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Streat food for the ages
BUMP into a Singaporean overseas and their one lament is usually along the lines of "I love being out of Singapore, but I really miss my chicken rice!" So it comes as no big surprise that second only to being a country where chewing gum is banned, hawker food is what we're best known for.
With that in mind, it seems a no-brainer that the upcoming signature event of the Singapore Food Festival, Streat, will highlight hawker dishes - with some familiar tastes and other re-imagined ones.
Ranita Sundra, director of Attractions, Dining and Retail at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), says: "After 23 years, the Singapore Food Festival is still the only one that features local flavours and showcases the inventive sprit of our ever-evolving food scene."
The 12 stalls taking part in Streat 2016 have been curated by celebrity chef Susur Lee, who was also a judge on Masterchef Asia this year, along with chef-owner Han Liguang of Mod-Sin Restaurant Labyrinth and Tunglok Heen's senior executive chef Ken Ling.
Chef Lee says: "My favourite thing about coming to Singapore, which I do a couple of times a year, is getting to eat the street food. If I haven't had it, it feels like I never came. When STB asked if I'd be involved, I jumped at it because it's a matter so close to my heart. Or stomach, rather."
Streat will comprise a five-course, six-hands dinner menu conceptualised by chefs Lee, Han and Ling as well as creations from other Singaporean establishments like Candlenut, The Disgruntled Chef, Char and Casuarina Curry Restaurant.
Last year's Streat featured chef Justin Quek of Sky on 57 who installed a three-course dinner menu which was priced at S$35 a head. This year, the five-course menu will go for S$40.
Chef Lee reveals: "It took about two months to decide on the menu for the six-hands dinner because we wanted to serve dishes that stayed true to the overall festival's theme of 'Savour the Past, Taste the Future'. Our focus was on giving people the flavours they're familiar with, but in an inventive way. Of course, it helped that chef Han's restaurant is known for its modern interpretations of traditional local dishes."
For example, one of the courses is Laksa Cheong Fun. Instead of using normal stock, the dish's base will be clam juice, sweetened with coconut milk, and rolled inside a tofu skin topped with shrimp mousse and bean sprouts.
Another recipe being updated is Bak Kut Teh. Traditionally served as a soup, this avatar will have flavoured jelly rubbed onto the rib instead and will be served alongside a mountain potato.
The Toronto resident explains: "When you close your eyes and taste the dish, you won't know that it's different from what you're used to because we place great importance on maintaining the integrity of its flavour. But when you open your eyes, you'll see that it's actually quite different."
There will also be a la carte items ranging in price from S$2 to S$12 like the classic Or Chien, an oyster omelette. Chef Lee, 58, will be presenting it as a spring roll.
He says: "The quality of ingredients is important too. Instead of using canned oysters, we're getting big ones from Ireland, and we're playing with the textures of the dish as well as uplifting its ingredients."
Although many people tout the importance of keeping tradition alive, and recreating recipes in exactly the same way everytime so as to not lose the dish's intrinsic value, chef Lee isn't one of them.
He explains: "Cuisine doesn't have to be about making original dishes or serving up the perfect heritage dish. Many dishes have been passed down for years and years but what people forget is that someone created them in the first place. It's our job as chefs to go back to what was and update it. Without progression like this, the entire industry could become stale."
He adds: "Who knows, maybe chef Han's signature chilli crab interpretation could become a traditional dish in the future."
The biggest challenge faced by the chefs in setting up this "pop-up restaurant" was maintaining the same high standards they hold themselves to in a traditional restaurant setting.
Chef Lee notes: "We have to set everything up the day before the event. It's almost like going camping because the grounds are empty and we have to set up electrical wiring and stoves which takes time. What's also important is the flow of the kitchen because we want people to be enjoying piping hot food served in good time. It's actually a performance in itself."
Even with the pressure associated with putting on an event like this, chef Lee is glad to be involved.
"Singapore is special in that you can taste food from so many different regions in single spots like Lau Pa Sat. I lived here 19 years ago, but now can't get the same flavours I used to have because some of those hawkers passed away without having anyone to take over their craft. We need to promote the culture as much as we can so it doesn't get lost," he points out.
- Streat will be held at Clifford Square on July 15 and 16 from 5pm to 10.30pm. Entry is free. For more information, please visit www.singaporefoodfestival.com