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How To Reinvent Chinese Food

By Kames Narayanan

 
 

By some measure, most Singaporeans are befitting the title food connoisseurs. Growing up amidst a robust food scene, most claim the right of knowledge to quintessential local fare. The Singaporean culinary offering is best described as a melting pot of an array of cultures, primarily Chinese, Malay and Indian. 

Chinese cuisine, in particular, is considered to be the city’s most accessible and well-learnt. Its origins and influence, drawn from the different southern China provinces from which Singapore’s earliest migrants hailed from. For instance, the Hainanese chicken rice, as its name suggests, is adopted from Hainan, the southernmost province of China; bak kut teh, pork ribs (and meat) in broth believed to have originated from Fujian, China; and Hokkien noodles, from the Amoy and Fujian provinces in mainland China. 

These offerings have laid the foundation for what has come to be known as the archetypal Singaporean cuisine. However, the convoluted umbrella of Chinese cuisine far supersedes this familiar realm. In recent years, the vocabulary of these Eastern influences has been examined by a crop of young chefs. 

Reinventing the age-old cuisine typically takes culinary maestros down one of the two paths: applying new techniques to indispensable ingredients or amalgamating Eastern and Western influences. 

The newfangled approach to Chinese cuisine widens diners perspective of what it has long been understood as. Taken out of traditional coffee houses and oriental restaurants, the familiar flavour profiles are presented in contemporary settings and novel combinations. In the culinary practice, where of late the word fusion has been thrown around so carelessly, the East meets West proposition inherently raises a few eyebrows. 

Chef Woo Wai Leong, the winner of the inaugural Masterchef Asia (in 2015), and chef-owner of Restaurant Ibid, offers a comprehensive understanding of the trend. “I would say that Fusion (with a big F) is reminiscent of a period in gastronomy where some terrible things were being plated. I remember a dish that just summed up that period for me — a beautiful filet mignon that was served with buttered vegetables and doused in a char siew sauce that tasted like it came from a bottle, not very good eats,” recalls Woo. 

“However, fusion (with a small F) is a good descriptor of what’s happening in many countries today. Many young chefs who trained up in a very Western culinary tradition are starting to embrace the uniqueness of their indigenous cultures and melding the different influences with a deft hand, a good dose of common sense and a level of maturity that results in some really mind-blowing dishes. I don’t believe there’s any one true approach to correctly balance authenticity and innovation. Just do what you do and let your guests guide your hand in what works for you and what works for them,” he says. 

Food, known to evolve with the cultures it originates from, today, veers away from stringent allegiances to authenticity. Particularly, the boundaries of Chinese fare, that has earned a reputation for being a stickler to tradition, are increasingly being tested. 

“The definition of authenticity in food is quite fluid. Cuisine, like culture, evolves with time and influences. What is considered authentic here and now for us could well be considered inauthentic given another place and time,” shares Abel Su of restaurant Magic Square

While the local culinary scene may seem saturated with contemporary Chinese establishments, a new generation of chefs who have launched their own investigations into the age-old Chinese cuisine bear the promise of reinvigorating the scene.

Portrait of chef Woo Wai Leong; White radish bamboo shoot porridge.
Portrait of chef Woo Wai Leong; White radish bamboo shoot porridge.

Nanyang-Style Contemporary Chinese Cuisine

The Latin abbreviation ‘Ibid’, translates to ‘from the same source’, and as its name suggests, Restaurant Ibid, is deeply rooted in the cultural background of its chef. Its menu draws on Woo’s Nanyang (a sinocentric term that references the warmer and more fertile geographical regions in southern China) heritage and the Eastern and Western influence of his culinary background. 

“I slowly veered towards Chinese cuisine in the last four to five years because it was important to me that I understood the roots of my heritage. Chinese cuisine is something that so many people take for granted due to the high saturation of Chinese restaurants in Singapore,” says Woo. “I decided to look at Chinese cuisine through the lens of my own unique background — that of craft bartending, French and modern culinary techniques. I think something quite special came out of passing Chinese cuisine through that filter!” 

Befittingly housed on a street along which merchants once sold dried seafood, the restaurant’s interiors allude to a hodgepodge of influences. While its walls lined with wooden traditional Chinese medicine drawers share space with other Chinese accents that allude to its Chinoiserie theme, its cool colour palette and raised counter seats speak of a present-day appeal. 

Chef Woo’s menu, too, is anchored in a middle ground between the age old and the now. Coined Nanyang-style contemporary Chinese cuisine, most items on the restaurant’s menu begin from a key Chinese ingredient like tofu or a signature dish like scallion pancakes. 

