Oh how I wish I could jump on a plane and visit Singapore right now. I’m pretty certain I would fly 8 hours just for one day. Yeah, I would, I totally would. If it meant I could have some more curry debal, beef rendang and kueh bengkah.
Today I’m going to share some chef and Singaporea food love with you. And hopefully you’ll be left with an urge to visit Singapore or at the very least make yourself a darn good stew. Indeed there is a recipe for you at the end of this post. But first, let me introduce the chef du jour…
Damian D’Silva is an incredibly talented chef who has studied all over the world, perfecting his skills and becoming a true master chef. Damian’s passion lies in celebrating the traditional food of Singapore, the dishes his grandparents made and shared with their children (and their children’s children). This humble heritage cuisine is what you will be served at Immigrants, Damian’s restaurant in Singapore. And it is what I was served recently during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, at a lunch hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board.
To start we had a selection of plates, including turmeric rice and some pickled vegetables. I adored the mackerel, which was soft and comforting and delicately spiced. The sweet potato leaves in coconut milk were outstanding, a real spicy surprise, and the Ayam bakar was wonderfully vibrant. Oh and there was this wonderful mousse-like seafood cake, which I’m now struggling to identify in terms beyond “mousse-like seafood cake”. I’m fairly certain I didn’t dream it up… Damian’s slow-cooked inky squid was a total dream, however, totally worth any awkward black teeth conversations. And that was just to start…
The main dishes comprised of a stellar, rich rendang that I’m still thinking on fondly, as well as a dish of potatoes, meat and ham that was called debal, which was particularly “punch me in the face” scrumptious. I just loved this dish, which I’m told is often served on Boxing Day, the leftover ingredients (ham, potatoes…) and flavours simmered to a spicy stew. How great is that? Damian’s sambal buah keluak was this rich, black paste-like stew made from a nut reminiscent of the cocoa bean. Indeed it tasted of pure, strong cacao, it was incredibly intense and like nothing I had ever encountered before. My experience was perhaps akin to foreigners tasting Vegemite for the first time…wow. Small amounts to start, folks.
And for dessert, the gentle and familiar flavours of sweet coconut cake called kueh bengkah (see recipe below) and warm, coconut-dressed and palm sugar-kissed tapioca pebbles. Oh, seriously.
Yes, we were rather spoilt. I adored hearing Damian speak of his inspiration and intention with cooking this heritage cuisine. He’s fairly unique in Singapore, I am told – sticking to the recipes passed down from generations. To be honest, I really would get on a plane for just one meal at Immigrants, I can’t get the food out of my mind. Thank goodness we have a couple of Damian’s recipes so we can tackle his creations ourselves. And if you fail to capture his heritage cuisine yourself, well, you can always get on that plane at visit Immigrants yourself. How far is too far to travel for food?…
I thought so. Where’s my passport?
Beef stew. Serves 4 – 6.
8 star anise
1 whole nutmeg, crushed
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 red onions, peeled and quartered
100g old ginger, scraped and sliced
1kg beef brisket, cut into large cubes (use the pointed end)
3 tbsp dark soya sauce
4–6 tbsp oil
2 red onions, peeled and quartered
1l water for braising
4 potatoes, peeled and halved
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 5cm lengths
4 tbsp vinegar
Salt, to taste
3 cream crackers, ground
1 red chilli, seeded and sliced diagonally
1 green chilli, seeded and sliced diagonally
Blend the star anise, nutmeg, peppercorns, onions and ginger to a fine paste. If your blender is unable to grind the spices, use a coffee grinder first or a pestle and mortar, then add them to the ground paste.
Mix the blended ingredients together with the brisket and dark soya sauce and leave to marinate for an hour.
Heat oil in a deep saucepan on medium heat. When the oil is smoking add the quartered red onions and cook until soft, about 10–15 minutes.
Add the brisket and fry together with the onions for 15 minutes.
Add water, cover and let cook till three quarters done, about 45–60 minutes (test with a sharp point).
Next add potatoes, carrots and vinegar. If the liquid is drying up you can add some more water (300ml).
When the meat is tender, the potatoes should be cooked.
Add salt to taste and continue cooking over a low fire till a thickish stew is obtained.
If this is not achieved and the stew still has a significant amount of liquid, the cream crackers can be added at this point.
Place into a serving bowl, add garnish and serve with white rice
Serves 10 – 12
1.8kg tapioca, centre core removed, skinned and finely grated, strained
950ml coconut milk (remove 175ml and add to 355ml plain water)
2 stalks pandan leaf (pandanusamary llifolius), tied into a knot
850g caster sugar
6 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp salted butter
3 tsp salt
9 whole eggs
Baking tin 8″ square × 3″ high
Banana leaf or baking parchment to line tins
1. Heat oven to 200°C.
2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, place water and coconut milk mixture together with the sugar and pandan leaf. Cook until the sugar has melted.
3. Add a little water to the cornstarch, add to the heated mixture, followed by the butter and salt.
4. Next add the tapioca and stir vigorously until well mixed.
5. Add coconut milk and mix well.
6. Remove from heat, and add the eggs mix until amalgamated.
7. Place the mixture into the tins until about 2 ½” high and bake in a heated oven for 45-60 minutes.
8. Reduce the temperature to 140°C and bake a further hour until golden brown.
9. To check if cooked, pierce with a wooden skewer which should come out clean.
10. Cool before cutting. This is best made one day in advance and reheated in a 200°C oven till the edges are crispy.
I’ve also included a few eating notes from Damian, as I always appreciate insider tips when travelling overseas:
* Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle – for 77 years, this joint has been serving up minced pork noodles (bak chor met). A quick google of these noodles and I find myself with a crazy strong craving. I’m both happy to share this and displeased about my present lack of noodles.
* Jalan Sultan Prawn Mee – another noodle dish to have in your life (the secret is in the stock, made with prawns, anchovies, pork bones, dried scallop, dried cuttlefish and crab!), another reason to get lost in Singapore…
And lastly, my breakfast loving self couldn’t resist asking Damian what he grew up eating for breakfast, in particular if he had any heritage-style breakfast favourites….Damian’s response?
“There’s just too many to list and I get different urges depending on the weather, mood and who I’m with. My all time favourite Heritage breakfast food is leftover curry eaten with baguette!”
Well that sounds supremely delicious and comforting, now doesn’t it?
I was treated to this lunch and was able to meet chef Damian D’Silva courtesy of the Singapore Tourism board and some truly lovely ladies. Thank you, Larissa, Michelle and Sharon. I cannot wait to get lost in Singapore, with an appetite for adventure, a hungry belly and an eagerness to try sambal buah keluak once more. Though I won’t spread it thickly on toast…that’s what kaya is for.