Cover Local wild caught crayfish, dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with Victorian nasturtium puree, from restaurant Labyrinth

When only the best of locally sourced proteins will do

Sustainable consumption continues to be the catchphrase of the day. However, while more professional kitchens are striving to make it more of a reality—by minimising waste and using locally grown herbs and greens—the leap required for consumers to be able to appreciate sourced-in-Singapore meats and fish on the same level as their foreign counterparts seems too great for some, say the island’s top chefs.

It’s one the most common misconceptions about local products, shares chef-owner Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung. “We can get fish, chicken, duck and some seafood locally and they’re all great—even the frog and crocodile farms have great stuff,” he asserts, but admits that it takes time and effort to get the word out, and for chefs to come up with new and better ways to showcase less-familiar proteins.

One of Nocente’s favourite local sources is Ah Hua Kelong, from which he has been getting his seafood the last three years, since the restaurant’s opening. “The grouper has become one of our signature dishes,” he says. “The fish is usually just caught in the morning and delivered to the restaurant by noon, so it’s super-fresh and without any fishy smell or taste. When poached, it has a firm but tender texture, with a full-bodied flavour.”

The quality of the fish allows Nocente to keep the dish relatively simple—completed with lemon-compressed cucumber for acidity, a smoky charcoal emulsion, crumbs made with the bones of the fish and fish-soy-fermented prawn butter. “We use the fish bones to make a broth, which is used to poach the fish, and infuse the remaining bones with soy for 30 days to make a fish-based soy for the finishing sauce,” he explains. “The bones are then roasted and blitzed into a crumb that’s served with the dish, giving it an intense umami flavour as well as added texture.” This is also in line with the restaurant’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and waste, he emphasises.

Another boldly confident proponent of sourcing locally is chef Han Liguang of Michelin-starred modern-Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth; its menu utilises 80 per cent local produce—meats and seafood, as well as vegetables and artisanal products.

Han, too, has a close working relationship with Ah Hua Kelong, which he explains also helps procure wild flower crabs, among other seafood such as wild-caught shrimp and crayfish, from the local fishermen at the Jurong Fishery Port when their boats come in at around two every morning. He’s particularly proud of the quality of green lip mussels that “grow naturally at Ah Hua Kelong”, describing them as sweet and juicy, and as good as the best mussels he’s had dining abroad. “The silver perch grown by Nippon Koi Farm is also amazing, and has a very delicate texture and natural sweetness from the natural feed it is fed,” he adds.

(Related: Four Rebels With A Cause)

As a Singaporean chef cooking Singaporean food, Han feels compelled to champion local produce and farmers, noting that it is a more sustainable and ethical choice. He admits that there is a still a lot of progress to be made, as local farms “do not yet have the scale or manpower to meet the demands of the entire restaurant industry”.

While there is also the issue of a limited variety says Olivier Bendel, French restaurateur and founder of Déliciae Hospitality Management, he agrees that there is the need for more education to debunk the myths surrounding local produce and to also encourage more support of the local industry.

“Looking at our menu at L’Entrecôte The Steak & Fries Bistro (Customs House), while we endeavour to provide an authentic taste of France for our diners and incorporate French ingredients into our dishes, we also choose to look at local options where possible,” Bendel declares. “This is why we have been using locally farmed frogs (a common ingredient in French cuisine), because we are confident that their quality is of a high enough standard.”

(Related: Local Farms Continue To Grow Their Impact On Fine Dining)

Local Demand

Just as much as they value the quality and freshness of local ingredients, chefs here appreciate the care that goes into making these farms ideal alternatives. “I’ve met the farmers in person and I understand their procedures… and I can trust them; they’re very principled in how they operate and interact,” says LeVel33’s executive chef ArChan Chan, who also uses seabass and mussels from Ah Hua Kelong, as well as Kühlbarra barramundi and Rockstar oysters from Sea Farmers at Ubin. “The oysters have a really wonderful mineral character, yet the finish is sweet and creamy. That’s something you don’t find every day,” she says.

Chan serves these them raw with a malt vinaigrette to showcase their unique flavour, while the fish are often paired with the restaurant’s beer malt risotto. “Honestly, what I really want in terms of local produce are vegetables,” she adds, lamenting that farms here don’t produce enough, which makes it hard for restaurants to retain a regular order.

Some will argue that the demand needs to grow in tandem, while others aren’t waiting around for that to happen. “Singapore’s food scene is very small, so it’s important for local businesses to support each other as much as we can,” says Malcolm Lee of the award-winning Peranakan restaurant Candlenut at Como Dempsey.

(Related: Malcolm Lee Of Candlenut On The Future Of Peranakan Fare)

Tatler Asia
Nippon Koi Farm Silver Perch otah in all-spice leaf and kaffir lime oil, from restaurant Labyrinth
Above Nippon Koi Farm Silver Perch otah in all-spice leaf and kaffir lime oil, from restaurant Labyrinth

The restaurant sources from Freedom Range Company for all dishes requiring eggs, from the mackerel omelette in its fish maw soup that’s served as part of Lee’s “ah-ma-kase” menu to desserts, such as homemade kueh salat and kueh bingkah. “These cage-free eggs are very different,” explains Lee. “The yolks are rich and luscious and don’t break as easily, and the egg whites are also less watery as compared to other eggs. The quality is consistently good, and the eggs are always very fresh.”

Other locally sourced proteins on Candlenut’s menu include snapper from The Fish Farmer, which the kitchen grills, and Kühlbarra barramundi from Barramundi Asia, which he uses in his dish of ikan Assam pedas, as well as chicken from Toh Thye San Farm.

Another fish farm that has been steadily growing despite the tough challenges is Seafood Culture—and its commitment goes beyond establishing a lucrative business. Working with Edible Garden City and a local polytechnic, its owner, Daniel Wee, aims to help create a sustainable, eco-friendly fish feed.

Wee’s focus on quality is evident in the select variety of seafood he chooses to farm, which includes a hybrid black grouper and, occasionally, rock lobster. Among others, Txa Pintxo Bar and Una, both at The Alkaff Mansion, prefer seabass from Seafood Culture for its reliability, according to executive chef Tom Kung. He notes that sourcing locally allows the restaurants to save on certain costs, such as transportation, which he says leads to better value for customers. To be sure, though, the significance of having the best local produce prepared by some of the country’s top chefs is best appreciated over a fine meal.