Change is brewing

FEATURE: ESQUIRE SINGAPORE

Change is brewing

Photo courtesy of Kurt Ganapathy.
Photo courtesy of Kurt Ganapathy.
Written by Kurt Ganapathy for Esquire Singapore December Edition 2016.

Heritage preservation that goes beyond buildings.

Singapore’s hawker culture has been much celebrated in 2016- Michelin stars and Tiger Beer’s #uncagestreetfood campaign are just the tip of the iceberg- but even as our hawkers begin to receive more recognition, there are nagging doubts about whether their trade will survive beyond the current generation. Funnily enough, a light for one way forward comes from a modern microbrewery.

The 1925 Microbrewery & Restaurant is run by three members of the Yeo family: brothers Ivan and Eng Kuang (EK for Short) and their uncle King Joey. Ask the brothers about the meaning behind the “1925” in their establishment’s name, and they’re always happy to retell the story of their grandfather. Born in 1925, the family patriarch ran a dry goods store with a simple principle at core.

He’d only sell products that he would use himself. While the Yeos spread out into a wide spectrum of careers, food remained central to the tight-knit family. When Ivan, a designer, EK, and auditor, and King Joey, an engineer, decided to turn their love of food into a business in 2014, their approach echoed the values of the patriarch. They had to serve food that they would want to eat.

Starting out with a more general western menu, they began to experiment with local flavours, finding their feet through omakase beer and food pairings sessions that featured a take on mee sua in dried mushroom broth and pork belly on mashed potatoes with bonito flakes and a sauce made from their own Blk 622 Dark Ale (named after the block in Ang Mo Kio that Grandpa Yeo called home).

That could be thought of as their “fusion” phase, and the next stage will place their dishes comfortably within the realm of Mod-Sin. Honouring their Teochew roots and the many influences that define Singaporean cuisine, they’ll be rolling out creations like chilli crab ravioli with rempah that incorporates dried sole fish and a clam linguine with a base of fermented bean paste. They want to use flavours that you can recognise but can’t place, generating nostalgia that leads to debates and recollections. That explains their plans to introduce a beer brewed with cempedak.

Interestingly, Ivan’s training as a chef didn’t come at a culinary institute. He’s largely self-taught, drawing inspiration from the better cooks in his family and honing his skills prepping meals after school while his parents were at work. On part of his education involved cleaning pig innards for his maternal grandmother’s kway chap stall in Boon Keng. Though her original recipe has been lost, the Yeos have been diligently trying to recreate it from memory to serve at 1925.

And in that you have a retort to the gloom and doom that supposedly foretells the demise of Singapore’s culinary traditions. The loss of some hawkers is inevitable, but many others will survive, and many more still will inspire their descendants to renew their life’s work and take it far beyond the street corners where it all began.