Singapore chefs favourite food memories

Singapore is a land of foodies – everyone has their own unique memories of food and chefs are no different. This National Day, we chat with 5 homegrown chefs on how food has got them in touch with their heritage, helped them connect with their families and created memories that they hold dear to.

1. Marvas Ng: Making “rigatoni” with family during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020

Chef Marvas Ng-Path restaurant
Chef Marvas Ng of Path Restaurant.

When the lockdown was first enforced in April 2020, restaurants were forced to shut down. Despite the uncertainties, Marvas Ng, executive chef of Path Restaurant, found some light — making noodles with his mother and mother-in-law for the first time.

The East-meets-West noodles were made from a simple Chinese-style dough – mainly flour, water and a pinch of salt, but shaped like rigatoni (tube-shaped pasta). The noodles were accompanied by various thick sauces – a slightly spicy tomato sauce and a rich meat and vegetable sauce. The lightly-blanched noodles were folded lightly in these flavourful sauces –  a cooking style that is common in China, where he had worked in restaurants for years. 

He shares: “It is almost impossible for chefs to relax and cook together with our families, so this was a rare and precious moment. That evening, we ate “rigatoni” and it tasted like the best meal I’ve had in a year. Cooking with my family is one of my favourite things to do, as my love for cooking started as my grandmother asked me to help her in the kitchen when I was five or six years old.” 

“I love how there is a little mix of cultures in this dish. It is Italian but tastes totally Chinese. It’s a good reminder of how cooking is a very natural process and every ingredient has a mind of its own,” he adds. 

Chef Marvas Ng cherished the time when he made his take on rigatoni with his mother and mother-in-law during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
Chef Marvas Ng cherished the time when he made his take on rigatoni with his mother and mother-in-law during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. (Photo: Courtesy of Marvas Ng)

Taste the memory: This “Shanghainese-style pasta” can be found in the Chargrilled King Prawn dish, which is on Path Restaurant’s lunch menu. For National Day, chefs Damian D’Silva and Marvas Ng have crafted a festive menu inspired by Singaporean-Chinese culinary culture. Some of the dishes are available till 12 August at Path for dinner. They include Asparagus with Sambal Juliana Beurre Blanc – chargrilled asparagus with sambal emulsified into a light beurre blanc.

2. Damian D’Silva: Tucking into Chai Buay during Chinese New Year

Chai Buay is the ultimate comfort food of Chef Damian D’Silva of Rempapa.
Chai Buay is the ultimate comfort food of Chef Damian D’Silva of Rempapa. (Photo: Rempapa)

The chef-partner of Singapore heritage restaurant Rempapa, which is known for serving soulful heritage dishes. The MasterChef Singapore judge shares one of his favourite food memories here. 

“I love Chai Buay. It’s basically a Chinese New Year dish that starts with leftovers, and more leftovers are added each day and consumed at the same time. By the sixth day, it becomes the perfect entangled mesh of all the leftover ingredients. Almost every drop and essence that can be extracted from the roasted ingredients, meats, vegetables, and herbs have combined and attained an unparalleled measure of flavour, just waiting to be consumed slowly and patiently.

Chai Buay (Courtesy of Damian D’Silva)

Chai buay was introduced to me by our neighbour as a child growing up in my paternal home. I remember eating this dish once every year after Chinese New Year. The first time I was introduced to it, I asked my mother, “why is our neighbour offering food that is fit for the waste bin?”

Grandad told me to shut up and try the dish before criticising it.

I have never looked back since. For me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.”

Taste the memory: On 13 August, D’Silva is collaborating with home cook and MasterChef Singapore Season 2 contestant, Vasunthara Ramasamy (Vasun) for a South Indian set lunch menu at Rempapa. Vasun is known in the private dining circles for her prowess in thosai-making. Expect dishes such as Egg Pondo Thosai, accompanied by Rempapa’s Sri Lankan chicken curry and Masala Thosai. 

3. Maxine Ngooi: A Portuguese Eurasian-style Christmas feast

Tigerlily patisserie’s pastry chef Maxine Ngooi fondly remembers a Portuguese-Eurasian Christmas feast she had when she was 10. (Photo: Tigerlily)

Maxine Ngooi, the executive chef of Tigerlily patisserie and heritage confectionery Chin Mee Chin, got her love for food from her Portuguese-Eurasian mother. A food memory that stands out was a rare Christmas dinner with her mother’s relatives when she was 10 years old. It was even more special as her relatives, who had migrated, gathered back in Singapore for the festivities that year. 

