Why chef Damian D’Silva fights for the soul of Singapore's food heritage
"We have not lost our identity per se, but we’ve forgotten who we are." The crusade against cultural erosion by one of Singapore’s most stalwart guardians of heritage food.
It’s easy to be intimidated by Chef Damian D’Silva. His towering height means he will be looking down at you. And if you've caught the 62-year-old judge of the recently concluded MasterChef Singapore, you'd know what he meant when he said he could probably "smile more", if he could do over his time on the show.
But this prima facie impression dissipates once you take the time to sit at his feet – or rather, at his feast-laden table at the restaurant Folklore – and listen to the cornucopia of stories that spill from his mouth.
That’s when you realise that anyone with any measure of conviction will always run the risk of rubbing someone or other the wrong way – and not fear that at all.
“Chilli, rice, chicken – name me one stall that gets it all right. It doesn’t make sense,” he asserted, during a teatime conversation we had about the state of chicken rice in Singapore.
“I swear to you, if I sit down for a month and I do rice, chicken and chilli, I would come up with the perfect rice, chicken and chilli. I would. So why can’t they do it? My grandfather did perfect chicken rice, and he did so many other things perfectly.”
GRANDDAD, THE CULINARY COLOSSUS
“Granddad”, as it turns out, was the single most important influence in his culinary journey, in spite of the fact that he died when D’Silva was just 19.
As a boy of eight, he was not allowed in the dining room when his retired grandfather had his friends over. But he was allowed to fry up and serve food to the table. And because many of Granddad’s friends were influential chefs, it was significant when he performed his tasks well – and especially so when Granddad’s own prowess in the kitchen was acknowledged by everyone in the community.
But Granddad was the most reluctant of teachers because, as D’Silva later realised, he wanted to test the boy’s dedication. He would never instruct but watch out of the corner of his eye to see if his grandson was doing his tasks correctly. And so, learning took place only through careful observation.
When people tell me a dish is perfect, I say, ‘No, it’s not'. If it’s perfect, you are doing the same thing over and over again. Where’s the soul?
“I realised that he cut onions in different ways. If he wanted to break the onions down very quickly, he cut them against the grain. If he wanted to cook them for a long time, he cut them with the grain,” D’Silva recalled.
“He was a mentor in many different ways, not just in cooking. He made me think. He made me use all my senses," said the chef.
Even though D'Silva never knew what was going on in his grandfather's head, “when he did something, it was with all his heart," he said. "He didn’t do it halfway. It had to be better than what he did the last time. That’s how I learned about imperfection in cooking."
It seems like a contradiction, but to this chef, imperfection is the highest ideal. “When people tell me a dish is perfect, I say, ‘No, it’s not'. If it’s perfect, you are doing the same thing over and over again. Where’s the soul?" he asked.
I tell you, I’ve eaten chicken rice in Japan that’s better than Singapore’s.
"When it’s imperfect, and it’s better the second time you make it, you question yourself. And when you’re cooking it for the fourth time and you can sense that it’s going to be better, there’s this smirk on your face. And when you try it, it’s better than all the other times that you cooked it. That is imperfection. That is what I strive for. And that is what I saw in my granddad.”
The dish that best exemplifies that philosophy, said D'Silva, is Feng, a delicate stew of pig’s offal that only makes an appearance at Christmastime. “Feng this year is very different from Feng last year. This year, it’s better. It’s got more nuances; the texture is so much better. The spices are pronounced, but not overpoweringly so,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t put heart into it last year. This year is just different.”
Why isn’t it on the menu all year round? Well, because it’s so labour intensive. Not only is the offal chopped up into tiny pieces measuring mere millimetres, it’s also stewed in a blend of 18 different spices. The specialised Feng curry powder is also made from scratch. In fact, D’Silva makes all the different curry powders for each of his curry dishes – never skimping on time, effort and quality ingredients.
'WHY ARE YOU SO STUPID, DAMIAN?'
At his previous restaurant, Soul Kitchen, D'Silva used to get upset when customers would pay S$18 for a plate of aglio olio but balked at paying S$12 for beef rendang that took far greater time and effort to prepare.
It’s a conundrum that even a fellow chef couldn’t understand.
I think we’ve lost our taste for heritage food. I think culturally, everything has been removed.
