Meet the Singaporean chefs reinventing centuries of tradition


The last visitors of the day leave the famous Singapore Botanic Gardens, leaving the paths winding through lush foliage and crowds of orchids deserted. But listen closely and you can hear the din of dinner service emanating from the flora. Source? Pangium, a new gourmet restaurant opened in June, nestled in the heart of this verdant 163-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pangium is in the Gallop Extension of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Courtesy of Pangium

Inside, chef Malcolm Lee serves up a contemporary tasting menu that highlights heritage flavors as emblematic of Singapore’s identity as this tropical environment. As a Peranakan, Lee is one of the chefs bringing the country’s indigenous culture to life through food. “I’m quite a traditionalist,” says Lee. “I really liked the way things were done before.”

Singapore Heritage Cuisine

Alvin Yapp has converted his house into a Peranakan museum. Courtesy of Rempa

The Peranakans are descended from early settlers, many from southern China, who began migrating to the Indonesian archipelago around the 14th century, where they married local women. “To me, you’re a Peranakan if you can trace any of your ancestors as intermarriage at that time,” says Alvin Yapp, owner and curator of the Peranakan private home museum The Intan. In Peranakan Chinese home kitchens, Chinese cooking practices merged with flavors from Malay, Indonesian, South Indian, and other cultures in a distinct and colorful hybrid cuisine characterized by aromatic and herbaceous dishes – foods like mee siam ( rice vermicelli tossed in a spicy sauce), babi pongteh (pork stew cooked with fermented soybeans) and kueh salat (glutinous rice and coconut milk topped with custard) – complex and time-consuming to prepare, but bold and hearty to eat. “Peranakan cooking started as home cooking,” adds Yapp, and at home it largely stayed.

Chef

Malcolm Lee’s first business, Candlenut, was the first Peranakan restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star. Courtesy of Pangium

Early in his career, Lee, now 37, felt that young people – many of whom were, like him, the third generation to build a life in Singapore – were losing touch with the culture and the dishes. traditions that defined their childhood. He notes how the city-state has absorbed so much foreign influence throughout history that, for many young Singaporeans, the connection to their ancestral roots can seem tenuous. “Any new nation struggles to find its identity and assert its identity,” says Peranakan-born Singaporean cookbook author Christopher Tan. (Singapore gained independence on August 9, 1965.) The matriarchs of the Peranakan community, who carefully planned large family meals and took great pride in their homemade recipes, were also disappearing, says Sharon Wee, author of the Peranakan cookbook. As young people watched their grandparents grow old, “it coincides with this younger generation realizing, ‘If I don’t learn to cook this, or if I don’t record this for posterity, I’m going to lose it. completely,'” she says.

Hoping to rekindle interest in Peranakan cuisine and heritage, Lee decided to reinvent the traditional flavors he loved. Lee’s first restaurant, Candlenut, which he opened in 2010 after cooking school, had been serving Peranakan food for five years when he dreamed up a tasting menu of twisted classic dishes. The following year, Candlenut won a Michelin star, the first in the world awarded to a Peranakan restaurant.

Pangium dish

At Pangium, Lee is focused on reviving lost dishes and reinventing heritage ingredients. Courtesy of Pangium

In his new sophomore venture Pangium, Lee’s culinary mission has expanded beyond dishes from his Peranakan community to focus on understanding Singapore’s past and bringing it into the future. In the multicultural fabric of the country’s heritage cuisine, Peranakan cuisine is only one part of the equation; Malay, Indian and Eurasian dishes are also part of Singapore’s traditional cuisine. While many diners might describe his new tasting menu at Pangium as innovative, Lee is more concerned with capturing heritage ingredients, restoring lost dishes, and intentionally presenting them with a modern twist. “I try to preserve these stories,” he explains. “The idea is how to present [dishes in ways] which will link them to the past. Based on respect for inherited tradition, Lee recognizes the contemporary context of Singapore today. He garnishes the classic ikan chuan chuan fried fish dish with hand-tied lily buds; he serves sagun, a powdery coconut snack enjoyed by his parents’ generation but rarely seen these days, over a dollop of young coconut sorbet; nasi ulam, rice mixed with a parade of herbs, arrives alongside a collection of side dishes that feature ingredients like fermented durian sambal and banana flower.

