Held at: Tonka
20 Duckboard Place
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9650 3155
Despite being a food-loving Indonesian, I must admit I don’t know a great deal about Singaporean food. Why bring the whole Indonesian thing into the equation? Because Indonesians love Singapore (and why wouldn’t they? It only takes an hour to fly from Jakarta to Singapore) and because every other Indonesian I know is an SQ KrisFlyer card-toting teeny-bopper. So in theory, I should know a fair bit about Singaporean food… but I don’t.
Despite having been to Singapore a few times, I can’t say that I’ve experienced the best of what Singapore had to offer in terms of food either. The first few times I went, I was too young to appreciate it all. The last time I went, I was only there for a brief stopover and didn’t venture out of Orchard Road (or Sephora, for that matter).
So when the lovely Larissa from Adhesive PR invited me to a media lunch that was being prepared by Immigrants Gastrobar owner Damian D’Silva, I knew I had to be a part of it.
The lunch was held at Adam D’Sylva’s fine-dining Indian fusion restaurant, Tonka. I’m not exactly sure how Indian fusion works but I guess I’ll find out next time – that day we were there to try Damian’s cooking which had been inspired by Singapore’s rich cultural diversity. That meant that we’d be sampling food that had hints of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan in it.
Another thing that sets Damian’s cooking apart is that he tries to recreate recipes that have been passed down from generation and generation. Think stuff that your hypothetical Singaporean grandmother used to cook. Sadly, not a lot of Singaporean chefs cook this sort of food (‘heritage food’) so I really admire Damian’s vision to showcase these dishes to the masses.
After being poured a glass of wine (Clos Clare Riesling 2013 for me, thanks), we got straight to business. The dishes were brought out at once and the idea was to spoon everything onto a plate with rice. The ayam bakar (literally ‘grilled chicken’ in Malay-slash-Indonesian) was slathered in a fragrant spicy marinade before being grilled on charcoal, giving it a lovely smoky flavour.
Now, I’m used to otak-otak that has not only been wrapped in banana leaves, but is firm yet squishy. However, Damian’s version was soft and airy – in fact, the waiter described this dish as ‘fish mousse’ though a ‘seafood mousse’ would have been a more accurate descriptor – each cake also had a bit of prawn and squid in the mix.
Behold the sweet potato leaves. ‘Masak lemak’ means to ‘cook in fat’ and by fat, they mean coconut milk. You don’t tend to find sweet potato leaves in grocery stores here but they’re commonplace in Southeast Asia – I, for one, enjoyed them on the side on several occasions during my stay in Jakarta over the summer. They’re like spinach, but with a slightly sweeter and more bitter taste. Mix them with said coconut milk, chillies, shallots, shrimp paste, candlenuts and prawns and you have a winner.
Hah, I must have been off my A-game when it came to taking photos that day. Or perhaps I had too much wine. Oops.
The squid cooked in its own ink was a popular dish that afternoon. Unlike most of the dishes we enjoyed that day, this one was very simple and didn’t contain a helluva lot of ingredients. Just squid and ink. Delicious.
This is how we do itttttt…! (yep, with fragrant turmeric rice)
We were pretty much unbuttoning our jeans at this point so you can imagine how horror when the waiter asked us what we thought of the starters.
‘What, there’s still more food to come?’ we cried.
‘Oh of course, you guys haven’t had your mains yet!’ he cheerfully replied.
The singgang is a Eurasian fish stew, using sai toh (wolf herring). Damian cooked with about seven different ground spices and our friend, coconut milk. The debal was another Eurasian dish. Unlike most curries, this one wasn’t spicy at all but it was still very hearty. The potatoes probably had heaps to do with it too.
Being Indonesian, I love a good beef rendang. Damian’s version was cooked with coconut juice, giving it a sweeter flavour than what I’m used to. On the other hand, the juices made the beef cheeks oh-so-love-me-tender. Then we had the sambal belimbing, or chilli star fruit. I’m not a fan of star fruit on its own (it’s not sweet enough to be enjoyed as a fruit, imo) but it worked well as a spicy savoury dish.
Meanwhile, the sambal buah keluak was the dish that divided the table. The buah keluak refers to the nuts grown from the Kepayang mangrove tree in Malaysia and Indonesia. The dish itself was very nutty and somewhat bitter with a hint of sweetness. While most people on the table weren’t huge fans, fellow food blogger Heidi loved it. Me? I wouldn’t eat it on its own but spread over everything else, absolutely.
My second plate of savouries.
My mum makes an Indonesian version of this at home so I was excited to see these presented to us. They were deliciously springy and warm, with a lovely coconut flavour.
I’m pretty sure there is an Indonesian version of this too – think little tapioca balls sweetened with palm sugar and then covered in freshly grated coconut. This would have gone down well with some coffee but unfortunately, I have an on-and-off relationship with coffee (on that day, it was definitely off).
Our amazeballs lunch definitely opened our eyes to a culinary side of Singapore that most of us had never seen before. Hell, I thought Singapore was just chilli crabs, kaya toast and bakwah but oh, how wrong I was! Mad props also go to Damian for being so hospitable and for lugging 65kgs of ingredients into Melbourne, via customs, just so he can prepare all these amazing dishes for us to enjoy.
The Singapore Tourism Board has also launched the Singapore Celebrity Concierge, a first-of-its-kind VIP travel service. Check them out here.