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Soul food

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 6 min read
Soul food
Chef Damian D’Silva of Folklore will be serving heritage dishes this Christmas, all inspired by his Eurasian paternal grandfather
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Chef Damian D’Silva of Folklore will be serving heritage dishes this Christmas, all inspired by his Eurasian paternal grandfather

Chef Damian D’Silva loves to tell stories and feed his guests. When Options was at his establishment, appropriately named Folklore, he was more than happy to tell us about his life as a student at St Patrick’s school, the arrival of his third grandchild and the love he has for food.

Heritage food is what he is best known for as he serves up Peranakan and Eurasian dishes that few have the knowledge, or the time, to make. We had already tried his Beef Cheek Rendang, Pork Leg with Salted Vegetables, Chap Chye and more. This Christmas, D’Silva prepared Eurasian favourites Debal, Christmas Pie and Sambal Kapitan, especially for this shoot. Who better to serve these dishes than someone who has both Peranakan and Eurasian heritage?

Growing up, D’Silva was not given formal training on the art of cooking by his parents. He says, “I was told to watch when they were working in the kitchen. I guess what truly influenced me was their passion in cooking and how they handled the ingredients. More importantly, their love and dedication when cooking for the family.”

This love for and dedication to food is something he still upholds as he cooks for his mother and her friends every year at Christmas. Apart from that, D’Silva gives back too. Every December, he and his siblings will visit a home for the less privileged and cook for the residents. He says, “It gives me a lot of joy to cook and share some of our festive dishes with them, as many of them have not had festive food for a long time. This is very meaningful to me as Christmas is about giving.”

D’Silva shares more about, what else, food with Options.

What was your earliest memory of food, growing up in a Peranakan and Eurasian household?
It was definitely from what my Peranakan maternal grandmother and my Eurasian paternal grandfather used to cook. Peranakan and Eurasian cuisines have a lot of similarities. Most Peranakans might not eat beef but instead consume a lot of pork. Likewise, the Eurasians like their pork too. One good example is the Peranakan Babi Pongteh. The Eurasians have their own version of this dish and although recipes may differ from home to home, the end result is they may still taste rather similar. There are other similar dishes between these two ethnic groups such as Debal and Chap Chye and the Peranakan version of Curry Devil and Nonya Chap Chye. Though some may say that these dishes are very different, they do have a lot of similarities. Another good example would be my Eurasian grandfather’s Mee Siam, which is very similar to my grandmother’s version. The similarities were due to communal living in the past where they were very integrated, and naturally they influenced each other’s dishes.

As your parents are good cooks themselves, did they influence your decision to become a chef?
Only my mother cooks. My grandparents were excellent home cooks too, but it wasn’t my passion to become a chef when I grew up. For reasons beyond me, I am here today as a chef, but not by choice. However, I am very happy cooking. More importantly, I wanted to ensure that what I have learnt is passed down to the younger generation.

What was Christmas like growing up? And what is it like now?
When I was a young boy, I would remember many things because they were all so new to me. Especially during the festive season. Even though it happened for a very short period of time, I would wait with impatience for it to happen again. Christmas was a season of firecrackers and feasting. Granddad would start preparations weeks ahead, depending on what was needed to be done. I would help him to prepare and cook for Christmas, at least a week before. Then I would wait anxiously until Christmas day to eat the food. This year, as I have to work during Christmas, I won’t be able to cook for my mother and her friends, as I do every year. However, my siblings and I will be visiting a home and cooking for the less-privileged folks sometime in December.

How would you describe the food at Folklore?
These are dishes that are very close to my heart, the ones that I grew up eating, cooked by my Peranakan grandmother and my Eurasian grandfather. They encompass recipes from the five ethnic groups — Chinese, Indian, Malay, Peranakan and Eurasian. Some are family recipes, passed down for generations; others are adapted from neighbours and friends of the family. Each is cooked “the old way” — from scratch, without shortcuts or compromise, but with lots of soul.

What are some of your signature dishes?
It is very hard to choose as they are all favourites of mine.

Do you have any favourite markets where you shop for ingredients?
There isn’t a specific market that I go to as they are mostly available from the neighbourhood markets. It really depends on which market I am at, at a particular time. For example, today I was at Geylang Serai and I bought the four-angled beans, which were very fresh.

Is there an ingredient that you use a lot?
Yes, there are actually four. They are shallots, chillies, candlenuts and belacan. These form the core ingredients for making rempah.

Which ingredient do you dislike using?
Chicken. It is because of the quality of chicken nowadays — it is not as firm and flavourful as it used to be.

What would we find in your kitchen at home? Pork, fish, prawns, chillies, sambal and pickles. What’s your go-to snack?
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and curry puffs.

Are there any food trends that you think are going to be big?
There will always be trends and it could be by taking something old and changing it into something new. And if you can change it and make it better with the old familiar taste and constantly improve on it, then that’s how a trend starts. We should not be limiting ourselves just because we are doing Singapore Heritage Food. Change is inevitable but do change for the right cause. On that note, I might do something different next year as some recipes need to be updated.

This article appeared in Issue 807 (Nov 27) of The Edge Singapore.

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