“Same same, but different” is a saying in Thailand that perfectly captures the way old favourites are being given new life by innovative chefs.
For example, regional and international MICE travellers who often look out for local specialities to try when visiting a country. To appeal to them, kitchens should have a few recipes that will always be popular with visitors, but add their own special twist to leave a lasting impression.
It’s not just about fusion, but also about staying true to what made a dish so popular in the first place, while making sure it does not just stay preserved and boring like a piece of artefact over time.
Singapore illustrates how this can be done. At The Quarters, the typical Malay satay is served as a burger, but the spicy peanut sauce is kept to ensure that its authentic flavour is not lost; the hawker favourite chicken rice is instead prepared by poaching the chicken in a Hainanese broth and served with chilli sauce; and the Indian chicken curry is served with a curry leaf and cream sauce for a different take on the typical Indian delicacy.
Thai flavours, such as the hot and sour notes of Thai broth tom yum goong, have also found their way into other exciting new dishes, such as tom yum fried rice and tom yum pasta. Singaporean restaurant Som Tam serves up tom yum truffle fries and tom yum chicken wings—fun new ways to enjoy this traditional flavour.
Equally, classic delicacies can be adapted for local ways of eating. Londoners are more comfortable with burgers than skewered meats, so Sambal Shiok Restaurant merges Malaysian flavours of satay and beef rendang with pickles and sambal chilli, as burger patties in toasted buns.
Sometimes it can simply be a case of packaging these timeless dishes into an easier mouthful. Chilli crab is popular in Singapore, but even its greatest fans will agree that it’s messy to eat. So The Bao Makers Café and Bakery took the three essential parts—mantou buns, crab meat and chilli sauce—and made them into something between a burger and a pau.
Meanwhile, restaurant chain Din Tai Fung combines sweet, delicate crabmeat and hot chilli into a steamed pau, making it easier to eat, but no less tasty. It has become one of their signature paus, proving that reinventing one classic dish can turn it into yet another successful one.
Hotels can leave their mark on traditional food while still protecting its authentic core. Giovanni Sias, Waterfront Manila Pavilion Hotel’s Executive Chef, says “I recently did chicken and pork adobo. I chopped the meat, mixed it with goat cheese, egg white, and the adobo sauce, and then froze it to firm it up. And then I rolled it in flour, egg, and bread, and I made chicken-pork adobo croquette.” Also in the Philippines, the Manila Hotel’s Café Ilang-Ilang simply added adobo to pizza: something for traditionalists and adventurers alike.
Whenever someone decides to reinvent classic dishes, the result is greater selection and satisfaction for guests overall. Michelle Lean, the Cordon Bleu-trained host of CCTV’s Travelogue show, likes the way regional signature dishes are being modernised and reinvented, saying “I love the movement of these different cuisines, as it brings so much more variety to a city.”