Singapore rightfully garners acclaim as one of the world’s leading food destinations. The flavors of the island nation are as diverse as its people, drawing on Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Indonesian cultures, all topped off with a hefty dose of British and Dutch colonialism. The result is a vibrant, delicious culinary mélange. Beyond Singapore’s supremely soul-pleasing hawker center fare—assuredly the first and foremost craving of any traveler to the country—the food to know now is Mod Sin. Many of the country’s best restaurants proudly claim to be based on the concept. But what in the world is it?
“It’s traditional Singaporean flavors, dishes, and ingredients presented in a different way . . . but essentially celebrating the spirit of the original cuisine,” says chef Willin Low. That could mean showcasing the flavor profile of a traditional home-style Singaporean meal with flashy molecular techniques or featuring a local staple in an otherwise Italian or French dish. Either way, it’s Mod Sin.
Low should know a thing or two about Mod Sin—after all, he coined the term when he abandoned his career in law to open his first restaurant, Wild Rocket, in 2005. The menu celebrated Low’s insatiable yearning for local hawker fare, which persisted regardless of how far he traveled or how many new cuisines he tried. “Everyone was asking us to label our cuisine. Someone labeled us as ‘fusion,’ which wasn’t incorrect. Fusion was done so badly in the ’80s and ’90s, and I didn’t want to be associated with that. So I decided to name the cuisine Modern Singaporean, or Mod Sin for short.”
A few of Low’s latest highlights at Wild Rocket include crab ravioli served in laksa broth, a riff on traditional laksa soup made with a base of spicy coconut curry, vermicelli, and seafood; and oxtail rendang pappardelle, which transforms hearty, slow-cooked meat into an elegant dish that still delivers on its rustic origins.
“When we started Mod Sin, we pushed the boundaries and proved that local flavors could be celebrated in new ways,” Low says. “I had a hope that it would gain traction, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would it be so entrenched 12 years later.”
The pioneering chef is now involved in half a dozen ventures, including Po in The Warehouse Hotel, which serves refined Singaporean comfort classics, and a forthcoming Mod Sin eatery on Hokkaido, Japan. He’s also an excited bystander who's inspired by the next generation of Mod Sin chefs.
“There’s Malcolm Lee cooking traditional Peranakan cuisine with ingredients and techniques previously not utilized,” Low says. Lee helms the kitchen at Candlenut, the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, which highlights the culinary traditions of the descendants of Chinese immigrants who assimilated culturally in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. In a particularly Mod Sin move, Lee features buah keluak—a toxic black nut that must be soaked for days before it’s edible—as an ice cream, rather than as it is typically served in a chicken curry.
“At the other end of the spectrum there’s Han Li Guang [of Labyrinth] who is interpreting Singaporean cuisine in a more abstract form employing molecular and modern techniques,” Low says. “And even younger, there’s Ming Kiat, who is doing The Mustard Seed pop-up, cooking modern Singaporean cuisine with traditional Japanese kaiseki influence.” Kiat ran the pop-up this past summer as a weekly dinner series at his home and is planning to unveil an as-of-yet unnamed restaurant in early 2018.
Mod Sin isn’t restricted to fine dining. Chef-owner Chung Deming of The Quarters offers up casual Mod Sin, like salted egg–flavored wings, satay burgers, and the aptly named Shiok fries. The dish—fries topped with salted egg and chili crab sauce—is named for the ubiquitous Singaporean adjective that refers to anything particularly delightful or pleasurable. “In every bite you have a taste of Singapore tradition and global influence,” says Deming.
Like Low, Deming gave up a lucrative white-collar gig in favor of an innate passion for sharing his culture through cuisine. The former banker also expanded to retail with Duriancanboleh, a shop that serves up the infamously stinky (to Westerners) durian fruit in the form of mini crème brûlées sold by the box. “I think Singapore has amazing flavors,” Deming says. “It’s a melting pot of culture and flavors, and its ingredients should be showcased to the world. That’s part of my mission, to showcase these amazing ingredients.”
On a separate evolutionary branch of the Mod Sin tree, is “dude sin,” or “a snapshot of what Singaporean people are interested in right now,” as the self-proclaimed king of dude food, chef Bjorn Shen says. “You’ll see some references to iconic Singaporean dishes.” At Shen’s restaurant, Loof, traditional whole chili crab morphs into chili crab waffle fries, and a semi-secret dish consisting of Indonesian instant noodles is supercharged with a truffle cream sauce, Jamón Serrano, and shaved cheese, all topped with a luscious, runny egg.
“It’s completely shameless, it shouldn’t even exist,” Shen says. “But it’s a representation of what’s hot in Singapore right now. It’s what you want at midnight.”
Shameless? Maybe. Shiok? Most definitely.