Gaggan Anand has just presented me with a plate showcasing a black, truffle-like creation. "Can you guess what's in it?" he asks. "It's a signature dish from my restaurant in Bangkok … it's called charcoal." Of course it is.
Dubbed the "world's best Indian chef", Anand is riding the wave of the renaissance in Asian chefs, a trend that coincided - whether by chance or not - with the inauguration of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013.
"Asian chefs are drawing more attention around the world," says Anand, whose eponymous restaurant Gaggan topped San Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards list in March this year, before being ranked 10th at the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards ceremony in London this June. "This has led to a rise in confidence in Asian chefs and/or food in the fine dining arena."
The former hotel chef cut his teeth at El Bulli lab before returning to Bangkok to introduce his progressive style of Indian cuisine, and he was briefly in Singapore for a pop-up dinner at Spanish-Peruvian eatery, Ola Cocina Del Mar.
With the spotlight shining brightly on Asia, more chefs such as Calcutta-born Anand are basking in the glory. Fed by their newfound prominence, they have been offered opportunities that go far beyond the four walls of their kitchens to include TV appearances, invitations to cook at pop-up events overseas and to share culinary techniques at international food festivals. Like Anand, Andre Chiang of Restaurant Andre (No 5 on Asia's 50 Best 2015) jet-sets globally for collaborative dinners. His travels have brought him to cook at Attica (Australia), Benu (United States) and Quintessence (Japan), among many others. Of late, the Taiwan-born, French-trained chef has also been invited to speak at culinary conferences. In April this year, Chiang was a guest speaker at Madrid Fusion's first Asian edition held in Manila. Six months later, he graced the stage again at San Sebastian Gastronomika and Food on the Edge culinary symposiums held in Europe, where he spoke about "Jus des idees", his restaurant project in which he introduces fermented juices prepped with fruits and vegetables - such as Ubi madu (sweet honey potato), starfruit and mandarin plums - as an alternative to wine pairings.
"Asia has a very long history of fermentation but it's been forgotten. I would like to pick it up again and show the world how far we can take this traditional preserving technique," Chiang said to a packed audience comprising many of Spain's top chefs - including Albert Adria - at Kursaal, where the 2015 edition of San Sebastian Gastronomika was held in October.
Chiang was one of more than 10 chefs from Singapore, plus a small clutch from Hong Kong, including Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook and Yau Tim Lai of Tim's Kitchen, who took to the stage to spread the word about their heritage, culture, cuisine and techniques. It was the first time in the 17-year history of the Spanish gastronomic conference that a group of non-Japanese, Asian chefs was making a collective appearance on such a big scale.
"Singapore and Hong Kong are Asian cities that reflect both tradition and the forces of the future," says Roser Torres, general manager of San Sebastian Gastronomika. "We want to showcase the techniques of these up-and-coming Asian cities to enrich the European chefs and, at the same time, create synergies." The movement is gaining in momentum and popularity, with top restaurants in Spain quickly picking up on the trend and launching collaborative dinners. Azurmendi Restaurante, for example, brought in Andre Chiang to work with Eneko Atxo and Ricard Camarena.
The six-hands, 10-course dinner comprised dishes such as stewed wheat with farmhouse milk emulsion by Atxa; pine, charcoal and fermented apple by Chiang; and warm baby-bean stew with kokotxas and hake and tomato infusion by Camarena.
Ni Neu wasn't far behind, with a four-hands meal showcasing culinary creations by Ryan Clift of Tippling Club and Han Li Guang of Restaurant Labyrinth. The dinner was an invitation-only affair, and the pair collaborated on some of their signature dishes such as toriyama veal with umami textures by Clift and Singapore "chilli crab" by Han.
"Asian flavours are very appealing in Spain and in the Western culture," says Xavier Agulló, one of Spain's foremost food critics, pointing out that the combination of flavours strikes a chord with the diners overseas. "We appreciate the nuances of Asian flavours - the sweetness meets the salty and the umami." According to Agullo, who was present at the four-hands dinner between the two Singapore-based chefs at Ni Neu, the collaborative dinner was fondly received. "The chefs have very different styles, yet they worked alongside each other to express the melding of international and local flavours in Singapore's cuisine."
It's a synergy that flows both ways. During the four-day San Sebastian Gastronomika conference, Singapore chef Willin Low - dubbed the godfather of nascent modern Singapore cuisine - showed the audience how he prepares laksa rempah (spice paste) in his restaurant, Wild Rocket, for the signature dish of laksa pesto pasta. Instead of pairing with pasta, Low teamed the heady paste with Spanish carabinero shrimps. "I work with core flavours that the average Singaporean holds close to his/her heart," says Low, whose restaurant recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. "I'm finding new ways to enjoy these treasured flavours that speak to the Singaporean identity. We are a young nation - only 50 years old - and my long-term goal is to hopefully add to our culinary oeuvre."
Low's modern Singapore compatriot, Han Li Guang of Singapore's Restaurant Labyrinth, also staged a demo in which he infused the flavours of nasi lemak (a rice dish cooked in coconut milk) into chwee kueh (steamed rice cake). Instead of preserved turnip, which is how this streetfood is always served with in Singapore, the chef topped each cake with sambal (chilli paste) infused anchovies. This item is available on Han's new Experience Menu.
"Asian cuisines are becoming the next big thing and everyone wants to find out more about their flavours, spices and ingredients," says Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, who has replaced his à la carte menu with an ahmakase tasting menu of inspired Peranakan creations. "Finally, they are getting the recognition they deserve."
Asian chefs are expanding on traditional techniques and ingredients, introducing new culinary realms for the sophisticated diner to explore. Malcolm Lee's ahmakase tasting menu at Candlenut consists of inspired Peranakan creations that showcase the innovative use of Indonesian black nut buak keluak as a dessert in ice cream and as a sauce to go with fork-tender beef short ribs.
Willin Low's modern Singapore compatriot, Han Li Guang of Restaurant Labyrinth, deconstructed Singapore's national dish of chilli crab as deep-fried soft shell crab on a plate with crab bisque foam and a punchy dollop of chilli crab ice cream.
Gaggan Anand's tasting menu back home weaves in Japanese influences and his fascination with the country's ingredients, resulting in creations such as matcha teacake with mascarpone cream, vanilla salt and a hint of fresh wasabi, or a chilled "matcha of tomato" soup. The latter was inspired by how the Japanese whisked green tea during his trip to Fukuoka, Kyushu, during which he combed farms, markets and butchers with Goh Fukuyama, chef-owner of La Maison de la Nature Goh, to prepare for a dinner that married the best of Japanese produce with Fukuyama's French approach and the Indian chef's spices-flecked progressive cooking.