Sugar, Spice and a Story: Our Singaporean Chefs Share Their Favourite Recipes

A new generation of chefs redefining Singaporean food

“Food and love goes across all boundaries, regardless of culture.”

You can tell a lot about a person from what they cook — if they lean towards bland or savoury, whether they can eat spicy, even what food they grew up eating.

But have we ever, after tasting the first spoonful of curry from our neighbour aunty, felt curious about where she learnt to make it? Or what this curry tells you about her story?

Living in Singapore, where cultures blend in a melting pot and cook up plenty of uniquely intercultural dishes (Rojak, anyone?), there’s a rich story to be told with every dish. It’s history, culture, generations of family warmth, hardship and soul put together in a delicious diary waiting to be opened.This month, we sit with 10 Singaporean chefs to try their food and uncover their favourite recipes. With happy and full tummies, we lift the curtain beyond just cooking methods to find the heart of the recipe, the relationships that the food represents and a deeper understanding of the cultures and people here in Singapore.

Now chefs, it’s Over To You.

I cook because it reminds me of the memories I made with family

Sometimes, tasting something we haven’t had in a while brings back a flood of memories. That was the case for this writer and a bowl of Janggut Laksa — with the first bite of warm, coconut broth, I was transported to 15 years back, where I would stuff my face with Laksa, get lost in the maze that is Queensway Shopping Centre, and shop for a new pair of shoes to wear every Chinese New Year.

For Sarah Huang Benjamin, the dish that unlocked those memories for her was Traditional Hakka Abacus Seeds (or Suan Pan Zi). This reminds Sarah of her childhood days, when she would sit on the kitchen floor with her Yi Poh (Grandaunt) and Jie Jie (Helper), laughing as she rolled out plates after plates of Abacus seeds.

Sarah’s background is diverse. Her Dad hails from Britain, and Mom is Hakka, Hokkien, and Peranakan-mixed. To her, mastering Suan Pan Zi, a traditional Hakka dish, means a lot more than being a good cook — it’s how she wins hearts and receives the stamp of approval from older relatives, who affirm her identity as Chinese.

For Mint, cooking up a plate of his very own comfort food in the form of Sambal Sardine Cili Api is his way of looking back on simpler times with his family. Mint is a quarter Indian, quarter Chinese, and quarter Javanese Malay (he doesn’t know what the last quarter is), and his dish of choice interestingly has components from each of those cultures.

Belacan, Dried Shrimp and Shallots are from the Malays, Curry Leaves are from the Indians and Ginger Flower from the Chinese. Though these ingredients all hail from different places, they come together to elevate this simple dish.

Mint believes in the ability of food to bring people together. “Where you can see Singaporeans bonding, it’s always over food… That’s what makes us Singaporean.” He hopes that his recipes will bring people together, to simpler times, dining with family, to show that food and love transcend all boundaries, regardless of culture.

Ritz also showed us a recipe that parallels his heritage, with his Thai Jade Noodles dish. Half Singaporean-Chinese and half Thai, Ritz’s Thai Jade Noodles are a cross between Bak Chor Mee and Thai Boat Noodles.

The creator of this recipe is no other than Ritz’s mom, a Thai who immigrated to Singapore when Ritz was just a child. Ritz and his siblings loved Bak Chor Mee, but she was unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine and substituted some of the ingredients for others she knew. Needless to say, it was a hit and still remains as Ritz’s comfort food even today, a good 20 years later.

Ritz’s a big fan of experimenting with flavours and loves pushing the boundaries of where his dishes can go. For him, the tension lies in balancing new ways to make variations to a dish and yet allowing it to stay true to its roots. But he encourages Singaporeans to experiment and explore the world of flavours, especially food hailing from other cultures. “The world is your oyster.”

