Award Banner
Award Banner

How chef Damian D’Silva is preserving heritage cuisine from a bygone era

How chef Damian D’Silva is preserving heritage cuisine from a bygone era
PHOTO: The Peak

The Internet has little to offer regarding kai fan. A dish once popular among hardworking locals in the 1960s, where rice comes ladled with soothing chicken broth and garnished with humble toppings, the hawker grub has since disappeared from the dining tables of Singapore.

That is, until today.

Chef Damian D'Silva's latest and possibly most ambitious venture, Rempapa, preserves the forgotten recipe. Widely regarded as the forefather of local heritage cuisine, he continues to add to the repertoire of disappearing food from a bygone era by borrowing family recipes for over 50 dishes.

There will be more on the menu than just heirloom foods. While his previous concepts celebrated the past, the new Rempapa focuses on safeguarding Singapore's culinary legacy for the future.

"Heritage cuisine came from a different culture; its taste was bold and robust," D'Silva explains, adding that most ate just two meals a day, which meant loading up on starch and heavy flavours. "Our taste buds and eating habits have changed over time. Rempapa will adapt to accommodate diners while remaining true to its heritage values and taste."

The recipes that have been handed down for generations remain unchanged. Although the sauces are still handmade, the ingredients used and contemporary presentation mark a new chapter in local heritage cuisine.

At this all-day restaurant, you can eat baca assam (beef brisket brightened with tamarind); chicken curry flavoured with Sri Lankan influences and best enjoyed with fluffy string hoppers; or the nearly extinct Nonya fishcake that's full of bite and flavour. "I was previously associated with only Peranakan and Eurasian food. It has always been my heart's desire to share the full array of Singapore flavours across different ethnicities with everyone," says the chef. This includes serving something for any time of the day - from light afternoon bites to hearty dinner feasts, and everything else in between.


The team prepares each dish from scratch

Additionally, there is what D'Silva calls Singapore New Heritage food that transcends his background. It is inspired by the past but tinkered and tweaked to look and taste completely different. Pork chop curry rice, for instance, is plated to resemble Japanese katsu don, but the taste profile veers more towards the Hainanese-style pork cutlets coated in pounded cream crackers and deep-fried while garam masala adds to the curry's Indian flavours. "To please the different generations, we must be conscious and understand their needs and wants," says the chef. "Here is where a young team - with new ideas and dedication - is essential."

He adds: "I provide clear direction: do not stray too far from the original that the dish loses its soul."

This task of recreating the childhood dishes he grew up eating comes naturally to the 65-year-old. Many young cooks who have not grown up with these generational dishes do not have the chance to learn a trade in heritage cuisine; courses specialising in it are unheard of, and recipes are closely guarded and difficult to find. Western cuisine is often considered the faster route to success.

It was this rare glimpse into our culinary past, however, that attracted sous chef Tan Chit Pang to Rempapa's kitchen. "Every day is like a master class," says the 33-year-old. "I learn the stories behind every dish, what goes into them and how they are cooked. It is an experience you won't find elsewhere."

Cooking age-old dishes requires an entirely different set of rules. Most places Tan trained at followed fixed recipes, but the food at Rempapa requires constant adjustments. Fresh market ingredients mean "the ratio will always change depending on the produce every day."

The job is as challenging as it is rewarding. "I am part of the next generation. If we don't learn to cook heritage cuisine, then who will?"

Others have joined Rempapa to further their understanding of local food. Chef de partie Chuah Sze Sze loves eating kueh and wanted to learn how to prepare them well. "I had to learn everything from scratch," explains Chuah, despite working for over 15 years in pastry kitchens. She had to learn how to work with different bases. Rice, tapioca, and glutinous flour, for example, are very different from conventional cake and bread bases.

The baker also had to switch from ovens to steamers, and controlling the temperature and water level was yet another challenge. "It's very complicated," she shares. "I used to think that cooking heritage food was easy. Now, I know how much goes into creating each dish."

Chuah discovered that even the type of yam or keladi used to make the fudgy squares of talam keladi matters. The unusual, layered treat features gula Melaka-tinged custard sitting atop naturally sweetened mashed yam cake. While she is still learning, she hopes at some point to be able to share the recipes for these different kuehs with others. "By doing so, these heritage flavours will not be lost."

Defending these disappearing dishes also involves the drinks counter. Bartender Corrine Tay looks forward to elevating the dining experience with unexpected pairings and crafted cocktails. "Never forget your roots," she says. Tipples here have layers and complexities, just like the rempah or foundational spice blend that runs through almost every savoury dish. She also uses a lot of tropical fruits and herbs. On the first sip, Kedongdong is bright and tart, and gin adds a touch of sweetness. There are also wines, beers and sake. "Most of the food is rich and spicy," says Tay. "So, we have drinks that are easy to drink and taste dry."

An assortment of kuih


Away from the edibles, warm hospitality - a reflection of the homely cuisine – is as vital as the food itself. Restaurant manager Martin Pillay sets the welcoming tone at Rempapa. "No request is too strange for us," he says. "You should feel as if you were dining at home with the same level of comfort and intimacy."

By working the floor, Pillay and his team are in a great position to share more about each plate's story. "I tell the guests what I have learned from the chefs themselves," says Pillay. "This helps them realise that these [flavours] make Singapore unique." He hopes to introduce new forms of comfort food to a younger audience at the restaurant.

Regardless of the age of its customers, D'Silva's unique vision has given Rempapa timeless appeal. Take a trip down memory lane by indulging in edible history. Contemporary treatments provide gastronomic adventures for those seeking to discover the flavours of the past.

D'Silva says: "Anyone, young or old, can appreciate an interpretation of a traditional dish if it retains the soul of the original, tastes exceptional, and captures the heart."

This article was first published in The Peak.

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.