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CULTURAL APPROPRIATION IS alive and well in Singapore and nowhere is it more evident than during the lunar new year, when the Chinese aren’t the only ones tossing vegetables and yelling “Huat ah!”. From Italian octopus yusheng to suckling pig brined in citrus and herbs, reunion dinners are no longer limited to Chinese restaurants.
Purists may scoff at what they see as opportunistic ‘cashing in’ on a lucrative festive season, but it’s not necessarily so. If anything, it’s a reflection of how foreign-born chefs have immersed themselves in local culture and its ingredients, and in the process developed a unique cuisine that reflects both personal style as well as a sense of place.
Melting pot of ideas
Take Australian chef Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends, who hasn’t just garnered one Michelin star in Singapore, he even opened a hawker stall in Makansutra’s Gluttons Bay serving dishes like smoked suckling pig with glutinous rice and XO sauce.
“Being in Singapore gives you access to so much amazing food, not just here but also the surrounding region, which is very easy to access,” says chef Pynt. “Living here has opened up a lot of techniques, methods and flavour profiles. I am lucky enough to be in this melting pot and being influenced by such amazing diversity.”
For chef Pynt, Chinese New Year is all about “mandarin oranges and lo hei”, which prompted him to dream up sweet treats such as Smoked Mandarin Jujubes and Mandarin Sorbet and White Chocolate Mousse at Burnt Ends. He’s even developed a taste for buah keluak, which features in a pork belly dish he serves at his Gluttons Bay Meatsmith stall.
For Ivan Brehm, the Brazilian-born chef-owner of Nouri, being in Asia is key to his cooking philosophy that is built upon the idea of cultural crossroads - where a dish you think might be specific to one culture actually has links to more diverse societies than you think.
“Living in Singapore hasn’t just enriched my lexicon but also confirms the premise that culturally, people share a lot more than they think they do,” says chef Brehm. “The history of Southeast Asia is also my country’s history, and that of other regions.”
Besides, he adds, to believe that cultural appropriation is a negative thing is to be ignorant of how cultures evolve in the first place. “Without assimilation, Italy would be without pizza, Japan without sushi and tempura, and Singapore without chicken rice.”
“I love the fact that the lines are so blurred these days – you don’t have to be a Chinese restaurant to use Chinese ingredients,” says Drew Nocente, chef-owner of Salted and Hung. “Being submerged in Singapore culture has helped me to grow as a chef, learning to adjust the flavours to suit the local taste buds and culture.” So much so that he’s been turning out his own version of CNY specials since 2017.
“As long as there is a certain level of respect and in-depth understanding for the cuisine of cultures that are not their own, chefs can be seen as ambassadors of the culture they’ve chosen to represent more than anything else,” says Kirk Westaway of the one-starred Jaan, who has learnt to work with local spices which lend a subtle complexity to his food.
Besides foreign chefs, Asian chefs who’ve never worked in a traditional Chinese kitchen are also combining their western training and ethnic culture to interpret new year classics in a different way.
But is there a risk of ‘westernizing’ Asian and Chinese dishes to the point that it becomes awkward fusion?
“There is no right or wrong way to do this,” says Han Li Guang, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Labyrinth, who moved from Neo-Sin to embracing the locavore movement.
He points out that there are many Chinese chefs who embrace Western techniques and produce (like foie gras) and succeed in bringing the two elements together. By the same token, there are also chefs who lack a depth of knowledge and fail to convince.
“When I create a dish, I always ask myself: Why am I doing this? How do I make it better?” says Archan Chan, Executive Chef of LeVeL33.
“Dishes won’t work if I use an ingredient just for the sake of using it. It has to make sense in terms of the cooking steps and the flavours.”
There are a few fundamental elements to follow, explains Koo Jee, pastry chef at SKAI. They are: taste, technique, presentation and concept. “Personally, I focus on taste, especially the texture and aroma. When I incorporate new techniques and concepts from my Western training, I do it to elevate the foundation I already have. The rest of the cuisine will then naturally come together,” she says.
Chef Han does not think it is that important to differentiate whether the technique is Western or Chinese or Asian as there are so many similar techniques between cultures and many dishes that share similar traits.
“What is most important is to fully understand the techniques and have the knowledge of ingredients to create dishes based on your memories and in your own style. Over the years I have moved towards traditional Chinese cuisine, going deeper into lost recipes and making our own traditional sauces from scratch. And I find that when you fuse elements together it cannot be for the sake of being creative and special. It has to be because the combination works. At the end of the day, it is the skill and techniques of the chef that counts.”
And regardless of whether the chef is Asian or Western, Chinese New Year feasting has gotten a whole lot more interesting.
Read more: Lo Hei Redux