SINGAPORE (Reuters) - After launching fine dining restaurants in Taipei and Shanghai over the past half decade, Singapore’s best known chef, Justin Quek, has come home.
With dishes like xiao long bao — a delicate Chinese dumpling — filled with truffle consomme and foie gras, the French-trained chef is hailed for his daring, artful blends of Asian and French ingredients and techniques.
Quek’s new restaurant, “Sky on 57,” which overlooks Singapore from the peak of a gleaming casino and hotel complex, is part of an influx of big-name chefs into the city-state as new money, proximity to Asia’s growing economies, and slick tourist attractions draw businesses and visitors.
Among foreigners, Singapore is often referred to as “Asia-lite” or “Asia for beginners” — where travelers can sample the fiery spices, aromatic broths and deep-flavored stews of the region without needing to endure the discomforts of Southeast Asia’s sweaty jungles or its less accommodating cities.
Quek spoke to Reuters about Singapore’s culinary heritage, and how he blends Asian and French cooking.
Q: Singapore is known as a food-obsessed city. What makes it so special here?
A: “We’re very small, and in our history until recently we’ve been a so-called clean, obedient city, so all you can do is eat. The street food is great. South Chinese immigrants into Singapore — Hakka, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien — they brought their culinary skills with them, and Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia — that’s where it started to fuse. When the first wave (of immigrants) couldn’t get the ingredients they were used to, they improvised, started to eat chili, blending, improvising, until it becomes habit. It’s Chinese mixing with Malay: in China they use oil, Malay cooking uses coconut milk.”
Q: What are the thought processes behind your combinations?
A: “When I eat something, my palate will tell me how I can elevate the flavors. (With sweet foods) I’m thinking ‘how do I counter the sweetness?,” and I can take acidity from lime, light spiciness from ginger. It’s all about balancing flavors — it’s not that you can read a book and do it. With my food, I prefer (to drink) Riesling, because my food has a bit of spice, or Pinot Noir. Sauternes, just have it with a ripe melon or a peach, some Spanish ham, otherwise it’s too cloying.”
Q: Can anyone do it?
A: “Mixing isn’t about 1+1=2, it’s not that easy. When you’re eating something and your palate tells you what’s missing, that’s when you start combining. The difference between me and a French chef is that I think Asian. The sauce with my pepper lobster is different from the pepper sauce that goes with steak.”
Q: Is “fusion” part of an evolution in cooking away from regional cuisine toward a “global” style?
A: “‘Fusion’ is very badly used. We use ‘Franco-Asian’. My training is French; I use Asian products and flavors. The difference is, we use less butter and cream. Our target is mainly Asians, and lots of Asians are lactose intolerant.”
Q: How is the growing wealth in China changing dining habits?
A: “There are people who want to show they’ve arrived. It’s the same in any nouveau riche country. Some people, they don’t think about money, they just say ‘give me the best’ ... In Europe it’s more ‘c’est comme ca’ (it must be done like this) though they’ve started to change. Hong Kong is a very sophisticated market, they’re affluent, they know what’s good.”
Q: What are the technical skills most important in cooking?
A: “First, knife skills. Then, knowing how to control heat. Most important is choosing the right product ... the rest is simple. Take a fresh langoustine, cook it in a heavy pan to seal it, add extra virgin olive oil, a basil leaf and some baby spinach.”
Editing by Elaine Lies