We The People is our August column commemorating Singapore’s 55th birthday. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from heritage warriors to environmentalists, entrepreneurs to filmmakers for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home. For more on the column, click here.
Chef Damian D’Silva is a man with a cause. Today, the culinary heavyweight helms Kin at private member’s club The Straits Clan and spares no effort to revive disappearing dishes. Many of these originally humble dishes are slow dancing into history and at Kin, they’re elevated with contemporary plating sensibilities, slick service and swanky interiors.
We speak with the veteran on the lengths his team goes to procure ingredients, how the restaurant rushed to help out migrant workers at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis and how he thinks the country can embrace diversity and our roots.
Does Singapore actually have a culinary identity?
Yes, in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society such as Singapore’s, food remains a critical aspect of ethnic and national identity that Singaporeans hold on to. It is the food of our different races and histories, not just Malay, Chinese or Peranakan but so many more (Indian, Teochew, Indonesian, Hakka, Eurasian) – a culture of communal dining between races that forms the fabric of our society.
The result is an expansive, multi-faceted culinary identity, made up of a myriad of flavours and textures, which is precisely what makes us so unique. However, we get so fixated on searching for our shared identity that sometimes we lose sight of the differences that makes us beautiful. I want to express this sentiment through my food, by resurrecting forgotten recipes and showcasing under appreciated local ingredients.
Some have described Kin as a “museum” of Singapore’s culinary culture — do you agree?
In a way, yes. An experience at Kin is meant to be educational and encourage discovery, which we hope fosters a greater appreciation for our culinary fabric. It’s always been our mission to preserve and celebrate Singapore’s culinary culture with a wider audience, to introduce and reacquaint them with the long-forgotten recipes we used to enjoy around the table that are vanishing today.
With Kin, I wanted to embrace our diversity, showcasing the complexity, depth and breadth of Singapore’s cuisine. What we have come to understand as local food is but a small snippet from a vast archive of recipes – we want to help people understand our cuisine is unconstrained by culture or racial identity but rather an amalgamation of traditional recipes brought from foreign lands spanning Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cuisines amongst many others.
As such, the experience at Kin is designed to reflect this and I hope it challenges the current way people recognise local cuisine. My team and I went through rounds to revive some of the more wondrous, rare, and quickly-vanishing recipes for our menu – 80 percent of which you won’t find anywhere else – made with time-honoured methods and lesser known local ingredients.
From sambals to rempahs, everything is handmade from scratch. Ingredients are specially procured in limited quantities from a network of traditional makers that I’ve nurtured lifelong relationships with or sourced fresh daily from market visits. On our menu you will find everything from a Cantonese Chi Pow Kai, to an Indian-influenced Indonesian recipe of Gulai using distinctive marsala spices reflecting Majapahit ruling at the time to a Peranakan Babi Masak Assam and the fiery Red Debal with Heritage Chicken, a 19th Century Eurasian specialty that we have recently added to the menu.
Rich and robust gravies and stews that heritage cuisine is typically associated with are balanced on the menu with often overlooked light and refreshing, even vegetable-forward specialties like Heritage Salsa, a seasonal market salad made with local fruits and herbs and the complex and aromatic Nasi Ulam. A communal experience of small to large sharing portions encourages guests to fully explore our local identity.
As a chef, I simply hope to preserve and share what I believe is one of the more distinctive and underrepresented cuisines of the world. To lose our culinary heritage would be a pity, I hope to inspire the next generation of cooks to preserve our cuisine and keep these traditions alive.
This year has been challenging for us all. What to you, are the silver linings?
Too often, we are caught up in the busyness of our everyday lives that we forget to stop and look around. When the norm is disrupted, we are forced to re-evaluate our priorities. For most of us, not being able to go outside encouraged us to look inwards and spend quality time with our families and loved ones.
Another positive that emerged from this crisis is the acts of kindness by Singaporeans to those in need. During the past couple of months, although the F&B industry was badly hit, many restaurants banded together to deliver free meals to healthcare workers and migrants workers to thank them for their service.
You’re part of the team that helped to push out meals for migrant workers. Why did you and your team decide to step up?
I believe, and always have, that we have to give back, and I’ve continued cooking with all my heart and soul, regardless of whether it’s for our restaurant guests at Kin or our migrant worker brothers whom we had the privilege to serve through our community kitchen. When the opportunity came up to give back and to use my skills for the benefit of others, it was very clear we would do whatever we can to help.
Together with my team at Kin, Chef Daniel Sia (Culinary Director of The Lo & Behold Group) and the teams across The Lo & Behold Group, we ran the Straits Clan Community Kitchen (SCCK), providing food support for migrant workers in our community. It served as a strong reminder that at the end of the day, cooking is simply about bringing joy to others through food. We have the means and resources to make a difference, and it was a time when the migrant worker community was going through an especially challenging period, so I’m glad we were able to do our part and extend a helping hand.
And on that note, what is your personal vision for Singapore?
Despite the challenges beyond our control, I take heart in our community spirit – may we be reminded to make time to sit down to a meal with our loved ones, spare a thought for our neighbour, and continue to do our best to help out one another.
In what areas do you think the country as a whole can improve?
The history of Singapore is such a rich and fascinating one. In a society as multicultural as ours, we have such a variety of cuisines, languages and cultural practices, which makes up our colourful cultural identity. We are beginning to see traditional crafts such as carpentry and pottery disappear, and if we don’t actively document, preserve and pass down these traditions, they will soon be forgotten.
Our Singapore heritage is a culmination of so many cultures, for us to celebrate who we are, we need to first identify who we are. My hope is that we not only embrace our diversity, but reconnect with our heritage roots, and recognise it as something to be preserved and celebrated with future generations.