The first time I tasted Ming Kiat’s food was when Mustard Seed was a pop-up held at his home. Working alone the day we visited, Ming Kiat sent out dish after dish of meticulously prepared food, all with impeccable timing. A reflection of his time at Candlenut, many of Ming Kiat’s dishes were punchy, bold and had rempah as their backbone. Yet, owing to his influence from Goto, the dishes managed to taste delicate, restrained and well-balanced at the same time. It was no easy feat, particularly when you ponder on the fact that the array of dishes came out of someone’s home, rather than a fully-fitted out restaurant.
Since then, Mustard Seed has grown into an intimate restaurant that seats a maximum of 13 guests. In the following interview, Ming Kiat talks about how his mother has influenced his cooking, ruminates on how we can preserve heritage food and shares his fears and hopes for the future of Singaporean food.
I decided to work at Candlenut because… I wanted to work for a restaurant that specialized in local food. I’ve always loved eating local food but had little to no knowledge on how to cook it. I left my job at Goto after realising that while I knew how to cook Japanese food, I just didn’t feel connected to it. There are many nuances behind the traditions of Kaiseki and the cuisine is also governed by a deep reverence to micro seasonality. All these I found hard to grasp as someone who didn’t grow up in Japan. I saw how proud the Japanese were of their cuisine and thought, why not Singaporeans?
I realised that if I wanted to cook something that was meaningful to myself, I needed to learn how to cook the flavours I grew up with and develop a better understanding of Singapore’s culinary traditions.
If I have to describe my food, I think it’s… a slightly elevated and creative take on local cuisine. The flavours are quite simple and easy to understand, especially for locals who would have a context of these tastes. We, as a team, put a lot of effort into the finer details of the dishes and make sure that every step of the cooking process is done with care and with no shortcuts. While I think our food is quite simple, simple is not easy and I’m glad that most of our guests can taste the thought and the heart behind it. So I think sincerity in the process of cooking food is a differentiator for us and defines Mustard Seed’s cuisine.
One of the biggest considerations in my menu planning is… flow. The dishes in the menu have to transition well and also have an ebb and flow, with appropriate climaxes. While our mission at the restaurant is to explore all facets of Singapore cuisine, it has never been a priority for us to present a comprehensive take of Singapore’s food in a single menu. Usually during the planning process, there would be a few dishes that I would have the most “feels” for and I would lock these dishes down and plan the rest of the menu around them.
The dinner table, to me, is associated with… the idea of comfort. I come from a close-knit family where a lot of time is spent at the dinner table, sharing meals. Meal times were a time of bonding where the family would catch up with each other’s lives. Perhaps because of these experiences, this notion of the dinner table being tied to comfort has inevitably been translated to my own cooking. A lot of guests have described my food to have a comforting quality to it and that makes me happy because that is an emotion I aim to evoke in my cooking.
The most personal dish that I’ve cooked at Mustard Seed is… popiah porridge. My mom is a great cook – intuitive and resourceful – who was always preparing balanced meals that would nourish the family. Popiah porridge is a dish that was born out of her resourcefulness in the kitchen.
Popiah is one of my mother’s signature dishes that she would cook for special occasions. When serving, we often place the popiah filling of slow braised jicama, carrots, cabbage and dried shrimp in a colander to ensure that the filling does not get too soggy and ruin the fragile popiah skins we wrap them with. What was collected at the bottom of the colander were the natural juices from the vegetables – liquid gold.
The next day, my mom would cook porridge using this “stock”, together with the rest of the fillings that we couldn’t finish with the wraps. It is such a simple and humble dish but it tastes very comforting. I’m glad it turned out to be a hit with our guests.
When it comes to preserving the lesser-known facets of Singaporean food heritage… there is no obvious solution. Using Eurasian food as an example, chefs like Damien D’Silva have been championing, documenting and sharing its cuisine for years. When I did a web search for Eurasian recipes, there was no shortage of information. These precious insights and recipes that people have so generously shared have been absolutely critical to preservation of Eurasian cuisine but it has still not tangibly translated to a wider audience with an interest in it.
Besides the obvious fact that Eurasians are a minority in the population, another reason could be that most people have not tasted Eurasian food. In contrast, the Peranakans are in a way, also a minority race, but their cuisine is heavily propagated through many eateries and restaurants and well known to the larger population.
I’m not sure how this can be achieved, but there needs to be more avenues to showcase these lesser known facets of our food heritage. Not just through discussions, written text or photos, but also opportunities for people to actually taste these foods. The true value of a Eurasian feng can only be fully appreciated by someone who has tasted it and then only comes the impetus for him to want to understand, learn and preserve it.
When it comes to the future of Singaporean food, I fear… the erosion of our hawker culture which is one of the most important pillars of Singapore’s culture fabric. The job is unglamorous, back-breaking and not the most profitable and I don’t see my generation wanting to do it.
The new age hawkers would more likely be doing a less labour intensive sous vide beef donburi than an artisanal plate of chai tow kway. In 10-20 years time, the food landscape of our hawker centres will dramatically change and it is my fear that our kids in the future would be more acquainted with a burger than mee rebus.
I hope that it won’t be a case for us Singaporeans to only lament the loss of our hawker culture after it’s too late. There is no simple solution to this – there has to be more government initiatives and subsidies, the price of our hawker food may have to be adjusted slightly for it to be more attractive to budding hawkers wanting to enter the trade, the consumers need to put more value on our local food, etc.
With the current COVID-19 situation… it has been heartening to see Singaporeans cook more at home and some are also delving into heritage recipes, making hakka abacus seeds etc. Understanding these heritage recipes, having know-how to execute them, coupled with the satisfaction and joy of finishing and sharing the final product are all vital components in us wanting to preserve these heritage foods and passing them on to the next generation.
It is my wish that Mustard Seed will be… a restaurant many Singaporeans will be proud of, and through the work we do, show the value of Singapore’s culinary heritage and that our food can stand tall and proud together with the other great cuisines of the world.