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Keeping heritage food alive in Singapore

Heritage heroes: three Singaporeans on how they keep their traditions alive through food

Nicole-Marie Ng
Written by
Nicole-Marie Ng

Food isn't just something we put in our mouths and chew. It’s imbued with meaning, history and can even be a site of contestation – cue chicken rice wars and heated chilli crab debates. As a nation, we’re gaga over our local cuisine. There’s so much to be proud of, and so much to preserve. We talk to three local champions of heritage food on why safeguarding these dishes for future generations is important.

  • Restaurants
  • French
  • Kallang

Chef Pang Kok Keong

Pang’s Hakka Delicacies

You might know him better as the chef behind Antoinette – the pretty French restaurant and patisserie with drool-worthy cakes and bakes – but chef Pang has a new project up his sleeve. A tribute to his heritage, Pang’s Hakka Delicacies offers customers a taste of Hakka kuehs and dishes during the weekends by ordering via Whatsapp. “I think Hakka food is one of the rarest out of all the dialect groups in Singapore,” explains Pang. It’d be a shame if these dishes are lost because no one sells them anymore. I needed to do something about it.”

Preparing Hakka food from scratch takes a long time and
it’s not as widely consumed by the younger generation. “I don’t think there’s a big market for Hakka food,” says Pang. “For someone to do it, they need to have a mission in mind. The effort that goes into it doesn’t reflect the final result.” Take, for example, the Hakka staple, abacus seeds. Pang cleans, peels and steams the yams and make them into a dough. It’s then shaped by hand before it’s fried with meticulously julienned mushrooms and leeks.

Other Hakka dishes Pang offers include leek keuh stuffed with dried shrimps and leeks, mugwort kueh, a bitter delicacy filled with white radish, carrot and minced pork and yam cakes dotted with fried shallots, mushrooms and dried shrimps fried in lard.

“After spending 20 years honing my skills in French cuisine, I asked myself – why don’t I spend some of that energy researching my own food culture and heritage? Wouldn’t that be more rewarding than studying somebody else’s cuisine? I want young Hakkas to know the real taste of their food so that they’re inspired to carry on the torch.”

  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Tanglin

V Maheyndran and Nagajyoth Maheyndran

Samy’s Curry Restaurant

There’s no denying that fish head curry is a quintessential Singaporean dish. M.J. Gomez is credited as its creator, introducing it at his stall on Sophia Road in 1949. It was a runway hit, with Indian, Chinese and Peranakan restaurants putting their unique spin on it.

One of the first restaurants to do so was Samy’s Curry, founded in the 1950s as a small stall peddling Indian food along Tank Road. It moved to Dempsey in the 1980s but still retains its oldschool charm. “We keep things traditional because that’s what works,” says V Mahendran, the second generation owner of Samy’s Curry. “We still go around to the tables to scoop rice onto each customer’s banana leaf. It’s a personalised touch, like you’re eating at home. It makes guests happy and makes us happy.”

In an age where induction cookers have replaced charcoal fires and one machine can do the job of five people, many places have forgone traditional cooking methods to save time. “Our food is our strongest point,” shares Nagajyothi Mahendran, the daughter of V Mahendran and future owner of Samy’s Curry. “We make our curry paste every day from scratch and will never change the recipe. Because of time and manpower issues, a lot of restaurants take shortcuts but we still believe in putting in the effort. We could automate or serve food buffet style. That’s less cost for us but it wouldn’t be right.”

“The way we prepare food and how we serve it is a part of our identity," says Nagajyothi. "Protecting it is protecting our culture. We need to make sure our roots are still there – to recognise what our forefathers used to eat and how they ate it, that’s important for my children and grandchildren.”

  • Restaurants
  • Peranakan
  • Kallang
  • price 2 of 4

Chef Damian D’Silva

Folklore Chef Damian D’Silva

has made it his life’s work to make Eurasian food accessible to the general public. The former aircraft engineer, best known for concepts like Immigrants Gastrobar and D's Joint at Timbre+, launched Folklore last year to celebrate the Eurasian and Peranakan dishes he grew up with. While Peranakan food is a familiar sight, Eurasian cuisine is not as commonly found in restaurants – and unless you have Eurasian friends who welcome you to their homes for a meal, chances are, you’re not acquainted with dishes like Devil’s curry and feng, a spicy pig offal stew.

These dishes are a labour of love that take days to prepare so many hand-written recipe books have only gained layers of dust over the years. No one has the time to cook anymore, and even commercially, it doesn’t make sense to serve them when easier dishes will do. But D’Silva insists on keeping them on the menu. “These are dishes created by our forefather,” he explains. “We can learn it and change it as long as it allows us to go back and start from wherever we left off. But, if we lose it, then there’s nothing for us to go back to. If that happens, we lose part of our soul.”

The best way to keep that from happening? “Start cooking,” urges Damian. “Talk to cooks within your own ethnic community. Understanding your food will give you a better understanding of your heritage and who you are.”

Join us for Time Out Singapore's Dining Series: Balik Kampong Heritage Dinner

Learn more about heritage food in Singapore by joining the first of Time Out Singapore's Dining Series on July 25 and 26. The Balik Kampong Heritage dinner will take you on a journey through Singapore's culinary history with dishes from various cultures. Find out more here.

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