When the word “innovation” is mentioned, people inevitably think of cutting-edge technology. The late Steve Jobs is the icon and Thomas Edison’s light bulb is the cliche. But let’s instead begin with chwee kueh.
That’s a dish I loved as a child, more or less had forgotten about until three years ago, and now fear that – without innovation – will soon disappear. So what about that humble, starchy and now hard-to-find dish of steamed rice cakes topped with oil-simmered, pickled radish (the preceding description comes courtesy of our dear editor who prefers to explain to readers, rather than presume)?
It takes so much work to get the rice-cake texture and topping of chye poh just right (not to mention the chilli). It brings too little return on effort: One dollar for four pieces (and in these low carb days, no one eats more). No wonder some stalls have given up making their own and simply outsource ready-made ingredients from a factory somewhere.
But that brings only small margins to the vendor, and a commoditised experience to the consumer. Before long, given limited manpower and rising rent, (wet) market forces dictate that the dish will go extinct.
An innovative gourmet-fusion twist needs to be tried. Western comfort food has gone through that transformation – consider the wagyu burger, truffle fries and macaroni with gourmet cheese. At home, Mod-Sin cuisine practitioners have led the way, like Willin Low and his Wild Rocket restaurant – a favourite that’s just reopened with a new look and menu.
Innovation also happens in humbler settings, like your neighbourhood roti prata joint. Tissue prata is not traditional and neither is the unctuous Bomb. Milo dinosaur is an innovative concept and name – and the next should be La-Teh-Peng and Kopicino (copyright to these terms is asserted by the author).
What can be done for chwee kueh? My home laboratory experiments have centred on white truffle oil and fresh spring onions. Other additives to try include slivers of yuzu peel, and small pinches of minced foie gras or smoked cockles. For the base, think about organic rice and shrinking the kueh down to a single mouthful a la macaroons (colouring is debatable).
Price and margin? These days, quite average restaurants demand $40 for quite average main courses, and it would be easy to price well above the current chwee kueh and yet seem affordable. Hipster chefs will be next in hawker centres and they will reimagine the food and bring in a new cool. That was a prediction by Anthony Bourdain, the US- celeb-chef-turned-TV-personality, when he was in Singapore for last year’s World Street Food Summit (where, believe it or not, I also spoke).
Innovate chwee kueh, and other dishes will follow.
One place in Singapore that’s always been hip and cool is Zouk. The party started some 23 years ago and has seen a generation and a half on its floor. Started by Lincoln Cheng, now in his 60s, Zouk took an initial $10-million punt on renovating three decrepit warehouses along a then empty stretch of the Singapore River.
Other clubs fade into oblivion but Zouk has weathered a drug raid and changes in ownership, and has revamped many times to meet the constant vagaries of style and music changes. This is more than endurance. It takes ongoing innovation.
This was never a top 40s kind of club. It delivered on global trends – starting with house music and then riding through all the genres – and hosted top-name DJs. In the process, it has become a destination of its own, bringing club aficionados and curious young clubbers from across the world, thereby reaping awards from our tourism board.
News that Zouk faces closure has therefore elicited howls of protest. Not only from the current crowd, but nostalgic yesteryear clubbers also object. Real estate is the reason.
The riverside is now home to high-rise, high-price apartments and residents complain about noise, littering and rowdy behaviour (never mind that Zouk pre-dated them and they should have known). The prime site the club occupies is awaiting redevelopment.
Real estate can be the enemy of innovation – as trying something new and untested often needs space and low cost. But it can also be its solution: Zouk can move. It has after all started a sister club in Kuala Lumpur and hosts Zoukout parties on the beach, which drew more than 26,000 last year.
I attended the very first Zoukout (I was then helping a pre-integrated resort Sentosa re-invent itself, and the then press secretary to the Prime Minister was with me). More recently, and solely for research, I hazarded a visit to Zouk KL. I can report that Zouk as an idea is portable and well able to keep attracting crowds of the very young and hip (who look at anyone above 30 as ancient and alien). These ventures work, and a new Zouk can do well.
Similarly painstaking research was undertaken for my third example of innovation: the electric car. I tested the Tesla open-top, a two-seat roadster, around a track in Las Vegas.
Like other electric cars, the Tesla has earth-worthy green credentials, but tops that up with real fun and oomph. The car takes a mere 3.7 seconds to reach the benchmark 100kmh – making it as fast as just about any supercar but without the noisy revving. It’s as if a good-looking vegan is also a 100m sprint champion (note: Carl Lewis, the gold Olympic sprint champion from the 1990s, is vegan).
Yet, Tesla’s sales have disappointed (as have fully electric cars from Nissan and Renault). Maybe it’s fate since the company took its name from that great, eccentric inventor, Nikola Tesla.
The European engineer patented many innovations in the early days of electricity, including power distribution using A/C current. But Tesla didn’t prosper after he quarrelled and broke away from Edison who had popularised the incandescent light bulb (ironically still the typical ideogram for a new idea).
The rivalry between the two was one-sided, as Edison was both an inventor and the dominant industrial tycoon. Only when Tesla teamed up with rival businessman George Westinghouse did his superior A/C technology gain ground.
Today’s car industry may prove similar. Incumbent companies have been looking at electric engines with a mix of curiosity and disdain. But more are going hybrid.
So I found myself driving the latest Lexus GS450h (the “h” stands for hybrid), heading north. Unlike the Tesla roadster, there is a petrol engine twinned to the electric. This means you are free from the range limits imposed by the battery (at best around 300km). The GS hybrid also carries four people and luggage in considerable comfort, befitting a Lexus.
The hybrid system switches between the electric and petrol engines so smoothly and silently that no one can tell, except at two points. The first place, as you might expect, is at the petrol station. The price you pay proves the car is about 30 per cent more fuel-efficient.
The second time is when you accelerate. Mated to a big V6, the electric engine adds massive torque instantly. The big car remains remarkably quiet and all passengers may talk until the supercar speed shushes them. The Lexus shows us that larger companies can innovate, even if they meld new ways with tried-and-tested ones.
When Zouk is about to close its doors, I might drop in, driving down in an electric car with verve, before retiring to a pre-dawn breakfast – perhaps roti prata or chwee kueh (Tiong Bahru market is nearby, although I am unsure what time that famous stall opens). From a bottle stashed away in the car, I will perhaps apply white truffle oil.
Seems too splashy and decadent? Just another way to celebrate innovation that creates new, affordable and even everyday luxury. You and I won’t even have to think too much about the innovative process, and may just enjoy that resulting experience.