughnuts, mochi balls, salted egg fries, even salted egg French toast.
Then chef Pang Kok Keong rolled out his version of the salted egg croissant with seismic effect: the airy light, flaky French croissants wrapped around a filling made out of four molten salted egg yolks, inspired long patient queues which formed outside his patisserie at Penhas Road just as the pastries came out of the ovens. “It took us some time to make the salted egg filling stable, because if it’s not cooked properly, it will split,” he said.
While he had been testing out local flavours for the last few years, he notes that people these days are much more receptive to elevated local flavours, reflecting a maturing collective palate more accepting of this culinary evolution. “Back then, the cakes with more local elements were not as well received, possibly because they were perceived as being of lower value,” he said. Now he is incorporating more local elements in his otherwise French culinary practice.
A recent example is the Orient, a most refined cake comprising salted egg cremeux with lotus seed mousse, coconut cake and salted peanut sesame praline crispy—a “very light” cake which is ironically based on the dense, classic baked mooncake. More mod-Sin style treats both sweet and savoury can be expected from him in the coming months, a new development which he describes as a “drastic change” to his usual offerings. Exciting times.
Finally, the king of fruit. It’s thorny exterior and pungent flesh may be largely misunderstood by foreigners, but no matter. For Singaporean connoisseurs, this magnificent fruit has no equal.
Like wine, the aroma, flavour and the added dimension of texture offers depths of flavours ranging from sweet to bittersweet, layers of complexity, tantalising aromas and rich, tender textures. Developments in durian growing have yielded plenty of variants—from the ever-popular Mao Shanwang and D24 to sweet D13 and Red Prawn to name a few—with more being introduced every few years. The real deal is to eat it the old fashioned way—at a rickety table by the roadside, huge wicker baskets ready to receive the discarded shells.
Then again, durian has also gone under the scrutiny of creative chefs and the fruit has been turned into myriad desserts, from simple offerings like durian topped ice kachang to durian mousse cakes, strudels, profiteroles, egg tarts, waffles and pancakes and more. And these have long slipped into the mainstream of Singapore desserts. Goodwood Park Hotel must be mentioned at this point, having been highly instrumental in turning this fruit into cakes and Western confections long before the term mod-sin was dreamt of. Their durian festival, which started back in 1983 and this year runs from 15 March to 14 July 2019, is easily the longest ongoing annual food promotion in Singapore, and which coughed up the island’s first durian mousse cake, amongst other durian delights.
While durian desserts have become predictable, Eric Ong, former executive chef of Parkroyal on Pickering, has, in his time, rolled out savoury dishes using the fruit—something which is much less commonly encountered. He has done a buffet menu which features dishes such as tiger prawns with durian mousse and quinoa, durian ravioli with sage and garlic butter, gulai fish curry with fermented durian, butter durian prawn with curry leaves, and wok-fried prawns and petai with sambal durian. Most of the dishes feature Mao Shanwang and the D series durian variety. But it was no easy task to incorporate the fruit into savoury dishes.
“Durian has a complex flavour which is remarkable for a single fruit. As savoury dishes normally have its own unique flavour and texture, it’s challenging to balance the different components of the dish to include the strong durian flavours,” he says. “Durian has a sweet or bittersweet, creamy and sticky texture. To combine this into savoury dishes, there needs to be an understanding of how different durians go well with different dishes.” He adds that the “alcoholic taste and soft fleshy meat” of the D series durians work well in desserts, while the bittersweet Mao Shan Wang durians are best for savoury dishes. “Durian goes well with coconut milk so that’s how we started the whole process,” he added.
There are a whole lot more that chefs, restaurateurs and serious hobbyists are doing with local flavours and ingredients. Kaya has been used in many things from martinis to cakes and contemporary desserts in fine dining restaurants like Corner House, while satay and rojak have made for adventurous eating at others like Saint Pierre. At a more basic level, our sauces, rempahs and flavour combinations have found their way into pasta dishes, to marinade burgers, and the like. The journey of exploration is a bumpy one fraught with hits and misses, but that is part of the continued evolution of Singapore’s cuisine. Above all, Singaporeans are finally flying the flag of our culinary culture and writing our own chapter for the world.
A version of this article was first published in Wine & Dine’s August 2017 issue—Love Singapore.