Choosing to embrace a broader sense of the word, these three talented young chefs ponder the inevitable evolution of contemporary Singaporean fare

As a nation of food lovers, our accustomed notion of modern Singaporean cuisine is, ironically, a little vague—biased, at best. Famously coined “mod-Sin” over a decade ago by one of the industry’s pioneering advocates, chef Willin Low, the perception over the years seldom strayed far from the clever reimagining of the delectably nostalgic, playing off the same bold flavours that made the darlings of the working-class—dishes such as laksa, chilli crab and chicken rice—the icons of local fare that they are.

The concept also thrust traditionally well-loved ingredients such as hae bee hiam and buah keluak, alongside other notable catalysts of Straits Chinese fare, into the spotlight as key components in a bevy of novel East-meets-West creations.

And even as elevated adaptations of traditional foods began to enjoy greater global recognition, thanks in part to the elegant stylings of Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, so too has a defiantly personal spin on mod-Sin cuisine in the hands of chefs like locavore Han Li Guang of Labyrinth. The latter’s restaurant made the Michelin guide in 2017 and became the first of its class to earn a star. Speaking of which, there’s an increased commitment to sourcing locally that has become an integral part of what it means to champion something uniquely Singaporean.

Awarded chefs Lee and Han are not alone on this evolutionary journey. The appeal of finding new ways to celebrate a sense of place continues to prove hard to resist for many young chefs working in Singapore. It may be hard to define as a cuisine but easy to recognise, and certainly not limited to a capricious market’s craving for oxtail rendang pappardelle or satay burger.

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Lee Boon Seng

Another chef who has found both comfort and inspiration in flavours synonymous with Singapore is chef Lee Boon Seng. Originally from Malaysia, the 35-year-old Singapore permanent resident discovered his calling at age 17 while working in the kitchen of the now-defunct Equinox. There, he spent eight years climbing up the ranks before cutting his teeth at restaurants Osia and Curate, to name a few. Today, he heads the kitchen at multi-concept venue, The Spot, where he serves food that is “anchored in European technique and enriched with the ingredients of his Asian heritage”.

An avid saucier at heart, his sauces are often infused with Southeast Asian flavours he grew up with, notably from ingredients used in traditional cooking, such as chinkiang vinegar, chrysanthemum, tamarind, fermented black soybean, tong cai, fermented shrimp paste and liquorice root. He was curious about the different ways he could possibly represent them using modern cooking methods, highlighting, as well, the fact that a wide variety of dishes in Singapore flaunt an umami-rich sauce or marinade. “These flavours are very familiar to the locals, but I like breaking them down to come up with a sauce or marinade I can call my own,” Lee expounds.

Dishes of his childhood that he draws inspiration from include zi char favourites such as sambal petai with prawns served with rice. His contemporary take features a base of puffed rice cracker, made with rice flour and cashew nuts, that is topped with a sambal emulsion, petai beans and a little XO sauce.

“Instead of cooked prawns, I’ve chosen sweet amaebi, served raw, to add a layer of sweetness to the dish,” he shares. The snack is finished with a sheet of pickled ginger gelee, because he feels the acidity binds all the flavours together. “Imagine layers on layers of texture and flavours—that’s really exciting,” he muses.

Another signature dish of his features glazed duck breast with chrysanthemum flower honey and plum ginger vinegar jus. The technique used to make the sauce is classic French, but the flavours are very Southeast Asian. “It is a demi-glace of plum vinegar, ginger, honey, salted plum, chrysanthemum and chrysanthemum oil,” he notes.

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Lai Sook Yi

In an industry where cross-cultural cooking is pretty much the norm, 29-year-old Lai Sook Yi, a former sous chef at feted restaurant Nouri, has had a privileged assessment of this evolving trend. Even so, mod-Sin as a concept is not something she has thought about a lot.

