In 1969, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, a volume on Chinese cooking contained a premature announcement of the death of Chinese cooking. The Time-Life series ‘Foods of the World’ included a volume on The Cooking of China, and the news was bad.
Chinese cooking has been destroyed in China, and would be dead today if it were not for the many custodians of its secrets who got out in time, taking with them priceless knowledge….Chinese cuisine, surviving the nation that created it, has become the most distinguished exile in history.
The author, Emily Hahn, may have been right at the time, but she underestimated the power, and the staying power, of Chinese cooking. She was certainly right to signal the importance of the cooking of the Chinese diaspora.
Singapore has always been one of the most hospitable places for Chinese food-in-exile. The Nonya cooking of Singapore is Straits Chinese, where Chinese and Malay influences merge. Traditional Chinese restaurants abound. And in the last few years, Singapore has also become a welcoming place for new ideas in Chinese cooking.
Food-in-exile, or diaspora food, is often constrained by the need to remain true to its origins. Singapore, however, is a very special case, in exactly the way that Hong Kong was. Singapore is an international trading centre, and trade always brings new food ideas. More than that, Chinese is one of the recognised cultures of the city-state, so there is no cause for the cultural defensiveness that inhibits change. The third factor is a degree of affluence that provides a market for restaurants serving innovative food in elegant surroundings. There is another factor – the Singaporean passion for food of all kinds.
The position of strength of the Chinese in Singapore enables Chinese cooking to continue to adapt without charges of ‘inauthenticity’. For example, the Hua Ting restaurant at the Orchard Hotel (in Asia, hotels are among the best places to eat) consistently wins awards for the best Chinese restaurant in Singapore; its special dishes now include pork ribs cooked with lemongrass (a Thai herb).
Two chefs are at the heart of new Chinese cuisine in Singapore, and one of them is a slender revolutionary figure in Chinese cooking in its home country. Zhang Jin Jie’s approach at the Green T House in Beijing. Jin R, as she prefers to be called, is a distinguished Chinese musician-turned-restaurateur, and is often regarded as the modern face of Chinese cooking. Her first small restaurant opened in 1997, and had to move to larger premises a couple of years later.
The Green T House includes tea as an ingredient in its dishes, but there’s more than that. Her style combines whimsy, poetry, and non-Chinese ingredients in dishes that might also include twigs or rose petals as an integral part of their presentation. The aesthetic and the techniques are entirely Chinese; her style is very much her own. Jin R says that she had to move into the kitchen when her chef walked out, claiming he had not been trained to do the sort of cooking she demanded.
Significantly, Jin R was an important alliance in a modern Chinese restaurant in Singapore called My Humble House, opened by the Tung Lok group in 2002.
The Tung Lok group is a leader in Singapore food, with a dozen different restaurants in Singapore, each with its own style and concept. The group was the first to introduce modern Chinese cooking to Singapore, starting with Club Chinois in 1997 (coincidentally the same year that Green T House opened). My Humble House was the first ‘artistic’ restaurant, which is to say that the aesthetic goes beyond fashionable design.
There is some irony in the name, My Humble House, because the restaurant is sleekly and iconoclastically glamorous. It’s quite unlike other Chinese restaurants: there’s no red or gold, no rich and figured fabrics, no round tables, no sense of a brightly-lit enclosed and private world. The décor is predominantly black, and the huge windows that gives a view across the river are reinforced by a mural of lights on another wall. The lighting is muted at night, with colour coming from sheer curtains whose colour changes from time to time (sometimes red, sometimes green, or white). Chopsticks rest on stones. The tables are rectangular, and the chairs are outsized chairs, with huge high backs, sometimes curved into amusing shapes. The chairs provide a witty reflection on the name. Even the richest and most powerful businessmen, sitting in the private room that adjoins the busy kitchen, are humbled by their seating arrangements. The immense chairs make everyone who sits in them look small, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Much of the ‘modernity’ of new Chinese in Singapore comes from its presentation. Jin R’s dishes provide one model, and there is a reinforcement from Sam Leong, the director of the Tung Lok kitchens. Their combined influence is one of the defining features of the food at My Humble House.
Sam Leong’s father was a chef before him, and Sam worked with his father and in Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangkok, before he joined the Tung Lok group in 2002 .
He says it occurred to him that one of the distinctive differences between Chinese and Western cooking was that individual plates look so good in Western cooking. In Chinese cooking, the presented platter may be a work of art, but once the food is served, it’s a different matter. “It looks very ordinary,” Sam Leong says. So he began to experiment with the Western habit of plating up dishes in the kitchen, rather than serving at table.
His initial efforts came to nothing. “No one liked it. The kitchen brigade didn’t, because it was too much work. The manager didn’t because it was more expensive. And the guests complained about the filleted fish,” he recalls.
At one chefs’ association meeting, he was singled out for blame. “Sam, you mustn’t destroy Chinese cuisine,” a more senior chef yelled at him.
Time now moves fast in the restaurant industry. Only a couple of years ago Sam Leong was perceived as a threat to Chinese traditional cooking. A threat? Surely not. My Humble House has two restaurants now in China, in Chengdu, and in Beijing.
RIta Erlich is an Australian food and wine writer based in Melbourne
Photo: Sam Leong