by Laksmi Pamuntjak
*This article appeared in the special edition of The Prince Claus Fund Journal #12, 2006.
One day, in the window of a fringe shopping centre on Joo Chiat Road, Singapore, I saw an early icon of centuries past, relegated now, as they inevitably are, to kitsch. It says Le Bistrot.
Which is to say a box of a restaurant that lives up to its dictionary definition – “small restaurant” – with the requisite soft glow-redness and intimations of a short but eminent wine list but whose pedigree seems slated, at least at first sight, for double indemnity. In case you have been living in Mars during the new millennium, it is presently de rigueur to bewail the state of French cuisine, and to assume that what you find of it outside France cannot be anything but poor mimesis. This, a proliferation of avatars originating from a flawed source, must be what is meant by “You see X, you see France.”
Or is it?
As it turned out, the chef – a local boy – did not dumb down his food, neither did he Frenchify it. Holding back on heavy sauces and reductions in favor of fish and meat that stood proudly alone, he gave us the perfect duck leg confit, atop the perfect mash; the perfect gratinated onion soup, pregnant with sweet intent; the perfect herb and cheese pie, dreamy to the last morsel.
The said mash was perfect because it was deserving of Joel Robuchon without being an escapade in fat, and dressings tended towards the subtly sweet. There was no one ingredient too many, no one flavor out of place.
I looked up and there was our table attendant again, a sunny, bespectacled young man with a smile a mile wide. I noticed that he rolled his R’s and knew his gravlax from his Gravox. He was well-spoken and urbane, with no trace of an accent.
“Do you know your food is way better than at La Coupole?”
“That famed place in Montparnasse where everybody went,” I went on.
“You know, Sartre, Man Ray, the lot. Murals painted by Brancusi, seats 450. Anyway, I was there last winter. It was abominable. I mean, they’ve got this worst piece of haddock ever served to a human being atop a mound of choucroute. The choucroute was soggy, acrid – it was probably soaked in pig innards for days on end. And that’s a venerable Parisian institution.”
“Well,” he said cheerily, “As you can see, here we don’t serve pickled cabbage. By the way, can I get you something else?”
This last statement stayed with me for a long time.
Of course, at the back of our minds we know that the reality always lies somewhere in the middle – between any blanket verdict regarding the culinary state of a city and its opposite claim. But those few words might have embodied another truth: that one of the true challenges of the art lies in the gift of beating tradition at its own game, which involves knowing intuitively what is worth retaining and what is not (“we don’t serve pickled cabbage,” as in “if our name is not Antoine Westermann or Michel Husser”). Only then can a restaurant strive to be more original than original, and occasionally get to beat the French at their own game.
Nowadays there is hardly anything about Singapore that surprises, not even neighborhoods like Katong, which – equal part artist enclave, equal part red district – five years ago might not have felt like the Singapore of our collective memory.
Defined by a stretch of newly-minted Peranakan shophouses along East Coast Road, each lauding laksa (noodles in spicy gravy) and rojak (spicy Malay fruit or vegetable salad) more authentic than the other, it has not merely a tone, or a mood, but a pitch, the shadings as unique as a thumbprint. For if you look closer, you can sense them otherwise bursting at the seams of their forced gentility to reveal the sidewalk hawkers, the stallholders, the cramped, the fetid and the festal in them; for this is the only metre, the variable foot, the Singaporean way to breathe. Tales of the patriarch of Katong’s most loved local eatery, Joo Heng, who, at 60, still runs 10 km a day and completes four marathons a year, are as much part of the local folklore as the restaurant’s steamed fish head.
Sitting northwards outside Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice at early dusk, from the rim of the road where you can see two-thirds of Katong Mall and a strip of slovenly shops and restaurants that fade away into something much darker, you can fall in love with the place, clearly and cleanly, mainly because it is not in pose. The secret of its allure is in its jaunty preparedness to go with the flow – to know where nostalgia ends and reinvention begins – just as it had been in the 1960s, when city folks considered an ice cream soda outing at the milk bar of the Tay Buan Guan department store an “out of town” experience.
And yet I could discern the edges of coagulating concrete, the steel and glass of certain anticipations, apartment buildings with marmoreal names like Poshgrove East. I could see how in another five years it may become just another gentrified thing of the past as another “It” suburb sings its melting pot tunes, another forgotten set cutlery glittering in its own cliché. You could also see how eventually you would be at a distance from them.
But just the other day we stumbled into another sign, this time a more recent one in history. It was of a single leaf, leaning at thirty degrees: green, innocent, organic. Chi Ang, the establishment’s young proprietor, is bone-skinny, talks like a ballistic missile and looks barely out of her teens. But her real home, as it turns out, is the sun-kissed breadth with which Australia welcomed her as a student not so many years ago.
And so, Chi Ang opened Passion Organics last May. Her whole family works the tiny open kitchen, while father greets regulars and remembers their favorite tables. “And yet you know there is quite a competition out there,” I said. “Yes,” she shrugged, unperturbed. “But we’re organic organic.”
As if to prove her point, she told me to try their weekly special – gado-gado.
