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What To Do With Ginger – With PS Cafe's Chef Chris Phillips

By Guan Tan

 
Felicia Yap/Guan Tan/Carolyn Cheng
 

Ginger is an acquired taste. You'd be hard-pressed to find a toddler or child who lights up at the sight or whiff of ginger. Over the years, we gradually welcome hints of ginger into our plates. Everyone has it the same – PS Cafe's culinary director, Chef Chris Phillips included. 

"As I grew older, I appreciate [ginger] a lot more. My grandmother used to love caramelised ginger," the Australian quips. 

Phillips has been living in Singapore for the past decade. "Ginger is all the same, it's more accepted here obviously. People eat ginger. But in Australia, it's not as common." Garlic and Lemongrass are favoured over ginger. Phillips thinks he knows why people are hostile to the underground stem. It boils down to the longevity of ginger's spicy aftertaste. "[Like,] I can do durians. But it's six hours later when I can still taste it...," Phillips shakes his head violently. 

Tung PhamGinger sliced, and diced for Phillip's Ginger Crème Brûlée.
Ginger sliced, and diced for Phillip's Ginger Crème Brûlée.

When dissected, the notes of ginger are "peppery, [and] bitter". To Phillips, pepperiness is the point of ginger. It pierces through the heaviest flavours and textures, offering a lift to the densest dish. "Ginger can... take away the mundaneness of [a dish]. It just cuts through." 

While it's primarily used in Chinese dishes, like a ginger chicken or a beef, ginger and scallion stir-fry, Phillips thinks ginger complements heavy Western desserts. 

"We've done a lot of ginger puddings with Earl Grey," he recalls. 

"The brûlée custard, some people think it's a heavy, heavy cream [dessert]. [I've spent] ten years in Singapore, the word is jelat," he says the Singlish word carefully. "A lot of my guests are Asians. They are not heavy dessert eaters." 

To negate the weariness of heavy custards, and spruce up the humdrum crème brûlée, Phillips is injecting ginger. Its spicy notes are balanced with the smoky Chinese Lapsang Souchong tea. To him, a chef needs to "bring some local understanding" to foreign dishes. "You're doing an angmoh dessert but to [locals'] understanding." 

Tung PhamHere, Phillips is preparing the Ginger Brûlée Custard. Mix cream, egg yolks, white sugar, and diced ginger in a bowl.
Here, Phillips is preparing the Ginger Brûlée Custard. Mix cream, egg yolks, white sugar, and diced ginger in a bowl.

Ginger Crème Brûlée

Serves 6

Lapsang Souchang Caramel Base

20 grams Lapsang Tea Leaves (swap for your preferred tea)
200 millimetres Water
20 grams Ginger, diced finely
130 grams White Sugar

1. Boil tea leaves, water, sugar and ginger in a heavy-based pan for five minutes.
2. Strain tea leaves, and return liquid to the heat.
3. Reduce liquid until it reaches 110 degrees Celsius.
4. Remove from the heat and pour the toffee evenly into six ceramic ovenproof Brûlée moulds.
5. Place moulds in a deep ovenproof tray. Add room temperature water to the tray until the water level is halfway up the sides.
6. Set aside and allow to cool.

Tung PhamUsing a ladle, add mixture to the moulds until they are nearly full, about ½ cm from brim.
Using a ladle, add mixture to the moulds until they are nearly full, about ½ cm from brim.

Ginger Brûlèe Custard

600 grams Cream
12 Egg Yolks
120 grams White Sugar
20 grams Ginger, diced finely

1. Preheat oven to 120 degrees Celsius.
2. Place all the ingredients into a mixing bowl. Whisk until all ingredients are combined.
3. Using a ladle, add mixture to the moulds until they are nearly full about ½ cm from top.
4. Place the tray into the oven for approximately 30 to 35 minutes, until custard sets. To check if it's ready, pick one up with a cloth and gently move the mould from side to side. The mixture should move a little bit (similar to set jelly). If it still looks wet they require more time (do not turn the oven temperature up otherwise you will have scrambled eggs).
5. Once set, remove from oven and remove from the tray of water. Allow to cool for around 30 minutes.
6. Once cooled, let them set in the fridge for at least four hours.

Tung PhamPlace the tray into the oven for approximately 30 to 35 minutes, until custard sets. Here, Phillips is using a steamer.
Place the tray into the oven for approximately 30 to 35 minutes, until custard sets. Here, Phillips is using a steamer.

Torching & Garnish

1. To caramelise the sugar: Lightly sprinkle a thin layer of white sugar evenly on the custard. Using a gas torch, burn the sugar carefully. Don’t hold the flame too close as you only want to caramelise the sugar, not burn the sugar.

2. Garnish with mint leaves.

Tung PhamGinger Crème Brûlée by Chef Chris Phillips.
Ginger Crème Brûlée by Chef Chris Phillips.

Phillips and the team settled at a dining table. We gently scrapped our dessert spoons on the caramel surface. In my mind, I could hear Gordon Ramsay saying, "You can hear that on top? What does it sound like? Good and crusty." When we punctured the layer of glassy brown caramel, it exposed a beautiful, soft, pastel yellow custard lightly stained by the brown Lapsang Souchong base. It tasted like a traditional crème brûlée, yet with faint hints of spice and smokiness that you wouldn't be able to make out lest you knew the ingredients that went into it. Like a gripping page-turner book, we went for spoonfuls after another. The table went silent save for Phillips who animatedly chatted away.

Tung PhamAustralian-born Chef Chris Phillips poses in the PS Cafe Martin Road kitchen.
Australian-born Chef Chris Phillips poses in the PS Cafe Martin Road kitchen.

"That's the fun side [of cooking], understanding what the ingredient is," Phillips continues. "There is not much to discuss ginger. It's very unique. You can't put it on a shelf and say exactly what ginger is. It offers a major pop [that] no other ingredient offers." He's right. Think about it, there's no substitute for ginger in cooking. Phillips laughs as he recalls, when he received this challenge, "I [realised] I've done things with ginger, and I can do it. I said to my chef, 'Throw me a bone and I can make you a soup!'" 

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