I finally got to try the cooking of legendary Singapore-Eurasian chef, Damian D’Silva, last Saturday. It was at the 3-month-old Folklore restaurant which serves what it calls “heritage Singapore” cuisine, drawing from its diverse communities of Eurasians (descendants of mixed marriages between early Portuguese, Dutch & British settlers in Malaya with local Indians, Malays & Chinese), Nyonya (also known as Peranakan, a four-centuries-old fusion cuisine of Chinese and Indonesian/Malay/Thai), plus many other dishes which came about as a result of cross-cultural influences which we in Singapore sometimes tend to take pretty much for granted.
I missed Chef Damian D’Silva in his previous restaurants like Soul Kitchen in Purvis Street (2002-05) and Immigrants on Joo Chiat Road (2012-15) as my job at the time frequently takes me out of Singapore for long periods of time, and my time back home were usually occupied with other activities rather than eating out. So, I’d always deferred intended visits to Damian D’Silva’s food ventures till it was too late. These misses also included his hawker stalls like Big D’s Grill, first in Bedok South, and then at Holland Drive (2008-10), as well as the short-lived Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent (2016).
The man’s reputation for constant failed business ventures is perhaps as famous as his cooking prowess.
So much so that I couldn’t believe my luck when I finally got to sit down at a table inside Folklore last Saturday evening, in anticipation of a Damian D’Silva meal. The wait was long, as Damian D’Silva has his legion of loyal fans. When the food came, though, they certainly don’t disappoint - Chef Damian D’Silva is a master in creating the perfect balance of flavours and textures in all the dishes he cooked.
- Chilled tofu with pidan (century egg) & pickled radish. I first had this dish in Taiwan many years back, but it’s become a fixture in many Chinese restaurant menus in Singapore, from Shanghainese to Cantonese ones. Chef Damian gave it his unique spin - mashing the components roughly together to obtain a pleasing texture but, at the same time, retaining its authentic flavours.
- Sambal buah keluak fried rice - an original creation of Chef Damian D’Silva, but much-copied just about everywere in Singapore these days (it’s yet to spread to neighbouring Malaysia, where the food culture mirrors Singapore’s). This dish borrows from Peranakan/Nyonya culture with its use of buah keluak (an Indonesian nut with a strong distinctive flavour & black nut-flesh, much favoured in Nyonya and Javanese cooking), and the result was a taste sensation.
The fried rice was topped with an egg, fried sunny-side up and a dollop of minced, spiced buah keluak flesh.
- Singgang - lightly-spiced, minced wolf herring. The rendition here is an interesting variation from the usual Singgang Serani fish stew which many Malaysian/Singaporean Eurasians are familiar with. (BTW, “Serani” is the local Malay word for Eurasians, a corruption of the term “Nasrani” or Nazarene, since the Muslim-Malays refers to Christian-Eurasians as “followers of Jesus the Nazarene”).
Although I miss the usual “fish steaks in light stew” version of the Singgang, Chef Damian’s boneless mince was very distinctive and tasty all the same - an amazing achievement for a dish that looked like baby-food at first glance. Variations on a theme is acceptable in Eurasian culinary culture as, traditionally, each Eurasian family has its own recipe for a certain dish, and proudly defends it. On the flipside, it also explains why Eurasian restaurants in Singapore & Malaysia could not survive for long - its Eurasian customers would inadvertently complain that the food “is not authentic” or “not like what my mum cooks”.
- Aberjaw - another forgotten (except by Chef Damian) Eurasian classic: this one consists of pork-ribs cooked in a piquant spice blend which included fermented soybeans, turmeric, garlic and bottlegourd. It was a delicious meat stew which closely resembled the Nyonya classic, “Babi Pongteh”, but with its own distinctive slant. Kudos to Chef Damian for resurrecting a near-extinct Eurasian dish from his taste memory to share with modern-day Singaporeans. And like all of Chef Damian’s other dishes, this one also has subtle, yet distinctive flavours, which is the hallmark of his cooking.
Folklore Restaurant is part of the new Destination Singapore Hotel on Beach Road. Try avoiding peak meal times, and especially on weekends, as the place can get really packed at the moment. Singaporeans love trying out new places, and 3-month-old Folklore is currently seeing very high volumes of diners each meal-time. Irregardless, the dishes churned out were impeccable.
Truly, Singaporean soul food at its best.
Folklore, Destination Singapore Beach Road
700 Beach Road, Level 2
Tel: +65 6679 2900
Opening hours: 12noon–2:30pm, 6pm–9:30pm daily.