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Eat what, Singapore?
Save hawker food. Keep our char kway teow.
Much of the spotlight has thus far been on preserving our culinary heritage - persuading a younger generation to continue our precious hawker traditions. And yes, there has been some success - in the form of young hawkerpreneurs dedicated to creating the perfect bowl of fishball noodles in a sweaty coffee shop or equally stifling hipster food court.
While traditional foods have a solid foothold, the bigger challenge lies at the restaurant level, where a quieter wave of young chefs are slowly working to develop the national cuisine in a different way.
It started maybe 12 years ago, when the term 'Modern Singaporean' or Mod-Sin, was coined by local chef Willin Low to describe his cooking at his first restaurant venture Wild Rocket.
He says: "It started when I was studying in England and missed food from home but could never buy all the ingredients I wanted so I mixed and matched. The dishes never looked like Singapore food, but when I ate them, they reminded me of home. So when I opened Wild Rocket I said let's call it Mod-Sin because that's what it is, and I'm a modern Singaporean who loves local flavours but am no longer restricted by what our ancestors were restricted by."
The term has since stuck, as other Singaporean chefs played with the idea of fusing familiar dishes like chicken rice or nasi lemak with a modern Western aesthetic. While the success of Mod-Sin has been sporadic, it is a concept that is taking root as Singaporean chefs become confident enough to chart their own creative paths.
What is Mod-Sin exactly?
Jeremy Nguee, a chef who heads luxury catering company Preparazzi, believes Mod-Sin is an evolving conversation.
"It's not a style or a type of dish. It's about Singaporean chefs trying to find our identity and our voice," he says. "Our approach to food is a perfect exemplar of 'regardless of race, language or religion'. We assimilate different flavours from different cultures so easily and internalise them to such a degree that it becomes part of our own culture. I love pizza, I love durian, why not a durian pizza, so say the guys at Pezzo. We love our grandma's cooking, but we also love the stuff we grew up with like sushi and pizzas. Who we are, what we love to eat, cooking from our heart - they come together in this idea of 'the modern Singaporean'."
For instance, when Justin Foo wanted to open his own eatery, he put aside his French training to go back to his roots, with an eatery focused on claypot rice. Named Provisions, this new claypot rice and skewers bar opened at Dempsey in June, selling food in a modern setting with locally-inspired cocktails.
"Maybe I just cut my vegetables very finely, but other than that I don't use a lot of French techniques unless it really enhances my flavours," says Chef Foo. "If I were to compete on a French cuisine level, I believe it would be an uphill battle because I'm not French. It's not who I am. I'm Singaporean and proud of it. So I want to pay homage to that."
His philosophy is shared by Nixon Low, executive chef of the modern zi char restaurant Jiakpalang which also opened in June. He serves jazzed-up versions of traditional zi char dishes, some of which are slowly vanishing such as his bak kut teh jelly with yu tiao which is a rendition of the Teochew dish ter ka tang (pork trotter jelly).
"My way of creating Mod-Sin dishes is by keeping the flavour and soul the same. I think chefs have a responsibility to learn and understand these old recipes. That means asking questions, talking to the older generation, and finding out why things are done a certain way, then coming back and applying what we know," he says.
Inspiration and technique
It all boils down to whether there has been enough thought and heart put into the food. Otherwise, as Han Li Guang says, slapping together spaghetti and rempah under the 'Mod-Sin' label isn't just an excuse for bad food, it demeans the efforts of those trying to create a credible cuisine.
Chef Han helms the newly-minted one-Michelin-starred Restaurant Labyrinth, where he has made a name for himself by delving into traditional hawker dishes and presenting them on a fine-dining level.
His most famous dish is a chilli crab that has been on his menu since the restaurant started in 2014, re-interpreted as battered and fried soft-shell crab with a chilli crab ice cream. Though his avant garde style has ruffled some feathers, Chef Han is sticking to his guns and believes that this is a reflection of him as a chef.
"My dish explains to you how my brain works and who I am. What I put on a plate is what I experience, and feel. So people can copy my ice cream, sure, but it may not work as a standalone. It only works at Labyrinth because of the contrast of the overall dish. Why we are still around is because every dish goes through a careful thought process that comes from inspiration," he says.
Even with the right inspiration, can you get by without the right techniques? That's the question Lee Eng Su is asking.
He is the chef at the popular nasi lemak joint The Coconut Club at Ann Siang, where everything is made from scratch, and even coconut milk is all squeezed by hand.
"When I see people make a beef ragu with some espuma of kaffir lime, it makes me wonder, do they even know how to do a traditional rendang properly?" he says.
It's why he dedicated two years to learning how to make everything nasi lemak-related from the sambal to the rice, and even hunted down the best coconut he could find, before opening his restaurant. Though he has received flak for charging a bold S$12.80 per plate, the long queues that have formed outside his restaurant almost every day since it opened nine months ago speak for themselves.
