Going loco for local fare

Singaporeans, with their refined palate, have always known that local fare deserves respect.

Linguine aglio olio?

No match for our mee pok.


Wait until you try our murtabak.

And now the local fare is creating a mini international buzz. With the possibility of Michelin stars and mentions in the New York Times, the local fare (there is more than chicken rice, thank you) has won international fans such as Ms Loraine Fischer, 60, a high school teacher from Australia.

"I have a fascination with Singaporean cuisine.

"Who would have thought that carrot cake, a dessert for us Westerners, is a dish made from radish here?" she tells The New Paper on Sunday.

Ms Fischer is not the only foreigner who has gone loco for local.

A spokesman for Food Playground, a hands-on cooking school offering cultural cooking classes, says tourists make up 90 per cent of its 3,500 students over the last three years. The school runs one class a day, six days a week.

It has been that way since it began operations in 2013, says director Lena Tan.


Ms Fischer is one of its regular students. She has returned to attend its classes six times.

While accompanying her husband on business trips to Singapore in 2014, Ms Fischer spent $600 on six lessons. She has picked up many recipes - from Nonya laksa, nasi lemak, roti jala to hoon kueh.

Ms Fischer says the three-hour class covers the history of the dishes, and the students learn the recipes before setting off to try them themselves under close supervision.

The teachers are not Le Cordon Bleu-trained masters, but stay-at-home mothers and senior citizens.

On her teachers, Ms Fischer says: "They teach from the heart and give additional tips and let us in on 'home-grown secrets' that, I feel, professionals usually lose as they climb the professional ladder."

Ms Fischer likes the class so much she is planning to return again this year.

"Once the dates of my husband's business trips to Singapore are confirmed, I am booking myself for a few classes," she says.

She admits she has a lot more to learn.

She says: "I tried to cook Hainanese chicken rice but it didn't turn out as successfully as it did when I made it in class. My brother tried it and said that my attempt was close but not quite right.

"So, I am adamant I am going to get it right."

She has always had an "interest in Asian cuisine" and the classes gave her a chance to learn "more about the country" since she and her husband come to Singapore so often.

After being encouraged by her teachers to try the local food, Ms Fischer tried the dishes she heard about during her first class. "My favourite dish has to be carrot cake," she says.

These students are not the only fans of the local cuisine.

The New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, recently named Singapore's oyster omelette one of its top 10 dishes of 2015. He was specifically referring to the one served in New York restaurant Chomp Chomp (which serves Singaporean hawker food).

The omelette was featured along haute cuisine dishes like Porchetta sandwich, duck carnitas and pine leaves smoked mackerel.

Wait till he tries kong bak pau (braised pork belly stuffed into steamed buns), rendang and Teochew steamed fish.

From their homes to yours

She may not have an acclaimed culinary school background, but do not underestimate the local auntie and her book of secrets.

Food Playground teacher Helen Teo, 55, has secret recipes that have been passed down the generations.

Mrs Teo says she learnt cooking through her family, who are of Teochew descent, and her Peranakan mother-in-law.

From char kway teow, kueh dadar, kueh salat to mee siam, Mrs Teo says she prepares everything the authentic way, even if her classes include foreigners.

"We aren't there to give the students a touristy experience," she says. "I feel that learning from heartlanders, they get to enjoy a more local and authentic cultural experience.

"And we also get to share our culinary adventures though our life stories."


Another culinary instructor at Food Playground, Mrs Lesley Lim-Ma, 47, also learnt a range of recipes from her relatives.

She says: "I have always liked cooking and baking, even when I was growing up.

"I first learnt how to bake from my mum and picked up cooking from my grandmother."

Although she sticks to authentic ingredients and flavours, she says she also shares tips and shortcuts.

Food Playground director Lena Tan says the school includes stay-at-home mothers and active seniors as part of the teaching staff so the recipes can be based on home-cooked meals.

She says of the foreign students: "A significant part of travelling is being able to appreciate local food from a local's perspective.

"And we hope that it gives expatriates and tourists the motivation and 'courage' to try our local cuisine".

This article was first published on January 3, 2016.
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