“This isn’t a curry puff,” quips chef Francisco Araya as he sets a palm-sized empanada in front of us. In the low light of the 30-seater restaurant, tucked away on the first floor of The Mondrian hotel, it’s hard to tell if he’s teasing.
Araya, Francisco’s eponymous fine-dining restaurant – the first in Singapore to focus on Chilean South Pacific cuisine – opened its doors in October. The 40-year-old chef and his partner, 36-year-old pastry chef Fernanda Guerrero, have been in Singapore for a little over three months.
In a city proliferated with fast-food chains and hip eateries touting tacos, frozen margaritas and ceviche, it’s easy to mistake authentic Latin American cuisine for its b*st*rdised counterparts.
“People often assume that South America is one homogenous continent. I believe this misconception extends to presumptions about South American food being uniform,” says Francisco, who has worked in fine dining restaurants in Spain, Japan and Shanghai, including the Michelin-starred 81 Restaurant in Tokyo.
Interestingly, there are some similarities in the flavours and textures of Chilean and Southeast Asian cuisine, most notably in the Moqueca, a dish inspired by a traditional Brazilian stew. Served in a rich, fragrant sauce simmered for over 12 hours with fish bones, coconut milk and palm kernel oil, it reminds one of laksa or Nonya curry.
The Causa – baked, chopped oca topped with smoked chutoro, caviar and silvers of crunchy potato shaped into a nest – bears a strong tapioca aroma. In fact, one learns that tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava root, a tuber native to South America. Who knew?
But back to the empanada. Stuffed with offcuts from wagyu and encased in a crumbly puff pastry, it’s a cherished dish at Araya. Making (and eating) empanadas on Sundays are just one of the ways that bond the couple, who both knew each other as teenagers growing up in Santiago. It’s also a quintessential Latin American snack that incidentally resembles a curry puff.
Says Francisco: “I noticed various techniques for folding pastries, yet they always ended up looking the same. [Whether it’s a curry puff, dumpling or empanada], it’s amusing how each country seemingly shapes them alike. That’s why we enjoy making jokes about it – because that’s what resonates universally from a visual standpoint. Even if you’re unaware of what’s inside, the familiar appearance prevents immediate rejection. It’s like, ‘Oh, this looks familiar; I know this.’ Every culture indeed has its unique array of foods encapsulated in their own culinary traditions.
“To me, there’s nothing more nostalgic than having a beef empanada with a glass of red wine. That’s Chilean, that’s family.”
From $298++ per person for a dinner degustation menu.
PHOTOGRAPHY Clement Goh
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng