Crab meat popiah. Satay marinade with freshly ground lemongrass and galangal. Modern texture-enhancing techniques. Local food is being elevated to newer, greater heights. TAN MIN YAN susses out the trend.
At Po, popiah is the main headliner and is available in three variations: classic, with tiger prawns, and with handpicked flower crab meat.
The royal treatment
Just a whiﬀ of cooking doyenne Violet Oon’s chicken satay, and you know you’re not looking at just the regular stuﬀ . The wafting aroma of lemongrass is subtle yet intense, visceral proof that no eﬀort was spared for the marinade. It’s a heady, sweet fragrance that intermingles with the mouthwatering scent of grilled meat.
“We grind lemongrass and galangal fresh [every] day, and mix [them] with other spices to make [rempah, a spice paste. This is then] stir-fried in oil until the spices are fully cooked to release their essential flavours,” explains Violet.
Thai chicken meat is used for the generously portioned satay, and the skin is left on so that the fat melts with grilling. This means the meat is fork-tender and robust in flavour. The accompanying peanut sauce with ground toasted peanuts and coconut cream, topped with grated pineapple, is no sideshow either – it’s full-bodied in its sweetness and spiciness, with a nice gritty texture.
Satay is a popular fixture at both of Violet’s restaurants – National Kitchen by Violet Oon and Violet Oon Singapore. In fact, it’s so well loved that she, together with her children Tay Yiming and Tay Su-lyn, decided to set up Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, which opened at Clarke Quay in February. There, satay variants (pork, prawn and beef tripe in addition to chicken), along with other grilled meats and seafood, take centre stage.
“We’re sticking close to traditional recipes, but using more ingredients to layer flavours, like how people do it at home,” says Violet. “For example, our cincalok dip has julienned lime skin, kaffir lime and ginger flower instead of just shallots.”
Diners get to observe their food being grilled over open fire over a bar counter, a feature that makes the satay bar decidedly more casual than its sleeker sister restaurants. But the Peranakan stylings, such as the iconic tiles, are still in place, as “customers expect a certain similarity among all the restaurants [under] the Violet Oon brand,” shares Violet.
Over at The Lo & Behold Group’s new venture Po, which has a fashionably understated interior and at which mod-Sin king chef Willin Low consults, a number of local classics take the spotlight. The popiah is a headliner.
“We make our popiah the way hawkers can’t because of how expensive it gets,” explains Willin. “The turnip is chopped by hand to shreds of specific thickness, sauteed, then braised. The whole process takes four hours.” And while the shreds of turnip in hawker-centre versions are usually white, those in Po’s are browned and have an extra sweetness because they’ve had time to caramelise.
This turnip filling is paired with pork, shrimp and bamboo shoots as well as jicama, carrots and Holland peas for savoury and sweet flavours. Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee, a third-generation family business, supplies the fresh wheat skins.
And just like how you’d eat it at boisterous dinner parties at grandma’s place, popiah at Po is served DIY-style, with all the ingredients, toppings and sauces served separately. The haphazard ways in which you make the popiah are all part of the fun. “We want to celebrate popiah the way it’s meant to be eaten – like how grandma makes it,” says Willin.
Look at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill and Po, and it becomes obvious that a pattern is emerging: after a spate of mod-Sin experimentations, there’s now a focus on giving local fare the royal treatment.
Whether this means swopping traditional ingredients for more premium versions, using modern techniques to enhance textures, or just employing time-honoured recipes that have lost their way in our time-starved society, the essence of the dish remains largely untouched. The elevated form looks like its humble cousin, is usually served in an appropriately fashionable environment, but is supposed to taste better.
The idea of elevating local food isn’t new – local veteran chef Justin Quek’s signature wok-fried Maine Lobster Hokkien Mee, now served at Sky on 57, was created back in the ’90s for one of his VIP customers. But the growth of elevated local concepts is one that’s been steadily gaining steam over the last two years.
The initial pushback
The world of elevated local cuisine, though, is a tricky one to navigate. Singaporeans are notoriously protective of local cuisine and critical of any newfangled take on it – mod-Sin, purist or otherwise – that could be viewed as a slight on tradition.
Brandon Teo, culinary director of F&B group The Establishment Group, which collaborated with Dunman Food Centre’s Seng’s Wanton Noodles to create Wanton, Seng’s Noodle Bar, would know.
When the industrial-chic joint at Amoy Street – which serves the food stall’s famed egg noodles with modern options such as slow-cooked aburi pork belly and double-roasted pork belly – first opened in 2015, it got a few pointed comparisons to the old guard.
“The price point was a problem (the signature Char Siew Mee is priced at $7),” says Brandon. “And some didn’t like the fattiness of the pork, even though it was specifically done that way.”
At Wanton, Seng’s Noodle Bar, the char siew is sous-vide for 12 hours for extra tenderness, slathered in a traditional char siew marinade, then chargrilled. For dinner, there are more premium options such as the 12-hour slow-braised herbal pork belly and oriental-spiced pork scotch eggs to gussy up your bowl of noodles.
“We made minor tweaks to the char siew marinade, but didn’t deviate too much from traditional recipes. We wanted to keep the flavours as traditional as possible, and just enhance [the] wonton mee with modernised techniques and better ingredients,” says Brandon.