“Are you familiar with this dish?” she asked me.
I raised an eyebrow. “I am an Indonesian,” I said, with real feeling.
“Okay,” she said, unimpressed. “But it’s good, isn’t it?”
It was good: this vegetable salad, an Indonesian favorite, was clean-tasting (which is to say not entirely tasteless), with wedges of radicchio that looked plumper, more dew-dappled, and several glazes brighter than its pedestrian version. Even if the faux peanut sauce was anything but spicy, it was so scrubbed and saintly you could not help leave the place feeling you had gone through a confessional. In other words, organic organic.
For all its green earth consciousness, incidentally the other hallmark of France’s new earthbound sensibility, the food is anything but French. In fact, it is not anything. Singapore’s lack of hang-up (or, indeed, its unabashed urge to be everybody else) works for it the way Australia’s new world irreverence and insistence on being anything but their mother country has produced some of the most exciting culinary adventurism the world has ever seen. In a similar manner, the Americans’ as well as the British’s “can’t get out faster enough” haste to lose their culinary traditions have created a freewheeling, eclectic cosmopolitan culture based on fresh ingredients, simple treatment, lightness, and an openness to outside influences: in short, Mediterranean by way of Italy, Tunisia, and Greece.
But once outside, waiting for the No. 14 towards Siglap, once deemed too dark a place – “Si Gelap” – to have earned its present day Anglicised name, there was something about Chi Ang’s neighbors that momentarily arrested me. I saw Malays eating at yong tau foo (bean curd, fish balls and vegetables in clear broth) stalls, Indians gorging on mee rebus (noodles in thick spicy gravy), throngs of Chinese turning up early for vegetable biryani(Indian rice casserole) at its freshest. I remember thinking this because the sky was a luminous cobalt blue, in a twilight so tinted it forced its true colors out.
Then again, it was probably just me, caught, like many newcomers to a neighborhood, between idealizing an imagined past and demonizing the trite present.
Whichever the case may be, there are many reasons why this tiny island republic is so interesting. For one, here is Southeast Asia’s very model of organized diversity, a country that manages its race consciousness so methodically that the result has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘And yet, just as inevitably, the curious democracy that is consumption seems to take care of the rest.
Two things seem to be at play. First, just as cooking in some cultures has become a metaphor for the transformations of life, nothing is a stronger metaphor for culture than food itself, which always looks outwards (as opposed to boundaries, which always keeps the Other out and sew themselves shut). On the face of it, culture is a complex system that allows for apartheid, hence the prevalence of halal and kosher. But apartheid is first and foremost a political act, the institutionalisation of a set of rules, whereas culture is about what happens in practice. There is always a discrepancy between the two. It is in this context that cosmopolitanism and localism often find themselves hand in hand, each thriving in its own right and resisting any segregation imposed upon it. It may speak out of a national collectivity, but is also, first and foremost, a mediation of history; the result, as Lisa Lowe argues in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Studies, is often “new forms of subjectivity and community.”
Second, the surge towards international sophistication does not necessarily mean a readiness to succumb to a particular ‘centre.” While “cultural imperialism” is little more than a reheated version of the neo-Marxist dependency theories popular in the 60s and 70s, an examination of the personal lives of those who comprise the chain of consumption everywhere shows how complex matters are. Neither producers nor consumers are automatons many theorists claim they are: by dining on haute cuisine at Iggy’s or chomping on a whopper at Burger King, Singaporeans have decidedly not been robbed off their cultural heritage, nor have they become the impassive dupes of transnational corporations. And when they enjoy a tuna tartare at a neighborhood restaurant, whipped up by a local chef, it may simply be that the Universal has crumbled and the centre no longer holds. New cuisine in Singapore is Singapore’s own.
But how did it all begin?
Katong before 1939 was a place for the poor, the middle class, and the rich. For the poor, it often meant the fishing and farming villages along and to the east of Kallang River, where, in the 1830s, the Sultan sent aides to “colonize” the area, attracting in the process Malays from the adjacent lands of the then Dutch-controlled Indonesia. For the rich it often meant a site of leisure originating from the 19th century: holiday homes, honeymoon and health resorts for Westerners escaping the hustle of the city, all against the backdrop of white sands and the salubrious view of the sea.
Many see the spreading of the city of Singapore towards Katong and the East Coast before and long after World War II as one of “the greatest changes in Singapore.” With the road came trade, and soon, the provision of services and facilities catering for the growing residential population further altered the landscape.
The Joo Chiat of the mid-1940s was dotted with tailor shops, barber salons, pawnbrokers and bicycle repairmen. Grocers arrived on tricycles bearing vegetables, fruit, bread. They jostled for space with other itinerant salesmen: peddlers of mainly women items, textile merchants buried under their 20 bales of cloth. Animals freely roamed public roads and locals still remember milkmen bringing cows from door to door as a way of proving that the milk was “pure.”
Yet the prominence of the food business is anything but a recent development. Pre-war kway teow (stir-fried wide noodles) vendors with two baskets hanging from the end of a bamboo pole balanced on a shoulder were a common sight. Later came the pushcarts, or rather, the tik tok sound of two pieces of bamboo announcing whatever food was on offer. Many young boys eked out a living that way, on the commission from every bowl sold. Often, those living above the ground floor, too fussed to go down the stairs, would lower a basket in which the bowl of noodles was placed and drawn up.
Meanwhile, the post-war years ushered in a large number of coffee shops. The late 1940s brought Tay Buan Guan and, by extension, Katong’s first American-style milk bar; by the 1950s the place to be seen was the Wonderland Café, where many had their first taste of sundaes and banana splits.
By the 1980s and 1990s, ever newer cuisines came to claim their places in the changing landscape. Even Peranakan cuisine -- the distinctive cuisine of the descendants of early Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region, also known as nonya -- found itself served up in restaurants. This would have been something almost unthinkable in the days when the Peranakan presence was strong. To these people, who hailed from the British Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang as well as the Dutch-controlled island of Java, talking about going to a nonya restaurant used to be considered an insult. “If you want to eat nonya food, you come to my house,” was the standard line of the day.
This attitude may strike an achingly familiar chord with generations of Indonesians, whose concept of good, traditional Indonesian food is something that can be found in almost every household. Such is the fact that Sri Owen once wrote in her seminal work Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery: “Foreign visitors to Indonesia nearly all praise the food, but only those who have eaten in private houses appreciate how good (or bad) it can really be.”
This fact seems to lie at the root of why we, Indonesians, do not have a restaurant-keeping tradition that goes beyond street food and rumah makans (casual eateries).
There are, at least, two explanations. The first is that history tends to favor the rich: only the privileged get to eat, adopt, and update. A new book by Suryatini Ganie, Kisah dan Kumpulan Resep Putri Jepara, which reveals the recipes of the family of Raden Ajeng Kartini, the young Javanese aristocrat who pioneered women’s rights in Indonesia, is as much testimony to the ways in which the taste and the lifestyle of the colonized elite mimicked the culture of their masters.
The ritual of uurtje, for instance, or the practice of drinking tea in the afternoon, was in fact not even remotely Dutch: it was English. This cozy little ceremonial was carried out instead by the Dutch in the East Indies, who evidently had nothing better to do on balmy tropical afternoons than sip tea and eat banana fritters. Meanwhile, to the average Dutch back home, with far less domestic help at her beck and call, the daily gustatory schedule of her colonial sister would have been an impossibility.
This extended not only to matters of etiquette and eating habits, but also to what was actually being eaten. People eat the best food they can afford, and food signifies social aspirations and pretentions. What is known in Indonesian as vegetable soup (sop sayur) is in fact the groenten soep of the Dutch, while the Madeira sauce commonly found on beef steaks is an adaptation of an adaptation: Indonesians adapting the Dutch adapting the French. Selat Solo – beef brisket and julienned vegetables served with sweet soybean-based sauce and a diet-busting eggy mayo – which would have never reached the common folks’ plates even if it tried, was another luxury only privileged families could afford.
In other words, in Indonesia there was not much of courtly cuisine to be embourgeoised, let alone trickle down to working-class plates. It is simply a case of arrested development by poverty: people at all social levels ate at home, well or poorly, simply because they could not afford to go out and there was nothing much out to eat to justify the experience.
The most ethereal recipes remained ethereal even though they were later divulged and ended up as bourgeois curiosities via the phenomenon we know as contemporary cookbooks. But in Indonesia’s case, this did not take place until the later part of the 20th century. And, of course, limits between eating styles at different levels of society can, in some cultures, remain unchanged for eons.
Today, travelling in Central Java, you will still eat your meal, with all five-fingers, on a pincuk, a scrap of old newspaper and banana leaf fastened at one end with a stick, and that is all there is to it. Or you might stop at a tiny counter place, where you instantly know what you are buying – that is, cooked and put into bowls and plates at the front, and whose breadth, for richer or for poorer, often ends with one or two definitive dishes.
Come sundown, you can seek a roadside tent and sit down to dinner three sheets to the dust where the meal is cooked upon order; later, you may stumble into those all-night semi-mobile vending persons whose angkringan (shoulder-slung wooden contraptions) tremble with every known comfort from coffee and ginger tea to cigarettes and deep-fried snacks. The sort of cooking you find in those places, transposed as they have been from the average Javanese table to Jakarta’s contemporary street scenes, tend to be simple, if rudimentary affairs, distinguished almost by its lack.
Despite the enormous Chinese and Arab influence, especially on the coastal cities of Central Java, most staples of Javanese cooking, such as orak-arik (stir-fried cabbage and carrots with scrambled eggs), or perkedel (deep fried potato cakes) have little or no garlic. Pepper is used sparingly, and only as a substitute to chili in dishes for which the latter is never meant. That fulcrum of Chinese cooking, the salty soybean sauce otherwise known as kecap asin, is almost always absent. And forget stuff like beef roulade or breaded crab patties. For what is really at play is not just the law of scarcity, but also the metaphysics of taste. In some cases, traditional cuisines are always definable in terms of a few staples and seasonings which are readily available in their places of origin; in turn, they leak into collective tastes and inform palates already saturated in memories of them, rendering indifference to other flavors.
