Picture by Samuel Isaac Chua
When cultures collide, a delicious thing happens
If you’ve had the opportunity to taste chef Damian D’Silva’s food throughout his career at his various restaurants, you will know that D’Silva cooks from the heart, tapping into his Eurasian and Peranakan heritage to bring us dish after dish of flavourful home-cooked food.
D’Silva has made gastronomy a part of his life and career because he wants to pass on a legacy of dishes from different heritage cuisines to future generations. He believes that Singapore’s heritage cuisine is on the same level as any other cuisine celebrated elsewhere in the world.
He says: “There has been too much emphasis on our hawker food and too little understanding of our heritage cuisine... Eurasian cuisine is the least understood and that should change.”
Here, D’Silva dishes up more food for thought as he tells us about the food he loves to feed family and friends and how his love for cooking started.
How has Eurasian cuisine evolved since it was first introduced to Singapore?
The answer is complex because of the different races that encompass the cuisine.
We know that the bulk of Eurasian cuisine originated from Malacca and to some extent Goa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Batavia (Jakarta) and Penang. From all these cities, Eurasian cuisine developed into a complex hotchpotch comprising nearly every possible combination from Portuguese, Dutch, English, Peranakan, Chinese, Ceylonese, Goan, and Malay influences.
This can be seen in the different dishes that celebrate Eurasian cuisine; Vindaloo (Goa), Rendang (Malay), Chuan Chuan (Chinese), Kari Belanda (a tribute to the Dutch), Dry Mutton Curry (Ceylon), Pacheree (South Indian), Curry Kapitan (a tribute to a Portuguese Captain)and Eurasian Christmas Pie (British).
So, to answer your question: It has not progressed but has retained its essence from practitioners who have been brought up on cooking techniques and recipes passed down from generation to generation.
A good example is Debal — some call it Devil’s Curry; others, Curry Devil and also Curry Debal. My granddad just called it Debal and it was always cooked on Boxing Day. However, he also cooked a version that only had chicken, but he added pickles that were leftover from Christmas.
Granddad also cooked Sambal Capitang, which not many Eurasians are familiar with. Most Eurasian families were more familiar with Curry Capitang. So as you can see, it really depends on your upbringing.
As much as we appreciate the use of a substitute ingredient to replace another, especially during a time of duress, I [dislike it] when I see a menu that uses a canned ingredient to replace an ingredient that can be freshly obtained today.
Eurasian cuisine, like any other heritage cuisine, has always been about using the freshest available ingredients to consistently provide the best taste experience.
Known as Devil’s Curry, Curry Devil or Curry Debal, this Eurasian dish is often cooked on Boxing Day (picture by Andy Wong)
How were ‘local’ flavours introduced?
I don’t really think the “local” flavours were introduced, but it was more exposure to Eurasian homes that the different ethnicities got to savour Eurasian cuisine. For many, it was an amazing experience as most Eurasians tend to cook for an army, lest they are left with empty pots when the celebrations were only halfway through.
A good example of a spread of dishes during a celebration will include Rendang, Curry Seccu (mutton), Debal, Sambal Capitang, Cari Keluak, Vindaloo, Green Chilli Sambal, Pacheree, Cucumber and Pineapple Sambal, Blueda and Bolu Cocu. The Eurasians, like the Peranakans, love to feed people.
My first memory of a Eurasian restaurant was Kristang along Orchard Road. This was in the early eighties. Unfortunately, it lasted for a couple of years before folding.
Would you like to see more Eurasian dishes introduced in everyday cuisine?
Yes, but it can be an acquired taste sometimes, depending on the dishes. As the cuisine evolved, it has not changed at all. It is highly protected and every family guards their recipes and are reluctant to share even amongst relatives. I really do not want to see a restaurant messing with an original flavour of a dish that I have loved all my life, just because they want it to be more acceptable [to the masses].
I believe the introduction has to be done sensibly with a narrative, so that people can appreciate the origins and why the dish is flavoured the way it is.
As a child growing up, what were your earliest memories of cooking?
Honestly, slaving for my granddad. “Child labour” was very prevalent in the sixties! I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it was more an acceptance [of the way things were at the time]. It also taught me discipline and time management — if you wanted to play with your friends, quickly accomplish your chores so that you can be free to do whatever you want.
I started at a really young age — cutting, chopping, grinding, stirring and everything else that ended with “ing”. However, if it wasn’t for what I did growing up, I would have never been able to learn the techniques, recipes, ingredients and names of the dishes I’m so familiar with today. In all honesty, I embrace what I had gone through in my youth and I would, without any second thoughts, do it all over again.
Do you prefer to dine out or prepare a home-cooked meal?
My biggest joy in cooking is having friends come over for a meal. This is something I continually do and will never stop this habit of having people in my home. I would usually serve a mix of anything that encompasses heritage cuisine. Of course, during Christmas, it would be an intimidating spread of at least 10 to 15 Eurasian dishes!
Today, when friends meet, it’s usually in a selected restaurant. It’s fine but you don’t have the freedom of being relaxed in a home that is generous in giving and feeds you with food cooked with love. Somehow, there’s no comparison to a home-cooked meal.
I have two favourite dishes: Debal with pig trotters and Batata Caldu Leite Cocu (sweet potatoes in coconut milk) which must be eaten with sambal belachan!
What are you up to these days?
I am currently planning a soon-to-launch takeaway offer with a weekly updated menu. Pricing will be $180 for 4 pax including delivery. I am also working towards launching a new restaurant, slated to open early next year. This time around, I will be a partner in an organisation that is deeply rooted in the F&B segment.
The outlet will be centrally located, within a good mix of condominiums, landed and HDB properties, and offices. We will not only serve dine-in heritage cuisine but also have a separate takeaway menu. We will also offer one-dish meals, from noodles to rice. It will be all-day dining, from breakfast to dinner.
We will have a retail space within the outlet to sell our pickles, sambals and vacuum-packed finished and unfinished items. There will also be a private room, with a “Chef’s menu” that changes according to what is available throughout the year. This will focus 40% on local migratory fish species and lost heritage dishes from all the different ethnicities within Singapore.
Besides food, the restaurant will carry a range of specially selected craft beers, wines, spirits, sakes and a selection of crafted cocktails (alcoholic and non-alcoholic). There will also be an assortment of small bites to accompany the alcoholic beverages.