Singapore Heritage Chef

Singaporean chef Damian D’Silva has dedicated his career to uplifting heritage cuisine. Courtesy of Rempa

Documenting Singapore’s complex past and present is no small feat. Chef Damian D’Silva, the MasterChef Singapore judge who opened his latest Rempapa restaurant in late 2021, is one of the most enthusiastic champions for championing Singapore’s wide range of heritage dishes. “If nobody does that, it’s going to go away,” D’Silva says. He points out that the country, shaped by centuries of colonialism and immigration, has four official languages ​​– English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – a fact that helps paint a picture of the diverse demographic landscape. At Rempapa, he honors the diverse weaves that make up Singapore’s cultural tapestry by cooking a wide range of traditional home-style dishes and serving them in family-style portions. The menu is anchored by deeply personal recipes (many from his paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother) that D’Silva, who describes his roots as Peranakan and Eurasian, once savored at his childhood table; he also makes space in the kitchen for other chefs to document dishes from their own heritage. A meal at Rempapa can include everything from kedondong salad (a Peranakan dish consisting of winged beans and kaffir lime leaves tossed with brittle peanuts and prawn silk) to Hakka fried pork (a Chinese dish of marinated pork) with baca assam (a Eurasian dish). tender beef cheeks cooked in tangy tamarind water).

Singaporean spread

Most of the recipes D’Silva serves to Rempapa come from his grandparents. Courtesy of Rempa

Although D’Silva supports chefs enforcing a new take on tradition (and has introduced his own fresh takes like limpeh sliders, with beef brisket cooked in spicy rempah), he sees himself primarily as the guardian of the history and collective memories that drive Singapore’s eating habits. many ethnic groups. It encourages cooks and eaters to understand and appreciate this foundation. “If you don’t, you’re creating a dish out of nothing,” says D’Silva. “And that, to me, makes a dish lose its soul.”

Rempapa Singapore Heritage Cuisine

The restaurant’s name is a nod to spice paste rempah and D’Silva’s reputation as a protector of Singapore’s food heritage. Courtesy of Rempa

Now, it looks like a resurgence of interest in the country’s traditional cuisine is well underway. “We grew up in this modernizing Singapore,” says Wee. “I think we got to a point where we realized we didn’t quite cherish what we had.”

The urgency to revive and preserve these traditions is all the greater as the community supporting them is very small and aging. Although Chinese descendants make up the majority of the Peranakan community today, the group also includes the Jawi Peranakans, who are descended from locally born Muslims with mixed South Asian and Malay ancestry; and the Chitty Melaka, also known as the Peranakan Indians, who are descended from locally born children of South Indian merchants and Malays. To illustrate and preserve the particular cultural hybridization that has created the food customs of Chitty Melaka, Singaporean cook Tanya Pillay-Nair is collecting recipes from her fellow Chitty Melakans for a cookbook to be published in 2023.

Although many members of the community no longer have family ties to India or Malaysia, appreciating the food of its heritage can help maintain a poignant connection to those ancestral roots. Pillay-Nair herself has “visceral ties to the past” rooted in vivid memories of her grandmother hanging out in the kitchen and her family sitting on the floor eating banana leaves. “Now that they’re gone, I had to find ways to salvage those old recipes,” she says. “There are so many dishes you would never have heard of”, many of which were new even to Pillay-Nair. “To me, it’s a treasure.”

The pandemic has helped inspire Singaporeans looking to reconnect with the dishes of their childhoods to turn to their kitchens. Limitations on restaurant visits have sparked a private home dining movement across the country, with countless locals opening up their own dining rooms to outsiders in hopes of enjoying home-cooked meals from the comfort and safety of a small private group. “When you go to someone’s house to eat, you feel the love,” says Tinoq Russell Goh, a hair and makeup artist who, alongside partner Dylan Chan, quietly launched private dinner parties at their home in 2020. Now , the waiting list is two years long.

As awareness of the diversity of Singapore’s heritage foods continues to grow and chefs continue to reach diners through contemporary avenues, Yapp, for his part, is curious and excited to see where reinvention will lead. “I don’t think culture should be frozen in time,” he says, pointing out that Peranakan cuisine from its own past was born out of the application of modern ingredients and presentation to existing traditions.

One of the creations Lee is most proud of is Candlenut’s signature ice cream, made from the poisonous hydrogen cyanide-containing seed of the native buah keluak tree (also known as Pangium edule). Making it edible is a long process that involves boiling it, burying it and fermenting it before extracting the pasty filling, which Lee’s ancestors say would work well with chicken and pork. But for Lee, “it’s almost like dark chocolate. A little bitter, like a rich, slightly sour coffee. He wondered if he could shine in a dessert. Now, the dish has been on the Candlenut menu for nine years, served on a bed of salted butter caramel and topped with chocolate foam.

“It’s really Peranakan,” Yapp said. “We’re not afraid to try new things.”

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