At the recently concluded Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in Bangkok, one thing was clear: Asia and its cuisine are gaining traction in the global dining scene. It's not just Japan, which is in a class of its own - Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and the like are drawing global diners attracted to more than just noodles flash-fried at a street stall facing a throbbing traffic junction.
While much attention has been paid to the wonders of street food that Asia is famous for, the last decade or so has seen a gradual gentrification occurring at the same time, thanks to the growing number of fine dining restaurants, hipster cafes, modern bistros, bars and the like.
As Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang puts it: "We always say that in Singapore you can enjoy great food from S$5 to S$500. In Europe, you can't find S$5 street food that's as good as a S$500 restaurant. We have so much more range. Whether in Singapore, Shanghai, or Bangkok, all these great cities have a full range of selections and great food that you don't see elsewhere besides Asia."
Chef Chiang is the head of Restaurant Andre in Singapore, which recently snagged the No 2 spot on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, and also holds two Michelin stars in the inaugural Singapore guide.
Asia's 50 Best is a spin-off from the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Now in its fifth year, it has turned the spotlight on Asian restaurants, with those on the list registering immediate jumps in business and pedigree. Despite controversies over the voting process, it is still one of the most followed dining guides. With the addition of the Michelin guides in Asia (Thailand is set to be the next country to have a guide after Singapore), Asia is getting more screen time as a culinary destination.
"Asia is not neglected anymore. We are not just about a bowl of noodles," says Gaggan Anand, chef-owner of modern-Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok. The restaurant was named the top restaurant in Asia for the third year in a row. Thailand saw eight other restaurants on the list, while China, Japan and Singapore had nine each.
"Ten years ago, India, Thailand and Singapore were just 'one-dish' countries," says Chef Gaggan. "What is India? Chicken tikka masala. What is Thailand? Tom Yum Goong. What is Singapore? Chilli crab. But now, there's Peranakan cuisine, there's mod-Singaporean French cuisine. The evolution is happening."
He traces the evolution back 50 to 70 years, when a number of Asian countries first achieved independence. "Initially Asia was poor, then suddenly we became rich. We had credit cards, we started travelling to the West, and we started eating."
As palates became more educated and refined, the F&B industry followed suit.
Hong Kong-born chef Richie Lin observes: "With travelling being a lot easier, chefs are able to live or train abroad for a long time, then return to their home country. So the style of cuisine that results is very personal, yet very international."
Chef Lin runs Mume in Taiwan, which made its debut in Asia's 50 Best list this year at No 43. "I don't know if there's any fine dining scene in Taiwan. To be very honest it's a bit behind compared to Singapore or Hong Kong. Taiwan is a bit underrated, and it's not always the first pick as an Asian destination to visit."
He hopes to help change this, however, by continuing to showcase local produce in his restaurant. "I think we're slowly getting on the right path. Before, there was only one restaurant in Taiwan on the list, and now there are three. We're getting more attention, and I hope we can keep progressing," he says.
A Different Definition Of Fine Dining?
Dutch-born chef Eelke Plasmeijer of Locavore in Bali says: "In Indonesia, I think the closest thing we have to fine dining is if you go to the royal court of Yogyakarta, where the sultan still has a lot of influence. Even there, there might be fancy silverware, but the food is still very basic in the way it's put on the table and shared. So I don't think Indonesian fine dining exists."
In fact, Chef Pasmeijer questions if there's a need for Asia to have a fine dining reputation in the first place. "There are plenty of fancy hotels with fancy restaurants, but I think Asian food should be enjoyed in a casual environment. It's about a sharing concept, and to me that's always going to be casual," he says.
Chef Matt Abergel of Ronin and Yardbird in Hong Kong agrees. He feels that Asian food should be left the way it is, and celebrated for what it is. "To me, Asian food is family, and it's regional. Every country has its own food. There are more similarities between German and French food than between Indian and Chinese food. It has a much richer history, it's much more diverse."
He explains: "When you talk about European food, you're talking about mono-culture to an extent - predominantly white, and Christian, or Catholic. So the developing of their cuisine is faster because they have a fairly basic language. But in Asia, you have hundreds of languages, cultures, religions. There are so many culinary traditions that I have so much respect for."
Dharshan Munidasa of Ministry of Crab in Sri Lanka suggests that, given such differences, it's time to come up with Asia's own definition of the term.
"The concept of fine dining isn't necessarily bound by crisp tablecloths and stuffy waiters. It can mean sushi which you eat with your fingers, or teppanyaki which is cooked in front of you. It can also mean chopsticks instead of a fork and knife," he says.
"If you take great ingredients, treat them with sophistication and respect, that can also be fine dining. Going after the European model and trying to do it with Asian food will not work."
