Labyrinth’s Chef Han Li Guang on heritage food and Mod-Sin dishes to try at The GREAT Food Festival

Labyrinth’s Chef Han Li Guang on heritage food and Mod-Sin dishes to try at The GREAT Food Festival

Michelin worthy

Text: Janice Sim

Part 2 of 3: A modern twist on heritage food

If you've got a serious appetite for all things delectable, mark your calendars and book your tickets for The GREAT Food Festival (TGFF), a collaboration between Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), known as the single dining destination in Singapore with the most number of Michelin stars, and international gourmet festival curators, Savour Events. The festival is held over four days from 21 to 24 September at RWS and will feature five enticing sections — 'Star Chef Arena', 'Heritage Lane', Rollin' Sweet Times', 'Feast of Kings', and 'Connoisseur Collection'.

Take a stroll through Heritage Lane — where you'll be able to explore culinary cultures from around the world and sample over 50 heritage-inspired dishes, including those from Chef Han Li Guang's stall. Chef Han is the founder of Michelin-star restaurant Labyrinth, better known for its avant-garde representation of our local street eats — termed Modern Singaporean (Mod-Sin) cuisine. Through Chef Han's creative direction and valuable years of experience (in which he worked with internationally renowned chefs like Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur in France and Tom Kerridge from The Hand and Flowers in London), delicious Singaporean classics like laksa and curry puffs are presented and deconstructed with gastronomical finesse, while preserving its original flavours. The idea of Mod-Sin isn't to eliminate heritage food, but to serve up a modern, elevated version — expect to savour Chef Han's renditions of local delights like beef satay, kaya, and rojak at TGFF.

In the second of our three-part chef interview series with TGFF, we speak to Chef Han about the prevalence of Mod-Sin cuisine, must-try dishes at the festival, and the importance of retaining Singapore's food heritage. 

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What are you most excited about when it comes to TGFF?
I'm most excited about being part of a boisterous carnival, to meet the international chefs coming in for the event, form new friendships, and catch up with old friends around the industry. Lastly, I'm looking forward to serving customers good food — hopefully they'll all be happy with my creations.

How is Singapore's food heritage showcased in your dishes at TGFF?
Let's take my Wagyu Beef Satay as an example. Satay is something that's very close to my heart, because as a kid I used to go to the Satay Club near Lau Pa Sat almost every other week. I wanted to create my own modern take for this event — and we did, by using homemade satay sauce that I turned into a foam-like texture, paired with 32-hours sous vide wagyu short ribs. 

Labyrinth beef satay

What are some must-try dishes within Heritage Lane?
The Wagyu Beef Satay is a must-try, as is the Rendang Quinoa Risotto. I love rendang and have always enjoyed going to Nasi Padang shops for beef rendang and begedil. Hence, I created a rendang risotto because I'm all for eating my rice drowned in gravy — the quinoa is served in a homemade rendang sauce and and a homemade begedil. What's more? The dish is plated like a forest, because I add a little bit of squid ink on the begedil so it looks like a rock, while the rendang risotto looks like soil. 

Labyrinth rendang risotto

What else can we look forward to at Heritage Lane? Any tips for people who are planning to go down?
Firstly, come to my stall and try my food. Secondly, with so many different chefs and concepts in one space, do come down on multiple days and take your time to try out the different stalls. Enjoy the whole carnival for what it is. Form new friendships with fellow foodies who are there, and go for the masterclasses conducted by the star chefs.

"We're not here to take away the jobs of the hawkers, or to say that our food is better than the hawkers; we're here to present and express a form of Singapore's cuisine that no one else has done before."

You specialise in Mod-Sin cuisine. There are people who don't know much about it — so what is it specifically and why is it an important cuisine for us in Singapore?
Mod-Sin was created almost 10 years ago — it's an expression of Singapore's cuisine in today's day and age. I won't really call it an important cuisine per se, but is Mod-Sin important in Singapore's environment? Of course. Food has been evolving since hokkien mee and chicken rice first came to Singapore — the version that it has evolved into right now was the Mod-Sin of the past. Today, it has become traditional because it has been 20 or 30 years. At the end of the day, Mod-Sin is just a part of the evolution of Singapore's cuisine. We're not here to take away the jobs of the hawkers, or to say that our food is better than the hawkers; we're here to present and express a form of Singapore's cuisine that no one else has done before. Hand in hand with hawkers, we want to champion Singapore's cuisine overseas to the rest of the world.

At what age and from whom did you learn to cook from? What was the first dish you've ever made?
I'm mostly self-taught and started to pick up cooking in university. I loved it so much that I quit the banking industry and went to culinary school for a certificate in culinary arts that focused a little bit more on Asian cuisine. The first dish I've ever made was a chilli crab ice cream, six years ago at home. Chilli crab sauce is sweet, thick, and contains egg; the exact same ingredients as ice cream. In my head at that time, I thought it should work. I used the same ingredients for the chilli crab sauce and created ice cream. There was nothing fusion about it — it tasted really local. 

"To preserve Singapore's heritage, be proud of what Singapore has to offer."

How can we continue to drive awareness to Singapore's food heritage?
At the end of the day, truly embrace local talents and local food. So often as Singaporeans, we're never happy. We criticise both ends of the scale; we say we want to save the hawkers but when they start to increase their prices by a dollar or two, we start going against them. We aren't willing to embrace anything else in hawker food, yet we go to fine-dining restaurants and throw money there just because it's a different form of cuisine. To preserve Singapore's heritage, be proud of what Singapore has to offer and be willing to pay more for your own local food. If Singaporeans are unwilling to pay $10 for chicken rice, how are you going to expect the quality of chicken rice to go up in the midst of the rising costs in Singapore?

Labyrinth hokkien mee

Which other countries have a great food heritage that we should know about? 
I've learnt so much from the chefs that I've visited over the last few years, but a cuisine we should really learn and focus more on is Filipino cuisine. I've been to the Philippines twice last year and before I went, I was totally sceptical of what they had to offer. But at the food conference, I was blown away by what the Philippines had to offer. They have their own sea urchin, beef, pork, vegetables, crab sacs... The food is rich, similar to Singapore, although they don't use as much chilli in their cuisine as we do. The flavours are technical and complex at the same time — I would say it's at the top of my list right now.

What is the biggest misconception that people have of heritage food?
That it should always remain status quo. Everyone's palate is different; food is subjective — even Hainanese chicken rice here is far better than on Hainan Island. I've tried the version there and found it to be really dry. You can't compare food across countries. People just need to embrace dishes for what it should be. 

No tickets are required to enter Heritage Lane at TGFF. Tickets can be purchased here to other segments.

Read our previous interview with Chef Clifford Luu here.
Look out for the third part of our chef interview series for TGFF next Thursday, 21 September.