In turn, such resistance often becomes the badge of honorable poverty – capable, in some cases, of eliciting elite envy. Or, in some cases, the opposite. Take the raw soybean cake, the cheapest Javanese food around for many centuries.
History has not been kind to it. The rhetoric during the War for Independence (1945-1949) referred to the soybean cake as a metaphor of poverty and underachievers – “Don’t let them call us the nation of soybean cakes!” the orators roared, obviously with steak chateaubriand in mind.
The second explanation has to do with the attendant side of the colonization-poverty cycle. That there are no pin-downable “inventors,” or great names in the tradition, seems to explain why chefs have very little purchase on our culinary consciousness. The average chef (or “cook,” as the original Indonesian word koki, somewhat enlighteningly, translates into English) is treated like “everybody else” – that is, as an employee – and not as a crucial part of the restaurant’s identity and pride.
Thus, to mask Indonesian food with the maquillage of the creativity of a few is not only dissimulating but fallacious: culinary tradition in Indonesia, as in much of Asia, is traditional knowledge of the community, the way of batik or gamelan – in other words, it is and remains a folk tradition.
Yet the case of Singapore’s Peranakan, or baba, community is only partially applicable to the Indonesian experience, the straggly lot that we are. Until the late 1970s, at least, the pre-and post-war babas of Singapore were distinguished in various ways. Many were English-educated at a time when education was top priority. They thus enjoyed the benefits of that education under a British colonial government, whose bureaucracy necessarily sought a staff fluent in English. Others gained employment in major European companies; still others did well for themselves in business.
As befitted any striving minority, the ten-course meal that was “dinner,” otherwise brought over by caterers to private homes to be cooked and served to guests, was as much a generator of status as the index of cultural prestige. Quantity mattered just as much as quality, partly as a sign of prowess and partly, perhaps, as an indulgence accessible only to wealth. As they say, gluttony may be a sin but it is no crime: on the contrary, up to a point it can be socially functional.
In the earliest human class-systems we know about, food has always played a differentiating role. The same habits of atavistic over-eating also recur in high-status baba families in Indonesia, where whipping up a royal banquet for guests plays out like some throwback rituals of social allegiance.
Yet obviously this cannot be said of the entire nation, whose noble houses and distinguished families have never been demarcated solely on their social ambitions. Noblesse oblige, after all, does not leap only from the crumb-crusted generosity of the rich man’s table. At least this was the general picture, given how poorly stocked the so-called redistributive palace-storehouses of much of the archipelago’s major kingdoms were compared to, say, those in the history of early modern Europe.
Even white rice, long held as the food of nobility and colonists, only came to be regarded a common “staple” food in 1975, after the Suharto regime imported new, higher-yielding, more pest-resistant varieties of paddies and applied modern farming techniques in order to increase rice production (a process otherwise known as the Green Revolution). Common folks meanwhile ate black and red rice, sorghum and cassava.
If anything, imperialism – one of the greatest sources of influence in cookery – did little else but to reinforce class divisions.
Interestingly, in Indonesia’s case imperialism’s traces might have been as much a testament to the other side of the Dutch colonialists’ attitude towards their own indigenous way of life: humility about their national cuisine. The Indonesian rijstaffel, essentially, is the story of a colonizer’s embracing of the food of the colonized. This elaborate buffet-style offering of rice accompanied by a variety of spicy side dishes even has some claim to be the Dutch national dish; as the eminent food historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto opines, “its rival, hutspot, a sort of bubble-and-squeak made of scraps of root vegetables… has only sentiment to commend it.”
Indeed, the contrasts between the two are palpable. The former belongs to the period when Holland was taking away another country’s independence, the latter when they were struggling for their own.
However, such familiarization with an unfamiliar cuisine could also work as a method of control: of showing solidarity with natives, exploiting their expertise and keeping them socially and economically apart. For that reason it has remained to this day the cuisine of the Indonesian upper middle class with self-justifying links to all things Dutch.
Economic vicissitudes also proved to be the litmus of social change for the babas of Singapore. By the early 1980s, the country’s modernization brought about a decline in Peranakan culture: while the physical forms remained, other cultural traits and practices were flagging. This was also the case with its cuisine. But like any good parents, they shrugged the whole thing off and called it part of growing up.
And so, by the time globalization was at full throttle and everyone from Addis Ababa to Woolamalloo is forced to espouse at once “consistency” (as in the processed-food industry’s major yardstick for its products), “diversity” (where kiwi fruit from the Antipodes pops up everywhere, on fish, with meat, in martinis), “creativity” (where the upcoming pizza twist is likely to be one with “Szechuan” or “Thai” topping), “modernity” (i.e. the tiny portion on the gigantic white plate) and “national identity” (in which upmarket restaurants of traditional cuisine, in an attempt to be just that, serve their meals in five hundred year old ancient pottery which no one, rich or poor, ever uses), Singapore has traveled far, on all counts, in this new ethos of pluralism.
