Singaporeans take their food seriously; suggest eating out and the discussion will range not just over which cuisine to choose – and this tiny island has them all, from hawker stalls to fine dining – but which restaurant is good for a particular dish.
Ever since Sir Thomas Stamford founded Singapore in 1819 for the East India Company it has been washed by the waves of countless cuisines and cultures. It has developed its own, but largely it has taken pleasure from playing the role of host.
The cliché about variety and the spice of life perhaps applies here more than anywhere else in the world, yet ironically, it encourages even greater caution in the local chefs and top chefs working there.
Peter Knipp, the German-born executive chef of Raffles who has been living in the East for the past 17 years, is certain there is such a thing as a successful combination of flavours from the world’s different kitchens. “But this success rests on a perfect understanding of how each individual cuisine has achieved fame.”
Singaporean Chinese Justin Quek – chef de cuisine at Les Amis, the most recent French restaurant to open in Singapore – is less sure: “My feeling is that food that has been introduced as ‘East-West cuisine’ does not have much of a following in Singapore. One is spoilt for choice as to whether to have an excellent Cantonese meal, or a superb Italian dinner. Customers tend to keep the delineations clear when deciding on the meal – East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”
He is from a traditional Chinese background, but is French-trained and now cooks French haute cuisine food, not Chinese.
French-born Daniel Galmiche, executive chef of the Duxton Hotel, an elegant small luxury establishment in Tanjong Pagar, is, like Peter Knipp, emphatic about the rules: “A marriage of the two can work if one does not lose sight of the reasons.”
These rules and reasons are nothing new. East has been meeting West since the opening of the spice trail: “Fusion cooking,” says Knipp, “has existed throughout the history of comestibles. Wasn’t sauerkraut adapted by the Europeans from a Chinese pickled cabbage dish? And the so-called traditional European gingerbread, prepared for Christmas celebrations – exactly how traditional is it, given that the vital ingredient, ginger, came from quite another part of the globe which Europeans only stumbled on in recent centuries?”
Often, it seems, chefs are happy to reach for the excitement of strange spices, ingredients or cooking methods without understanding the philosophy of the cuisine they seek to use. This lack of respect or knowledge can be dangerous and is one reason why we often have such a crude understanding of foreign foods.
Yet particular ingredients and dishes are blazing trails across nations’ menus as distribution makes the world smaller. Is it then a case of familiarity breeding contempt? Are the rules being broken too often?
Galmiche says one of the main problems lies in the restrictions of European apprenticeship. Before he went to Singapore, his career alternated between France and Britain – he was head chef at Knockinaam Lodge Hotel, Scotland, from 1986 to 1993. Of the West, he observes: “You are taught in a certain way, one that you must always adhere to. Within Asia there are so many different styles of cuisine that blend together, so the barriers are fewer and the understanding greater. It allows you to be more adventurous.”
Quek is resistant to the overall concept, preferring to use flavours for their own sake, rather than in an attempt to strive for some ambiguous theme: “I have adopted a ‘tread carefully’ method with my own experiments and have used ingredients such as five-spice powder, curry powder, Chinese ginger, coriander and Thai basil, but only to give the most subtle hint of an Eastern flavour.”
According to Knipp, the chef should have a perfect knowledge of his or her own culture’s cooking processes, as well as an understanding of the rationale behind the various techniques and a nose for the quality of products required.
“A chef’s knowledge should also have been converted into practical experience at the stove. This knowledge and experience should then be transferred into the preparation of other cuisines and the chef should have the expertise in techniques like Chinese wok frying, for example, and the use of exotic ingredients. Ideally, this chef should serve as an apprentice under a chef from the culture whose cuisine he is aspiring to prepare.
“Given this, is it any wonder that it takes at least seven years before a Japanese sushi chef is recognised as having mastered the basics?”
But Knipp does not think East-West cuisine is a hotchpotch of two or more vaguely understoood types of culinary preparations. “It is certainly not my intention to stifle creativity, nor to appear conservative about how things should be. It is important to have a thorough understanding and appreciation of each culture, its eating habits, the ingredients involved and their correct preparation. Only then can a chef hope to create something that doesn’t merely sound exciting on the menu, but looks and tastes intriguing.”
The world has become much more like Singapore; everything is available to the chef and a willing, although often uneducated audience. It is a dangerous combination offering an enormous challenge. “Rather than making a proverbial melting-pot of cultural stew,” says Knipp, “let us use our cultural understanding of culinary expertise to create the superb and the extraordinary.”