There is an old Chinese proverb that goes, “Chinoiserie will always be fashionable – look it up, Brenda.”
Okay, no, there isn’t – we just made that up. But judging by food and drink offerings these days, it certainly seems like the chinois theme is back in a big way.
Adding to a gastronomic scene that now has hip offerings like Madame Fan; Eliza By Dolly; and Sum Yi Tai and its latest addition Mona Lounge, new concepts 51 Soho, Fat Dragon and The Dragon Chamber will convince you that chinois chic is cool again.
Is Singapore in the mood for Wong Kar-wai-esque table settings? The folks behind these establishments think so.
“The world is definitely more receptive towards and intrigued by an evolving and dynamic modern Chinese identity. You see it playing out with incredible visibility in many areas – politically; in movies; in fashion,” said Fat Dragon’s Gustin Mahtani.
Mahtani is the General Manager of Jam & Toast, the restaurant group that also runs Jam At Siri House. Fat Dragon is their latest project, and it’s only a month old, launching as a virtual restaurant focusing on deliveries and catering. The menu includes rice bowls with names like The Koi That Became A Dragon, The Concubine’s Carp and Fragrant Phoenix.
In the dishes, much inspiration is taken from traditional cooking methods. For example, “Our Tasty Rice is cooked in beef fat and seasoned with turmeric and other spices, much like how chicken rice is prepared,” Mahtani said. “Many of the flavours will be familiar ones, but presented in different ways. That's where we think the appeal is.”
The playful name Fat Dragon came about because “most of our food is prepared in a large, smoky oven,” he shared. “We wanted to create an identity that immediately signals a territory of flavours, and positions as a modern, urban option for food.”
CHINOIS 2.0: LEARNING ABOUT NEW-OLD FLAVOURS
In this new restaurant wave, modernising and updating Chinese culture as we know it is key. Over at 51 Soho, cocktails so chicly Chinese that they border on kitsch take pride of place, showcasing traditional Chinese liquors in gorgeous new-old configurations.
“We are trying to update and bring out the Chinese culture of social drinking, and to showcase a more sophisticated facet to traditional Chinese liquors which have always been there but were not really noticed. These Asian punch cups and shooters were designed to be group cocktails,” said 51 Soho’s assistant director Megan Lim.
She continued, “The idea of punch cups and shooters is quite ‘western’, and we wanted to amplify and bring out the unique associations between culture, design and flavour. For example, the Prosperity Cup is made with rice wine and barley grains, so we chose to serve it in miniature versions of traditional Chinese earthenware pots as a playful reference to the rice that is usually stored in these pots.”
Lim explained that these cocktails also offer levelled-up experiences to those that seek them: Besides the fact that few bartenders here have the knowledge or patience for understanding Chinese rice wines and spirits, many Singaporeans hold the misconception that Chinese liquors lack sophistication. “Our cocktails are our way of paying tribute to these forgotten liquors that have fallen out of fashion but are still relevant to our modern palates,” she said.
Notwithstanding the fact that Chinese culture is part of the fabric of society, “Singapore has a history of being very open to new cultures and cuisines,” she said, and “with the increasing number of new Chinese migrants, we see a corresponding number of channels where they can communicate openly... It’s natural that there’s a curiosity to learn more and explore.”
ADVENTURE, REBELLION, CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING
Similarly, at the Dragon Chamber, it’s all about catering to a modern thirst for more: The desire to seek “adventure just around the corner” and “push the boundaries of tradition and what defines Chinese food,” said creative director Norman Hartono.
The Dragon Chamber existed previously as a “test concept” attached to the Lokkee restaurant at Plaza Singapura, but has just moved out into its own space – with a hidden entrance behind a refrigerator door in a Circular Road kopitiam. It takes a “secret society” theme and serves up unconventional dishes such as locally farmed crocodile.
It’s an effort to break out of traditional norms and conventions, Hartono explained. The menu features traditional dishes with twists, such as mala fries, Wagyu Truffle Beef Hor Fun, Firecracker Chicken And Maple Fritters, General Tso’s Chicken and even, er, D*** Soup, a dish of crocodile’s penis. “Rather than just making ‘sure sell’ dishes common in most other Chinese restaurants, we focus on embodying the rebellious spirit of creation,” he said.
That’s important if you want to draw in an increasingly cosmopolitan crowd. The Dragon Chamber serves “a ‘global’ type of Chinese cuisine that spans China as well as the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and the West,” Hartono said.
Admittedly, wherever Chinese culture is objectified and fetishised, there is an element of appropriation. But we in Singapore are uniquely situated to view this through a different lens, Hartono argued.
“Today more than any other time in history, there has been a huge outreach and crossover between the East and the West. With it comes the appreciation and appropriation that’s been happening in mainstream pop culture on both sides during past decade,” he said. “Although Singapore’s ethnic demographic is mostly Chinese, our cultural positioning stands somewhere in between the two cultures of East and West. For a long time, pop culture in the West has been superficially appropriating Chinese culture without much understanding. But with time, it is slowly changing beyond Kung Fu flicks and Mao propaganda to be done in more meaningful ways that cut beyond the surface.”
As Mahtani puts it, “The Chinese identity has broken out of traditional sidekick stereotypes in popular culture. These days, we see it filling a spectrum from sophisticated to edgy, and the world is hungry for more.”
51 Soho is at 51 Telok Ayer Street.
The Dragon Chamber is at 2 Circular Road.
Fat Dragon is at order.fatdragon.sg.