Singapore Signature Food Challenge: There Is Hope Yet
By KF Seetoh - Tuesday, Mar 10, 2015
After the contest, I posted a “ hard to believe this is made by students under 23…” on my instagram page with an accompanying luscious yet mean picture of a curry fish head dish. Then, lifestyle and food entrepreneur Loh Lik Ping replied “There is hope for the Singapore street food scene yet.” I had to agree, not just because I was the chief judge of the competition, but simply because it was way better than I had imagined.
This was one of the many local dishes that I help curate for the Singapore Signature Challenge cook-off organised by the ITE West College (going on this month). Many of them could sear a perfect medium rare rib eye steak and finish you off with a superbly puffy mango soufflé without much effort. Their culinary schools taught them to be well skilled in international and continental kitchens. But I threw my hat into the ring – and challenged them to cook the well-loved local icons that we all take for granted. We gave no special training nor recipes- just the contest guidelines and good wishes and pray they do proper research online and at the local food centres. And oh my, did they deliver. The judges, Chef Nathan (executive chef at All India Restaurant and Catering), Kwan Lau (Sales Director of kitchen equipment company Lau Choy Seng), including Chef Yen Koh, executive chef and Culinary Advisor of Unilever Food Solutions), who said “ the intense aroma is still in the air” after they mistakenly served us the fish head curry (when they had to quickly take pictures of it) and took it away before we could tear in. It could jolly well be our lunch that day.
The 39 participating teams, from schools and institutions like Republic Polytechnic, Nanyang Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic, ITE, at-sunrice, Shatecwere very impressive. I had imagined they would stumble over a lesser known Eurasian dish, Pork Vindaloo, but no, they came up roses; the ketumbar or coriander seed accent was so deliberate yet subtle. Best part, they served it with ghee rice. It scored high and unanimously amongt the judges.
It was designed to test their resourcefulness. I believe in testing by not teaching, just guiding and suggesting. The results will often surprise, like when the Lor Mee arrived at the judges table, the first thing we noticed was it looked like any served in hawker centres. One even came with an egg drop texture in the thickened sauce. There were many pleasant surprises with the dishes served, from Satay Bee Hoon, Cuttlefish Kangkong, Mee Siam, Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee, Gadogado etc..but the disappointment, surprisingly was the popular Katong Laksa. It was way off the mark although it looked better than it tasted.
15 teams eventually made it through the first round and onto the final on the 21st of March. We upped the ante. This time, each team has to serve up a three course meal, all local and we allow both traditional and modern takes on it (this is where the cooks have to understand the essence of the original before they can desecrate it). The winning team will make a debut demonstration at the World Street Food Congress next month (April 8-12th) and it’s open to public. Do come and cheer them on. (www.wsfcongress.com). Many of the students are also slated to intern and assist the top hawkers from around the world, including a Bolivian hawker team (with a trained former slum girl) led by Claus Meyer, the indefatigable creator of World’s Best Restaurant , Noma, from Copenhagen. He now champions street food and has a Singapore and Bolivian street food restaurant under his fold. These students will also be given stage and media time to voice their pitch as to what they like to see happen in the preservation of our street food culture.
I look forward that, and to setting a higher scorecard benchmark at the finals, as I think, as Loh Lik Peng said “there is hope yet”. Let it rip kids!