Mention Peranakan food in Singapore and 68-year-old Violet Oon is invariably the name that comes to mind. The cooking doyenne helms three restaurants in the city, including National Kitchen, each celebrating the distinctive flavours of a celebrated cuisine formed during the 15th century as a result of intermarriages between Chinese immigrants and local Malays. Today, the rich, spicy and coconutty flavours of “Nonya” food are exemplified perfectly in Oon’s hearty, home-style fare, from ayam buah keluak (chicken stew with mangrove tree nuts) to sambal udang (fried prawns in spicy sauce). “Peranakan food is one of the best in the world,” she says. “The amount of effort and skill that goes into preparing each dish is really quite amazing. It’s an exquisite cuisine, and I’m gratified that there is a place for it within Singapore’s culinary landscape.
For André Chiang, food goes beyond mere taste. Instead, it’s imbued with deep personal meaning. The 41-year-old is renowned for his Octaphilosophy, a culinary worldview centred on eight principles: unique, pure, texture, memory, salt, south, artisan and terroir. Each dish served at his eponymous restaurant is tied to one of these concepts. Foie gras jelly topped with black truffle coulis embodies memory, for instance, as it’s reminiscent of the first dish he remembers tasting. This distinctive brand of gastronomy hasn’t gone unnoticed: earlier this year, Restaurant André was the only Singapore restaurant to rank on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 (#14). “I think our win has helped put Singapore on the global map,” he says. “Every day, people travel from all over the world to eat here – it’s amazing.”
For Janice Wong, food is fundamentally art. At just 34 years old, the pastry chef is already renowned both for her avant-garde dessert creations and her whimsical food installations. “I would say that my culinary philosophy is playful and progressive. When I first started out in 2007, I focused on serving up plated desserts that look like art pieces. But in 2011, I started experimenting with creating art from food.” This complex interplay between studio and kitchen is clearly expressed at her eponymous restaurant set, fittingly, in the National Museum of Singapore, where the abstract interior is just as creative as the cooking. “Fortunately, it’s possible to introduce progressive cuisine in a place like Singapore. As a young country, we aren’t limited by a long culinary history. This enables us to set our own rules, which in turn creates a dynamic food scene.”
“Modern Singaporean cuisine celebrates local flavours in a way that has never been done before, whether that’s by using a different ingredient, or a new cooking technique, but ultimately, the spirit of the original dish has to shine through.” So says Willin Low, describing the style of cooking also known as “Mod-Sin”, which the 45-year-old lawyer-turned-chef invented at his restaurant, Wild Rocket, in 2005. From Indian-inspired tandoori beef short-rib to pappardelle pasta in oxtail rendang (a Malay dish of coconut milk-stewed meat), Low’s imaginative creations straddle different cultures and pay homage to Singapore’s diverse culinary past. The style has since spread city-wide. “When we first created Mod-Sin, people said that it would just be another trend. I’m glad to say that, 12 years on, it has survived – it’s everywhere now.”
The Michelin man
Chan Hon Meng
Creator of the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world – a S$3 plate of soya sauce chicken-rice – Malaysia-born chef Chan Hon Meng’s success hasn’t come without hard work. Arriving in Singapore in 1987, he spent over 20 years perfecting the recipe of his signature dish before opening his first hawker stall in 2009 – Hawker Chan . In 2016, he became one of the first street-food chefs in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. “I never once expected it,” he says. “But it was a turning point in my life.” Today, queues of an hour or more are common at his stand in Chinatown. The secret to his success? Hard work, he shrugs. “Singapore’s hawkers cook some of the best food in the world, so I believe that Michelin will recognise more of them in future. As long as they work wholeheartedly, they can reach world-class standards.”