Photography by Willin Low
Not many people know this, but Willin Low was technically my very first boss! Back when I was still in school, I was an avid reader of Chubby Hubby and came across a feature on Willin and his restaurant Wild Rocket.
Back then, pasta tossed with laksa pesto was the most innovative riff on a local dish and the concept spawned many imitators in cafes all over Singapore. The Wild Rocket menu was the only one of its kind out there at that time and fascinated me enough to want to work for Willin Low.
With zero understanding of what it was like to have a job, much less how a professional kitchen operated, I called up Relish when I was 18 to enquire for a holiday job right before university began. Willin had newly opened Burger Bench and Bar, and I spent a few months working there and then briefly at Relish. I have so many memories of that time – having Frolick while working, blending up rempah ingredients for the masak merah sauce, cutting into the flesh of my thumb while I was slicing onions and getting so oozy at the sight of blood that I had to be sent home in a cab…
Years later, I crossed paths with Willin again when Candlenut had a collaboration with Wild Rocket for STREAT 2017. When I released my first cookbook Wet Market to Table, Willin was even kind enough to write me a review!
Willin is often dubbed the “godfather of Singapore’s mod-Sin cuisine” in the media and has most recently opened a restaurant Roketto in Niseko. He talks about how he has adapted Singaporean dishes to the local produce in Japan, and his thought process for coming up with new dishes.
Mod Sin is… celebrating Singaporean flavours in ways not done traditionally. It changes the usual ingredients, temperature or method of cooking, while retaining the spirit of the original cuisine. The intent is never to elevate Singaporean cuisine because, in my opinion, it is great. I merely want to celebrate it.
When it comes to creating new dishes… there are no rules. I could be eating a chicken rice and think, “Wait a minute, that ginger and spring onion paste would rock a wagyu carpaccio.” Every Singaporean eating the carpaccio will go, “Why was I thinking of chicken rice when I didn’t eat chicken or rice?” Or I could be enjoying an awesome salsa in Mexico and think, “This is so good, but if I added cincalok to this, it would sing.”
It is hard to find the ingredients traditionally used in Singaporean dishes in Japan. At Roketto… we succeeded in making a sambal even though it is hard to source for hae bee, fresh chillies, shallots and belacan. Belacan was replaced with other ingredients that are ‘chow chow’ but are full of umami, such as dried anchovies and miso. We even used kani miso at one point. Shallots are replaced with leeks for sweetness and onions for sharpness. I also love using other countries’ local ingredients when I cook abroad, as it provides some geographical reference. For example, at Roketto, our laksa is made with Hokkaido snow crabs to give it an additional layer of flavor.
People associate Singaporean food as having to be cheap because… our forefathers were coolie migrants, and hence the food we ate were humble. Till today, hawker food remains affordable, thus reinforcing that association.
We should be prepared to pay more for local food that is done well because… traditional food is in danger of dying out, unless it is prepared by someone at home. If everyone refuses to pay more than 50 cents for an ondeh ondeh, no one will bother going through the effort of making a good ondeh ondeh. Instead, one would just make a cupcake which is infinitely easier but fetches a higher perceived value.
I see my job as one that… challenges people’s perception and to keep pushing the price boundaries. In saying that, we use good ingredients and do not cut corners to present something you cannot get for $2 or even $10.
A hawker item that is not the same as before is… popiah. Sadly, the filling we see at hawker centres are braised jicama that is likely all made by the same production kitchen. It is a shadow of popiahs that I ate at my grandma’s and in the homes of my friends, which have some or all of the following – carrots, cabbage, pork belly, bamboo shoot, dried shrimp and even seaweed.
Innovation when it comes to local food… should be encouraged. There should be no boundaries save for one – bad food. That is where the line is crossed.
A reason for the lack of understanding of a minority cuisine such as Eurasian cooking is… a lack of exposure. If we don’t get to eat it or see it, chances are that our understanding is naturally reduced. As it is, we do not understand or know much of the Eurasian community, much less its cuisine. We can try to have more conversations, but it will take a long time to reach a tipping point. It is easier to have something big to resurrect it, like a big movie, TV seriesor a celebrity to bring interest to the cuisine again.
For a chef, flying the Singapore flag overseas means to… share our food with a bigger audience. I am honoured that I am able to represent Singapore and bring our flavours overseas – I want to ‘laksa’ as many cities as possible! Others who are flying our flag abroad are Jimmy Lin in Taiwan, Nicholas Tang in Washington DC and Lynette Zheng in London!
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