A few months ago, I was approached by a friend with a really interesting request. Would I be interested in shooting photographs of local food to be showcased as part of an interactive exhibition in the Singapore Pavilion at this year’s World Expo in Shanghai? Of course I said yes. Repeatedly. The 2010 World Expo, which opens in just a few days, is expected to draw some 70 million visitors. To have my pictures seen by even a small percentage of these people, supposedly coming from all corners of the globe, would be pretty darned awesome.
Plus, I had an pretty immediate idea for the kind of photographs that I wanted to shoot. Or rather, I knew how I wanted the food to be portrayed. I didn’t want to shoot the dishes that were selected — obviously iconic Singaporean foods — in their traditional forms. I wanted to shoot them as re-imagined and re-invented by one of our most talented chefs. I wanted, through the photographs, to portray both our heritage and our innovativeness. In some ways, for me, this project wasn’t just about food but about our culture and where we’re headed.
To help pull off the food I’d be shooting, I called upon a chef whose culinary concepts and continued exploration of our cuisine have always impressed me. To my great satisfaction, Willin Low, chef-owner of Wild Rocket, accepted my challenge and became my collaborator on this project.
I gave Willin the list of dishes that needed to be photographed and thus re-imagined. Some we discussed. For others, Willin knew exactly what he wanted to do, having already served playful and modernized riffs of these dishes at his highly-respected restaurant for years.
In all, we shot 11 fabulous modern versions of some classic Singaporean dishes. I’m showing just seven of these here — to see the rest, I guess you’ll have to go to Shanghai. I’m also running Willin’s commentary on the dishes so you can get a sense of what he was thinking when he came up with these dishes.
I love Roti John and one of the things I always associate roti john with is the radioactive looking colour of the chilli and tomato sauce. This sauce forms the base of my dish and the cubed French toast is a tribute to fantastic cubed French Toast dessert at Iggy’s, one of Singapore’s very best restaurants.
I’ve been eating nasi lemak a great deal in recent months and this dish is actually on Wild Rocket’s menu right now. I decided to cook the rice in coconut milk until it has an almost porridge-like consistency and then blend it to make it into a sauce. And since it is a sauce I decided to make the sambal dry (fried spcies with peanuts and ikan bilis). What’s usually wet is now served dry and vice-versa. Although this doesn’t look like nasi lemak, the flavours are unmistakable.”
No ingredient on its own can represent Singapore laksa as it requires a whole long list of ingredients (“laksa” actually means hundreds of thousands in Sanskrit), except for the laksa leaf. We almost never use this herb other than in laksa which is why when you smell this herb you will immediately think of laksa. I decided to make a pesto out of this and serve it with pasta. To this day this dish remains our signature dish even though it is controversial – you either love it or hate it!
“Fish Head Curry
I was tempted to use the cheek of the fish head in this dish as it is highly prized, but what is also highly prized but less talked about is the fish eye. So I decided to let the eye represent the whole head. I also wanted to feature the other usual accompanying ingredients such as the eggplants (which are baked with mashed fish cheek curry paste), the okra (which are more ornamental in my dish) and the poppadum (which I always eat when I have fish head curry).
“Kaya Toast with Eggs
I eliminated the soft boiled eggs in this dish as I thought there were enough eggs in the kaya panna cotta! I have always eaten kaya sandwiches with cheddar cheese as a child and all my friends thought I was crazy. But it really is not that crazy if you think about the savouriness of the butter that is added to kaya toast; it is used to compliment and counter the sweetness of the jam. In a tribute to my kaya and cheese sandwiches, this panna cotta has salted cream cheese and is drizzled with gula Melaka.
Chili Crab is many Singaporean’s favourite dish and, at least according to some, our national dish. It is something I have always wanted to serve at my restaurant but I doubt our guests would be keen on getting their hands too dirty so we decided to do it with deep-fried soft shell crab – this way you can eat the whole crustacean and keep your hands clean.”
“Bak Kut Teh
I wanted to turn this traditional consommé on its head without changing a single ingredient. Since Chef Christophe Megel first planted the idea in my head of making a jello out of a soup, I have been thinking about doing something like this non-stop.”
This whole project was fun from start to finish. I hope I have the time to make it to Shanghai sometime in the next six months to actually visit the Singapore Pavilion and see the pictures on display.
On a rather tangential note, Chef Willin Low is in New York right now, representing Singapore at the Lucky Rice Festival. He’s serving up some awesome Mod Sin snacks at the Grand Feast on Saturday, 1 May. He’ll also be doing a demo the following day. If you’re free, please go support him. He’s a great guy and a fabulous chef.