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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Local flavours, funky twists

Adventurous chefs are putting a new spin on familiar Singaporean delights by blending them into new dishes, desserts and cocktails
The Sunday Times - April 6, 2014
By: Eunice Quek
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Local flavours, funky twists Kaya toast cocktail. -- PHOTO: BITTERS AND LOVE

When it comes to spinning local flavours into unusual creations, there is a fine line that chefs and bartenders tread before creative becomes gimmicky.

Would people who relish chilli crab, hawthorn flakes and ayam buah keluak give chilli crab cocktail, hawthorn macarons and buah keluak ice cream a go? Yet, restaurants, bars and bakeries are incorporating Singapore flavours into their creations.

Mr Louis Tan, 23, a directors of Mixes From Mars, which owns Mars Bar in The Duxton Hotel, says people either love or hate its creative concoctions. Mars Bar shakes up a chilli crab cocktail using bottled chilli crab sauce to give customers a "new experience".

Mr Tan says: "Almost everyone is surprised to see the chilli crab cocktail on the menu. Those who are adventurous will try it. There're some who've more of a shock than a surprise and some don't like it at all. We don't expect everyone to like it at first try." He says the bar is looking to work with more local dessert flavours, such as ice kacang and cheng tng.

Adrian Ling, 38, chef-owner of Pidgin Kitchen & Bar at Dempsey, says there have been mixed reviews for some of his dishes, such as razor clam tau suan.

Tau suan, or split mung bean, is usually eaten as a dessert. Chef Ling's dish features a clam dashi, razor clams and the beans. Like the dessert, it is topped with pieces of fried dough fritters.

Ling says: "The razor clam dish is very challenging for many diners. It is difficult for them to wrap their mind around a savoury seafood dish inspired by a bean-based dessert."

His better-received dishes are the Milo Dinosaur Version 2.1 with a dark chocolate flourless cake and Milo ice cream; and kaya bread and butter pudding with homemade kaya and milk tea ice cream. Other dishes he is looking to roll out include an octopus rendang and Scotch eggs with ngoh hiang.

He says: "It is inevitable that many purists will compare some of our dishes with their traditional counterparts, which are ubiquitous in hawker centres and food courts. I'm not attempting to create premium or haute versions of classics and I am definitely not trying to 'bastardise' traditional flavours which I have grown up with either.

"Instead, I am taking traditional dishes and indigenous regional flavours as a reference point to create dishes that showcase a different perspective."

On the trend, Han Liguang, 29, chef-owner of Labyrinth in Neil Road, says: "It's gimmicky only when the chef overpromises. A chef's job is to deliver good food and flavour, creativity can come later."

He calls his chendol xiao long bao a labour of love as it takes about 11/2 days to make, including soaking red beans, boiling down coconut milk and gula melaka and assembling the ingredients a la minute. He also has a chilli crab ice cream dish that is served with crab bisque mousse, finely ground toasted mantou sand and a crispy soft-shell crab.

At Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street, Mr Bean, a beancurd pudding cocktail, has become its signature drink, says head bartender Jeff Ho, 36, who is one of Jekyll & Hyde's partners. He says: "The inspiration was actually the generosity of a customer who brought tau huay for the bartenders one night and we decided to build a drink with it."

The bar will launch a Summer drinks menu tomorrow which includes flavours such as coriander, red chrysanthemum and pandan.

For Hatter Street cafe owner Yvette Chua, 30, showcasing local flavours is a way for her to stand out from the competition. On making macarons with her favourite childhood snack of haw flakes, she says: "I wanted to do something different, especially with an ingredient you don't see often. Diners tell me it reminds them of their childhood." Another locally inspired dish at the cafe in Hougang is waffles with pandan ice cream drizzled with gula melaka ($8.90).

More unusual takes include laksa shepherd's pie from Pies & Coffee; Tippling Club's chicken curry mousse; Petite Menu's bak kut teh terrine; and O My Dog's bak chor mee hotdog.

Diners whom SundayLife! spoke to say that flavour is still key to any funky creation.

Mechanical engineer Bernard Tan, 30, says: "Being a creative chef is good as it keeps diners hungry for more. I enjoy the drinks at Jekyll & Hyde and would like to try the local cocktails at Mars Bar. If it tastes good, I'll eat or drink it, whether it's served as foam or dessert."

Public relations executive Lynette Koh, 29, says: "Most Singaporeans will know what the original chilli crab or chendol tastes like. So it is natural for us to make comparisons. I think it is how the chef interprets the dish that would make me want to try it, and I am planning to try the dishes at Labyrinth because I've heard good reviews so far."

Cookbook author and freelance writer Sylvia Tan, 66, says: "Such creations represent new ways of using well-loved ingredients and traditional recipes. If it's a good idea, it can become a new classic and people will forget it was ever considered an innovation.

"Of course, sometimes it can be gimmicky and sometimes it doesn't work. You need to have a good sense of taste and balance of flavours. We need to be open- minded for our cuisine to evolve."

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