I had kaya toast last week. It did not come with two half-boiled eggs and a cup of kopi, but with kaya parfait wedged between muscovado sable with pandan snow and coconut foam. Of course, this wasn’t at the neighbourhood Ya Kun Kaya Toast but at Corner House, a restaurant in a colonial bungalow at Botanic Gardens.
The dish is part of a larger movement in Asian restaurants where hearty, traditional food is re-interpreted as complex fine-dining forms. Think Gaggan in Bangkok for its modern Indian flavours, Bo Innovation in Hong Kong for its re-creation of Chinese food and Jung Sik in Seoul for refining heavy flavours such as kimchi and chilli paste. These restaurants perch high on international food rankings and attract hordes of tourists who, like me, revere culinary innovation.
Gastronomic tourism is big business, ringing up over US$150 billion (S$202 billion) at the cash tills each year, according to the World Food Travel Association. Food has long been the cornerstone of Singapore’s tourist promotions and, in the second quarter of 2014 alone, the industry generated $534 million in tourist receipts.
Yet, Singapore’s tourism brochures are chock-full of chilli crab, chicken rice or satay images – not the sophisticated restaurant scene that has evolved in the past few years. While these classics are much loved by all, the situation on the ground isn’t as rosy.
Most foodies I meet, from CEOs to taxi drivers, speak darkly of disappearing dishes and bemoan the loss of hawkers as their knowledge is not passed down to the next generation. There’s also the question of quality. Save for some very famous stalls, many fly under the radar as their food just doesn’t stand out. “It’s easier to find good hawker food in Malaysia,” says celebrity photographer and foodie Russel Wong, when I interviewed him for our SG50 feature in the February issue.
He added: “Dishes like nasi lemak or laksa – how many hawkers here even use freshly grated coconut to make coconut milk? It all comes in packets these days.”
If our neighbouring countries can do dishes better, with access to fresher ingredients, why not give ourselves an edge and spotlight other facets of our culinary scene? Even the magazine Monocle has begun broadcasting culinary headlines from Singapore on its radio station to its globally minded audience.
We certainly have dozens of sophisticated restaurants that deserve to be actively promoted internationally. In the past few years, we have moved from being a country famous for hawker fare to one studded with celebrity restaurants, and now to one with chefs who are looking deep into our social fabric to provide a gastronomic experience not offered elsewhere – not even in Malaysia, despite a similar culinary heritage.
Another example: Just last January, mixologist Vijay Mudaliar from Operation Dagger won the Diplomatico World Tournament Singapore finals with a cocktail inspired by Singapore’s experience during World War II. He used a humble sweet potato, a war-time staple, cooked it into a compote with rum and mixed it with pandan leaves, cinnamon and cardamom.
These are creations that we can certainly hold up as uniquely Singaporean. We are not the culinary capital that we think we are – we are more than that.