Having a wealth of cuisines at our doorstep doesn’t automatically make us knowledgeable foodies, argues Bjorn Shen
Singapore is no doubt a food-crazy nation. We’re up there with many other foodie capitals in terms of availability, accessibility and variety of cuisines to choose from. Sushi bars, ramen shops, Korean BBQ joints, American diners, Irish pubs, French bistros, Italian pizzerias, Aussie cafés, Thai eateries, Spanish tapas joints… you name it, we’ve probably got it. But does that really make us world-class foodies?
I just opened my second restaurant, Bird Bird, a 'chicken and som tum' restaurant inspired by the rough-and-tumble cuisine of the Isaan Province in north-eastern Thailand. What this means is that we don't serve pad Thai, green curry or pandan chicken. Instead, in paying homage to our Isaan roots, we have BBQ chicken, papaya salad, larb, num tok, sticky rice – things that come from that specific region of Thailand. Yet, we still get people coming in and demanding, 'Where’s the pad Thai?' or 'What kind of Thai restaurant doesn’t serve tom yum?'
Another example: I have a good friend who owns a highly successful Spanish restaurant here. He started off with a dream of running a buzzy tapas bar, where people would stand up against the counter, knock back bottles of Estrella and graze on small plates. Yet, in his opening months, he was confronted by many a disappointed customer who demanded to know why he didn't serve paella and suckling pig. So, months later, and having been berated constantly by his customers, he modified his concept. He now runs what I consider one of the best, if not the best, sit-down Spanish restaurant in town, serving some amazing paella and suckling pig. Despite the happy ending, a little part of me dies whenever I think back of the tapas bar that it could have been, and how his dream was twisted because of peoples' reluctance to explore beyond their comfort zones.
Here's what I hope. The next time you're at an 'Italian' restaurant helmed by an Italian dude, don’t immediately order the carbonara or the meatiest pizza on the menu (you know who you are). Ask where the chef is from, and if there's anything on the menu that the restaurant is particularly proud of. You might just find out that the chef is from Lombardi in Northern Italy and that the quail ragu on polenta is a proud family recipe passed down over six generations.
In the restaurant business, supply is driven largely by demand. In order for our food scene to be even more exciting than it already is, customers need to show chefs and business owners that they're ready for it. Until then, if we're still harassing every restaurant for eggs Benny and truffled fries for brunch, we really are some distance away from being the great, accomplished foodie nation that we'd like to believe we are.