The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol
By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?
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. Separately, and sadly, Eng Su passed away in September 2019. I wrote a tribute to him here.]
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 “The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol”