A different kind of medicine

A PHARMACEUTICALS executive began a new chapter in his life more than a decade ago, and turned to making other restoratives: Singaporean comfort food.

Pang Seng Meng was a special guest during the penultimate leg of the month-long Singapore Food Festival being held at the Power Plant Mall’s The Grid. He is the founder of Singaporean chain New Ubin Seafood, which cooks food according to the affordable zi char tradition. The restaurant started in 2007, and gained the Bib Gourmand label from the Michelin Guide in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Apparently meaning “to cook and fry,” zi char refers to mostly quickly stir-fried dishes found in Chinese-Singaporean homes. While New Ubin Seafood’s stint in Rockwell ended last Sunday, Your Local will be rounding out the last few days of the Singapore Food Festival until Sept. 30.

Part of New Ubin’s name comes from the island of Pulau Ubin, an island in the northern part of Singapore. “Ubin is Malay for ‘granite’,” Mr. Pang told BusinessWorld in an interview on Sept. 23. He describes the island as a site of several granite quarries, but also prawn farms, due to the mangrove swamps and various ponds and lakes in the area. “They dug out the granite and then they left it, and then the rainwater came and filled it up.”

Another activity that had cropped up in Ubin was waterskiing. So a restaurant had been started by quarry workers to feed tired and hungry pleasure-seekers.

“Our focus is in truly Singaporean cuisine — whatever that means,” he said, acknowledging the various cultures that coexist in the city-state. “I think Singaporeans don’t even realize they have a Singaporean cuisine,” he said. The various peoples that call Singapore home — Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Peranakan — all shared culinary traditions, with a spray of colonial influence; and to him, it’s all a matter of adaptation.

During a tasting of the two offerings they had in their popup, Mr. Pang brought out their version of Singapore Chili Crab. The crabs had been taken out of their shell, and were swimming in a thick, spicy-sweet, and angry-red sauce that could clear nasal congestion. With these came a side of fried mantou (buns), which were to be dipped in the sauce. He said that the secret is just ketchup and chili sauce. He also served Smoked Pork Belly Fried Rice, with the pork belly smoked and cured in-house. It tasted very familiar, like a sinangag (garlic fried rice) but made richer with shrimps. They even got the slightly charred bits that everyone fights over in the Philippines.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGEHe said that they would definitely open a restaurant in the Philippines (adding to the three in their hometown). “One of the reasons why I agreed to the pop-up was because I wanted to start renewing our acquaintance with the Philippines,” he said. “I think the cultures, the taste, are not the same; but very similar.”

“We’re actually very close on that. Don’t talk about the colonial past,” he said. On his phone, he showed a black-and-white picture of a woman. “Is she Filipina? She’s ASEAN. She’s Peranakan. She’s my mother,” he said, using that as an example of the closeness between the cultures of Southeast Asia.

Since he was born in 1955, Singapore has experienced many changes — it achieved independence from the British in 1963, and broke away from Malaysia in 1965. He discussed how the culinary landscape in Singapore has also changed. “The cultures are now more interconnected. We have people coming in from the US, and different parts of Europe. When I grew up, my father said that Pizza Hut will never do well [t]here. ‘We Chinese don’t like cheese.’ He obviously didn’t understand that things evolve.”

In many examples of change, it isn’t often friendly to old traditions. Mr. Pang’s generation will soon step aside for new cooks. “My question is: what are the traditions that need to be kept alive?”

“As memory fades, then the recipes fade. Populations change, the tastes change. You see this evolution. I think that there will be enough passion in here for people to try and preserve what they think is best, or their interpretation of what is best in our cuisine.

“That’s the background that we come from. To forget that background is actually a disservice. You’re not exploring your roots. Cuisine must explore the roots.”

ANOTHER KIND OF CUREWe asked Mr. Pang why he left the pharmaceuticals industry. “Every person needs a mountain to climb. This was a momentous mountain. I’ve got no food experience. Learning the whole trade from the ground up, by applying what I learned in the pharma industry, from logistics… pharma is very stringent. The same process as cooking,” he said.

“The problem with Chinese cooking is it’s not stringent. It’s not rigorous enough. Western cooking is more rigorous. You bring some rigor, and then you bring some interpretation. I think I found my calling.”

Mr. Pang talked about the similarities in making food and making medicine. “People are people. They all make mistakes. The key is management,” he said. “Recipes and manufacturing formula are similar. The rest, you have to learn.

“And I’m a fast learner,” he said.

Mr. Pang wouldn’t be the first person in a high-ranking position in a high-pressure industry to turn to the kitchen. Martha Stewart had been a stockbroker, and Ina Garten worked as an analyst in the White House. Asked if his previous occupation had been stressful, he said, “Stressful, yes.”

Why then do high-profile individuals seek refuge in the kitchen? “When you make something that people love, then it’s not stressful.

“But getting there is stressful, lah.” — Joseph L. Garcia

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