Southeast asian cuisine

Chef Law Jia-Jun of Province, Chef Hafizzul Hashim of Restaurant Fiz and Chef Kevin Wong of Seroja. (Photo: Province, Restaurant Fiz and Seroja)

The beautifully rosé cut of free-range lamb — sous vide at 50 deg C for three hours and finished in a custom-built Josper oven — would not look out of place on the table at any European fine-dining restaurant. But the difference hits upon the first bite.

The grilled lamb lies on a bed of sauce, which presents an explosion of flavours: The heat of green bird’s eye chilli is tempered by the velvety creaminess of coconut milk, coupled with the aroma of lemongrass, galangal, and ginger. The green rendang sauce is topped with tahi minyak — caramelised coconut curd crumbles made from slow-cooking fresh coconut milk, and kerisik — buttery grated coconut flesh that is roasted to a golden brown crisp, both lending textural interest and depth to the flavour of the dish.

This is chef Hafizzul Hashim’s tribute to rendang — a dish that is a must-have during Malay festivities such as Hari Raya and weddings. At Restaurant Fiz, slated to open in Tanjong Pagar on June 7, the 41-year-old Malaysian chef-owner distils traditional techniques and classical flavours to present Southeast Asian cuisine in a new light. The end product is intriguingly novel yet unmistakably familiar to the Southeast Asian diner.

Southeast asian cuisine. Chef Haffizul Hashim's Restaurant Fiz.
Chef Hafizzul Hashim of Restaurant Fiz draws influences from Southeast Asia in his cuisine. (Photo: Restaurant Fiz)

Never mind the chicken rice wars between Malaysia and Singapore, chefs like Hafizzul are shedding national and racial identity to look at Southeast Asian food as a cuisine of its own. At eight-month-old Seroja at Duo Galleria, Malaysia-born chef-owner Kevin Wong, 30, draws upon diverse inspirations — from disappearing traditional craft, the forgotten ways of eating, to the unique topography of certain locations — to present the flavours of the Malay Archipelago.

In March this year, Singaporean chef Law Jia-Jun, 29, started produce-driven concept, Province, at Joo Chiat, with the hopes of highlighting Southeast Asian flavours and hospitality. This recent slate of explorations into Southeast Asian cuisine is an amalgamation of efforts by chefs such as Rempapa’s Damian d’Silva and Malcolm Lee of Candlenut and Pangium, who have paved the way by championing the use of ingredients and cooking techniques.

Related: Kevin Wong, chef-owner of Seroja stirs a melting pot of flavours across the Malay Archipelago

Cooking from the heart

Southeast asian cuisine. Chef Kevin Wong of Seroja.
Chef Kevin Wong of Seroja. (Photo: Seroja)

None of the chefs started their careers with a bleeding heart for preserving or elevating the cuisine of their home region. Wong recalls a conversation he had with the late Anthony Bourdain, who was filming No Reservations at his former workplace — a small restaurant in Negeri Sembilan.

“I told him of my plans to go to France, where I felt I could learn how to cook the finest food in the world. I wanted his reassurance, but he told me to channel my energy and time to cook from within.”

Ignoring Bourdain’s advice, Wong spent almost a decade working in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Le Parc Franck Putelat in France and Coi in America before joining Meta here.

In 2021, he took part in the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy competition and was challenged to create a dish that was truly his own; it was only then that he understood the wisdom in Bourdain’s advice. “I’ve cooked fine French, Japanese, and Korean… but not Malaysian food, the food I grew up eating — my cuisine,” he reflects. 

Prior to opening Seroja, Wong rediscovered the food of the region in earnest, researching by travelling around the region, eating, and gathering lost knowledge from dialogue with professors, historians, and even village elders. “I soon realised that the region has seen a huge influx of migrants over centuries, which created a regional culture that is open to assimilating other cultures into their own.”

This melding of influences at Seroja is subtle and harmonious: the yellowtail is smoked with coconut husk, a cooking technique common in Bali, and dressed with fermented oyster sauce, a traditionally Cantonese ingredient that is also incorporated in dishes within the region. The fish is then topped with Cameron Highlands jicama, a tuber commonly used in Chinese rojak, pickled in coconut vinegar — a staple in the Filipino pantry — and finished with an emulsion of jicama broth and oils from a coastal seaweed harvested from Terengganu.

