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We The People: chef Malcolm Lee on why we should pay more for local food

We The People is a column commemorating Singapore’s independence and the people who are working towards making our country an even better place. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from environmentalists and entrepreneurs to trailblazing creatives for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home.

As a chef, there are easier cuisines to master and, more importantly, make money from: French, Italian, Japanese, even modern. But Malcolm Lee has tackled one of the more contentious forms of cooking: Singaporean food.

Since opening his maiden restaurant Candlenut in 2010 followed by Pangium this year, the 37-year-old has dedicated himself to serving local dishes in their truest form. And he has been successful. Candlenut remains the only Peranakan restaurant in the world with a Michelin star, and Pangium has been fully booked since its June debut.

While Singaporean food remains one of the cornerstones of the country’s heritage, the cuisine faces many challenges. Older hawkers are giving up their trade. Not enough younger people have picked up the torch, citing long hours and low pay. This makes our conversation with Lee even more timely. We talk to him about the state of local cuisine, ondeh-ondeh doughnuts, and why we should pay more for our food.

Chef Malcolm Lee (Image credit: @candlenut.sg / Facebook)

What is the state of local cuisine today?

We’ve been through quite a bit of cycles. And I think the state of it right now is there’s a lot of interest, a lot of questions like, ‘Why is it done this way? Why is it disappearing? Why is it not the same like before? Where can I find this?’ I see it as a very exciting time that a lot of people are asking this and trying to understand more. Among my own team members, and also from many young people who eat at Pangium, they ask these kinds of questions. And it can only us keep going. We may see a new mindset, a slightly-new definition of what local cuisine can be by balancing tradition with what we have today.

In your inspiration for Pangium, nostalgia for lost culinary traditions is one point that frequently comes up. Is that the main motivation for diners?

One is the nostalgia part. And then you have the other set of guests who are just discovering. They’re like, ‘I never knew it was like that 50 years ago, 60 years ago.’ There’s this sense that there is so much more to our food, our culture, and our heritage. These two approaches constantly drive us. The moment I research something, I keep going deeper and deeper because it’s so exciting. For example, our durian tempoyak on the menu now. We always associate durian with just eating the fruit, but there are so many applications in dishes. Our current rendition is quite simple with sambal chilli and fried fish, but using the seeds, different kinds of flesh, or cooking it at a different stage of ripeness yields a very different tempoyak.

(Image credit: @candlenut.sg / Facebook)

How do you balance tradition with updating dishes for the modern diner?

Some dishes should stay traditional. In fact, some dishes should be served traditionally now because it’s lost. It’s very yummy but it’s time consuming, and that itself is very modern or relevant. But some dishes in their original form are too old fashioned. You cannot reach out even to the older generation with that version. At the same time, if we try to push it too far forward, you lose the soul behind it. And this is something I’m very careful with. I ask myself, ‘Would I want to eat it again? Is it something I’ll be happy to serve?’

What is one dish you updated at Pangium?

Take our Pang Susi for example. The traditional version is usually very dry. So it has to be more fluffy, more flavourful. The only modern-ish thing in ours is the crust on top, like a bolo bao. And that has become one of the wow dishes for us. It’s something very simple, but we can use it to pass on the story and flavour to many people. And people want to dabao!

Pang Susi (Image credit: CR Tan)

It has been trendy to reimagine western dishes with local flavours. Ondeh-ondeh doughnuts, for example. Do these dishes help us understand our traditions better, or does it dilute it?

It’s not a bad thing. It’s good to have inclusion, but I believe there’s a bigger group that is looking for how it’s done in the old days. Over the years, commercialisation have made ondeh-ondeh very accessible, and you might have a group of people who tried a bad one, and they are more receptive to an ondeh-ondeh doughnut. But what we’re saying at Pangium is, ‘Hey, give this traditional dish a chance.’ If we do it right, with the right research and the right ingredients, it gives you a glimpse into why this dish has become a classic over generations.

What trends do you notice among local diners at Pangium?

Our premise is that we are here to discover. We want to retrace some traditional recipes, but at the same time, have certain renditions of them. The guests all have the same mindset. There has been a lot of positive encouragement. I’m surprised because locals know their food. You cannot fool them. But somehow there’s this synergy between us. They’re like, ‘Wow, we never imagined that our traditional food can be done this way. It deserves to be at this level.’ People are starting to embrace local cuisine. It doesn’t only have to be cheap. It can be on the same level as other cuisines.

Pangium exterior (Image credit: Pangium)

Which brings me to my next question. Pangium is not cheap, and anecdotally I have heard people comment about the price. Yet they are willing to spend the same amount of money on, say French cuisine. What does that say about us?

I think that feeling about local food should be cheap is starting to change. Before, it was like, ‘Local food, local chef, it’s probably not good.’ But there has been this wave of support for local restaurants, local chefs, local food in general. If we always keep our local food cheap, we’re calling ourselves cheap. That’s not a statement I like to hear. I have many, many instances when guests say our food is very expensive. ‘How can you charge 48 dollars for rendang even if it’s good quality beef?’ But they have no problem paying 120 dollars for a piece of steak. It’s the craft they are paying for. For rendang, it’s the time and effort to prep the ingredients, slowly cooking it over two to three hours, resting it for one to two days, then reheating it properly. This appreciation is slowly coming in, but we need to share why it’s being charged at this amount. If we want to make money, we can do other food, but we believe in this.

How can we take this growing wave of appreciation to the next level?

If I can be more direct, we should pay more for our food! Rental is going up. Manpower is going up. Food prices are going up. So if we believe in our culture and our heritage, then we should be more than happy to say, ‘Hey, it is worth this amount because it’s a craft. It’s someone’s time and effort that we are rewarding.’ Singapore is so expensive to live in, and if locals cannot make a decent living out of cooking their food, who is going to pursue it? The better we pay people, the more they would put in time and effort to make our food taste better.

Jethro Kang

Jethro enjoys wine, biking, and climbing, and he's terrible at all three. In between them, he drinks commercial lagers and eats dumplings.

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