Indeed, it seemed only a few years ago that Singapore had only meant Indonesia’s savvier, more organized sister. Their hawker centers were better packaged, worked longer hours, but, as everything else about this place, seemed held aloft less by whimsy and creativity than a pack of regulations and state-led impetus. In the mid 90s, when rocket salad, bay scallops and chai latte began to take over the city, they still seemed to take their cue from Sydney and Melbourne. After all, it was not until Justin Quek burst onto the culinary scene did home-grown experimentation start – in earnest.
But how far have they gone in such short a time. Modern cuisine, one that constantly attempts to mix and match the world, has not just caught on, but mastered; the landscape is continuously upgraded by ever hipper establishments, better kitchens, and more knowledgeable staff. A gap between style and substance is no more permissible – it is simply not on; they have to come together in one package. The modern experience has to be total. “Cosmopolitan sensibilities,” as it were, have been built from the ground up.
So what gives?
A cursory look at the two cities shows more than mere compatibility. Singapore may have its Hokkien old-timers, the sort loved for generations for their homemade ngoh hiang(fried minced pork rolls) and fish maw soup, or its Cantonese stalwarts, serving up suckling pigs and old-fashioned thick sharks’ fin soups. But for every Lau Hock Kian and Cathay in Singapore, there is a Rico, or the former Lim Eng Thay, in Kebayoran Lama, with its unforgettable, 75 year old pork colon, deep-fried to a crisp to resemble knuckle crackers, barely kissed with butter-sauteed sweet soy sauce. Or a Shantung, that Pasar Baru institution, that can wake up the dead with its pan fried dumplings and other classicbaba delicacies.
While old Singaporeans wax nostalgic for roti babi (literally, fried pork bread) served with a dip of sliced red chillies in Worcestershire sauce, our parents’ kitchens, on special request, still dish up bistik sapi (Indonesia’s version of bastardized beefsteak) accompanied by a robust, Indonesian-style gravy that just pushes the boundaries of saus Inggris (English sauce) richness. It may be equally poignant to remind ourselves that Worcestershire sauce – that receptacle of free glutamate par excellence – is a nineteenth century English invention based on ingredients often pegged as “oriental”: vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, molasses, tamarind, shallots, anchovies, ginger, chilli, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.
The kopi tiams we see in just about every corner of Singapore, those standardized mini-universes of local food propped up with electricity and piped water supply, may be one of the most observable gentrification efforts by any Asian state in recent years. Yet in Jakarta, where true-blue foodies refuse to be caught dead dining at a shopping mall food court, modern kopi tiams are the very butt of jokes and prejudices that also date back to a timeworn class consciousness. Anything that undergoes redefinition, renewal, recasting, is deemed fake, inauthentic.
And yet any attempt at comparing the sprawling archipelago to the tiny island republic, from national security to democratic potential and culinary riches, inevitably hinges on the question of size and complexity, the sort of “That may be the case but Indonesia is so much bigger” platitude that tends to end the discussion.
But precisely for that reason Indonesia’s culinary tensions are not merely circumscribed to the tussle between regional versus national (or at least that which tries to be) or between gourmet and popular. Rather, it is still the old class tug-of-war: between the roadside eatery versus the air-conditioned restaurant, between Indonesian food versus International cuisine, between the homegrown “locals” and the overseas graduates, and between Jakarta and the rest of the country. What people eat is also about what they earn, taste is about class.
The fact that Indonesia is not an English-speaking country the way Singapore is places it further down the cosmopolitan scale, for however you look at it, menus anatomizing the food you’re about to eat with such delicate poetry somewhat cry out for its verbal equivalent. Even with the city’s best fine dining temples, whichever the case may be, you still sense a gawky, faltering undertone: a co-habitation rather than a habituation.
My own relationship with Singapore began as early as the late 70s, when I was not yet 8. This was when I tasted my first sugar cane juice, learned the difference between barbequed pork (red) and roast pork (milky white with crispy brown skin), and decided that Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of the best dishes ever invented.
Meanwhile, life back home consisted of weekly outings to one of five places, all in an entertainment complex near our house known as “Blok M”: Famili (Padang food), Coca (Chinese), Ratu Bahari (Seafood, Chinese), Toragi House (Korean) and Rendezvous (ice cream).
Of the five, Toragi House was my favorite. It was my earliest feeling of having a neighborhood restaurant, a place that asked you what new things you had learned in the week and allowed you to greet other guests as if your parents owned the joint. Coca and Ratu Bahari were where we took our friends, especially on weekends; theirs was the red-colored corn and crabmeat soup that set the standard for a lifetime.
Famili was more an obligation towards my father; he hails from the genteel town of Sungaipuar, in West Sumatra, is married to a Javanese but in those days liked his Padang food hard-core and uncompromising. And as far as ice cream went, Jakarta was a city divided into equal part Ragusa (Central) and equal part Rendezvous (South).
Time marched on, and Singapore in the 1980s to me was tantamount to HDB carrot cakes and countless trips to noodle houses, and three years of high school.
