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WE all know that cooking can be tricky, but did you ever imagine it to be so challenging that you'd need to call an engineer, the Civil Defence Force, and even the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to help you figure it out? Chef SR Bala will be enlisting their help while attempting to break two Guinness World Records for Indian food festival Suvai 2015 as part of this year's Singapore Food Festival (SFF). One record is for the Largest Cooking Vessel, and the other is for the Largest Curry in the World.
The preparations for the 15-tonne vegetable curry are well underway by now, and the 41-year-old says: "We had to work with professional engineers and the Civil Defence Force to see how many stoves we needed to install for the gravy to boil and how long it would take overall. It's been a huge learning experience because you have to get into these minor details because you want everything to go well."
Other technical calculations needed to be done were how many BTUs (British Thermal Units) were required to cook the curry and how long it would take to fill up an 11-metre curry pot with 18 tonnes of water. For that, the PUB figured that the vessel could be filled at a rate of seven tonnes of water per hour.
President of the Indian Chefs and Culinary Association, Chef Bala has been involved with the Singapore Food Festival since 2012. He notes: "I think SFF has grown over the past few years, and they're bringing out more local talents and giving them importance instead of chefs who come from abroad. A lot of good chefs don't get exposure, and one of the main reasons I got involved is to inspire more interest in the local Indian culinary scene."
The former teacher traded in his red pen for a spatula in 1999, following in the footsteps of his father, who has had a 38-year-long career in the food industry. He hasn't lost his interest in teaching, however, and laments the fact that "people only think of roti prata and fish head curry when you mention Indian food in Singapore".
Through Suvai 2015, which will be held in the open field on Tan Quee Lan Street from July 30 to Aug 2, he intends on raising awareness that there's more to it, and to help demonstrate that Indian food is for everyone. Chefs of other ethnic origins will also be coming on board to serve their interpretations of Indian dishes.
Window to the world
Some dishes to look forward to at Suvai 2015 are Masala Slushies, Spiced Lemon Yoghurt Chicken Wings, and Paayasam Pannacotta with Nitrogen Frozen Berries. Unlike previous years, the festival will be free admittance, as Chef Bala believes charging people for an event focused on raising awareness defeats the purpose at hand.
Another highlight of the SFF 2015 is Living Culinary Treasures by Chef Violet Oon. The 66-year-old savant of traditional cooking will be sharing Singaporean family recipes and cooking techniques that have been handed down through the generations.
The former food journalist says: "When I was a writer, you didn't have Google or the Internet, and you had to be the window to the world for your readers. I started asking chefs and housewives alike to teach me how to cook, and I would share the recipes with my readers."
In fact, she says: "I don't create recipes, I collate and curate them. I still have time to create recipes, but if I don't curate them, they'll be lost, and I want to know how to make things exactly the way they're supposed to be made."
Amongst the many things she discovered, Chef Oon found that each culture has a different cooking technique, and "you have to cook according to the culture of the dish you're making, or you'll end up with every dish tasting the same. It isn't just the ingredients that matter, it's also the methodology."
She attributes her interest in traditional cooking and recipes to her many years as a journalist, saying: "You're not just curious about whether a dish tastes good, you want to know where it comes from, and what it represents, too."
In her series of eight workshops which will be held at her recently renovated restaurant Violet Oon Singapore, Chef Oon will be sharing some of her discoveries with attendees, ranging from how to wrap a proper ketupat, all the way to tossing a roti prata into the air with a face towel. She says: "A lot of our local culinary students go and learn how to make puff pastry, but to me, the ultimate puff pastry is roti prata. It's as good as a French mille-feuille, and requires more skill to make. I think Asians don't realise the treasures we have because they're available all the time."
Chef Oon is especially looking forward to this year's SFF because it not only marks the country's 50 years of independence, but is also the 50th anniversary of when she first started cooking.
Beginnings of a career
She recalls: "Back in 1965, my family and I had just moved back home and we were staying with my grand-aunt while waiting for our house to be built. Being Indonesian-Chinese, she used to make her own yeast and vinegar, and I asked her to teach me because I was fascinated by it. That's how I started."
For more information on these and other events for SFF 2015, please visit www.singaporefoodfestival.com