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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

A chef's tribute to his roots

Eating Damian D'Silva's food is an exercise in delicious masochism.
The Business Times - October 15, 2012
By: Jaime Ee
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A chef's tribute to his roots Authentic fare: Buah keluak fried rice with a kick - PHOTO: IMMIGRANTS

Immigrants
467 Joo Chiat Road
Tel: 8511-7322
Open from 5pm to midnight

EATING Damian D'Silva's food is an exercise in delicious masochism. With every mouthful you're sweating buckets (the inconsistent airconditioning doesn't help), huffing and puffing and trying not to fall off the skinny kopitiam chair in the process. But you don't stop because you can't get this kind of food anywhere unless you're lucky enough to have a grandparent who still dishes out age-old family recipes at weekend "makan" binge-fests.

Since few of us are, D'Silva fills that gap as the benevolent chef-patriarch of Immigrants - the Eurasian chef's culinary tribute to his grandfather and a long-lost style of cooking. Singapore's full racial spectrum - Eurasian, Peranakan, Chinese, Indian, Malay - was incorporated into D'Silva senior's repertoire and it's lovingly reproduced here by his grandson the chef, right down to the last fiery stick of dried chilli.

If you want compromises - less chilli here, some white rice there - go somewhere else. Not that D'Silva is some kind of kitchen nazi - he will accommodate you to a certain extent, but when it comes to his recipes, he is nothing if not obsessively authentic.

Now, it has to be said - his food may be authentic but it doesn't mean that everybody will like it. In the same way that you might have grown up using your mother's kueh chang as the yardstick to compare all other rice dumplings, it doesn't mean that everybody will love your mum's version.

If you have been weaned on banana leaf wrapped otak filled with a smooth spicy coconutty paste of fish and herbs, you may or may not enjoy D'Silva's recipe where chunks of fish, prawns and squid are just loosely bound together by a sambal mixture and grilled on a piece of banana leaf ($18). But a more luxurious otak you will never meet, especially when you get to taste each individual ingredient instead of a homogenous mystery paste. The sambal itself is spicy hot but with texture, not the smooth, blender-pureed kind.

For added punishment, you need to order the buah keluak fried rice ($20), the only "approved" rice on the menu. Black as night but with a kick that travels up your nostrils and burrows into your brain, the rice is sauteed with the mashed Indonesian black nut cooked with chilli, onions and dried shrimp to get its earthy, smoky and slightly briny rich flavour. It would be more addictive if it wasn't so hot, but we hear that D'Silva has since toned down the chilli.

Even so, the heat continues with the likes of squid bombs ($14) - the squid is deliberately undercooked just a tad to achieve a lovely toothsome texture, and filled again with sambal.

But red and orange are not the primary colours of the menu. The seh bak ($18) is a slow-cooked stew of piggy spare parts like the ear, heart, intestines, tongue and belly, melting into a chewy, gelatinous hodgepodge of old school goodness. It's ugly to look at but with the accompanying squares of juicy panfried tofu, it's comfort food at its best. A must-try would be the singgang ($14), a turmeric-hued, labour-intensive mixture of deboned flaked fish, coconut milk and spices - easy to eat on its own with strips of crisp cucumber.

The fact that you're eating out of small enamel dishes is not so much to match the kind of updated coolie decor of Immigrants, but a reminder that you're not in a restaurant so much as a bar, which is why it's subtitled "The Singapore Gastrobar". Half of the space is devoted to high counters and seats, so people can come for a drink (whisky apparently goes great with spicy food) and pick at the dishes which come in small portions. Diners move to the back where there are proper tables and chairs, but you still eat out of small plates as the idea is to order a lot for variety and nibble the night through.

While the prices may seem a little high for the portion size, the food is actually very filling and you can't begrudge D'Silva because going by the amount of raw ingredients he uses, you don't know how he makes money on the food itself. Even his ngoh hiang ($14) is so packed with prawns, minced pork, crab and waterchestnut that there's no room for the cheap fillers other places use like chopped carrots or peas. The only compromise is that he uses beancurd sheets instead of pig's caul, but that's because of the inconsistent supply of the latter.

After a checkered career in the F&B business, Damian D'Silva has come full circle to embrace his roots. It may be too bar-hoppy for those who just want to stuff their faces, but there's an easy solution for this market segment - takeaway. Because in the comfort of your own home, you can have as much white rice as you want, and do real justice to the man's cooking.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

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