At the same time, Jakarta was acquiring its first eat-all-you-want Japanese fast food joint, and the first bugs of the American food chain epidemic. The city’s top five hotels all had their Continental grills – posh and French to boot – with Sahid Grill doing memorable fondues and Taman Sari at the Hilton whipping up the famous Sultan Soup next to your table.
Yet it was only in 2003 that I got back in touch with the Singapore culinary scene. This was during the three days into the New Year, when I somehow hit some of the high points of Singapore cuisine without really trying.
There was Vansh, for a start – a “modish Indian restaurant.” “Modish Indian” turned out to be exactly what the term implies – conformable to the current mode, fashion or usage; stylish – which, in today’s lingo means 60’s retro, open kitchen, hip waitstaff, and moody lighting. Apparently, dives off culinary cliffs were not required; where twists were needed, they did so with the peripherals: a thoughtful wine list, tapas-size servings essential to the new age, great chutneys, and something called Bombay Pani Puri, crispy puffs stuffed with sprouts and chilled spiced water – wickedly divine.
Next stop: a fabled Japanese yakitori place among restaurant owners, gastronomes, and fellow chefs on the ground floor of a crappy, long-forgotten shopping centre. The restaurant’s name was Ahodori, and there was plenty of hushed talk then about Chef Fujita’s preternatural grilling techniques.
And as if in dream, we stood witness to the theatre of austerity that produced such bounty, to the many which ways every scrap, every crevice of the chicken responded uniquely to heat and to a secret sauce which had stood sentry beside the yakitori master for the last six years; like fine wine, it mellowed with age and was replenished daily.
The next day we fell for Whitebait and Kale, a Sydney-chic, all-white, beach-house style Modern Australian restaurant housed in the Richard Meier-designed Camden Medical Centre.
There it was the mastery not so much of substance but of style, and none the worse for that: the menu had everything perfectly measured down to the garnish; the desserts, the confectionery, the oils and vinegars were all simple affairs that let the raw ingredients sing. I remember thinking, if this place, with its pitch perfect design and atmosphere, does not set new standards, I don’t know what will.
Fast forward two years, and like the other two hip eateries, Whitebait and Kale has become the previous It thing; Ahodori is sadly no more. In the latter’s case, we did not have to mourn for long, even if nobody does chicken quite like Chef Fujita. For just the other day, we stumbled into Kazu Sumiyaki, another yakitori spot, still in the same ramshackle building, with the same authentic vibe, where we had bite-size foie gras that tasted remarkably clear and more vivid than the ones in memory. In other words, it was more than enough recompense to the loss of merely another fabled place.
Now, in addition to Kazu, we go to Ember for Sebastien Ng’s superb Nobu-style black miso cod fish and pan-seared Chilean sea bass with mushroom and bacon ragout in truffle-yuzu butter sauce, and Hua Ting and Golden Peony for dim sum.
In our neighborhood, we go to Margarita’s for its Veracruz style-snapper and sizzling salsa, and the award-winning Meng Huat stall at the basement food court of Parkway Parade for char kway teow, an especially popular type of fried wide noodles with cockles and fried sausage in sweet dark soy sauce. Occasionally, on a late weekend morning, we sit at our neighborhood branch of the Killiney Kopi Tiam to brunch on their famous kayatoast -- toast with jam made from coconuts and eggs originating from the province of Hainan, China.
And yet, amid the cozy neighborliness of this local motley crew, we are building, passionately, feverishly, our love affair with whiz-kid Rafaie “Reef” Kee at his shrine of casual fine dining, Zuko!, gorging on whatever he has on his weekly menu: crunchy octopus salad with chili jam and lychee, or his sublime pan-fried Pacific silver dory fillet with browned butter salad. And there is always Le Bistrot around the corner on Joo Chiat: another perfect, complete microcosm.
Therein lies the defining contrast. Until the end of 2002, I had been doing the culinary rounds on Jakarta’s streets for three uninterrupted years, taking notes, predicting trends, tasting. I was proud of my city, proud enough to put together an annually updated book that tells people what they already know – that the city is made up of a great regional food tradition and a half-baked modern restaurant culture – and zeroes in on the particulars.
Chief among my findings is the sad fact that our restaurants are still not ready for a rating system. Of course, nobody is saying that street food, a realm acceptable to most tongues and sensibilities as “beyond rating,” cannot be “rated” according to taste only. Any schmuck can start a rating system – it’s all supposed to be subjective anyway.
But to do so is also to admit something about rating systems, chiefly that they are about holding restaurants to a certain set of standards: the mechanics designed not just to nose out incompetence or any slip in standard, but also to recognize a good thing when they see it. In Jakarta, there is no standard.
As far as the institutionalization of standard goes, modernity’s universal mirror is still, of course, France. We know the story: the bourgeois revolution of 1789 helped unleash first-class chefs, newly freed from defunct aristocratic houses, into the public domain. This was how fine dining quickly took root in society, and embraced culturally. These chefs needed to contain and institute their vision of the world, to find platforms in which to test and be put to test.
