Why More Singapore Chefs are Serving Southeast Asian Herbs in Their Restaurants
Rosemary, sage, basil and thyme—herbs we have grown to know so well even if they are far from native to our tropical island. But what of indigenous herbs like ulam rajah, sawtooth coriander, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaves? They grow easily in our climate, yet it was only in the last decade that they began making a real appearance in our restaurants’ repertoire, beyond traditional Southeast Asian dishes like beef rendang and Vietnamese summer rolls.
Thanks to urban farms that have blossomed across the island in recent years, we now know more about indigenous Southeast Asian herbs than ever before. Chefs from casual eateries to the fanciest restaurants are increasingly turning to our proverbial backyard to source for flavours that truly speak of their sense of place.
One of them is Mariana Campos D’Almeida of The Butcher’s Wife, whose menu of gluten-free gems is peppered with local produce and herbs. “In a country like Singapore, it is easy to overlook the use of local herbs when we can easily import the produce we need, without regarding things like seasonality,” she said. “But I make it a point to cook with produce found in local farms as your dollar goes directly to farmers, supports the local economy and reduces environmental damage.”
Among the herbs she favours are wild pepper leaves, more commonly known as betel leaves in Singapore, which she picks on weekly sourcing trips at sister restaurant Open Farm Community’s garden. These she uses to wrap deep-fried pig ears marinated in soy and paprika.
The betel leaf also makes an appearance at chef Rishi Naleendra’s Cloudstreet, where guests are greeted with a Coffin Bay oyster wrapped in spinach, kissed with earthy betel leaf oil and served on said leaves. Here, the leaf was chosen for its digestive properties and significance in Sri Lankan cuisine as an ingredient for welcoming guests.
For young Singaporean chefs like Marcus Leow of The Naked Finn, local herbs are something he’s long loved to cook with. He notes: “I’ve always wondered why when people describe a dish as ‘herbaceous’, it seldom involves local herbs, but instead things like thyme or bay leaves. I’ve always thought that turmeric leaves, in particular, are underrated, so I wanted to give it more emphasis in my dishes.”
Leow’s irresistible squid donabe is almost a paean to how local herbs can be used to transform a dish we think we know well. It begins with rice cooked with pandan, turmeric and pepper leaves before mixing with squid warmed in galangal oil and grains of paradise (a spice from the ginger family). The very Singaporean donabe (a traditionally Japanese dish) is served with sambal hijau made from green tomatoes, green chillies and kaffir lime leaves.
At Avenue 87, chefs Glen Tay and Alex Phan fancy themselves “advocates of local foodways” and work closely with Singaporean producers such as Farm deLight and Hong Spice. Among their modern interpretations of Singaporean flavours is a take on kueh pie tee, where the fried hat-shaped shells are filled with a piquant sauce and thinly sliced baby eggplant, flash-fried lady’s fingers, semi-dried cherry tomatoes and crisp curry leaves. The restaurant also aims to use more locally grown herbs, such as Greek basil, ice plant, pea tendrils, shiso and mustard frills.
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Indeed, Singapore may be an island, but it is at its heart, a garden city. Which means that it just takes a little tilling to grow plants that will feed our bellies and our souls. The easiest way to start is with herbs that are worthy of everything from down-home comfort dishes such as rojak, to exquisite offerings from some of the world’s best restaurants.