As Singapore marks her golden jubliee this year, the city of foodies is celebrating in a big way with food.
For the inaugural Singapore Restaurant Month, which is organised by the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS), 50 restaurants have each come up with a special dish using local produce. They will be available for about one month from July 1.
Dinners can dig into a mouth-watering range of dishes, from time-honoured ones from heritage restaurants to dishes with innovative plays on local flavours.
These dishes span more than 10 cuisines, including Chinese, Malay, Japanese and Italian.
Mr Andrew Tjioe, 56, president of the association which represents more than 800 restaurants in Singapore, hopes the restaurant month can be an annual marquee event that showcases what the Singapore restaurant scene can offer.
He adds that this is missing from the calender of food events here.
He says: "Although eating out is big in Singapore, restaurants have not been involved in food events on a big scale, like an equivalent of the Great Singapore Sale in the retail industry."
Mr Tjioe, who is also executive chairman of the TungLok Group of restaurants, adds that the 22-year-old Singapore Food Festival, which is spearheaded by the Singapore Tourism Board, focuses on hawker fare targeted at tourists.
The Singapore Restaurant Month will be held in conjuction with the Singapore Food Festival, which starts on July 17.
The association put out an open call for restaurants in January this year. A key selection criteria was that restaurants had to use at least one type of locally farmed produce such as eggs, fish or vegetables in their dishes.
Through this event, Mr Tjioe hopes to encourage more restaurants to consider home-grown produce when procuring ingredients.
He says: "Restaurants are cost conscious and local produce are more expensive, as they are not produced on a big scale.
"However, we have to believe in local produce as they are more environmentally-friendly, safer and help keep local farms going."
He is referring to how locally farmed produce have a lower carbon footprint as the food travels a shorter distance to consumers, and that local farms adhere to stringent farming guidelines set by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority.
Of the 50 participating restaurants, 12 are heritage restaurants, which according to the association, are those which are at least 30 years old.
These include 86-year-old Chinese restaurant Spring Court in Upper Cross Street and 40-year-old Chinese restaurant Gim Tim in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4.
Spring Court is using locally produced eggs in its dish - deep-fried yam ring topped with sweet and sour prawns ($38).
Its managing director, Madam Soon Puay Keow, 73, says that the contents of its popular yam ring dish have been given a "tropical Singapore-themed update".
Instead of diced chicken, it has stir-fried prawns with pineapple, coconut, tomatoes and golden pumpkin.
She says: "It is a landmark year for Singapore, so I wanted a dish that is filled with well-meaning symbols. The dish will be on our menu permanently to mark our country's 50th birthday."
Gim Tim's chef Foong Kok Thin, 48, has whipped up stir-fried mushrooms and kai lan in a sauce made with chicken broth, oyster sauce and soya sauce ($15), using locally grown greens.
He says: "We want to support the sales of local produce, and kai lan is healthy and easily available."
The dish will remain on the restaurant's menu after the event.
Newer restaurants are injecting fresh twists into local flavours.
Restaurant-bar Timbre, which has outlets at The Substation and Gillman Barracks, will offer a fried barramundi fillet ($16++), which is marinated overnight in laksa seasonings such as lemongrass, shrimp paste and turmeric.
Timbre Group's head chef Tommy Teo, 35, says: "We saw this as an opportunity to infuse local flavours into a Western-styled dish."
He adds that the barramundi is from Kuhlbarra by Barramundi Asia, a local fish farm off Pulau Semakau.
Standing out in the menu line-up is a crocodile dish by Yum Cha Restaurant in Chinatown. The dim sum restaurant has come up with stir-fried crocodile meat with pineapple, red and green peppers ($20).
Its deputy general manager, Ms Melody Tan, 28, says: "Crocodile meat is usually done cooked with Chinese herbs. We wanted to make it interesting with a zesty tropical feel."
Mr Tjioe hopes next year's edition will attract at least 100 restaurants as a platform to showcase the evolving restaurant scene.
He says that the scene is moving towards more casual restaurants "with artisanal cocktails and simpler and manageable menus".
This is a shift from having large, formal restaurants with extensive menus, such as traditional Chinese restaurants.
"Demand for fast and casual eateries is increasing, as consumers dine out very often - at least once a day, so there's a need to watch one's dining budget."
With the growing spending power of the millennials - well-travelled young adults in their 20s - more dining ideas from overseas, such as tapas and health-conscious fare have been able to take flight here. He says that diners are "concept-conscious" and want to get a well-rounded dining experience, from ambience, decor, location to, of course, food.
With insatiable appetites for fresh dining ideas, he adds that restaurants need to have a major revamp at least every 21/2 years.
"Diners are constantly looking for something new, so restaurants are spending minimally on renovations and more on decor, so that they can be more flexible in their looks," he says.
He plays down the lack of manpower and more expensive rental as reasons for restaurant closures.
"When thousands of restaurant outlets and hotels are facing the same problem, it is no longer a problem; it has become the new norm," he says.
"There are still some restaurants that are expanding in this climate. It is a matter of survival of the fittest."
To thrive in the volatile local dining landscape, he says it boils down to having a great and relevant dining idea.
"Restaurateurs need to be open-minded to new dining concepts around the world and to change their business strategies as soon as they do not work," he says.
"Restaurants should not have a 10-year plan; they should think of how they want to evolve after becoming profitable."
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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