She says: “It was the first time I had a true feeling of what a typical Eurasian Christmas was like. Up to this day, this was the closest I’ve felt to my Portuguese-Eurasian roots. It gave me an insight to what it was like for my mother who grew up with this annual tradition.”

A Christmas gathering by chef Maxine Ngooi's family.
A Christmas gathering by chef Maxine Ngooi’s family. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxine Ngooi)

She remembers her relatives helped out in the kitchen after they flew in a week before Christmas.

“My grandfather, who was usually the cook of the house, orchestrated everyone. Aunties and uncles had their hands in cooking the Devil Curry rempah, Achar Awak (pickled vegetables) and Teem (a sour cherry pork trotter soup), while the kids were tasked to cut, pinch and fill pineapple tarts spiced with cinnamon and star anise.However, Grandpa never let anyone make his specialty rum-soaked fruit cakes and sugee cakes filled with brandy.”

Eurasian dishes served at the Christmas party. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxine Ngooi)
Eurasian dishes served at the Christmas dinner party. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxine Ngooi)

She recounts that the excitement from that Christmas dinner was like placing the star atop a full- decorated Christmas tree. The meal was filled with many stories exchanged, jokes and boisterous laughter, with lots of sherry, porto and the rare treat of soft drinks to go around.

“It also became so evident to me how food brings people together, and despite being a minority race in Singapore, Eurasians have such a rich culture and take much pride in their food,” she reflects.

Taste the memory: The Devil Curry Pie, which is part of Tigerlily’s festive bake box. Ngooi used her family’s recipe for the curry, which is traditionally made with leftovers from Christmas dinner and served on Boxing Day. Her family recipe has tender juicy chicken cooked in it, with a sour tang from the vinegar, nuttiness from the black mustard seeds, and heat from the chilli that toes the line between spicy and way too spicy. 

4. Mohamed Al-Matin: Egg onion prata with fish curry with family and friends 

Mohamed Al-Matin_Le Matin Patisserie
Le Matin Patisserie’s chef-owner Mohamed Al-Matin loves his prata. (Photo: Le Matin Patisserie)

The chef-owner of Le Matin Patisserie’s comfort food is a crispy egg onion prata with thick and flavourful fish curry. He gets his prata fix at eateries such as Al-Azhar Restaurant, Springleaf Prata Place and Casuarina Curry.

He shares: “I would have prata with my family or at The Roti Prata House at Upper Thomson Road after soccer practice with my friends. I remember how it was once sold out and I was so disappointed that I had to have it the next day.” 

Chef Matin’s regular order: Egg onion prata with fish curry. (Photo courtesy of Mohamed Al-Matin)

Many pastry fans would remember Matin for being one of the early movers in the local pastry box delivery scene in 2020. His red-hot online bakery has since grown into a full-fledged cafe — Le Matin Patisserie café, which has two outlets in Robinson Road and Paragon. The café serves a delectable range of French-style pastries, such as cruffins, galettes, kouign amanns and caneles. Savoury pastries include lamb pie and wagyu sausage roll.

Matin was a pastry sous chef at the much-vaunted Noma in Copenhagen, and the head pastry chef at now-defunct Restaurant Andre.

“When I was working in Sydney, New York and Copenhagen, I would always crave for egg onion prata with fish curry. I made sure that it was the last thing I had before leaving or the first dish I eat when I return.”

5. Jason Tan: Digging into chicken curry cooked by his mother 

When it comes to food, chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred Restaurant Euphoria is a mommy’s boy at heart. One of his favourite dishes is a chicken curry whipped up by his mother, which he dubs “Mommy Boy Curry”. He sold this curry online during the circuit breaker period in April 2020 after he left Corner House to start Restaurant Euphoria. The proceeds went to charity. 

Mommy Boy Curry is a dish that his family always prepares for a Buddhist ritual to offer to ancestors.

He shares: “I have vivid memories of the intense flavour of the home-made rempah, which filled our entire house, and love pairing the curry with the local baguette. From a young age, I have been fascinated to try all kinds of cuisine and ingredients. This dish definitely developed the foundation of my tastebuds and my inspiration to become a professional chef.” 

The rempah for the ‘Mommy Boy Curry’ comprises red, dried and bird’s eye chillies, lemongrass, onions and garlic, which yields an intense flavour and aroma. The chilli seeds are removed by hand to balance the flavour of the rempah before the ingredients are blended into a food processor to achieve a complex flavour. The mixture is then cooked for more than six hours, and used to marinate chicken overnight. The next day, coconut milk and spices are added to the curry. 

Related: Singapore Chefs Share Kitchen Lessons From Dad