“I had often seen it as a fusion of familiar local dishes with foreign ingredients, keeping a loose sense of the dishes’ initial identity,” she shares. She did, however, add that if she were to reflect on what the concept should mean, it needs to represent an evolving style, one that’s “reflective of the creative minds of local chefs, who reimagine ways to use familiar ingredients with various techniques to create new dishes”.

She argues that the foods we consume ultimately echo the changes in society, where chefs and diners are more worldly—or at least more familiar with a global feast.

“What these young chefs bring back [from their travels] will reflect in their cumulative interpretations of their experiences,” she explains. “It may not only be a specific cuisine they have immersed themselves in, but values of liberal cultures and self-driven societies could also be a strong driving force behind their creative processes.”

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This is evident in Lai’s cooking, where local and regional ingredients form the focal points of her dishes. What is nonetheless critical to her culinary approach is the desire to express a sense of place. She believes it sets the foundation for the style and character of a chef to blossom. “You may have a particular cuisine labelled to you, but within it, you can delve deeper with so many variations if you do not look at the boundaries as a limiting factor but rather a liberating one,” she posits.

A dish that illustrates this philosophy is her yam gnocchi—made with yellow and garlic chives and buttermilk—that is inspired by abacus seed, a Hakka classic which she enjoys. It's one of several original ideas she had featured during her stint at the Magic Square 1.0 pop-up restaurant in 2019, including an appetiser featuring sago paired with clams, fermented potatoes and sambal belachan.

“I encountered sabudana, a type of sago commonly eaten in western India through a friend and found them in local Indian grocery stores,” she explains. “It has a chewy texture and takes on a variety of flavours thrown at it.”

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Gan Ming Kiat

Last year, local chef Gan Ming Kiat’s cult private dining concept, Mustard Seed, made its restaurant debut. Located in the suburban Serangoon Gardens estate, it serves a distinctive brand of mod-Sin fare—featuring Singaporean flavours inspired by Japanese cuisine and technique—that reflects the team’s formative years working at Candlenut, as well as Gan’s three-year stint at the now-defunct Goto kaiseki restaurant. “There are many interpretations of mod-Sin cuisine, with varying levels of creativity and execution (and different price points),” shares the soft-spoken 30-year-old. He notes that on one end of the spectrum, there are luxe versions of street foods, such as Hokkien mee cooked with lobster bisque and served with lobster meat, and on the other end, there are the more creative takes by chefs like Desmond Shen, Marcus Leow and Abel Su of Magic Square 1.0. They, he explains, are pushing the boundaries when it comes to using, fermenting and preserving native ingredients.

Gan describes his cuisine as being somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. “The flavours are mostly familiar and comforting—and maybe slightly elevated—but it is not hyper-creative or anything like that,” he shares. “I do value the fact that people can connect easily to the food I cook.” A huge part of his repertoire is based on his interpretation of existing dishes and flavours, though he admits it is hard to say how much of his food is inspired by Peranakan and Japanese cuisines, as he feels both Lee (Candlenut) and Goto’s Hisao Goto were great mentors. “It is all very organic and natural, and the influences from both cuisines inevitably show,” Gan confirms. “But I would say, in general, we keep a Singaporean point of view… and there is always an emphasis to showcase Singaporean flavours.”

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His crab porridge, for example, is his take on chilli crab topped with Sri Lankan mud crab meat and some crab tomalley or crab miso. The process starts with a rempah (spice paste), which he makes with chilli and aromatics, that he then combines with flower crab stock and vine-ripened tomatoes to make a chilli crab sauce. Taking inspiration from Japanese zosui (rice soups), rice is only added during service, as too much starch released from the rice could muddle the flavours of the sauce.

Gan feels much of the Singaporean identity revolves around food. He also explains that while Singapore is a cosmopolitan city with abundant and diverse choices for food, the desire to understand its food traditions better is even more essential. To flout this, he posits, is to risk the erosion of the country’s precious food culture.