I cook to experiment with food from other cultures

Executive Chef Eric Cheam loves innovating and coming up with new culinary creations. For Eric, experimenting with food was something born out of necessity, when he had to cook Chinese-style staff meals in an Italian restaurant. Naturally, he began substituting one ingredient for another, leading to one of his proudest creations, the River Scampi Squid Ink Fried Bee Hoon.

The inspiration for this dish came to Eric when he worked in an Italian fine-dining restaurant. He knew that Risotto, a warm Italian dish cooked with broth, was the comfort food of the Italians, and decided to zhng it by swapping out the Rice for Bee Hoon, the Asian comfort-carb.

He encourages young Singaporean chefs to be bold with their creations and not hesitate to add a twist from other cultures into their cooking. “This gives us a good opportunity to bring the food to a bigger stage… and open the doors to two different kinds of worlds [and their cultures].”

For Shansyder (Sharmee for short), experimenting with food from other cultures came from wanting to try her hand at something different from what was usually served for dinner. While her Mother would usually cook certain Malay dishes on repeat, Sharmee decided to experiment with another cuisine and made her very first Mac and Cheese — to which her Mom asked if she could have with a side of Belacan.

Her next creations include the Spicy Salted Egg Yolk Pasta, which uses ingredients from different communities and cuisines in Singapore — Salted Egg Yolk commonly spotted in Chinese Zi Char restaurants, Chilli Padi commonly found in Malay dishes, and Curry Leaves which are prominent in Indian cuisine. Sharmee also takes a common way of cooking in Indian cuisine, “Takta”, where one would add the aromatics after cooking the main Curry or gravy dish.

After hearing too many tales of friends longing for home-cooked food while living abroad, she hopes that all Singaporeans would learn to cook at least 3 basic Singaporean dishes, (preferably, all from different cultures!) so they can bring along that piece of Singapore as they travel around the world.

I cook to share my culture with others

Krisada, a Hokkien-Peranakan, also believes in cooking as a way to preserve culture and heritage. When he realised that his Peranakan classmates did not know much about their culture, he felt the calling to document everything he could about the culture. Hence the birth of All Things Peranakan, an Instagram page sharing stories of food, cultures and people.

Krisada’s dish of choice was Sambal Satay, which was the first rempah dish he ever ate, courtesy of his grandmother. This dish is homey and familiar to many Peranakans, and the ingredients used testify to Singapore’s mix of cultures — where else would you see Rempah and Belacan used together, showcasing the Malay influence on Peranakan cooking?

This very mix of cultures is pivotal to Krisada’s heritage as a Peranakan, and is something he is grateful for. “As Singaporeans, we should not take for granted [the] access to other types of cuisine. [We should] appreciate and understand other cultures better.”

For the mother-daughter duo at Spice Zi Kitchen, hospitality was what drove them to share what they knew about their culture with others. Hospitality from neighbours was what introduced Zaithoon (Mama Zi) and Taahira’s (Baby T) ancestors to Singapore cuisine, leading to the birth of Paal Mee Siam (Vermicelli Noodles with Coconut Milk).

This fusion dish was born out of Zaithoon’s grandmother’s experimentation in her canteen, with the Vermicelli from Chinese cuisine, and Sweet Chilli, a rendition from Nasi Lemak. Paal Mee Siam quickly gained popularity and became a household staple.

Spice Zi Kitchen started as an act of appreciation for a Ugandan family, where the pair ventured to a local supermarket and taught the family how to cook up a Singaporean dish. That was an eye-opening experience for both mother and daughter, who thought that sharing their culture with others was something they wanted to keep doing.

Fast forward a few years, groups of students from all backgrounds come to Zaithoon’s home, trying their hand at cooking Indian-Muslim cuisine while learning more about their culture.

Taahira now lives overseas and while making the transition, she had to find her identity beyond the cultural and ethnic markers previously made known to her. She encourages others to learn more about themselves and dig deep into their heritage to realise who they truly are.

