WHAT does a country’s spirit taste like? A marathon dinner by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on Aug. 23 featuring the work of chefs LG Han and Chele Gonzalez tried to answer the question.
Both chefs were well-equipped to answer the question: Mr. Han’s Labyrinth, with one Michelin star and at No. 40 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2022, specializes in presenting Singaporean traditional dishes with a modern flair. In turn, Mr. Gonzalez’s Gallery by Chele has consistently ranked in the Asia’s Best Restaurants list, finishing this year at No. 69. This exclusive collaboration kicked off the Manila edition of the Singapore Food Festival (SFF), which is ongoing until Sept. 30.
It was a long night.
OCTOPUS AND CRAB
Dinner began with cocktail servings of octopus tacos, salted egg fish skin with shrimps and curry leaves, beef XO sauce baos, and Hainanese pork satay (served steaming on top of claypot grills).
The rest of the dinner ran almost until midnight. The first course was an interpretation of the Singaporean Oyster Omelette, served three ways. A tiny omelette folded over three oysters: one raw, one grilled, and the last one fried. On the side was an egg takoyaki with caviar sprinkled on top. This dish was like a game, preparing the senses for what would come next (seven more courses, not counting dessert).
Our colleagues at the table rated the Labyrinth Chili Crab an easy favorite early in the game, serving the crab as an ice cream with rose apple and kaffir lime leaf. The ice cream was of course, a most pleasant surprise, and was very spicy — had the crab not been served this way, it would have set our tongues on fire, and the rest of the meal would have come to naught.
The Char Kway Teow (a fried noodle dish) was hefty, heavy, and intense, and a pairing with a rosé was a welcome fruity counterpoint. One of the highlights of this dish was Mr. Han’s use of an heirloom recipe for oysters, which took 78 days to make.
Mr. Gonzalez followed up this act with his own Laksa Inasal, featuring octopus inasal (a form of barbecue), laksa sauce, pickled jicama, laksa mayo, and crispy chicken skin. The octopus was really soft and yielding, the smoky notes of the dish amplified by the dark red fruitiness of the pairing with the Mandrarossa Frappato Costadune, itself as richly fragrant as the laksa sauce. One notes that this was the second dish of the night with octopus. In an interview with BusinessWorld the following day, Mr. Gonzalez said, “I think my mind was an octopus when I was a child.” In jest, he added with laughter, “I have an attraction to legs. Imagine an animal with eight!”
On a serious note, he mentioned that the octopus was sourced locally. “It’s amazing local produce, and you know that in Gallery, we try to look and research for the best local ingredients in the country.”
(This was not the first time that Mr. Gonzalez had impressed us with the tentacled creature. Read the story here: https://www.bworldonline.com/arts-and-leisure/2022/04/07/440705/the-octopus-alone-is-worth-the-trip/)
We had thought that the triple punch that those three dishes were amazing (and probably enough for the evening) but a Singapore Bak Kut Teh (a bone broth) kept us glued to the table and looking forward for more. Made with pork shabu-shabu, manjimup black truffle, black garlic, a bak kut teh dashi broth, and a 63-degree egg, this dish was our personal favorite. It was soothing, creamy, and despite its richness, clean and clear in its expression of flavor. With every sip, it just got better and better, and we were sad to see the bottom of our bowls.
An Iberico pork char siu with kailan leaves, sweet potato puree, and smoked pork jus came next, with an aggressive grilled flavor. That flavor became even more powerful with a Braida Il Bacialé Monferrato Rosso DOC 2018 (the sommelier reminded us that the name is suggestive of kissing). A pastrami fried rice whith chicharo seeds and garlic was deceptively simple, with a beef-forward flavor that made someone from another table declare it their favorite.
The Cereal Prawn and Manila Mango seemed a prelude to dessert, it being served with a coconut panna cotta, local lime, pandan ice cream, and a sprinkling of Singapore cereal prawn powder (a specialty of Mr. Han; it is usually served at his restaurant in a box with his image). The dessert was a fluffy Bibingka Cheesecake, and Kaya Soy Sauce Caramel, and bean-to-bar chocolate.
A CULINARY MECCA
We picked the brains of both chefs to find out what makes Singapore a culinary mecca. After all, we do share the same region, the same climate, and, a lot of times, same ingredients, and a similar colonial history, flavored with contact between Southeast Asian neighbors and Chinese migrants (give or take).
Mr. Han began with an observation about Manila, this country’s capital. “When it comes to Manila, the difference between the Philippines and Singapore is that in the Philippines, you have restaurants that are rooted in the culture, the produce, and the history of this country,” he said. “Singapore — it’s kind of true, you know — we don’t have that unique identity sometimes.”
“There are a lot of top-notch restaurants in Singapore,” he said, adding that they have about 50 Michelin-starred restaurants. “That’s only a percentage of all the fine-dining restaurants. The quality and competence level is very high over in Singapore. You get new kids opening [restaurants] every year; they get better and better. The veterans are also refining their games; they’re reinvesting into restaurants. The competition doesn’t get easier as years go by.
“Tourists should be able to get access to all kinds of cuisine at different levels,” he said. “It’s really the variety, and the quality in SG as well.”
Prior to this dinner, Mr. Gonzalez visited Singapore for a wet market tour. As a foreigner, he made observations on the culinary landscape of Singapore. “For me, I think Singapore has diversity. You can spend $5 on an amazing local meal, that is even cheaper than what you can find in Manila,” he said. While he has been around some of the older quarters of the city for street food, he clarifies, “When you go to the modern parts of the city, you don’t have anything like that. I think it’s something that’s an example we can look at.
“You have the highest level of fine dining, with the highest quality of produce from there and around the world, but then… you can have meals that are, you know, really inexpensive and fascinating.
“I’m just amazed about the approach of Singapore with food,” he said. — Joseph L. Garcia
The 4-hands dinner by chefs Chele Gonzalez and Han Li Guang is one of many forthcoming SFF 2022 culinary experiences to be presented by the STB. Within Manila, foodies can expect a monthlong celebration of Singaporean cuisine with pop-ups of hit Singapore restaurants at The Grid in Powerplant Mall, Makati this September. Beyond the activities in Manila, SFF also has global virtual classes that are free to watch and many in-person activities in Singapore that tourists can visit. For more on SFF 2022, go to https://www.visitsingapore.com/festivals-events-singapore/annual-highlights/singapore-food-festival/or http://www.facebook.com/VisitSingaporePH.