Videos and Photos by Nicholas Tang
One of the most powerful ways to keep Singaporean food culture alive is to share it with others abroad, to allow it to grow in popularity and gain greater awareness overseas. In this context, it is always wonderful to hear of people who are championing Singaporean food overseas.
Nicholas Tang is a chef who grew up in Singapore and is now based in the United States. In 2016, he joined Daniel Boulud’s DBGB New York as Executive Chef and, at the time of this interview, was working at DBGB DC. Drawing on his growing up years in Singapore, he plays tribute to traditional Singaporean dishes and shares his childhood memories through the food that he serves at the restaurant. In this interview, he shares about his childhood and the dishes he cooks when he misses Singaporean flavours.
Some of the food memories that I have of my growing up years include… queueing for kueh tutu at Junction 8 after school, making glutinous rice balls at my grandmother’s huge dining table, tying dried lily buds the night before Chinese new year for my grandmother to cook a chicken stew that we ate on the first day of Chinese new year.
My maternal grandmother… came from China and was adopted into a Peranakan family as a house keeper. She was great at doing stir fried dishes which were simple like seared fish with a dark soy sauce, crispy ginger and garlic. My paternal grandmother was Cantonese and she made the best soups, my fav was the lotus root soup with pork.
I chose to move to the United States as… I was offered a job by Daniel Boulud to work in New York City. As a cook, one aspires to have worked in the big food capitals of the world and since this opportunity was presented, I jumped on it. I have been in the States for 7 years. Now that I’m based in DC, I miss Singaporean food all the time since there is none at all here. It was easier to find close enough tasting Singaporean food in NY.
A staple in my household is… chicken rice. I always rely on Prima Taste to cook at home. It also comes with easy instructions, so my wife who is Caucasian finds it easy to prepare too. We have had the whole line of Prima Taste meal sauce kits a couple times over already.
For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to cook… Hokkien Mee or chicken rice because I just knew I could never cook these dishes as well as someone who has dedicated his or her entire life to mastering it. My thoughts are, whatever you make, it will probably not be as good as the hawker who has spent his entire life cooking the same dish. However, when you have been away from Singapore for some time and miss the food, any small recognisable flavour of the dish will ‘cure’ that home sick feeling.
The main difference is between French and Singaporean food is that… the latter often uses more spices and condiments, making it more flavourful. Since it is what I grew up on, I have a bias towards it. Although not to discredit French cuisine, it holds the basics of Western cooking.
A dish that I’ve been serving at the restaurant every year is… chili crab. I have been using the Maryland blue crab when they are in season and they go really well with the chili sauce. They only require a little more work to pick out meat. Ingredients wise it is quite easy to source – chili, belacan, assam and other chilli crab ingredients are all quite easy to find. The only tricky bit is knowing who sells the good quality ones.
Some Singaporean food resources that I enjoy include… Goz Lee’s cookbook, Plusixfive, as the recipes are quite easy to replicate at home. On Youtube, the Meatmen channel is also a great source for recipes and it shows you step by step how to make the dish.
To foreigners, Singapore cuisine is… somewhat a mystery. It is an amalgamation of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine that comes together to make our food so unique and a little hard to explain to people.
An aspect of Singaporean food that I would love to showcase through my food is… sweets that you used to be able to find on the street, like the dragon beard candy, tutu kueh, muah chee and honeycomb popiah. These are a dying trade and you do not see as many people selling them as they used to.
A dish that is close to my heart is… my Grandma’s lotus root soup. To prepare it, combine pork ribs and pork heel muscle in a pot with cold water and bring it to a boil. When the scum surfaces, pour it away and rinse the meat quickly. In a fresh pot of water, combine the blanched pork, dried cuttlefish, sliced lotus root, red dates, ginger and garlic. Simmer for 3 hours and serve with steamed rice and a side of dark soy sauce and sliced chilli padi.
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