While many restaurants in Singapore’s competitive dining landscape come and go, Morsels, an innovative Asian Fusion restaurant housed in a cosy barnyard cottage in Dempsey Hill, has stood the test of time.
The home-grown restaurant, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in January, is an under-the-radar gem. Despite being hidden off the main thoroughfare, this homey joint continues to welcome diners, who return for chef-owner Petrina Loh’s idiosyncratic cuisine that reflects her Singaporean heritage and love for fermented sauces and ingredients.
A fondness for fermentation
The 41-year-old has also accomplished the herculean task of keeping her modest restaurant relevant and appealing to the crowd amid the ebbs and flows of the restaurant industry.
Her secret? Embedding her identity as part of the restaurant’s brand. Even when she is absent, diners recognise all her long-time staff — some of whom have been with her for as long as six years. “It is like a family; every time you dine here, you feel at home,” she explains.
Loh’s cuisine incorporates many facets of her identity, which include a fondness for fermentation. She meticulously cultivates microorganisms such as lactic acid bacteria in pots on the kitchen counter for future use. In a world of relentless trends, she takes a retrospective approach to food.
“People don’t pay attention to soul food. But I think it’s important to go backwards,” Loh posits. “Fermentation goes back to the artisanal way of making things. It’s a troublesome technique and needs a lot of care, but it adds that umami that I am chasing without the monosodium glutamate.”
Chasing her culinary dreams
Food has always played an integral part in Loh’s life. Since her schooling days, Loh has been an avid lover of the culinary arts, learning the craft of cooking from her late father. However, she embraced the path of pragmatism, opting for a career in finance instead.
Loh’s turning point came in 2010, when she broke her scholarship bond with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to pursue her gastronomic passions. After a year of training at San Francisco’s Le Cordon Bleu and holding stints in restaurants such as State Bird Provisions and Spruce, Loh opened Morsels in Little India in 2013 with a small plates concept. Three years later, it moved to Dempsey, where it currently stands.
People don’t pay attention to soul food. But I think it’s important to go backwardsPetrina Loh
Loh recalls that the first five years were particularly trying, facing challenges such as the Little India riots and haze events that led to a drop in business. Regardless, she perseveres.
“My dream was to own a restaurant, and that kept me going. If I set out to do something, I’ll keep trying to make it work.” Following years of persistence, she finally hit pay dirt. Accolades such as Restaurant of the Year and Best Female Chef at the World Gourmet Summit soon followed.
Starting on a blank slate
To mark a decade in the business, Loh revamped the menu in April. Called Morsels 2.0, the menu pairs seasonal produce with her fermented sauces and ingredients. She has also taken signature dishes such as steamed venus clams, grilled octopus, and squid ink risotto served with salted egg sauce off the menu. While it is an audacious decision, Loh remains pertinacious. “If I don’t leave those dishes behind, I can’t spread my wings and keep innovating,” she explains.
Loh is also more confident about placing fermented and pickled flavours more prominently in her dishes. Previously, pickles were relegated to the side, but now they are incorporated into sauces. “People have a preconceived notion of pickles because they’re sour. I want people to have it together so they cannot avoid it,” she says with a laugh.
Take the Jeju abalone and sakura chicken course, for instance. Here, the piece de resistance is the four-year-old doenjang, a fermented soybean paste that Loh left to age in South Korea during the pandemic. The earthy sauce imparts depth and complexity to the abalone dish, which has a tender, almost buttery texture.
This year, she hopes to launch another three menus: summer, autumn, and winter. In addition to starting the tasting menu concept, she has started conducting private cooking classes at homes as well as catering food for events. Come July, she will also convert the kitchen counter to bar counter seats, where diners can have more interaction with the chefs.
“As long as I have an able body, I’ll still keep doing what I do, because cooking is my passion.”
This article was originally published in The Peak.