By far the most interesting meal I ate in Singapore was at Immigrants Gastrobar. I don’t mean interesting like a Chinese Curse, but rather genuinely the textures and flavours were unlike anything else I ate in Singapore – Although there was a hint of familiarity about it. The place had barely been open for a month and very luckily, I got to tag along with YKL meeting up with someone local from one of her foodie boards who recommended this place as he was friends with the Head Chef, Damian D’Silva. Liking what I saw from the menu online, we all set off to meet up at Immigrants..
To be completely honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from this meal; I’d been warned that Singaporeans tend to like their food fairly spicy and hot so should be mindful of any dish that is listed as moderately spicy and interpret it as very spicy instead. However, the blurb on the website showed that chef Damian knew the importance of cooking “with love” and that he was producing dishes that are in danger of being lost in modern Singapore Times. Intrigued by that write-up, we let YKL’s friend order for us – I heard the words “cockles” and “squid bombs” and I was a happy woman. Unfortunately, they had sold out of cockles by the time we got there, but I was happy to go with whatever was ordered. And so with a pint of Asahi, I waited for the food to arrive:
First up was singgang. (Described on the menu as: A non-spicy Eurasian dish of deboned sai toh (wolf herring), cooked with 7 different ground spices and enhanced with a dash of coconut milk. Served with chilled cucumber.) So I see that it has cucumber and am thinking that it may be quite creamy and be something like a fish pâté perhaps?. What actually came out looked more like a fish paste – And it wasn’t all quenelled or finely presented, this wasn’t that kind of fine dining establishment. I mean, food was served in either plastic or enamel plates and bowls. That’s not to say they were being cheap, more that they spent time on the quality of the food rather than if the right plate was used. Anyway, back to the singgang; The taste couldn’t be more different to what I was expecting – It was (obviously) very fishy but with a delicate blend of subtle spices that didn’t overpower each other, yet packed a real punch of umami when you ate it, was slightly bitter but nothing really overpowered the sweet taste of the wolf herring. Combined with the cool crunch from the cucumber, it was (for all intents and purposes) like a really fine and savoury fish dip for the cucumber crudités. It was both simple and complex at the same time and we all absolutely loved it.
Next up was the seh bak – (A Eurasian dish, that is close to extinction. Pork and venerated parts of the pig, like the ear, intestine, stomach and heart are slow braised for 4 hours in soy sauce with spices. Served with fried tua kwa (beancurd), cucumber and of course, chilli sauce. Not for the faint hearted.) Well, I kind of wish we had read the menu beforehand because we ate the beancurd separately to the seh bak, thinking they were 2 different dishes (!). The seh bak itself was very rich and given the various parts had been slow braised for 4 hours, they were all very tender. However, when chef Damian joined us later in our meal and saw that we had been eating it incorrectly, he immediately dished up some more beancurd for us all to eat with the seh bak and just the simple addition of some fried beancurd lifted the dish into something even more special.
One of the specials of the night was some grilled sambal mackerel which is simply grilled fish, but as I’ve already mentioned before, the quality of fresh seafood in Singapore in incredibly high and even though I don’t normally eat mackerel – I couldn’t stop myself from eating it here! When you’re serving a dish so simply like a grilled whole fish, you haven’t got anywhere to hide if you use below-par ingredients. Happily, the ingredients here were of the highest quality and the spicy sambal was a contrast to the sweet grilled fish.
Next up was a grilled seafood otak (Freshly made Peranekan otak with prawns, squid and mackerel, carefully wrapped with banana leaf and grilled on charcoal. Your patience is required to cook this dish right.) Well, your patience is also required because this was an AWESOME dish! As with so many dishes we ate at Immigrants, there was something familiar yet still quite an alien taste to my palate in this dish. I mean, obviously I could recognise the fresh seafood and the technique that was applied in cooking the dish, but the spicing isn’t really something I would encounter in any Chinese food I grew up eating, so whilst the textures and ingredients were familiar, the tastes were newer to me.
We were then treated to something off-menu from chef Damian: A braised oxtail dish. It was decent; the oxtail itself was tender and of course, the spicing was slightly different to what I’m accustomed too. However, it it was left overnight to allow all the flavours and spices to infuse further (as is the case with all braised dishes) before serving, it would have been even better. Chef Damian acknowledged that it was served too soon to us, but he was so keen that we should get to try it fresh he sent it out knowing that had we gone 24 hours later, it would have been perfect.
The chilled tofu with century egg relish (Cold tofu topped with superior grade mashed pei dan (century egg) from Taiwan. It is marinated with sesame, spring onions and homemade pickles. Great for calming the heat from spicy dishes!) was an absolute revelation. Again, using ingredients which were all known to me but mixing them together in a way I would never have thought of and the subtle spices changed the taste slightly from what I was accustomed to, but I absolutely loved it – It was a new way of eating ingredients I love anyway and part of it was from the wonder of it all, but it really refreshed and changed the way I previously viewed those ingredients. The softness of the tofu and pei dan (which has its own clear taste), the crunch and slight sourness from the pickles.. So fantastic.
The Bengali lamb chops (lamb chops marinated in a mixture of wet and dry spices; including mustard and a homemade garam masala. The chops are slow cooked then fried to give a crisp, moist finish) did indeed have the advertised spice, but were a bit overcooked for my liking and even with the crisp batter, weren’t anything to shout about.
To finish off the meal, we had the Sambal buah keluak fried rice (Chef Damian D’Silva’s exceptionally popular buah keluak dish given a new twist. Of course for the purist, we do serve just the sambal). I have no idea what they meant, but I’ve since learned that the buah keluak is a classic Peranakan dish where the main ingredient is the Pangium edule, which itself is a large poisonous fruit of a tall tree native to the mangroves of SE Asia made edible through proper fermentation. So if it isn’t fermented properly, it can remain poisonous (!). However, this is a classic Peranakan dish and chef Damian is obviously known for his rendition of buah keluak, so it was an unusual twist to add it to fried rice; not only because what came out was a deep mahogany brown rice dish, but again, the flavours and textures were familiar yet very new to us. The buah keluak added a deep umami to the dish, along with a smooth, almost granular paste to the whole texture of the rice. Looking at the dish, you almost expect it to be really salty from too much soy sauce, but it’s the buah keluak which creates the colour, so there isn’t the salty tang you’d expect. Instead, you’re hit by the umami savouriness of the buah keluak – And it was gorgeous.
So that was our meal at Immigrants – And how brilliant it was too. I would never have experienced anything like it were it not for YKL meeting up with a friend and it was (again), brilliant to have someone with local knowledge to guide us (this would happen again later in our trip but I’ll return to this point then). What’s more, the techniques used in the dishes we ate are sadly slowly dying out in Singapore as people don’t have the manpower or time to be taking time in pounding ingredients and spices by hand like they used to in old Peranakan kitchens so it was also a pleasure in being able to experience it here at Immigrants. Curiously, the table next to ours had a reserved sign with SEETOH written on the reservation plaque – Could it really be for KF Seetoh? The founder of the Makansutra guides and generally acknowledged to be THE authority on good food in Singapore. Sadly, the SEETOH party cancelled at the last-minute and so, we’ll never know if it really was meant to be The Man himself. However, I know that chef Damian wasn’t that bothered about whether he got a favourable review or not because from chatting to him, it’s very obvious that he’s in a much happier place and loves being able to serve food using old techniques that he grew up with but for a newer generation to appreciate and hopefully continue. Personally, I loved my meal at Immigrants and certainly hope that it’s successful, not just because of the whole background and story of trying to keep alive old Peranakan style of cooking, but mainly because the food there is awesome.