Mingoo Kang of the South Korean restaurant Mingles agrees. What's important to him is that a restaurant that calls itself "fine dining" should deliver an experience unique to that particular cuisine and its traditions.
"In our restaurant, the last main course we serve is a traditional Korean table tray with rice and soup and many side dishes. It's what we are known for, so it's important to have some national identity," he says.
Chef Kang observes that Korea's dining scene has been getting more and more vibrant recently, with many Korean chefs opening new restaurants. "The chefs keep the heritage of Korean food, and add their own experience from being outside Korea. So many foodies want to try this new type of cuisine, so they don't just spend money at European fine dining restaurants anymore, they also patronise Korean ones," he says.
Fellow Korean chef Jeongho Kim of Jungsik says that using more local produce and finer plating can help set themselves apart. For instance, his green tea mousse and peanut dessert Dol hareubang is artfully shaped like the stone symbol of Jeju Island in Korea, while his version of the classic Gujeolpan is visually and produce-wise much more refined than its traditional counterpart
Staying True To One's Roots
Chele Gonzalez of Gallery Vask in the Philippines cautions that whichever direction Asian food takes, it is important that it sticks to its roots. He is personally passionate about gastronomy, and makes it a point to dedicate resources into researching the history of Filipino cuisine.
He says: "Fine dining can exist, but it needs to exist alongside street food, because it has to grow up through street food. I think if the Asian fine dining scene wants to go to the next level, they need several restaurants to really investigate and have R&D departments focusing on gastronomy."
The transition from street food to fine dining also has its challenges, as modern-Singaporean cuisine chefs Willin Low of Wild Rocket and Han Li Guang of Restaurant Labyrinth have found.
Chef Han for instance, creates modern takes on local dishes, although they're not always accepted by the masses. One of his signature dishes is deconstructed chilli crab - featuring chilli crab ice cream - which sparked some debate. His repertoire also includes beef hor fun, Hainanese chicken rice, and bak chor mee.
It's not so much about re-inventing street food. Rather, Chef Han reckons that while Asian countries like Singapore are well-established in the street food scene, there's some value in developing a fine dining aspect as well.
"Look at London - they used to be known for just fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, and roast beef. Now look at what has become of them - they have so many high quality places. It doesn't mean that being known for street food means you cannot be a contender for fine dining as well. There's space for both to grow."
Making Their Mark
Of course, there are some hurdles for the Singapore fine dining scene to overcome, the main one being access to high quality fresh produce.
But Jason Tan of Corner House feels this can be turned to our advantage. "It means we work harder to create a dish with the ingredients we import, and come up with something more unique and distinct. It also encourages us to find passionate growers in Asia who would go the extra mile to give us better ingredients," he says.
The Singapore is also boosted by the arrival of foreign talent, namely western chefs who have moved here to start their own restaurants - bringing their own techniques and expertise in the process.
Ryan Clift of Tippling Club, for one, was born in the UK, but came to Singapore some 10 years ago. "I think now that Michelin is here, we'll see an even bigger influx of young Australian or English chefs looking to start their own restaurants. There seems to be a wealth of investment people here always keen to invest in high-end restaurants - that's a big attraction," he says.
Another draw for chefs like him, is that "in terms of produce, we're also able to get anything we want in this country, and as a chef that's very exciting."
The only thing he says is lacking here in Singapore, and other Asian countries for that matter, is service. He says: "Younger generations of Singaporeans don't see service as a career, but a part-time job. In Europe it's treated as a very serious career. That's the only area we need to improve on."
Australian chef Sam Aisbett also chose Singapore to open his own restaurant Whitegrass, after leaving his previous post as head chef of the well-known restaurant Quay in Sydney.
Comparing his experience in both countries, Chef Aisbett says the main thing he misses is being able to work directly with farmers. "You want to stand out, but it's challenging here because every restaurant can order the same thing from a big supplier. Whereas in countries like Australia or even Europe, you can go straight to a farmer, and get things grown locally and exclusively for you," he says.
JAAN's chef de cuisine Kirk Westaway suggests that while street food remains very much relevant for its availability, taste, and affordability, fine dining restaurants like his can eventually catch up.
"For Asia to make a more targeted move towards becoming the next fine dining capital of the world, there needs to be more conversations about what makes fine dining interesting. Beyond filling your stomach, it is also centered on the experience, so it's important to understand how fine dining dishes come to life, the stories behind the cuisines and the passion behind the people who create them," he explains.
Chef Han adds that for Singapore in particular, there's a need to "be proud of what we have - our history and tradition, even though it's short compared to other countries".
"Culinary schools could teach more Asian cooking instead of just French cooking. Because if you teach French food, then people come out knowing only that. But if we had more knowledge about our produce and embraced our techniques, then I would say we can start flying the local fine dining flag high."
Article first published on Business Times