The Singapore Food Festival Kicked Off Greedy for Flavor and Generous with Conversation
Much like the Philippines, Singapore’s food identity is a melting pot of culture. Traces of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisine have influenced the country, shaping Singapore into the gastronomic capital we know of today.
A tour of the Lion City would be incomplete without paying a visit to a hawker center, open-air complexes housing affordable and delicious food, or a kopitiam, Southeast Asian breakfast and coffee shops.
This is why this month, the Singapore Tourism Board has brought some of the best restaurants in their country to the Philippines for a culinary takeover that will leave us wanting more. Their lineup ranges from restaurants that specialize in heritage dishes to contemporary establishments that reimagine their usual fare. To kick off the month-long event, I joined the media launch of the Singapore Food Festival last September 1 at Rockwell’s The Grid Food Market.
A Tour of Little India
I helped myself to a cocktail from The Elephant Room prepared by founder Yugnes “Yugi” Susela himself. Drink in hand, I asked him to give me a tour of the trifecta they were offering that late afternoon.
Each cocktail was Yugi’s homage to Little India. Jothi’s Flower Shop was inspired by a humble store that has become a household name in that area. Locals procure not just flowers, but a range of household goods, cookware, and items related to Indian culture in this shop. In cocktail form, Jothi’s Flower Shop was a fragrant drink of gin, jasmine, and lime finished off with a touch of honey. It tasted light and clean, quickly making it my favorite out of the bunch.
Chai, Tekka, Jothi's Flower Shop
The Tekka cocktail distilled the everyday scenes of the Tekka Market into a drink. Using coconut rum, fermented banana, and an Indian sweetener called jaggery, Yugi fashioned traditional ingredients into a drink that hit me hard at the first sip. I decided to save that kind of punch for after dinner.
Lastly, their rendition of the classic Chai involved rum, fermented pineapple, and tea infused with spices. They served it with a stick of cinnamon brushed lightly with a blowtorch, making the drink all the more of a delight for the senses. Holding the drink under my nose was as delicious as taking a sip.
Dinner by Keng Eng Kee
Then came the main event: Dinner served by one of Singapore’s widely-loved restaurants, Keng Eng Kee (KEK). The establishment specializes in Zi Char cuisine. This type of cuisine refers to a wide selection of Singaporean food found in hawker centers and kopitiams; economical and affordable, they are one step away from being a home-cooked meal.
There is a lot of history and heart in this restaurant that the Singapore Tourism Board decided to showcase to the Philippines. Paul and Wayne Liew are the third generation of family members running Keng Eng Kee, and each dish on their menu had to be approved by the discerning palates of their parents and grandparents first.
Salted Egg Popcorn Chicken
Dinner was served family style. The sharing of food, the crossing of hands—these were all part of a communal food culture that Singapore and the Philippines had in common. At the table I shared with strangers whom I just met, conversation was sparse, but the bashful politeness soon dissipated as the courses rolled in.
We first had the Soft Shell Crab with Chili Crab Sauce and the Salted Egg Popcorn Chicken. The lightly breaded crab introduces you to a sweetness, sourness, and spiciness brought by its chili crab sauce. On the other hand, the chicken was salty, sweet, and punctuated with spice thanks to its garnish of bird’s eye chilis and fried curry leaves. Both dishes are best eaten dripping with sauce. I found myself wiping the bottom of the serving plate with my piece of popcorn chicken or asking for the saucer of chili crab sauce to have another spoonful.
Soft Shell Crab with Chili Crab Sauce
These first two dishes are great examples of the layers of flavor that KEK is proud to have developed. According to Paul Liew, each dish they had for us has a minimum of three dimensions of flavor.
The Coffee Pork Ribs soon arrived at our table fresh from the kitchen. The coffee crust was fragrant and the excitement from the table was palpable. Anticipation hung in the air as everyone took photos of the food first (of course).
Bittersweet and tender—It was difficult to place the flavors of these ribs, and even more so to figure out how I felt about them. Eating my first piece, I had to ask my tablemates what they thought about the ribs. At the second piece, we decided that it just wasn’t anything like we’ve tried before. The crab and chicken were instant hits, but the ribs led to conversations about this bite of meat we couldn’t quite understand.
Where Tradition Meets Experimentation
When I talked to Paul after dinner, he spoke with confidence about those coffee ribs. This is the dish that he is most proud of on their menu. To him, it’s the point where his grandparents’ traditions and his generation’s experimentations meet. He uses the same marinade his grandparents used when they first opened the hawker stall in Singapore; but for its crust, he used his own blend of coffee, sugar, honey, and apple jam. So, while we were first greeted by the aroma of coffee as the dish was set on the table, the flavors infused inside it were much more complex.
He had a feeling that the ribs would be a point of conversation that evening. Years of serving this dish have probably acquainted him with a range of comments from his diners. It is these conversations that play into what he thinks is an essential part of the Singaporean dining experience.
Coffee Pork Ribs
To Paul, food is not simply placed on a table and eaten, it is enjoyed and talked about by all who partake in it. “Food shouldn't just be eaten on your own. It's all about sharing experiences. [The ribs] may taste bitter to you or sweet to another, but why? We then talk about it,” he says.
This dining sensibility is shared by Filipinos here. And it must be why I enjoyed my time discovering a little more about Singaporean cuisine. I walked into the room by myself, but I left it waving goodbye to the people I shared the delicious food with.
If this was what Singaporean cuisine had to offer, then I fully understand why Keng Eng Kee and The Elephant Room were chosen to be the first establishments to represent their country this month. It only makes me excited to see what else is there to come in the following weeks of the Singapore Food Festival.