“For the umpteenth time, and for goodness sake,” I used to tell our regular diners much to their astonishment, “there’s no such thing as Singapore Noodles.” What IS Singapore Noodles then, and why would it be on so many Chinese takeaway menus in the world? One personal theory is that one would be hard pressed to find any other place in the world that offers noodle dishes more varied than Singapore itself.
Speaking of ‘Singapore Noodles’, a long time ago (we recall with deep affection, the days we had lost our minds) after moving to Australia for about seven years, we decided to embark on another one of our maverick adventures, which involved throwing not only every caution to the wind but emptying every pocket we had.
Rather than ‘be entertained’ (i.e. passive state individuals with ‘itchy posteriors’ consider to be), our idea of fun was to receive pleasure afforded by the crazy act of starting a restaurant serving up a Singaporean menu. With no prior restaurant experience, it was also our most epic attempt at ‘living dangerously’ while abroad. It remains to this day the boldest way we’ve ever expressed reverence and affection for the Singapore we were born and raised in.
When we opened the doors of our once-restaurant, Barang, in 2007, we were somehow raptured with the dream of introducing Australian diners in Brisbane to a new world of authentic Singaporean cuisine — a world they didn’t know and took time to appreciate.
It was too bad that back then, the now highly successful television program franchise, Masterchef, had not yet aired and unless they had ever visited Singapore, Chilli Crabs sounded rather exotic to the typical Australian. Such was the oblivious state of our local Brisbane dining scene before the first Asian Masterchef winner Poh Ling Yeow piqued curious interest in alternative kinds of ‘Southeast Asian’ (Poh had a Malaysian heritage) cuisine. You could probably credit Poh for the sudden surge of excitement in our kind of food and for whetting Aussie palates to hanker after other Southeast Asian tastes beyond Thai and Vietnamese offerings.
Without any predecessors to pave the way in bringing an authentic Singaporean menu to Brisbane locals, Barang was a labour of love, no less. It was our best effort at the time to bridge cultures and to showcase the home we miss, ladle by ladle and plate by plate. We offered casual dining for a less intimidating ambience to savour authentic Singaporean-style Laksa and Singapore-style (not Malaysian) Nasi Lemak in the most approachable and accessible manner.
Passionate foodie Katherine Ngoi on her biggest culinary adventure in Brisbane
On hindsight, our little humble restaurant was perhaps our most memorable act of ambassadorship, rather like playing the diplomatic Singaporean host at a nightly dinner party. Our diners came armed with varied motivations. Those new to our foreign-sounding dishes had come anticipating a culinary adventure and those who knew our dishes from the core of their hearts had come to savour the tastes of home they craved.
Each night as we set the tables, polished the wine glasses and lit the flickering tea lights, we were aware that ours was a nightly theatrical spectacle, and not just food service. Barang was a vehicle (by way of food tasting) to transport diners to our tiny red dot via a magic carpet. We saw ourselves as not merely a food establishment but really as tour guides taking visitors vicariously to our metropolis, where concrete high-rise meets greenery and bamboo, and where the crossroads of fusion food collide yet harmoniously reside. We often tell our diners they could call our food a glorified wok; a true taste of multiculturalism, and that was exactly what Singapore food represents.
It wasn’t enough to just simply cook. We had to take pride to do it well enough to pay homage to where we hail from. To the local diners (‘yiv-ne’er-been-ta-Singapore-mate?’) our food was as foreign as it was exotic. Even our keropok (fried crispy prawn crackers) seemed to intoxicate the Brissie locals as they were described as ‘having a real crunch and bite with the true taste of prawns’ (hah; extracted from one of our food reviews). You see, they were more accustomed to those insipid, soft and chewy pink chips that come packaged in cellophane bags at typical Chinese takeaways masquerading as ‘prawn crackers’.
Part of paying homage and doing justice to Singapore cuisine meant having to train our wait staff to help our customers (who were new to our melting pot flavours) navigate our menu. Our team had a daily mission to delight diners with how Singaporeans have simply blended Malay cooking with dishes that may retain their Chinese influences and other unmistakable Southeast Asian touches like shrimp paste and tamarind, lemongrass, shallots, candlenuts, chilli, galangal, ginger and garlic.
We watered down the spice but brought them the oomph of our sambal belachan and our robust flavours of Nyonya curries and satays flavoured with coconut-sauced rempahs of pounded spices. They were intrigued with eye-popping curiosities like how we used pandan leaves to flavour everything from our Chicken Rice or Nasi Lemak to desserts like our Nyonya kueh or a piping hot bowl of Tau Suan (yellow mung bean dessert). They were amazed that Malay, Indian, Indonesian and Thai spices like cumin, fennel, turmeric, galangal and curry leaves were also frequently tossed into the mix, oftentimes subtly nuanced with seasonings of sugar, salt, and coriander.
In the end we knew we picked the name of our restaurant well. It points to our enduring fondness for all things Singaporean; a little of this and a little of that. Hence, ‘barang-barang’ (‘goods’ in Malay) is quintessentially the Singapore we know and miss, perpetually thronging with action from elbow to elbow. It’s the crossroads and hub where multiculturalism meets commerce, trade and lifestyle.
Souped Up: Barang restaurant review by Brisbane News
Our tiny entrepreneurial foray into starting a casual dining establishment was our way of sharing with the world our Singapore story. One of the many wisdoms we’ve gleaned from this experience has been that life is a lot like a restaurant — one can have anything so long as they are willing to pay the price. Alas, it’s a business that demands every inch of you and takes no prisoners. Eventually you come to a point where you’ve eaten your fill, and it is time to create something else that would give you a life again instead of taking it away. There was a time when we had thought that happiness depended on courage and hard work, but realised ‘making good things happen’ is still best when something was done with passion and calling.
A few years later after we embarked on our Barang journey, on one rainy evening while I was standing over my mammoth commercial stove sizzling up a gallon of pungent sambal belachan, I found myself suddenly fighting waves of nausea. Few things perk me up like belachan does, so I knew something was wrong when the sickness overwhelmed me as I arched over the sink.
With my ashen face I bit my lip and handed the frying slice to one of my senior kitchen hands, not knowing it was the last of it. We then put up Barang for sale not long after a blood test confirmed the miracle growing in my belly. As God would have it, it was just a sign to move on to a new season.
Twenty, thirty years from then we would probably be more disappointed by the adventures we didn’t take than the ones we did. We’ll always be thankful for the season of our little restaurant. It was our small, albeit meaningful contribution to showcase Singapore in the best way we knew; if it’s true as they say, ‘we are what we eat’.
Today I share the shadow of my personal culinary perspectives and recipes on my personal creative blog where Barang and Singapore echoes in the foreground.
Even after moving on from the hospitality trade nearly a decade later, Barang lives on fondly in our memories. Like Singapore has always been in the heart, it remains unforgettable with its winning menu; an amalgam of thrilling Southeast Asian flavours paired with a delectable concoction to drink to.