2015 was a great year of travel for me- Melbourne, Hokkaido, Vietnam for the first time ever, Tokyo, Seoul for the first time as well, and then Bangkok. Lots of great experiences, lots of new friends who really took care of me, and lots of great food was consumed. All the travelling I’ve done in Asia has really given me a deeper understanding and greater appreciation for food, and more importantly the differences in our food, but thing that has been a constant topic in my head throughout all these locations, has been the differences in taste based on regionality. While it is perfectly normal for the food of a certain culture to be built around the produce that is readily available in a particular region, and despite the fact that in somewhere like Singapore where we share many similar aromatics used in Thai cooking, such as galangal, coriander lemongrass etc, one would never mistake Thai food from Singaporean food. So why does our food taste the way it tastes?
When you think of the strongest condiments or sauces in cooking, I’d say that a lot of them originate from Asia, specifically regions like Malaysia/Singapore/Thailand/Vietnam/ Indonesia where our food is very punchy in flavour, be it the level of spiciness or the level of acidity. Ingredients like fish sauce and fermented prawn paste aim not to offer subtle nuances of flavour, but instead give you bang for the buck in terms of pungency and taste, but I think that our food is also a result of the quality of ingredients that we have available to us.
Chicken rice from Tian tian, not my favorite chicken rice, but one of my favorite photos
We have always had meats like poultry and fish and vegetables available to us in the region, but anyone that has travelled to countries in Europe, the US, or Japan will tell you that the quality and taste of our meats will taste bland when compared side by side to their ‘further away counterparts’. Even our ‘humble’ chicken rice is cooked with heaping amounts of chicken fat, garlic and ginger, and then served up with 3 more kinds of sauces. So is this the reason why our sauces taste so strong, and often so spicy? To mask out the taste of the meat, simply because the meat doesn’t have that much inherent flavour?
Thai dish with scallops and uni, with a sauce full of assam/tamarind
These thoughts are a reflection of recent meals that I have had, one particular restaurant in Thailand I visited uses traditional recipes but pairs it with new and exciting premium ingredients. The problem is that traditional Thai recipes have strong, often acidic sauces that completely overwhelm these premium ingredients, so you end up paying a lot for Uni that you don’t really get to taste. ‘Fusion food’ often gets a bad reputation, but south East Asian fusion requires far more thought and balance than one would expect. For example, anyone can throw Wagyu beef into a beef curry, but doing it sensibly means asking yourself the right questions- can I taste the beef through the curry? If not, do I make the beef taste stronger by perhaps Aging it? Or maybe cutting down on the spices in the curry to allow the beef flavour to become more pronounced? Does the additional fat in the Wagyu make the curry taste too rich? Perhaps some acidity in the form of a pickle would round the Flavours out? Does the addition of the acidity change the footprint of the dish too much? There are a multitude of questions that can be asked if one choose to put so much thought into it, and that is also a reason why when fusion food(particularly south East Asian fusion) is done right, it is truly glorious.
L’Effervescence’s signature turnip dish, will we ever have produce that could sustain a dish similar to this?
This is also why I believe our fine dining scene to be of poor value, as more regional fine dining restaurants shift their focus to using produce from farms where they can have control over how things are grown in order to upkeep the standards required of fine dining(ie herbs and vegetables from farms in Genting Highlands), much of the meat is still shipped in from further away counties simply because we cannot match the quality from elsewhere. And so when you have fine dining in Singapore, a portion of the cost goes into the logistics of shipping produce over. A western fine dining meal easily costs upwards of $300 and a fine dining sushi restaurant costs upwards of $400, and while I truly believe that we have some of the best chefs in the world, and while I also believe that not everything that is fresh is necessarily better(ie some things taste better fermented/aged), good chefs with access to incredible, cheap(er) produce will always create a better overall meal for better value. Again, this isn’t to say that they are better chefs, it merely highlights that chefs in the region are handicapped.
Cornerhouse’s Kaya toast, definitely not the ones you grew up eating
So how have our chefs been dealing with this issue? I can’t say that I’m an expert about all things food in Singapore, but the last few meals I’ve had here, I’ve noticed that some them have started to pry away from the mould of a ‘French restaurant’ or an ‘Italian restaurant’. I remember when Julien royer was at Jaan, you could say that the entire meal was 100% French, yet at his new restaurant Odette, he serves an amuse of Chilli crab foam in kueh pie tee; at cornerhouse, Chef Jason Tan serves a modern Kaya and toast, yet the rest of the meal is predominantly Western ingredients with Western cooking techniques. Neither of these restaurants would be classified as fusion, yet they have nods to Singapore and our local flavors, and while t may not contribute to large parts of the menu, but a ripple may someday propagate into something bigger. And what about the restaurants that embrace fusion and execute it with finesse? LG Han of Labyrinth makes a Faux mee pok where the noodles are made with shaved frozen squid, a technique that was pioneered by the forerunners of modern cooking overseas, yet the dish is tied together with a truly delicious and authentic home made chilli sauce; at Candlenut, chef Malcolm Lee minces pork by hand and brushes it with buah keluak to form a ‘Peranakan tsukune’, embracing ingredients we have locally and turning it into something unique. And isn’t that essentially the direction our fine dining has to go? We will never cook French food better than the French, even if we had the best French chefs in the world, we will not have the soil, we do not have the best produce that they have in France, and same goes for Italian, or Japanese, or any other cuisine. What we do have is the best kaffir lime leaves, the best lemongrass, the best and most aromatic rempahs that result from these ingredients, and as such it makes perfect sense to use these to supplement the other produce that we have to import from overseas, and in essence create food that is truly unique to our part of the world. The Japanese did it successfully with restaurants like L’effervescence, Quintessence, Esquisse, utilizing French technique and applying it to their amazing produce, why can’t we do the same?