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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

New ways of eating

As long as the flavours stay true to the original, I am all for re-imagining Singapore's cuisine.
The Straits Times - October 20, 2012
By: Tan Hsueh Yun
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New ways of eating Violet Oon's Ayam Buah Keluak set (above) comes with dishes in separate bowls. -- PHOTO: VIOLET OON'S KITCHEN

Sitting around a high table at Immigrants, chef Damian D'Silva's restaurant in Joo Chiat Road, the three of us stared at the thick black gravy in the enamel bowl of Seh Bak.

We had devoured the pig offal; ears, tripe and intestines and the slices of pork belly, relishing the rich taste of the stew.

But what were we going to do with the rest of the fragrant, dark soya sauce gravy? The eatery, which calls itself a gastropub, does not serve rice with the dishes.

The idea is to order wine, beer or whisky and nibble on fantastic food while drinking. These are authentic, old school dishes served in a way that is very contemporary.

I felt a little discombobulated that night. But everyone else seems to have cottoned on to what Mr D'Silva and his business partners are doing.

Next to us, a group of women sipped wine, chatted and shared a few dishes. They did not fret about there being nothing to soak up the sauce.

The urge to mush gravy into white rice, to plonk a few dishes in the middle of a table and share them, with rice, is hardwired into our DNA, or at least, to mine.

But recently, people have been forcing me to relook what I take for granted.

I had a meal a couple of months ago at Iggy's, the luxe restaurant at The Hilton Singapore, that was made up of dishes inspired by Singapore street food.

There was nasi lemak without the rice but with fish mousse and pandan foam. Mee Siam was served cold, its tart, refreshing flavour thoroughly infused into glass vermicelli, and one of the desserts recreated kaya toast and teh tarik with French toast and ice cream. The food tasted remarkably like the real deal.

At Violet Oon's Kitchen in Bukit Timah, traditional Peranakan dishes are served as set meals. Each main course sits in a separate bowl on a plate heaped with rice, pickles and a side salad. To share, diners remove the bowls containing say, Ayam Buah Keluak or Babi Pongtay, and place them in the middle of the table.

Earlier this week, I had a superb Peranakan meal at The Fullerton hotel's Town Restaurant. It featured recipes from Mrs Wee Kim Wee, the late President's wife.

Some classic dishes I had in the six- course meal included Pong Towhu soup, Popiah, and Satay Ayam Goreng Rempah Titek. The satay ayam, for example, was served in a little dish set on a banana leaf-lined plate, with a timbale of rice.

All of these developments show that chefs and restaurateurs are serious about taking Singapore food to another level.

This time, they may succeed.

When Ms Oon tried the set meal concept out in the 1990s, in her now-defunct restaurant in Bukit Pasoh, diners were puzzled.

But judging by how well her current restaurant is doing, people don't mind that she is serving authentic Peranakan fare in a new-fangled way, or making paninis stuffed with hae bee hiam, which is dried shrimp sambal.

The gambit is probably going to work this time because of several factors.

One is that while the presentation is different, the food remains true to its roots, and is not tarted up or tamed. I cannot see Mr D'Silva making his fiery chilli dips less hot as a concession to chilli cowards.

Another is that Singaporeans, sophisticated eaters to begin with, are even more so now and want a range of options when dining.

A family might visit Violet Oon's Kitchen, where young ones can tuck into pasta or shepherd's pie, while the parents opt for classic Peranakan.

Those who love craft beers or Japanese whisky and have been missing Mr D'Silva's sambal belimbing and ngoh hiang will be able to enjoy both at Immigrants.

A food industry contact I discuss this with says it is one way to get Singapore food out there in the world, serving the food in ways to suit how other people eat.

With the restaurant scene here getting saturated and the manpower crunch hitting eateries hard, ambitious restaurateurs are looking at ways to sell our food abroad. Mr D'Silva and his partners are already thinking about doing this, saying they want to show others that Singapore food is not just chilli crab.

Singapore has also come into its own as a must-visit city for those who love to eat. Those who do will want options too.

I imagine it would be interesting to take friends visiting from abroad to a hawker centre for nasi lemak, bak chor mee and teh tarik, and then have them taste these dishes, reimagined, at Iggy's.

As long as the flavours remain authentic and true, I should sweep the cobwebs from my mind and worry less about leftover gravy. I hope that Ms Oon and Mr D'Silva stick to their guns, no matter how many people plead for rice or for dishes to be served a la carte for sharing.

I have heard that whisky goes great with his Sambal Buah Keluak Fried Rice.

It is time for another visit there and I promise I will not smuggle in a plastic container of rice.

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