Chef Willin Low demonstrates a flagrant disregard for rules.
During an eight-course omakase dinner at his restaurant Wild Rocket, I dig into his take on Singapore’s most ubiquitous dish, Hainanese chicken rice. Said dish is customarily composed of tender poached meat, fragrant ginger, garlic-and pandan-leaf-infused rice, and a cup of broth; Low’s version, served in a miniature black casserole dish, incorporates black-truffle butter and shavings of the prize fungus. It’s utterly decadent — and sacrilegious to Singaporean culinary purists.
Low became a celebrity for twisting regional fare into what he coined Mod Sin, short for modern Singaporean cuisine. Although long regarded a foodie destination, Singapore has remained grounded in the humble traditions of grandma’s kitchen and hawker stalls, despite Michelin-worthy, fine-dining spots like Tippling Club, LesAmis, Burnt Ends and Andre.
“When we started, we were worried that people would think we were trying to destroy traditional food,” Low Says. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how receptive everyone has been.”
Wild Rocket continues to grow in popularity, with foodies clamoring for East-meets-West reinterpretations of staples like saucy chili crab and spicy laksa soup.
Fellow chefs also took note, and Mod Sin has swelled into a bona fide movement. Inspired by Low, chef-owner Malcolm Lee added a 2.0 approach to his restaurant Candlenut, which specializes in Peranakan cuisine.
A defining dish, ayam buah keluak, is a flavorful chicken stew made with the black seed of buah keluak, an Indonesian fruit. Although toxic while raw, the seeds become edible when cooked properly — but the flavor is impossible to describe. Not even Lee can articulate it. It looks a bit like tapenade, but there’s nothing olive-y about it.
I find my favorite Mod Sin buah keluak invention at Violet Oon’s National Kitchen, which opened December 2015 within the impressive and new National Gallery. Oon, a former food critic and Singapore’s answer to Julia Child, presents me with a spaghetti dish, the inky puree tempered with prawn, fried red bird’s eye chili and coconut milk. It’s insanely toothsome, pure umami with just enough chili heat and al dente bite. It’s my sixth course, but I clean my plate, and Oon glows with a mother’s joy.
My next stop is Labyrinth, where chef LG Han tells narratives through his madcap Mod Sin five-or-10-course tasting menus. He presents a deconstructed Hainanese curry rice dish that would be true to Dada artist Man Ray: plated to evoke a forest scene with a potato resembling a white stone, a quail egg, and deep-fried mousseline atop quinoa curry and mossy-looking coriander sponge. His version of chili crab, typically a messy affair, entail easily chomped deep-fried-soft-shell crab with a scoop of savory-sweet chili ice cream.
I’m disappointed when the procession of eye-pleasing surprises finally concludes. “What’s next?” I implore. “I’m working on an oyster omelet”, Han teases.
Clearly, eggs and rules will be broken.