“We wanted a tasting menu that had energy and life. A dish could start from a reference point like a pre-existing dish such as congee or drunken chicken, or it could also be birthed from Chinese culinary techniques like ‘oil-poaching’, or it could come from a particular Chinese ingredient that we want to use, and letting the dish naturally grow from there,” shares Woo.

Spring onion Shao Bing infused with laksa leaves; Soybean, pepper, almond and sesame dessert.
Spring onion Shao Bing infused with laksa leaves; Soybean, pepper, almond and sesame dessert.

Reimagined through Woo’s culinary prowess, tofu shows itself as a soy milk ice cream with sesame sponge concoction and traditional scallion pancakes, stuffed with spring onions, mozzarella and black pepper: a cross between traditional scallion pancakes and pizza. 

Meticulous in the experiences he puts forth, Woo designs tasting menus that encapsulate the essence of his cuisine. “A tasting menu allows the kitchen and service team to offer a beautiful dining experience that has been well thought- through, with a better sequence and a better pace than what one would get with an ala carte approach,” explains Woo. 

“It also allows us to be braver with our dishes as guests will have to stick to the menu that we have for that period. In return, guests will have an opportunity to try new things that they otherwise would not have had if they had full control over their menu choices,” he continues. 

Steering Restaurant Ibid ahead with a clear vision, Woo has an entire roster of changes in mind to better its dining experience. “I hope to tweak the menu format to make it more balanced and give it a better flow. I also want to start lunch and possibly brunch in the future, while hiring more team members. I want to also start looking at how to improve the drinks programme to possibly include cocktails, Chinese teas and craft coffee. So much to do! Slow and steady...” says Woo. 

Portrait of Abel Su; Marinated eggplant with grilled abalone miso mustard.
Portrait of Abel Su; Marinated eggplant with grilled abalone miso mustard.

A Twist On Singaporean-Chinese Fare

There are a few specific flavour profiles that come to mind at the mention of Singaporean Chinese cuisine. The acidic punch of garlic chilli sauce, the synthesis between the sweet and savoury in soya sauce and the rich flavour of herbal marinates and garnishes. These distinctive building blocks are the starting point for the dishes chef Abel Su creates at restaurant Magic Square

Su is one of the three chefs on rotation at Magic Square, a 12 month-long pop-up restaurant concept, discretely tucked away in the western part of the city. While his fellow chefs who helm the kitchen are no stranger to Peranakan and Malay cuisine, the Odette-trained Su’s nine-course menu dives into a familiar taste. 

“A lot of the inspiration behind my menu for Magic Square came from taking a closer look at ingredients commonly used in Chinese cuisine and refining the flavours using the principles and skills I learned from my mentors,” shares Su. 

Su’s menu hits close to home as familiar local grub like duck liver and claypot rice are presented as a fine-dining meal. “A dessert of purple sweet potatoes (the structure of this specific potato is different from the standard orange sweet potato, and the colour is brilliant) and jasmine rice combines two humble staples of Singaporean- Chinese cuisine,” says Su, breaking down his dessert offering at the restaurant. 

“The potatoes are confit in a syrup and fried to obtain a brittle crust, while the rice is cooked to the texture of an anglaise (French for English cream) with milk, and infused with malted barley. The dessert is finished with a light caramel infused with the skins of the sweet potatoes and seasoned with a special vinegar from Wakayama, Japan,” he explains.

Seared squid with okra, spring onion puree and an intense reduction of langoustine heads; Oolong sorbet with lychees.
Seared squid with okra, spring onion puree and an intense reduction of langoustine heads; Oolong sorbet with lychees.

Despite having conceived a menu that is so deeply rooted in Singaporean cuisine, Su explains that his intent was far from creating Chinese fusion food. “I think that at heart, the dishes have to feel inherently Chinese. I did not set out to create Chinese Fusion food, but rather to present a refined and modern expression of the comforting Singapore-Chinese flavours which we all love,” says Su. 

“While the dish presentation might not be consistent with what the traditional Chinese restaurants are serving, I’m trying to present the flavours in a way that will resonate with the diners, evoking a sense of nostalgia but also surprise,” he continues. 

Beyond his tenure at Magic Square, Su steers his career trajectory with the intent of imbuing a deeper appreciation for Singaporean- Chinese culture. “I am excited to delve deeper into my heritage and redefine what it means to cook like a Singaporean by applying the finesse learnt from my Modern European training,” shares Su. 

As culinary geniuses like Su continue to challenge the conventions of Chinese cuisine, what was once regarded inferior to its Western counterpart may not hold the status quo for long. “It is about having a means to reconnect with our roots while reclaiming our place in the Singapore dining scene,” explains Su. 

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