The ‘What to Do With’ food series started with invention and newness in mind. In every article, we challenged a Singapore-based chef to re-conceptualise an affordable and hackneyed household ingredient. We wanted to reinvent the way people cook at home, simultaneously cajole people back to cooking.
When approached by our team, chefs often marry local produce with Western cooking techniques. It seems that chefs are infatuated with fusions. It's becoming a predictable formula of cross-cultural ingredients and cooking techniques. So when speaking to chef Damian D'Silva, it was surprising to hear he was cooking Asian ingredients with Asian techniques.
D’Silva was born into a mixed Eurasian and Peranakan family. At 9 years old, he found himself in the kitchen learning from his grandparents. Now 61, D’Silva has committed to memory, recipes from both ethnicities. To him, Singaporean “heritage” recipes and cooking philosophies are almost extinct.
Ingredients for D'Silva's Eurasian pork and pineapple curry. Here, he is using a Malaysian pineapple, commonly available in supermarkets in Singapore.
In the past, people cooked to the seasons’ produce and fruits, like breadfruits, jackfruits, pomelos and pineapples. Now, they don’t. “I think people have forgotten the use of fruits in cooking.”
“Pineapples have been a part of Singaporean cuisine for a very long time, at least a hundred years.” Yet, few Singaporeans know how to cook, or even eat it today. These days we have gourmet burgers with pineapples, Brazilian meat buffets with pineapples. Other common recipes include “pineapple tarts, we get it all the time… [Thai] Pineapple fried rice only came into [Singapore] in the ‘80s. Prior to that, we didn’t have it.” In the past, Singapore didn't have these foreign dishes.
Instead, the locals created their own dishes with pineapples. "We cooked a lot with pineapples,” D'Silva chirps. The Peranakan and Eurasian food repertoires are characteristically flavourful and robust – defined by the use of ingredients like candlenuts, shrimp paste, galangal, turmeric, and lemongrass. But there's a catch. When it comes to rich flavours, there's always a risk of what the Peranakans call "jelat", or loosely translated to "sick of it". The home cooks naturally looked to the acidity of pineapples.
"My grandmother says 'buang jelat'. That means when you eat something that is rich, you want to... cut the richness." The cooks back then were surprisingly advanced for their time. "The Peranakans cooked their pineapples in curry, which is Masak Nanas. The Eurasians cooked pork and pineapple curry. This is what I'm doing today."
Curry paste made from scratch will harmonise better with fresh pineapples.
D'Silva notes that Eurasian home cooks used to make their curry paste from scratch. Fresh begets freshness. This way, the fresh herbs harmonise well with the fresh pineapples. He stresses that cooks should not mix pre-made curry paste with fresh fruits, else "it will be an acquired taste," he laughs.
In choosing pineapples, D'Silva recommends the Malaysian strains. "It's got a hint of sourness – very important for the dish." Pineapples in Singapore's supermarts come from all over the world – Hawaii, Africa, Sarawak, Cambodia. Most of them are genetically modified to be completely sweet, and are called 'honey pineapples'. But these lack acidity, and won't offer dimension and depth to the dish. "You want sourness! The dish requires you to have acidity."
Here, a century-old recipe for the Eurasian pork and pineapple curry from D'Silva:
When adding the curry paste to the pot, make sure the oil is at high heat. D'Silva stresses that you want to let the steam out – to remove moisture from the paste.
150 grammes Red Chilli
250 grammes Shallots (peeled)
40 grammes Toasted Shrimp Paste
25 grammes Candlenuts
35 grammes Fresh Turmeric (scraped)
35 grammes Galangal (skinned)
6 stalks Lemongrass (only the white portion, bruise it)
1 cup Tamarind Water (mix three tablespoons of tamarind pulp with one cup of water, stir well and strain)
80 grammes Rock Sugar
1.5 kilogrammes Fresh Pork Ribs (cut into three inches)
1 Ripe Pineapple (skinned, remove core, cut into bite-size wedges)
The Eurasian pork and pineapple curry looks like any regular curry but tastes distinctly different. The gravy is refreshing and light – almost like a soup.
1. Place first six ingredients (chilli, shallots, shrimp paste, candlenuts, turmeric, galangal) into a blender and blend till smooth and fine.
2. Heat up the oil in a saucepan. Add the above mixture and cook it over medium heat. Stir it constantly for about 15 to 20 minutes till the paste is cooked.
3. Add the pork ribs and cook it with the spice mixture for about five to seven minutes till the colour changes.
4. Add water to the pan till it covers the pork ribs and bring it to boil at low heat.
5. When the mixture is boiling, add the pineapple wedges and continue to cook until the pork is almost done.
6. Add the tamarind water, rock sugar and continue to cook till the pork is tender.
7. Finally, add salt to taste.
"The end result should taste of pork broth that is slightly sweet, acidic and mildly sour. The dish is best eaten with plain rice and sambal belachan," D'Silva concludes.
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