Every style that came afterwards – café, brasserie, bistro – was a trimming, a reduction, a paring down: taste always spreads from the top down. And the story had always been about chefs: masters, trendsetters, visionaries, chief whips, standard bearers, citadels of culture.
Whole industries were borne out of the demands of their craft: restaurant, takeout service, catering, fresh produce, foodstuff, kitchen equipment, culinary arts, culinary entertainment, culinary publishing, The Food Network. New myths were created: that French classic cooking had bubbled up from the old pot-au-feu, a true child of the earth. It’s the old theme again – of country gone to town.
But we’ve seen the downside: the metaphoric inventions of a few dogmatists at the top which had moved downward to arrange the menus and colonize the past have now collapsed. As Adam Gopnik suggests in Paris on the Moon, the ideas of France and Frenchness have become ossified while the elements of “Frenchness” that once made French cuisine truly a leading force in gastronomy – its predilection for a mild form of fusion, whether Modern Asian or Franco-Italian lite – are all but gone in favour of the more prosaic polarity of regional goods versus la grande cuisine francaise.
Yet the facts on the ground are less clear-cut. “National” cuisines are never originally national. They begin as regional cooking habits with ingredients limited to the national environment. They are open to local exchanges of influence and modification by such new products as can be accommodated in a regional tradition. When a cooking style gets slapped with a national appellation, it is frozen in place: its purity has to be protected from alien influence. Come crunch time, it chooses the choucroute.
But as the New Singapore has shown us, society is never a passive thing: it is always a cultural project, subjects in process, in which we come to be ourselves in our humanity through the medium of things.
What modernity has brought with it is not so much the supplanting of people with Australian wine, Starbucks coffee or sashimi-grade tuna, but different ways of objectifying globality. As Daniel Miller has argued eloquently, globality is “itself a localized image,” held within a larger frame of spatialized identity. Just as Singaporeans reject parochial nationalism that threaten to reduce their sense of right of access to global commodities, such as iPods and cell phones, they will maintain those localisms they wish to retain, not because they are two-faced but because inconsistency is an appropriate response to contradiction.
The existence of internationalized young Turks who have done time in the best nouvelle kitchens in London, Sydney, and New York helps to explain why the new cooking went deeper in Singapore than it ever could in France of late. In Singapore, as it was in America and Australia, the cooking revolution was above all a middle-class revolution. The people who jumpstarted the cooking revolution here were doing it as a second career, held at least a bachelor of arts degree, had traveled and eaten extensively, and knew exactly what the restaurant trade involved.
Meanwhile, the waitstaff, assistant chefs and kitchen hands are drawn from a new generation weaned on new domesticated tastes and for whom a career in the restaurant industry is not seen as second-class. Institutions like SATS Catering are serious bastions of learning and knowledge exchange, producing the likes of the formidable Anderson Ho.
Singapore has a National Culinary Team and regularly wins international cooking awards. Like anything that merits education and training, opening a restaurant or working in one is seen as something that requires industry. As Adam Gopnik says, the most derided of all modern restaurant manners – the waiter who introduces himself by name – is actually imperative to this effort: “I’m Henry, and I am your waiter tonight.” means, really, “You and I belong to the same social class. Tomorrow night I could be sitting there, and you could be standing here.”
Thinking it over, I suspect it is the lack of the egalitarian ethos, a chief aspect of Singapore’s strong middle class culture and the linchpin of its culinary progress, which ironically positions the chauvinistic France and the semi-feudalistic Indonesia on two wings of the same boat. As with the troglodyte French system of education, the highly stratified and unequal Indonesian education system locks people in place.
The other byproduct of globalization is, of course, economic in nature. Nowadays, a large part of the crisis in fine dining has to do with the fact that no one wants to eat food that cost a bomb. Why spend a hundred dollars plus per head for a meal which you can get, in fresher, fructified version, in your neighborhood corner? With a funky chef who may be your old neighbors’ son, or the local antique shop owner’s daughter, with whom you can chat over the counter and who always keeps a bottle of your favorite Muscat just in case?
Ironically, while there’s nothing like low-expectations-meets-unexpected-gourmet-quality, the reverse dynamics seems to take place in Jakarta, where a prestigious address is part and parcel of the fine dining aspirations – and often becomes the only thing that defines and chains it to place.
Having said that, when I think of the real sparklers Jakarta has to offer, namely the quietly confident izakaya (informal Japanese pub) trade that soldiers on with nary a squeak in Blok M, and some of the world’s best, most unassuming noodles and seafood, I think that this may just be another way of living together. For in the battle between nationalism and internationalization, which has grounded to a halt, as all cultural wars do, with a half-hearted armistice and a dulled amorphousness, Jakarta stands proud in not taking a position. And, in the course of that battle, neither does it belong to either camp: we can no more draft it into the prehistory of regionalism than we can attach it to the murky body of international multiculturalism.
What Jakarta has, instead, is a heterogeneity so bounteous as to be at once maddeningly erratic and resolutely resistant to formalization.
