We Went Shopping With Chefs Umberto Bombana And Kirk Westaway At Tiong Bahru Market


July 15, 2017 | BY Kissa Castañeda

What did they find? Fresh produce, exotic fruits, a hawker breakfast and more fun than they bargained for...


After the kitchen, a market is probably a chef's most natural habitat. Every trip is a chance to discover something new, and often, it is here where chefs concoct the creative pairings we see—and enjoy—on a plate.

We joined Chef Umberto Bombana, Lifetime Achievement Awardee of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2017 (sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna), and Chef Kirk Westaway of multi-awarded restaurant Jaan, for an eventful morning at the newly renovated Tiong Bahru Market.

See what sparked their curiosity and learn how to expertly navigate any market with the secrets shared by these two Michelin-starred chefs. 

 Have a game plan

The cacophony of colours, sounds and smells can distract even the most focused shopper so it pays to have a checklist or a goal before  going in. As the chefs were holding a masterclass that afternoon, they planned on getting a few ingredients for their dishes. The minute we stepped in, they zoomed into the vegetable area and got aubergine, fresh tomatoes, herbs, and some vegetables, which they used for Bombana's dish of Scottish blue lobster with matsutake mushrooms  served over a warm aubergine salad and  lobster jus.

First things first: both chefs went to the vegetable area to get ingredients for the masterclass they were doing that afternoon 

Leave room to find something new 

A market is a great place to explore—to follow your nose,  to go with what catches your eye, as well as to learn more about local food. It's especially exciting when it's a new place, as it was for Hong Kong-based Chef Bombana. Both chefs were intrigued by the local peanut root, while chef Westaway was enamored by the Bombay Dartfish, which he nicknamed a "sea monster". Chef Bombana was also on the hunt for durian—the season might be over but he still managed to find what he was looking for. 

(Related: 5 Minutes With… John Kunkel Of The Bird Southern Table & Bar)

Chef Bombana was delighted with his durian find; fishmongers showcasing fresh catch including the Bombay Dartfish—a deep sea fish that can only be caught during rainy season 

 Touch, smell, inspect

Buying food without touching it is like buying clothes without trying them on—it's a cardinal sin. As good ingredients are a foundation of any meal, one must make sure to feel and look at them closely. The chefs inspected fruits, meat and fish, and used their well-honed judgement to decide on which exact piece was better. There were some produce, however, that were new to them. In this instance, they didn't shy from asking stall owners to help them learn more about it, pick a good find, and impart tricks as to how to choose the best of the lot.

Chef Bombana and Chef Westaway inspected the ingredients closely; when the saw something unfamiliar, they asked the locals plenty of questions on how to pick the best of the lot

Make sure you bargain.... 

Everyone loves a good deal, even when you're a Michelin-starred chef. We can vouch for chef Bombana's amazing negotiating skills; he even threw a bit of Cantonese just to get to a good price. It paid off: he ended up getting 20 per cent off the vegetables for the masterclass. Chef Westaway, on the other hand, wasn't shy to get behind the counter to show the fishmonger his knife skills. Then, he found a fishhead that he liked and asked him to "cut it in half and give him half price, too". 

(Related: Pru In Phuket Takes A Leaf Out Of Noma's Book)

Shopping done: The chefs with their loot from the Tiong Bahru Market; they got a juicy watermelon for the Jaan team 

Reward yourself  with a great breakfast

Shopping can be an an arduous exercise and, well, there's no better way to whet your appetite than by being surrounded by food.  Lucky for us in Singapore, most markets are attached to a hawker centre. Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre was the best place to round up an early morning at the market. Both chefs enjoyed a medley of local breakfast fare including the popular chwee kueh, ang ku kueh, soya beancurd and dough fritters. What topped their list? The reliable combination of kopi-c and kaya toast won the hearts of these two chefs. 

 Photography: Franz Navarette

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