S'pore bites in a Box
Local heritage food was, surprisingly, not prominently featured in the recent series of Singapore Inside Out events in London and Beijing.
So I jumped in on the action when the Singapore Tourism Board folks asked if I could power a hawker stall pop-up as part of their New York leg of the gig a few days ago.
I had the pleasure of working with Larry Reutens, a Singaporean chef based in New York. He used to own Masak, a restaurant serving Singaporean dishes that had rave reviews but had to close due to 2012's Hurricane Sandy.
The idea was exciting, just imagining the responses we would get operating The Box (a food container kitchen), which sat in the middle of Madison Square Park in the heart of Manhattan.
NO SAMBAL STINGRAY
The nightmare was when we realised just what equipment was available in that Box - a deep fryer, microwave oven, panini press and a bain-marie (ingredient warmer), plus chillers. The thought of doing fancy stir-fry noodles and sambal stingray with cincalok salad went out the door.
But I had the backup of a central kitchen from Ilili Restaurant, a Mediterranean set-up that owns The Box, and was partnering us for the event.
I almost regretted the tedious menu I created and cooked for the event: laksa yong tau foo, kaya toast and popiah (the three most popular items), plus ngoh hiang balls and Milo Dinosaur.
Imagine how much laksa sambal we had to blend and fry up, the amount of pandan kaya we had to freshly make each day plus the 10 handmade items that went into the popiah.
I had the support of the kitchen team to put the show together. Think 1,000 handmade ngoh hiang balls and 1,000 stuffed yong tau foo pieces each day - you get the idea of the workload involved.
Ms Hsuen Ling, a housewife based in New York, could see "the flotilla of spices in the laksa" and Ms May Young, a Hong Kong-born graphic designer based in New Jersey, was surprised by the turnip bits buried in the ngoh hiang balls.
Other chefs and cooks involved included Justin Quek, Lee Boon Seng, Janice Wong and the second-generation kids from Keng Eng Kee Seafood restaurant in Bukit Merah.
It may be awhile before the wider American population gets cosy with Singapore heritage food. But with the upcoming Bourdain Market, a massive hawker centre-inspired eatery, the game may change.
Who knows, the kway chap reference that Anthony Bourdain made in an episode of The Simpsons a few years back may not be so strange in the future.
MAKANSUTRA, FOUNDED BY KF SEETOH, IS A COMPANY THAT CELEBRATES ASIAN FOOD CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE. IT PUBLISHES FOOD GUIDES IN AND AROUND THE REGION, PRODUCES A FOOD SERIES, DEVELOPS INTERACTIVE MOBILE CONTENT AND SERVICES, OPERATES FOODCOURTS AND EATERIES, ORGANISES FOOD TOURS AND EVENTS, AND CONSULTS ON CULINARY CONCEPTS.