People 2 minutes 07 August 2017

Industry Insider: Remembering Your Roots

Chef Pang Kok Keong of French-inspired cafe Antoinette talks about returning to his Hakka roots and recreating his heritage cuisine.

Industry Insider Singapore chefs

When I was young, cakes were a rare treat, especially rich French pastries. The most accessible luxury was a cream-filled bun coated with desiccated coconut. Ironically, I didn’t grow up with a strong desire to eat cake. Instead, I have vivid memories of watching my mum cook, helping her with the preparation and the taste of crisp lettuce over crispy fried pork belly marinated with preserved beancurd.

Even when I enrolled in SHATEC in ‘93, I took up a culinary course and pastry was never my focus, it was only until I did my industrial attachment at the now-defunct Imperial Hotel where my interest for sweets grew. I was fascinated by how sago stayed ‘glued’ together after it was cooked, rinsed and set in a mould; how a liquid custard transformed into a pudding in the oven — simple things like that fascinated me, and this grew to become an obsession.

Recently, I tried to recreate a Hakka pastry I had when I was in Taipei, it’s made of a mugwort and glutinous rice flour pastry and filled with a savoury mix of sweet, salted preserved turnip, fresh turnip, minced pork, mushroom and seasoned simply with shallot oil, sugar, fish sauce and pepper. To me, this little parcel exemplified the Hakka flavour with bitter, savoury, sweet, salty and umami all in a mouthful.

Chef Pang's recreation of Hakka Abacus Seeds
Chef Pang's recreation of Hakka Abacus Seeds
As a chef, it is essential to evolve and create, but more importantly to create a base from a foundation of basics. Much like how I approach creating new cakes where I pair flavours in a very classic manner, I use the same approach when I created the Hakka Gnocchi. Essentially, it is a traditional Hakka dish of Abacus Beads (算盘子), made from root vegetables such as yam and sweet potato with tapioca starch. It is then shaped to resemble abacus beads and sautéed with dried shrimp, cuttlefish, minced pork and many other garnishes like the traditional dish. In my interpretation, I replaced the Chinese mushrooms with morels, cured pork for minced pork, and added white wine to give it a more complex layer. The dish is finished with a foie gras cream that binds all the elements together and amps up the luxe factor. Understanding your subject, in this case, the ingredients and how you want it to evolve but still relevant to its origins are crucial elements to create.

Hakka cuisine has inspired me to create original dishes that stay true to their roots, yet offer an opportunity for me to share it with a wider audience whom might have never tasted Hakka food before. What makes food Hakka? To me, one must have tasted the cooking of a mother or grandmother who is Hakka. Hakka food is based on a memory that only one who has tasted will recall. A nostalgic taste, much like most other heritage cuisine, one where you appreciate its soulful and rustic characteristic.
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What has kept me testing Hakka pastry recipes on weekends is how Hakka pastry uses different starches to achieve different textures. I would like to achieve that feeling of biting into the pastry, and realising it can be just as gratifying as tasting a delicious cake where the golden ratio of skin and filling is achieved and the taste is à point!It reminds me of the time when I just started — the curiosity, the hunger for knowledge; more than anything else, I felt it is more important for me to know and learn about my own heritage rather than another.
I have the highest regard for French cuisine and patisserie. It is one of the most technically-challenging cuisines anyone can hope to master. Can Hakka food be reinvented in that manner? Will it still be considered Hakka when reinvented, without being gimmicky? Will it appeal to a big enough market to make it viable? I ask myself these questions everyday. I have spent my entire working life learning about French patisserie and cuisine, and I hope I will have the opportunity to embark on a new journey where I can explore my heritage cuisine more thoroughly. It may not be on-trend, or even flavour of the month, but it is what I am and where I belong.
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