Related: First Look: Chef Mirko Febbrile presents a taste of Puglia at Fico restaurant

Exploring Southeast Asian cuisine in depth

Southeast asian cuisine. Chef Haffizul Hashim of Restaurant Fiz.
Chef Hafizzul Hashim of Restaurant Fiz. (Photo: Restaurant Fiz)

Sharing a culinary trajectory is Hafizzul, who was born to a Malay father and an English mother and grew up in Malaysia eating a variety of sambal, curries, and rendang dishes. However, it was his year-long stint at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s JG Tokyo in 2015 that prompted him to explore Southeast Asian cuisine in depth.

The rising popularity of Asian influences saw him incorporate ingredients such as galangal and kaffir lime leaves into modern European dishes served at these restaurants.

After starting Isabel Restaurant and Bar in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, where he focused on Southeast Asian dishes for the first time, he became more motivated to bring the food that he grew up eating to the fine dining table. Inspired by the progressive, international nature of the restaurant scene in Singapore, he decided to bring his concept for Restaurant Fiz to life. 

Related: Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants are opening casual offshoots

Inspired by regional ingredients

Southeast asian cuisine. Chef Law Jia-Jun of Province.
Chef Law Jia-Jun of Province and his culinary creations. (Photo: Province)

For Law, who counts the stagiaires he did at Californian institutions Manresa and Atelier Crenn as defining junctures in his professional journey, Southeast Asian cuisine is defined by its ingredients. On his approach to interpreting Southeast Asian cuisine, he explains: “Californian cuisine as we know it today started off with Alice Waters’s philosophy of cooking with produce within the Bay Area. I hope to apply the philosophy here.”

He isn’t obsessed with qualifying the use of each ingredient based on whether or not it is native to the region. “There are a lot of indigenous plants to discover, but I also want to showcase the best of what is happening here and now,” explains Law.

He spent about six months travelling intensively around Southeast Asia to meet producers and is proud to use the best produce in the region. His excitement about locally caught seafood from his favourite Haig Road Market fishmonger is as palpable as his enthusiasm about heirloom tomatoes from Natsuki’s Garden (an organic farm that grows produce in a custom-built horticultural system).

While he raves about the concentration of natural sugars in Japanese sweet potatoes grown 1,100m above sea level in Chiang Rai, Thailand, he is equally spirited about a white variety native to the Thai Highlands. 

There are a lot of indigenous plants to discover, but I also want to showcase the best of what is happening here and now.

Chef Law Jia-Jun of Province

The highlights of Province’s prix-fixe menu include native white and Japanese sweet potatoes, slow-roasted then seared in duck fat, served alongside native orange potatoes made into espuma and a gnocchi glazed with chicken stock. 

For Hafizzul, he is keen to experience ingredients such as temu kunci (fingerroot), temu pauh (mango ginger) and kunyit bonglai (Zingiber cassumunar) and find ways to pair them with meat such as Australian quail and New Zealand lamb. 

Related: Lolla’s head chef Johanne Siy on soft power in the kitchen

Challenges of cooking Southeast Asian cuisine

Restaurant Fiz
Restaurant Fiz’s signature dishes. (Photo: Restaurant Fiz)

“At this price, I expect uni and caviar” is a comment that both Law and Wong have received from their diners. 

Law stands his ground. “Diners who make that comment probably do not understand what I am trying to do, which is to highlight Southeast Asian ingredients. I don’t see our best regional produce, grown with passion and harvested at its prime, as inferior to those from faraway countries.” He adds that it is logistically harder to bring in regional produce from small growers because of their limited quantities and government regulations.

Wong echoes similar sentiments. “My farmer at Cameron Highlands might call to say that her jicamas are at their prime and are going to be transported to me in three days’ time. I would find myself with 20kg of it, not entirely sure what to do with them.” It’s why trust between the chef and suppliers is crucial. This enables Seroja to frequently adapt its menu based on what’s seasonally available. 

For Wong, the pride in championing Southeast Asian cuisine stems from knowing that he is helping to bring back memories for some. Last year, he brought a betel leaf noodle dish to a friend’s nonagenarian great-aunt, which was re-created from her verbal account. He shares that the chemical reaction between betel leaf juice and wheat flour produces a springy texture. 

“It brought tears to her eyes, as it was a dish her grandmother used to make,” recalls Wong. “This shows the power of heritage flavours.”