About a year ago, a chef from France asked to be allowed to work in Folklore’s kitchen for a week. “The first day he came, we were doing CBBB, which stands for chilli, bawang, belacan and buah keras. It’s shallots, candlenuts, chilli and shrimp paste, blended up. We usually do about 20kg at one time."
It's a process that requires frying the aromatics in very hot, smoking oil. D'Silva recalled: "As he was stirring, [splatters of oil] started to jump onto his hands. He said this is very painful. I told him, just roll your sleeves down and continue working. After an hour, he said, ‘This is too hard. Can I take a break?’ This guy was 28 years old.”
It doesn't help that diners don’t seem to appreciate the price paid by the people who serve up heritage food, said D'Silva. “When I went to Japan about five years ago, a good sushi restaurant probably charged S$120 a head. Today, it’s S$480. Why? It’s the same restaurant. Why can’t I sell my food at S$100 a pop?"
Turning the question to himself, he asked, "Why are you so stupid, Damian? I use the best dried chillies. There are cheaper ones. But I use the best. And it’s sad that people don’t see that.”
“I think we’ve lost our taste for heritage food. I think culturally, everything has been removed. We used to have cobblers. We used to have joss-stick makers. We used to have sign makers. We used to have potters… these people are all gone."
These jobs, he said, are “the soul of a country”, just like the grandfathers and grandmothers who used to whip up dishes at home. “We have not lost our identity per se, but we’ve forgotten who we are.”
THE FIGHT AGAINST FORGETTING
Today, D’Silva is one of Singapore’s strongest crusaders in the fight against our collective culture’s memory loss. At Folklore, he resurrects heritage dishes such as Eurasian Singgang, a long-lost Eurasian dish of de-boned wolf herring; and Mulligatawny, an Anglo-Indian soup of shredded chicken and spices.
Many of his dishes were saved from the brink of oblivion via Granddad’s personal recipe book, which was just as cryptic as the man himself – each recipe is merely a list of ingredients. “The worst thing is that sometimes, it says, one and a half cents worth of this and that. Back then, with one cent, you could eat. How do you try and figure that out?” he chuckled.
“I spent more than nine months studying Granddad’s cookbook, and then re-writing and testing all the recipes. I had the most fun. It was not just about testing – it was about eating. Is this how it’s supposed to taste? And the more you dug up the memories, the more you became emotional. Why didn’t I sit down with him and ask him all these questions? It was too late. He was dead.”
In his mind, what makes us Singaporean is our cultural diversity. But “if we don’t embrace whatever little we have left, where are we going to be in the next 20 years? We’ve got satay that’s really terrible. When I go to Malaysia, I get satay that’s so much better – or even Indonesia, for that matter.”
And, back to the prickly subject of chicken rice: “I tell you, I’ve eaten chicken rice in Japan that’s better than Singapore’s.”
An artist is an artist whether he paints, whether he’s a potter, whether he cooks. You’re driven. That’s the kind of madness. I know a lot of chefs out there who do that. But how many do it not for money?
These would have been provocative words if they hadn’t been said with many sighs and a lump in his throat.
“The heart and soul of who we are – the heritage – what have we got to show? Yeah, we’ve got a lot of hawkers. But what about the Hock Chew, the Teochew, the Cantonese, the Hokkiens, the Hakkas – where’s that food all gone to? Then, the Malays – is it just nasi padang? What about the Boyanese? I mean, there’s so much. Who’s going to make an effort not just to document, but to make sure that it’s not forgotten?”
Well, at least we have you, we pointed out. “I’m only one person,” he lamented, with a laugh. “To become a chef, you must have a certain amount of madness, you know. To defy yourself, to go above and beyond your tiredness, to work 36 hours without sleep, to take all the criticism with heart, and then try and come up with things that are better.
"An artist is an artist whether he paints, whether he’s a potter, whether he cooks. You’re driven. That’s the kind of madness. I know a lot of chefs out there who do that. But how many do it not for money?”
He continued: “Where’s the happy food now? Food that you put in your mouth and it brings back so many memories and makes you happy? Some mums don’t cook any more. I know it’s not their fault. I know they don’t have the time. But we can’t lose our heritage. So that’s why I do this."
"It’s not for me," he added. "I think it’s for my Granddad."