I cook because it's a way of reconnecting with my culture and heritage

For others, cooking specific dishes is a means of reconnecting with traditions and lifestyles lived through past generations.

That’s the case for Firdaus, who serves up a mean Gulai Nenas Ikan Libam (Fish Curry with Pineapple). The recipe is from his great-grandmother.

Firdaus comes from a line of Orang Laut, Singapore’s aboriginal people. Since he was two, Firdaus lived on the southern islands in Singapore, until Pulau Semakau was converted to the landfill we know today. Living on the island was a memorable experience, allowing Firdaus opportunities to pick up fishing, connect with nature, and rediscover his heritage through the lifestyle of the people.

Moving to mainland Singapore proved a completely different experience, making it difficult for Firdaus to reconnect to his culture. But he does what he can to reclaim his story. “Right now, we don’t have our islands, but we do have things like food that are intact.” Cooking up dishes like Gulai Nenas Ikan Libam, where one can taste the natural sweetness of the fish, allows him to reflect back on island life, where cooking was simple and done in a way to bring out the best in its ingredients.

For Khalil, a professional chef by training, the realisation that food is a way of connecting with one’s culture and heritage only dawned upon him a little later in life, when he was in his twenties. The epiphany hit when his mentor, an Egyptian chef, asked him if he could cook his traditional cuisine. Stunned, Khalil did not know how to answer — back then, young chefs were only trained in European cuisine.

That’s when his mentor uttered the words that stuck with him for life, “No matter where you go, you must never forget how to cook your family recipe.” That became a turning point in Khalil’s career.

He was then implored to dig into a recipe that represents his unique heritage. Being half Indian, a quarter Chinese and a quarter Arab, Khalil used some imagination and a lot of experimentation to cook up his rendition of Mediterranean Chicken Stew with Couscous. 

The dish itself is of Arabian descent, but Khalil prepared the Couscous by soaking it in a mix of garlic, ginger and chicken stock, similar to Hainanese Chicken Rice, and the Chicken Marinade has more Indian influence, consisting of meat curry powder, citrus juices and yoghurt.

What makes Khalil happy is seeing younger chefs go back to their roots and utilise ingredients from their heritage in their cooking. “I think that helps a lot in preserving our heritage for the future generation, [so] it will never be forgotten.”

Chef Damian D’Silva also sees cooking as a way of connecting with one’s culture and heritage. Growing up in a mixed heritage home, Damian picked up cooking at a young age, from his grandfather, who he affectionately calls ‘Pop’.

But helping his granddad in the kitchen with the slicing and peeling was not something he was too pleased about as a young boy, who wanted to go out and play with his friends. That was until Damian realised that Pop wasn’t going to be around forever, and that when he passed on, there won’t be anyone to carry on cooking the dishes he grew up with. That’s when Damian made the decision that would impact his life forever — “Pop, can you teach me?”  

Why did Damian choose Chicken Curry? Well, he realised that we don’t only have one type of curry in Singapore, and his Chicken Curry puts together all the different elements of diverse heritages, reflective of his own mixed lineage.

To him, this Chicken Curry is so much more than just his comfort food, but a way of grounding him with his identity. He puts it poignantly, “If you say I am Hokkien, but I don’t speak Hokkien, and I don’t know anything about Hokkien cuisine, then where is the heritage in you? Where is the heart in who you are?”

our shared story in food

“With food, all your differences should be left outside the table. It should be with heart that you come together and share, irrespective of your race, language and religion.”

That was how Chef Damian ended his interview, and I couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day, it’s food that brings us together. In Singapore, we have the precious privilege of having food that borrows elements from different cultures — and it makes every dish that much more delicious.

Chef Damian leaves us with another piece of wisdom, “When your friends come to your home, and there’s a whole spread, before you eat, take the time to say, ‘This is my grandmother’s dish.’ Tell the story. Start the conversation.”

That’s something we’ll keep doing.

More of what you might like:

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