Mod-Sin champions Willin Low and Han Li Guang muse about the enduring qualities of contemporary Singaporean fare.

“We are a small country; our cuisine will always be the cuisine of a small country in a global market,” explains the pioneering chef, who is perhaps most famously known to have been the first to coin the term mod-Sin (modern Singaporean) cuisine to describe his novel take on staple local dishes 12 years ago. 

“Nonetheless, Singapore has always punched above its weight, so maybe we can repeat the magic with our food,” he adds. “But before we can do that, we need to ensure that mod-Sin cuisine takes root in our homeland first.”

Following Candlenut’s groundbreaking achievement last year, when it became the first Peranakan restaurant to earn a Michelin star, mod-Sin restaurant Labyrinth further drummed up interest in Singapore’s uniquely diverse dining scene when it became the first such restaurant to earn a Michelin star in the 2017 edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore.

(Related: Interview: Willin Low)

“People know Singapore as a financial hub, a modern city, but people don’t know of Singapore cuisine as much as they do of Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese cuisine. So, to be able to represent mod-Sin is somewhat a dream come true,” says Labyrinth’s chef-owner Han Li Guang. He believes this might inspire more consumers and professionals alike to take Singapore cuisine more seriously, and not just for its famed hawker scene. 

He also hopes to one day represent Singapore in the same way Noma did for Denmark. “Why is it that a Nordic country that sees winter nine months in a year can have produce it can call its own and represent on a global stage, when Singapore is technically sunny almost every day of the year, but doesn’t have anything to showcase?” Han posits. 

We imagine the answer will require time and insight into this inspired style of cuisine. And who better to offer that than the chef who started it all, and the chef who is continuing this legacy?

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Above Wild Rocket's Chilli Crab Cannelloni

(Related: Review: Wild Rocket)

What is mod-Sin cuisine to you?  

Willin Low (WL): Mod-Sin is a celebration of local flavours, local dishes and local ingredients in a manner not previously done before.

Han Li Guang (HLG): It’s anything that isn’t traditional Singaporean cuisine, but still based on Singaporean cuisine, its flavours, history and culture. My style is a new expression of Singapore cuisine. It’s influenced by my family and friends I grew up with and the foods I love to eat here in Singapore.  

How much of the authenticity of the original foods and flavours should the dishes celebrate? 

WL: To me, the spirit of the original dish must be intact. And the spirit of any dish would be the flavour of that dish. An example is chicken rice. Over the years at my restaurant, we’ve had three different dishes inspired by chicken rice. 

The first had the exact same ingredients of the original chicken rice. It was the format that was different. We removed the bones of the midsection of chicken wings. We cooked the rice with chicken stock, ginger, garlic and other essential ingredients. We then stuffed the wings with the rice and roasted the wings and served them with traditional chicken rice chilli. 

The second again had all the familiar ingredients but we added an ingredient never associated with chicken rice, and used a different technique to cook the chicken. We cooked the chicken rice and added truffle butter; the chicken breast was cooked sous vide and the dish was served with shaved truffle.

The third inspiration was more abstract, as it had neither chicken nor rice. It was a beef carpaccio served with a ginger sesame and spring onion paste—flavours associated with chicken rice. When our guests ate it without knowing the inspiration, they said, “It was very strange that we kept thinking of chicken rice even though we were eating beef”. 

(Related: Review: Labyrinth)

HLG: What is authentic? We don’t have a very long history and a lot of the food influences came from overseas. Hokkien mee now tastes different from when it first arrived. Every dish that came from overseas—China, Malaysia, Indonesia—evolved to suit the local palate. I was taught to make oyster sauce from scratch, and we make it from scratch at the restaurant. That’s authentic to my father and grandmother, but is it authentic to the people from my generation who are used to oyster sauce from the bottle? So, I won’t say that I cook to meet consumers’ perception of what’s authentic. If I were to make laksa, for example, I would cook it according to the produce that I like to use, which would be local produce and seafood I like to champion, and according to my palate. To me, there isn’t one fixed definition of mod-Sin cuisine. For me, it’s an expression through my eyes. 

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Above Labyrinth Kaya and Rojak (image by John Heng)
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Above Low's oxtail rendang pappardelle

What two dishes would best describe the kind of chef that you are?  