The surprise hit of 2016, The Coconut Club – which focuses on a singular nasi lemak dish, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with Mawa coconuts for a lightly fragranced finish – shot to instant fame when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosted Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to a meal there.
Despite its immense popularity – long queues form outside its Ann Siang Hill home even before it’s open – it is not without detractors. Many food- industry insiders I speak to wonder if it is reasonable to charge $12.90 for a plate of nasi lemak, regardless of elevation techniques.
“I love the intention, passion and the craft [the owners] are investing in, and understand that that comes at a high cost,” says Denise Khan Tan, group marketing and communications manager at lifestyle collective Unlisted Collection. “However, I’m not too keen on them adding to that cost by placing their concept in a location with high rent that surely adds to the dish’s price point.”
A simple bowl of wonton noodles gets all fancy at Wanton, Seng‘s Noodle Bar, where it can be paired with sides such as double-roasted pork belly, and baby kailan with scallops, braised shiitake and fried garlic.
But food is subjective, and despite some reservations, industry experts are unanimous that the winds of change are blowing, with the opening of Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill and Po, for starters.
Tan Su-Lyn, co-founder of communications agency The Ate Group, thinks that the rise of elevated local concepts is a natural progression from what chefs have achieved with mod-Sin cuisine over the last decade. “I think local chefs have attained a level of confidence in our cuisine that enables them to look back and embrace nostalgia, as well as look forward to create new riﬀs on classic flavours.”
Justin agrees, and attributes changing consumer mindsets to a more sophisticated palate arising from greater travels. “With a more mature understanding of what good food is, we’ve learned to appreciate our own culinary culture for what it is. This means moving away from the constant search for ‘modern interpretations’ and towards a greater emphasis on authenticity and quality.”
Sentimentalism is possibly a big factor too. Says Willin: “We’re all acutely aware that our hawker culture is in trouble. It’s no longer sustainable for hawkers to continue charging food at low prices. The only way [to be sustainable] is to use better ingredients, to elevate the dish and to sell it at a higher perceived value. We have to accept that this is probably the only way to preserve our food culture in the long run.”
Violet sums it up bluntly: “If everyone creates, what happens to the traditional? I can create any time, but once the [traditional] recipe, or the person with it, is gone, it’ll never come back because I can never learn it. Young chefs are realising that.”
Already, existing players are seeing a positive reaction from their customers – and from unexpected quarters at that.
“The one thing that has surprised me the most is the number of older customers, usually in their 50s and 60s, we’ve had at Wanton,” says Brandon. “I thought it’d just be the younger generation who would take to a concept like this, but I was wrong. The older customers understand that the experience of having wonton noodles has changed, and they all seem happy to accept it.”
Where do we go from here?
“The next thing, hopefully, would be to have more local chefs take our cuisine overseas,” says Brandon. “If we can elevate it properly, we can showcase it to the world, [much like] the way French and Spanish concepts are imported into Singapore.”
For Violet, she’s just happy that young chefs are jumping onboard the bandwagon. “In the last year, many young chefs have expressed interest in working for us. They all talk about wanting to learn about ‘their food’ – it’s very encouraging,” she shares, adding that she hopes that more will follow.
“Many top chefs in the world, like Julien Royer [of two-Michelin-starred Odette in Singapore], draw inspiration from their grandmothers when they create,” she continues. “To inspire creativity, your past must always be the point of reference. Local chefs don’t always have to follow whatever recipes their grandmothers used. So long as they channel something that’s close to their hearts, it’s great.”
“Whatever they come up with next, it’ll be their own new Singapore story.”
WHEN EAST MEETS WEST
Singapore-based foreign chefs are also putting a creative spin on well-loved classics.
“I was inspired by everything I tried in Singapore, and wanted to create my own version of my favourite dish: chicken rice.
For this dish, I poach the chicken on low heat in an aromatic master stock flavoured with white soya sauce, ginger, star anise and orange peel, then cool it in the stock for a day to allow it to absorb all the flavours. Poaching it gently for as long as possible also ensures the [meat] stays moist and juicy. The chicken is then paired with a trio of artichokes, salted egg yolks, [slivers of ] salted jellyfish and roasted [as well as] fresh hazelnuts for diﬀ ering layers of flavours and textures.”
“I replaced white bread with sourdough [and used] my own house-made butter – both comfort foods of my childhood in Germany. My butter has a light, yogurt-like flavour that helps cut through the sweetness of the kaya. I then top it oﬀ with shaved fresh coconut and gula melaka, and a 62.5 deg C sous vide egg – this temperature gives the egg yolk the runny consistency that Singaporeans love.”
Babi Buah Keluak by chef Emmanuel Stroobant of Saint Pierre (http://www.saintpierre.com.sg)
“Having lived here for 16 years, I find the Peranakan culture [to be] the most symbolic [one in] Singapore. That was why I created this dish for National Day last year. [My version has] traditional ingredients like ginger, turmeric, galangal, buah keluak, curry, soya and garlic to preserve the original flavours, but [is] lifted [with] some tamarind and lime. The buah keluak gives the dish a natural earthiness while the pork and soya give it a sweetness and [saltiness] respectively.”