Dining

Singapore chefs who are championing super local flavours

Advocating farm-to-table dining, putting an elegant spin on hawker staples, and bringing back childhood favourites - these three Singapore chefs are going back to their roots, in every sense of the word
 

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Ng Say Lee

 

It's not just in the spirit of National Day that these Singapore chefs whip up dishes centred around local flavours. They're Singaporeans and proud of it

1. The comfort food connoisseur: Justin Quek, chef-owner of JustIN

Justin Quek wants to do Singapore classics - but with oomph. That means Hokkien noodles tossed with Maine lobsters, sweet and sour Iberico pork, and kaya toast made with French butter on brioche bread, all of which you can taste at his eponymous eatery Justin, which opened in May.

The 56-year-old celebrity chef has worked in the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurants in France, co-founded Les Amis here, and won awards for his Franco-Asian cooking. So why is an industry veteran with more than three decades of fine French cooking under his belt churning out hawker favourites and zi char instead? Simply put, he loves its familiarity. “If I have no time, I want to eat simple noodles at my go-to convenient place. I’m familiar with the taste and the vendor,” he says. That sense of comfort is exactly what he wants to replicate.

The get as close as he can to the taste of home, Chef Quek and his team eat as much local food as they can - at both restaurants and hawker centres. Some of his favourites include Sik Bao Sin at Geylang Road, Ah Orh Seafood Restaurant at Jalan Bukit Merah, and Geylang Serai Food Market. “The taste, the texture - we analyse everything,” he says.

 

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Ng Say Lee

For Chef Quek, it’s about putting more thought into how to elevate and distinguish a familiar favourite. “I’m about bringing Singapore food to the next level using premium ingredients and technique. I’m applying what I’ve learnt over the years to Singapore cuisine and my strength is in balancing European and Asian flavours,” he says.

His signature lobster Hokkien mee is one example. “We make the broth with lobster heads, pork bones, Spanish pork belly, and don’t rely on MSG,” says Chef Quek. Same for the green mango salad inspired by rojak. “Instead of prawn paste, we use fish sauce which won’t overpower the dish. But we also retain the acidity, the sweetness, the fragrance from the torch ginger flower, and the peanuts,” he adds, pointing out that his take makes it more of a European salad.

And in keeping with the Singapore spirit, Chef Quek is all about good food without burnng a major hole in your pocket. Breakfast starts from $8, lunch from $12, and dinner from $25. Sweet.

Address: Justin, L1-83 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands; Tel: +65-6688-7722; Opening hours: 10am-11.30pm (weekdays), 9am-11.30pm (weekends)

 

2. The locavore: Han Li Guang, chef-owner of Labyrinth

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Shan

At Michelin-starred Labyrinth, the duck liver pate isn’t imported from France. Rather, it comes from ducks reared by Singapore’s Toh Thye San Farm (which raises the ducks just across the Causeway in Malaysia). Similarly, the sweet and plump mussels and clams dont come from the coasts of Japan, the US or Australia, but from Ah Hua Kelong - located off Changi and Sembawang. “I realised only about a year ago that Singapore is home to the tastiest shellfish in the world,” says chef-owner Han Li Guang.

It was after tasting the molluscs that Chef Han realised Singapore-made produce simply wasn’t getting the credit it deserved. This explains why 80 per cent of the produce used at Labyrinth is locally sourced - from places like Hay Dairies and Nippon Koi Farm. He hopes that by introducing diners to local produce, they’ll realise what they’ve been missing out on. “We’re comfortable in Singapore, having access to seafood from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, for instance. And most of us grew up in urban areas and not the woodlands,” he says.

 

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Shan

Chef Han has big plans for Labyrinth that aren’t confined to just defining local cuisine. More than that, he wants to put Singapore on the map. Just like how Rene Redzepi - with his commitment to focusing on local and seasonal produce - revolutionised Nordic cuisine with Noma in Copenhagen. While Chef Han has already built a reputation for pushing boundaries with Labyrinth - thanks to its avant-garde interpretations of Singapore favourites - in recent years, he’s deepened his focus on using produce from local farms. “I’m just proud of what we have,” he says. “Growing good produce is 50 per cent of the work. Then chefs translate that work onto a plate.”

 

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Shan

Chef Han is also big on injecting as much authenticity as he can into his cooking. For example, by using a traditional oyster sauce made from scratch rather than from a bottle. The oyster sauce at Labyrinth is an 80-year-old recipe used in dishes like its caramelised abalone tart. The recipe calls for fresh and dried oysters to be slow-cooked and caramelised with natural sugars over three days. It’s a tedious process, but the outcome is worth it. “I thought to myself, ‘wow’,” recalls the 33-year-old. “The depth of flavour and umami made me understand what it means to taste oyster sauce.” For Chef Han, modern Singapore cuisine goes beyond just replicating hawker flavours. “It’s about using local ingredients and evoking memories,” he points out.

You might not guess, for example, that the duck liver pate (paired with waffles) actually pays homage to his favourite after-school childhood snack - waffles with jam and butter from Prima Deli Bakery. “Like the heartland snack, it’s more cake-like than its fluffy and crunchy Western counterpart,” he says. To recreate the “butter”, duck fat and duck liver are cooked together with chopped garlic, shallots and eight-year-old Shaoxing wine, then blended with cream and left to set. It’s served up with a jam that’s made from home-grown goji berries, for a truly local take - in every sense of the word.

Address: Labyrinth, #02-23 Esplanade Mall; Tel: +65-6223-4098; 12pm-2.30pm (Tuesdays - Fridays), pre-theatre menu starts at 6pm (Thursdays - Sundays), 6.30pm-11pm (Tuesdays - Sundays) 

 

3. The Heritage Hero: Pang Kok Keong, chef-owner of Pang’s Hakka Delicacies

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Shan

Pang Kok Keong is better known as the man behind Antoinette, and for its French inspired sweet treats like macarons and rose cake. But after more than 20 years dabbling in French cuisine, Chef Pang, 42, decided it was time to sink his teeth into the roots of the Hakka dialect group he belongs to. Earlier this year, he set up Pang’s Hakka Delicacies, cooking snacks from his childhood out of Antoinette’s Penhas Road kitchen which are then picked up by hungry customers in the back alley.

Other than Hakka yong tau foo, most dishes from this particular dialect group are foreign to many Singaporeans, says Chef Pang. He wants to change that with his daily menu of five Hakka staples that include a peppery suan pan zi - commonly known as “abacus seeds”. It’s a quintessential Hakka dish of yam “gnocchi”, shaped like ingots. Other items include mugwort kueh (a mugwort dumpling stuffed with radish, turnip and pork), yam cake, and mee tai mak - a noodle dish. Nostalgia for his mother’s cooking is the driving force behind this effort to recreate these traditional dishes.

 

Photography: Darren Chang; Art direction: Shan

Chef Pang has spent the last couple of years perfecting Hakka recipes - piecing them together from websites, books, conversations with his mother and, of course, his own memory.

Like cakes and bread, making Hakka kueh requires a great deal of precision, balancing the flour and starch perfectly so the kueh has the right amount of bounce and chewiness. “It’s difficult because you’re trying to get the cooks to understand what proper Hakka food tastes like when they have neither tried nor made such things before,” he says.

Order via WhatsApp (+65-9021-7507) only, at least one day in advance. Pickup is on weekends, 11am-1pm, at Antoinette, 30 Penhas Road. Check Facebook (Pang’s Hakka Delicacies) for updates.

ALSO READ: 4 HOT ASIAN CHEFS SHAKING UP SINGAPORE'S DINING SCENE

 

This story was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Her World.