"A lot of people say we're modernising nasi lemak, but we're actually doing something traditional. To us, that's the modern approach, because Singapore has gone down a factory path where a lot of things are mass-produced, and we're trying to take it on another road by cooking things properly, using good ingredients, and putting effort into the flavours. That is the new direction."
It's a different way of evolving that doesn't require a lot of looking to the West, he adds.
"Singapore as a culture, we're very good at copying other people's achievements. How that affects food is that if a local Singaporean wants to modernise what he does, he does espumas or spheres. These were invented in the West, and they take it to apply to our food. That's not modernisation, it's globalisation."
Chef Lee brings up the example of sushi, which has a history going back to second century A.D. when meat and fish were cured and wrapped in rice to preserve freshness through months of fermentation.
"Modern sushi evolved when they added vinegar to rice and it later became almost an art-form where it's hand-made. It's not something any other country was doing. Japan evolved it on their own," he says.
"I'd like to see techniques that come from ourselves. Deconstructing and reconstructing can't be all there is to it. Look at Americans and their BBQ. They try to perfect the kind of wood they use. I don't think they're trying to do espumas of BBQ sauce," he adds.
Introducing Mod-Sin to the world
Incorporating Western techniques isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if it helps introduce foreigners to our food.
In Taiwan, Singaporean chef Jimmy Lim opened a Mod-Sin fine dining restaurant called JL Studio earlier this year, selling dishes inspired by the likes of Hainanese chicken rice, kueh pie tee, and even bandung.
Any Singaporean who looks at his dishes will likely not be able to identify them because they look nothing like their hawker counterparts. But Chef Lim believes this format is necessary in order to break into the competitive F&B industry in Taichung.
"There were people doing this before me, doing traditional food, but they didn't do well. Because our food looks ordinary to them, much like theirs, except it's not their staple. So if you served say a regular kaya toast, it can't compete with their version which people there eat every day. It wouldn't be sustainable," he says.
With fine dining, he opens himself up to a different audience entirely - people who are looking for a dining experience, not just to fill up their stomachs.
"Eating feeds the stomach, and dining feeds the soul. So if a customer comes just to fill their stomach then what we do is hard to understand. If you want to be full, then you can eat anywhere, but we are offering a Mod-Sin experience."
He admits he is lucky in a way, because cooking for a foreign audience means meeting less resistance since they have no emotions attached to the food. They are free to appreciate the flavours for what they are, and some of his customers have even been inspired to make the trip to Singapore to try the original dishes.
Perhaps what we need is to realise is that there's value in giving people the space to be as creative as they want. As Dennis Chong of the mod-Sin restaurant CreatureS puts it: "For mod-Sin to be of true value to use as part of our unique culture and identity, it should be democratic and pervasive. Home cooks and restaurant chefs should be equally able to cook what they want, albeit with different levels of sophistication. I don't think there's a benchmark for Mod-Sin cuisine now and I'm happy that's how it is. This will allow Mod-Sin to evolve and people to innovate."
After all, Mod-Sin has already been evolving under our noses, whether we like it or not. Says Chef Lee of The Coconut Club: "My sambal has soy sauce which is not traditional. I know a good Indian caterer who uses dark soy sauce in his samosas. Some places have truffle in their wonton mee or poached eggs. You have marmite pork ribs now, white pepper crab - these are all modern Singaporean to me. They don't fit into the whole Andre Chiang kind of modern but it is a form of modernisation. I think hawkers and zi char restaurants have been modernising, but slowly. So it's seamless in the menu."
In fact, perhaps at some point, we might just have to accept that hawker dishes hardly exist in their traditional form. Instead, Mod-Sin versions might be more common.
"If 50 years down the road you want a plate of chicken rice, you might be limited to just a few distributors. Like McDonalds, we'll all be accustomed to that one taste. Except maybe a few places where one or two people will still stick to their roots. Even then, it might have already evolved so it wouldn't be in the same form as today," says Chef Low.
But ultimately, Chef Nguee believes that good food will prevail. The evolution of Mod-Sin - whether the dishes along the way are contrived or not - must happen in order for our cuisine to uncover its identity. He believes that naturally, even the worst versions of Mod-Sin dishes will end up sparking other food-obsessed Singaporeans to fight back by coming up with something they can be proud of instead.
He says: "If there's anything that has ever tied all of Singapore food together, it's the 'shiok' feeling you get. Eating a well-cooked steak may be good, but eating a good plate of char kway teow, or roti prata drowned in curry, that's the kind of thing that halts dinner conversations because you feel the need to pay full attention to your food. And that's the wonderful part of Singapore cuisine - it's always evolving, and always 'shiok'. When we realise this, then we can move forward."