Cuisine across the Causeway

AS part of the recent launch of Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Singapore Economic Development Board's (EDB) Passion Made Possible campaign, we met up with three chefs who lived up to the brand by the way their pursued their culinary career.

The first is Singapore's food ambassador Violet Oon, who's a restaurateur, celebrity chef and cookbook author.

Oon (born in 1949) is a highly respected chef who specialises in nyonya food and operates her National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery Singapore.

She started out as a journalist in 1971, covering music and the arts for The Nation, and later became its food critic in 1974.

She then started her own culinary magazine in 1987 called The Food Paper and her passion for food led her to open her own food outlet in the 1990s. That outlet is long gone but Oon at National Gallery opened in 2015, is still in operation.

Oon suffered a stroke three years ago and relies on a cane, but she still oversees the food at her restaurants (Violet Oon Singapore at Bukit Timah, and Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill at Clarke Quay) which are run by her two children. Her passion for nyonya cuisine is still evident.

Her restaurant's decor features old pictures and tiles sourced from Peranakan homes, and they offer the ambience and experience of eating in a typical nyonya home to her customers.

Even the dishes such as the ngoh hiang, buah keluak ayam, dry laksa and sambal petai with prawns, which is listed alongside south Indian idly (with coconut chutney and tomato chutney), and the Cristang dish chicken and prawn Bastador all seems to feature comfortably on a nyonya dinner table.

Nyonya cuisine was something Oon perfected herself. She moved to London with her parents when she was 12 and her mother only started cooking for the family then, after taking up cooking classes there.

"I only started cooking at age 15. I used to tell people I cook like a man. I learned it like a guy would, for fun," said Oon."I grew up in the Hilary Clinton generation. I am a sociologist actually."

Oon said her approach to cooking and finding recipes is similar to her work as a journalist. "I would check three different sites for the same recipe," she said.
"As a sociologist, I see food as a part of life."

Oon said she and her staff would go the extra mile to prepare the best nyonya cuisine. Thickening agents such as flour is not used. Rather it is the old fashioned way of using herbs and spices and finishing off with coconut milk.

Celebrating local flavours

Willin Low, 45, was actually studying law in England before a hankering for food from home made him take up cooking. His restaurant Wild Rocket in Singapore's Wilkie Road, Hangout Hotel concept is Modern Singaporean.

He said: "We celebrate local flavours in platform not done before. When you want to celebrate local food, flavours are important."

With dishes such as pomelo salad with tiger prawns and frozen coconut dressing, spanner crab and daun kesum ravioli with laksa broth, and ox tail rendang pappardelle.

Low is not a peranakan but said that "any third generation Singaporean is a naturalised peranakan due to food influences".

He did work as a lawyer for eight year after he returned to Singapore but the last two years of that career also saw him working as a chef for hire on weekends.

"I thought life was too short to do just one thing. So I quit job and worked as kitchen help for a year before opening my own restaurant," said Low.

Low has another restaurant called Relish (serve up all sorts of burgers) and consults for another restaurant called Po.

"There are influences from everywhere, we take foods from everywhere. I had friends in Nottingham who were Malaysians who cooked better than me," said Low.

He said his Singapore Laksa recipe was something that was passed to him by a hawker who finally retired from the business. He gave Low the recipe as he always ate at his stall.

The layout of Wild Rocket Layout is similar to a Japanese tea house and Low even serves omakase style dinner upon reservation.

Hispter restaurant

Artichoke is Bjorn Shen's first restaurant and they just celebrated their seventh year anniversary. "It is a modern day middle eastern restaurant," said Shen explaining its concept.

"In many ways, it has adapted to local tastebuds. We are also in an artsy stylish area," he added, referring to the hispter style neighbourhood of Middle Road Singapore.

Born 35 years ago and cooking professionally for the past 12 years, Shen said he went to Australia to study cooking. He also got himself a degree in marketing to appease his mother.

He worked in Greek restaurants and learned Middle Eastern cooking from his friend's mum. He said it was a natural progression from Greek to Middle Eastern cuisine as the ingredients, cooking styles and flavours are very similar.

He returned to Singapore in 2010 with the intention of opening his own restaurant. "I know it would not be easy but I had the support from the right people," said Shen who thanks his family for their support.

He has had customers from the Middle East who come to his restaurant but said none of them complained because he never claimed to be serving authentic Middle Eastern cuisine.

Shen believes that he has a style when it comes to cooking.

"My culinary style is to play within a sandbox of flavours. I don't have a signature dish because I love them all equally as though they are my children."

However, his cauliflower sabbich, Imam bayildi, and Arthichoke fried chicken (Jennifer Lawrence was said to have loved it) are hugely popular.

"Brunch is very popular here. I keep telling people to come for dinner because our dinner menu is even elaborate," said Shen.

Dinner usually booked one week in advance.
Shen also owns another restaurant called Bird Bird which serves up Thai-influenced food.