While this may be his first visit to New Delhi and India as a whole, Singaporean Chef Jeremy Nguee already has more than a passing acquaintance with the country, its culture, and its cuisines. “India and her culture is a very big part of Singapore — Indian food, holidays, movies and pop culture — are all very mainstream in Singapore even among non-Indians. So it was very surreal for me to finally visit,” says the celebrity chef, food consultant and self-professed “evangelist of Singaporean cuisine”.
It is for this reason that the 40-year-old visited New Delhi, as he helped open one of the city’s first Singaporean restaurants, Mai Bao, in partnership with Kampai’s Avantika Singh Bahl. This is not the business consultant turned chef’s first venture out of the Lion City, with him arranging pop-ups to setting up restaurants “everywhere from St Petersburg, Russia to Jakarta, Indonesia,” as he puts it.
“Singapore food is not like Indian food, which is widely considered to be a mother cuisine. It borrows, adapts, and internalises from many different cultures,” says Jeremy, adding, “Singapore food is a melting pot and one that is constantly evolving — this is our DNA. We do not object to why a certain combination exists but embrace and celebrate how it has come to be.”
It is this celebration of Asian flavours that Mai Bao hopes to bring to the Capital, with the chef noting that a lot of effort went into making sure the menu is cohesive and varied enough for different tastes. “We made it a big point that every dish will stand on its own, so for example the vegetarian dim sums are no less delicious than the pork and seafood ones.”
When not setting up the kitchens at Mai Bao, Jeremy has been having a love affair with Indian spices, explaining, “Our ingredients are very similar, which is not surprising since much of our food is also influenced by Indian food. I found excellent spices here, some are just too good in India, which made me jealous that we get lesser quality back home.” Indeed, when the chef began cooking his Singaporean cuisine in Delhi’s kitchens, he realised he had to cut the spices from his recipes back home by half.
“Spices lose their strength over time and I forgot that I was using the spices so near the source so the flavours are just so much more intense. The quality of produce and access to fresh vegetables and ingredients is just astounding,” says the chef, who is itching to “present a small ‘capsule menu’ at Mai Bao from time to time, such as a Peranakan Tok Panjang (long table feast), or a Singaporean style biryani.”
Nasi Mutton Biryani is in fact all-time his favourite dish, with the chef saying, “Indian cooking techniques bring such depth and richness to the dishes and I’d be keen to translate some of these techniques over to provide an exciting and interesting experience for our guests. One of the recent Indian cooking techniques I have learned is Dhungar. You set a small metal tin and heat a small coal in it until it is glowing red and pour butter of melted ghee over it. I have started doing this with small pieces of pork for char siu before I roast it, or even Chinese-style Claypot rice with dried sausages.”
He continues, “But when you taste our food at Mai Bao, you can be transported to Singapore and have a flavour of our small country. When you eat our food, I hope that you can feel a message of friendship and gratitude that I would like to send to all our guests from the bottom of my heart.”