Laksa In New York
By KF Seetoh - Wednesday, Sep 30, 2015
Local heritage food, I noticed was not brightly featured in the recent series of Singapore Inside Out events in London and Beijing. I had thought it was something, by now, we should be proud of. It is after all, a part of the SG50 series of events held around the world. So I jumped in on the action when the Singapore Tourism Board folks asked if I could power a hawker stall pop-up as part of their New York leg of the gig on September 23rd -27th .
I had the pleasure of working with Larry Reutens- Singaporean chef based in New York who used to own Masak, a local food restaurant that had rave reviews from US media but had to close when Hurricane Sandy forced his closure a few years back. It was exciting, just imagining the response and stares we will get operating The Box (a food container kitchen), which sits in the middle of Madison Square Park, right across from the iconic Eataly food market. The nightmare was when we realised just what equipment was available in that Box- a deep fryer, microwave oven, panini press and a bain-marie (ingredient warmers), plus chillers. The thought of doing fancy stir fry noodles and sambal stingray with cinchalok salad- went out the door. I could not even entertain the thought of a ha cheong kai burger that sold exceptionally well at the recent World Street Food Congress. But, I had the back up of a central kitchen from Ilili Restaurant, a Mediterranean set up that owned The Box and was partnering us for the event. The location was majestic, right in front of the iconic Flatiron Building and beside the Madison Square Park in the heart of Manhattan.
I almost regretted the tedious menu I created and cooked for the event- laksa yong taufoo, kaya toast and popiah (the 3 most popular items, plus ngoh hiang balls and Mio dinosaur). Can you imagine how many laksa sambal base we had to blend and fry up, the amount of pandan kaya we had to freshly make each day plus the ten hand made items that went into popiah. But the crowd had no serious complains and I had the support of the kitchen team to put the show together. Think 1000 hand made ngoh hiang balls and 1000 stuffed yong tau foo pieces each day, and you get the idea of the workload involved. Hsuen Ling, a housewife based in New York with her husband, could see “the flotilla of spices in the laksa” and May Young, a Hong Kong born graphic designer based in New Jersey, was surprised by the turnip bits buried in the ngoh hiang pork and shrimp meatballs.
Other chefs and cooks involved in the event included Justin Quek, Lee Boon Seng, Janice Wong and the second generation kids from Keng Eng Kee Seafood restaurant in Bukit Merah. They did a range of culinary events which included guest chef gigs at top New York restaurants.
It may be a while before the bigger American population comes to get cozy and familiar and recognise Singapore heritage food, but with the coming Bourdain Market, set to be massive hawker centre inspired eatery, the game may change. I have the pleasure and honour of helping his team put this project together. Who, know, the hilarious kway chap segment he spoke about in the Simpsons cartoon show, may not be so strange and funny in future.