The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol

By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?

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Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia


Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.

The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).

Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”  by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.

Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.

Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).

In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.

But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?

[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers.]

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Eng Su’s interest in coconuts was sparked off in late 2014 at I Eat Nasi Lemak, an annual convention in Kuala Lumpur that showcases Malaysia’s best nasi lemak vendors. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

“But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism — from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa — seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

Continue reading

Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

Continue reading

Talk on Malaya: Mar 15th 3pm

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a talk entitled “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” next week. It’s open to all—do come!

When: 3pm, Saturday, March 15th 2014

Where:
NUS Museum,
NUS Centre For the Arts,
University Cultural Centre,
50 Kent Ridge Crescent,
National University of Singapore
(Click here for directions.)

Alongside me will be moderator Lai Chee Kien and fellow panellists Tay Kheng Soon, one of Malaya’s most famous architects and Syed Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor at NUS.

We will “reflect, weigh and provide contemporary perspectives on Malaya, using the Malayan Forum of 1949 as an entry point”.

The talk is being held in conjunction with a very interesting exhibition on “Malayan Art”.

“In 1963, Marco Hsu, art critic and regular columnist who contributed articles about the history of Art in Malaya, published a series of essays on the cultural history of the people of the Malayan Peninsula, which were compiled into a book published in Chinese in 1963, A Brief History of Malayan Art. The NUS Museum revisits the book on the 50th Anniversary of its publication with this exhibition. Using artists and artefacts referred to by Hsu, the exhibition highlights questions of cultural identity and nation building raised on the eve of the creation of a merged, independent nation.”

Malayan Forum