If there is one thing today’s lauded best restaurants lists have affirmed, it is that innovation is key to ensuring that a cuisine makes its mark in an increasingly fickle market. The sad fact, though, is that an influx of new things to eat is often indulged at the expense of once treasured classics.
Thankfully, there has been a renewed interest in both innovating and preserving Singapore heritage cuisines, notably Peranakan fare. This was marked by the first-ever inclusion in the Michelin Guide Singapore 2016 of a Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut by Malcolm Lee (now located at Como Dempsey). And there is no denying the cultural significance of housing the National Kitchen by Violet Oon in the historical City Hall building that is now home to the National Gallery Singapore.
But these events don’t guarantee that no dish will slip through the tight embrace of this nation of food lovers; something more chefs are fighting to prevent.
(Related: Singaporean Chefs Who Make Us Proud)
“Preserving our cuisine is preserving our heritage,” says Philip Chia, a fourth-generation Chinese Peranakan and self-taught chef who recently returned as guest chef at The Clifford Pier in The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore, for a three-week special in March. The menu featured some of his signature dishes as well as a few “forgotten” ones. These include the sasagoon, a simple treat, he explains, that is the product of Portuguese and Indian-Eurasian influences, with roots stretching as far as the Indian Catholic community in Goa, where coconuts are abundant. “It was a snack I enjoyed as a kid in the early 1960s,” he shares.
A mixture of grated coconut and rice flour is first cooked in a copper wok, and then ground into a fine powder and mixed with sugar. “Young children would eat it in kachang putih paper cones, with their tips snipped off so that the mixture could be poured directly into their mouths.”
These days, most children prefer cleverly disguised mass-produced variations of flavoured sugar treats. In contrast, this laborious process is threatening the survival of dishes such as babi towhay—pork belly cooked in red wine lees.
Chia believes the dish is derived from the Hakka and Hock Chew dialect groups, as they would use red rice yeast to ferment cooking wines to make ang chow (red rice wine lees). The Peranakans decided to use ang chow to ferment gragoh (planktonic shrimps), which were cheap and plentiful in the day.