WL: It’s impossible to name two dishes. And I’m not sure if I want to be bound by two dishes. Instead, I’ll say our omakase menu, which has between seven to nine courses of mod-Sin dishes. Whether you love or hate it, you’ll certainly know what kind of a chef I am. It’s exactly the same when I’m asked to name two dishes that represent Singaporean cuisine. It’s not possible because the cuisine is too diverse.

HLG: The first dish would be the overly mentioned (but I really like it) chilli crab ice cream. I say the ice cream and not the dish, because the ice cream is always the same but the ingredients around it would change all the time and the diner can instantly taste the chilli crab sauce, but not the milk, sugar or cream. That’s the result of five years of hard work. The other would be Labyrinth’s bak chor mee, which looks and tastes like the hawker staple, but without the minced meat or the noodles. It’s been on the menu for two and a half years, but I can’t take it off because it also represents the quirky, playful side of me. Of course, as I mature as a chef, I try to move away from the more playful elements. 

How much of a rebel would you need to be to stand out as a successful mod-Sin chef? 

WL: I’m not sure I seek to be a rebel. Rather, I want to celebrate the flavours I grew up with and want to share those flavours with anyone who’s interested. To be a successful mod-Sin chef, or any chef for that matter, is to be able to cook what you love, and what your audience loves too.

HLG: Ultimately, you need to be a complete rebel, and you really need to ignore what the market wants because the Singapore market is a hard one to crack. People here are conditioned to want things they know or are familiar with. I don’t rebel against traditional cooking methods; I actually embrace them. But why must fish only be cooked a certain way? It’s also a rebellion against a system, and a culture where people are only willing to pay $3 to $4 for a Singapore dish. 

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Above Low's Singapore fried noodles
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Above Han's beef horfun

Do you think the definition of mod-Sin is growing to accommodate a broader concept?

WL: I think so—my definition of the term is rather broad, so yes. To me, as long as the spirit of the original Singapore dish is preserved, regardless of whether there’s a new cooking technique involved or new ingredients are added, it can be embraced as mod-Sin. I recently had a cocktail at the Horse’s Mouth bar and it had kaya foam, which surprisingly hit the kaya spot for me—that, to me, is mod-Sin.

HLG: People are definitely more open to mod-Sin cuisine right now. The reason why I’ve been around for three and a half years is that people still patronise my restaurant. Yes, we have our critics, but we also have people who appreciate and love what we do. But for every one of us out there, be it myself, Willin or Malcolm [Lee, of Candlenut fame], there are a lot of other chefs who have tried mod-Sin cuisine and their businesses have failed. We’re not embracing it as quickly as other countries have their own cuisines. We are pitting mod-Sin against hawker foods; we’re not embracing all forms of it. Whereas in Bangkok and Manila, they’re embracing everything that’s local—from modern Filipino to modern Thai, to street food, they love it all.

What might mod-Sin cuisine look like in a decade?   

WL: Maybe in a decade it won’t be mod-Sin anymore, because celebrating local flavours in new ways won’t be considered new or modern anymore. It may be “current-Sin cuisine” because it’s the de facto cuisine of Singapore, or it could be called post-mod-Sin. It might even inspire a resurgence or a revival of the original classic cuisine.

HLG: That’s a tough question. My new menu is launching end of this year, and if you asked me a year ago, my vision would not be this menu at all. But what I hope to see is local cuisine—like French cuisine—becoming one of the main modules offered in schools. 

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Above Low and Han discuss the challenges in elevating local foods Photos: Jason Ho
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Above Labyrinth Mee Pok seafood sambal (photo by John Heng)

(Related: What Went Down At The Singapore Tatler T.Dining Best Restaurants 2017/18 Awards)

How important is innovation to the future of Singapore cuisine?  

WL: Innovation is the blood of Singapore cuisine. Our forefathers added coconut milk to custard because dairy was not common. It became kaya. That’s innovation. So, to me innovation is vital to our cuisine.

HLG: Very important. The hawker dishes we see right now are innovative versions of what they used to be when they first came to Singapore. What we know as traditional today was modern long time ago. Penang laksa, for example, doesn’t taste like Penang laksa anymore. Hainanese chicken rice doesn’t taste like Hainanese chicken rice at all. These have become quintessentially Singaporean versions, and it’s because of innovation. Innovation is about having the right mentality, creativity and passion to make things better; but better with respect to what the local consumer likes—there’s no right or wrong answer. Innovation is happening all the time and it’s very important because our food cannot remain static.   

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