Take soto, for instance, an oft abused term as any. Known somewhat unceremoniously as “Indonesian chicken soup,” nothing can be farther than the truth. Soto Madura, from Madura, East Java, is a rich, creamy concoction made of tripe, coconut milk and fried onions. Soto Banjar, a specialty of the Banjar people of South Kalimantan, is a light milky broth filled with potato fritters, cellophane noodles, hard-boiled duck eggs and chunks of compressed rice steamed in small cases woven of coconut palm fronds. There is probably a host of other variants that originate not from a regency, or a province, but from a single city.
So here is a dish that has a whole spin on the concept of “chicken” while the only “c” the world seems to care about is the “c” in KFC. More importantly, here is a dish that makes plain the most solid lesson of living together: despite industrialization, and subsequent attempts to force food into artificial oneness – in other words, mass production – food continues to seek ways of forcing its message of difference.
At the other end, McDonald’s is known to have made heroic efforts to ensure that its food looks, feels and tastes the same everywhere. Yet it too has had to acquiesce to the occasional adoption of local tastes and sensibilities, if only because today’s economic and social realities demand an entirely new approach to global issues that takes consumers’ perspectives into account. As James L. Watson maintains in his fine essay, “China’s Big Mac Attack,” consumers can enjoy Spicy Wings (red-pepper-laced chicken) in Beijing, kosher Big Macs (minus the cheese) in Jerusalem, vegetable McNuggets in New Delhi, or a McHuevo (a burger with fried egg) in Montevideo.
Industrial food products like Spam, for instance, have also been adapted to difference in Hawaii and Korea, -- and not always to the expected degree of success --, suggesting that producers are having a hard time looking for a consistency in the population that they can commoditize. The case of soto, on the other hand, stands out because it appears firm in its own localized narratives, and as yet resistant to homogeneity, forced or otherwise. Soto, of course, is older than either McDonald’s or Spam: it is intertwined with something deep in the unconscious, something ungraspable, let alone governable, by law, religion or statecraft: the memory of taste.
Meanwhile, we keep hearing the call of the culinary nationalists, who have taken to blaming Indonesian cuisine’s poor exposure on the lack of a “nationalizing” effort. It is worth noting that they are also among the first to decry such attempts for their tendency to reduce complex regional cooking styles to a few stereotyped, ill-represented dishes.
And yet, who can claim themselves to be more Indonesian than the other? What claim, for that matter, did a language originally spoken by a tiny and politically marginal group of Malays on the east coast of Sumatra have on being anointed, in 1928, the unifying language of the archipelago? When our republic’s founding fathers declared us one nation, one people, and one language, all under the name of “Indonesia,” what they did, in effect, was reinterpret “Melayu” and change its name to “Indonesia” – it was violent, appropriative, an act of aggression and betrayal. “Indonesia,” as Benedict Anderson tells us in Imagined Communities, is a 20th century invention, imposed upon a nation that now consists of some 17,000 islands, some 450 languages, a space that is constantly in flux and never ‘one’ thing.
Even if the newly-adopted lingua franca appeared to be the perfect antithesis to the class-conscious Javanese language – ideal, in other words, with which to reject colonization on the one hand and to imagine a new, modern self on the other – it inevitably went down the way of similar acts of nationhood, i.e., it offered itself to be fixed, frozen, fossilized. Like French haute cuisine, its designated supremacy necessitates its elbowing aside of other languages, dialects and patois to the periphery, lumped together categorically as the “Other.”
Still, people keep talking about hybridity as if it were a modern invention. The truth is, culture is always hybrid, a self-perpetuating frontier – it embodies and results in difference. Somewhere along the road, it also becomes the site through which the past returns and is remembered and celebrated, however disjointed, flawed, or denigrated.
For it is all there, fragile but immemorial, as permanent as the way our face turns to a certain light: in the smell of cooking we associate with our mother, with our sweetest childhood experiences, or with a place we once loved. It is there in the sweetness we secretly yearn for when we eat this or that, the goodness of broth we connect with health and recovery, the sight of Bacchanalian opulence we once coveted on a foreign land. Thus, it may just be that successful exposure has nothing to do with organized regionalism and almost everything to do with translating individual dreams into reality: here, I believe, the two vital ingredients are capital and entrepreneurship.
Having said that, I was at the Chen Fu Ji restaurant the other day, the place Singaporeans claim to serve the King of all fried rice and the only one good enough to feed a king. Despite the dizzying superlatives, I realized that what gave me the real prickle in the glands was the memory of restaurants in Jakarta, at least a dozen of them, both famous and unsung, which were on par, if not better. And then it struck me that somewhere between polished virtuosity and timid competence, global chic and convivial naïve, might just be where real cuisine lies; with its privilege of texture and contingency – of self-contradiction, of trial and error – it has no other direction but to grow, ever outward, all the time.
** The author is indebted to several indispensable sources: Adam Gopnik, “The Crisis of French Cooking” from Paris to the Moon (New York: Random House, 2000), Jonathan Gold, “I see London, I see France” in Holly Hughes (ed.), Best Food Writing 2003 (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2003), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Food: A History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2001).