There’s always plenty of heart in a meal by Damian D’Silva. Touted as the grandfather of Singapore’s heritage cuisine, anything that D’Silva puts on a plate is often a semblance of our city’s multi-cultural fabric—spanning across Chinese, Malay, Eurasian ethnicities and influences. A meal at his restaurant, Rempapa will easily tell you that. Stemmed from time-honoured recipes that D’Silva grew up with, every dish is a labour of love, which explains why ingredients are abundant and flavours are impactful. After all, the innate desire to bring out the best comes through especially when you’re cooking for the family. This National Day, as we circle back to our home base—celebrating our nation’s independence with our loved ones, we imagine a great feast. A home-cooked affair, preferably, if you didn’t manage to snag a reservation outside.
On that note, we tap onto the brilliant expertise of D’Silva, as the advocator of Singapore heritage cuisine and chef partner at Rempapa dreams up a 3-course menu for Vogue Singapore. A meal that reminds him of home. To start, Kerabu Jantung Pisang, followed by Fish Head Curry and ending off with Sarang Semut.
Kerabu Jantung Pisang
“Kerabu Jantung Pisang is probably a mouthful to most of us. However, the main ingredient of this salad is better known than the dish. Banana bud or Jantung Pisang is more engaging as a picture than an ingredient. In the past, it was a frequent offering that showed off the cook’s skill to guests who were bemused that such a tasteful and exceptional salad could be created from the bud of the banana plant. Banana Bud Salad is eaten all over South East Asia, and in Singapore, the Malay community was probably the first to execute this dish. The recipe I’m executing is a mix of Malay, Peranakan, and Eurasian because of the ingredients used.”
800g banana heart
6 tablespoons of vinegar
5 pieces of coconut heart (tambung in Malay) (chef’s tip: it can be requested from the fresh coconut seller
10 pieces belimbing, sliced
2 fresh red chilies, sliced
250g fresh prawns
12 tablespoons of rice vinegar (note: separate into 2 portions)
3 to 5 pieces of calamansi, juiced
200ml fresh coconut milk
50g block of gula melaka
Salt to taste
Part b: to blend
3 pieces of fresh red chillies
30g belacan, toasted
8 pieces of shallots, sliced and fried for garnish
1. Combine whole banana heart and 6 tablespoons of vinegar in water.then bring to a boil. After 45 minutes to an hour, it is ready when a chopstick can pierce through the banana heart.( Tip: the amount of water used depends on the size of the pot and banana heart. Ensure that the banana heart is immersed in water during the boiling process.)
2. Remove banana heart from the water and set aside to cool. Once cooled, remove bracts and petals from the core. Set the petals aside. The edible parts (which are not too bitter) will be revealed after removing 4 to 5 bracts.
3. Cut the heart into small quarters or slices. Leave the petals whole.
4. Cut coconut heart in slices or diagonally, depending on preference.
5. Clean and deshell prawns. Set shells aside.
6. Combine prawn shells with 300ml of water. Boil till reduced to
approximately 80ml of stock.
7. Add raw prawns to the stock and cook quickly over high heat. Reserve
prawns and stock for later.
1. Reduce fresh coconut milk over low heat to about 50ml, or until it has the consistency of a thick sauce.
2. Add gula melaka block to 50ml of water and bring to a boil. Cook until it has the consistency of syrup, then strain.
3. In a pot, combine prawn stock and coconut milk. Bring to a low simmer until it reduces to a thickened sauce. Add remaining rice vinegar, calamansi juice, gula melaka, and salt to taste.
4. Add the blended belacan mixture to the sauce one teaspoon at a time until the desired flavour and texture is achieved.
Completing the dish
1. Combine banana heart and petals, coconut heart, belimbing, sliced chillies, and prawns.
2. Slowly add in the dressing and mix until everything is amalgamated.
3. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the fried shallots.
Fish Head Curry
“Fish Head Curry is a dish that one gets cravings for. It’s also a dish that’s familiar with all the ethnicities. Each nationality has its own version, and also a preference, on the best fish to use in executing the dish. There is no right or wrong fish head to use, what is important is a head wrapped in collagen and must have white meat. The snapper family is always a favourite. I’ve chosen this dish as it has its origins in Singapore, and we have to thank Mr. Gomez and the Chinese Towkays that pleaded him to come up with a curry dish using fish head. Today, we have so many versions, from every ethnic group, and it makes this dish more Singaporean than any other dish I can think of.”
60g peeled garlic
2 pieces of star anise
1 piece of cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
4 heaped tablespoons of fish curry powder
2 sprigs curry leaves
300g big onions, finely sliced
8 pieces of tamarind slices
100g tamarind pulp + 2 litres of water (strained)
100g green mango or belimbing
4 pieces of ripe tomatoes, quartered
100ml freshly squeezed coconut milk
Half of a large snapper or seabass head, rubbed with salt
1. Combine ingredients listed under Part A and grind till they amalgamate into a paste. Set ground mixture aside.
2. In a pot, add 6 to 8 tablespoons of cooking oil over medium heat. Add star anise and cinnamon stick. Fry for a minute before adding mustard seeds. When mustard seeds start to splutter, add curry leaves and fry for 30 seconds before adding sliced big onions.
3. Fry till onions are slightly caramelised, before adding the ground mixture. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add curry powder and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Add strained tamarind pulp and bring to a boil.
5. When liquid boils, turn the heat down to simmer, add the tamarind slices, green mangoes (or belimbing), and tomatoes. Continue to cook till liquid is almost halved, which will take around 45 minutes.
6. Add coconut milk and cook for 10 minutes before adding the fish head.
7. Cook till the fish head is done and add salt (season to taste) before serving.
“For my last dish, I have chosen a simple but very textural Malay Cake, called Sarang Semut or “Ant’s Nest” in English. I love its caramel flavour and bouncy and chewy texture that reminds me of simple cakes made with love when I was growing up. Whether it was made in my Mum’s kitchen or my neighbour’s – it did not matter. It was made with heart and for sharing. So I hope with this recipe everyone who executes this kueh, does it with love and shares it amongst friends and neighbours.”
300ml hot water
3g vanilla essence
185g condensed milk
91g melted butter
160g sifted plain flour
12g baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 170°C
2. Caramelise sugar with salt. Then, add hot water and set aside.
3. Whisk eggs, condensed milk and vanilla essence. Once combined, add the melted butter.
4, Slowly mix till well amalgamated. Set aside.
5. Bake for 20 minutes at 170°C.
6. Then, reduce temperature to 160°C and bake a further 20 minutes.
7. After it is done, leave to cool before slicing.