MENUFESTATIONS 02: PEOPLE TABLE TALES

Menufestations is an interview series by Christy, who adores menus and is fascinated by how they are constructed. She goes around talking to cool chefs about their personal style of Singaporean food and documents her learnings from the most candid of conversations.


This is the second chapter of Menufestations. Hope you’ll like it!


It only took one word. With this one word, they had my full attention. I went to the website, clicking, and clicking, and clicking–until I reached the menu page. There wasn’t a menu in a pdf file with all the dishes and ingredients stated, just a few signature dishes with their accompanying photos. Not wanting to spoil my own experience, I closed the browser window immediately and then messaged them on Instagram. I knew I had to taste all of this.


Many private dining establishments have sprung up all over the island recently. People Table Tales is the newest kid on the block in a crowded space. I’ve never quite seen the appeal of private dining experiences because the idea of stepping into someone else’s home just feels slightly uncomfortable to me. I hardly get the opportunity to dine at my friends’ places as I always feel like I had to be close enough to warrant a seat at the dining table. But I wanted to give People Table Tales a shot because we only know what we’re really getting ourselves into after we take the first step, right?


On a Thursday evening, I made my way to Tiong Bahru where I was greeted by the iconic Prussian blue door that marked the entrance of People Table Tales. With low-rise apartment buildings, curved staircases and spacious backyards, Tiong Bahru is the quintessential Singaporean estate that was glamourised in the 2020 film Tiong Bahru Social Club. This was all part of founder and brewer Eric’s plan—he manages properties in the day. With the knowledge from his day job, he deliberately chose this spot because of the rustic charm of the neighbourhood. People Table Tales, which he runs on the side, came about from his love for brewing makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, which also explains why they serve makgeolli as a drink pairing with the menu.


Wait, makgeolli? Where does makgeolli come into the picture? Hold this thought, we’ll revisit this later. After all, it’s time for dinner.


THE MENU


This was one hefty menu to digest. At first glance, you’ll see the recurring appearance of the pre-fix ‘lacto’, which essentially refers to lacto-fermentation, the process by which bacteria break down the sugars in foods and form lactic acid. On a second look, you’ll see that some of the dish components are familiar in Singaporean food, re-interpreted in a different form.


Guests are welcomed by a sneak peek of the feast ahead


I had to go beyond the meal to understand the philosophy behind the menu. Maybe it was because the establishment was not tethered to the culinary vision of a singular chef (they had a consulting chef for 6 months to put this menu together). It was a group effort, from ingredient sourcing to research and development to the heavy lifting in the kitchen. In contrast to a typical private dining setup where the chef simultaneously helms the roles of host and server, the dinner service at People Table Tales is led by a crew of five—almost like a small restaurant.


GOING LOCAL


I asked Eric whether it was the dishes that came first or the ingredients that he wanted to highlight, and he shared that they chose a very different approach in terms of menu construction. They chose local ingredients first, but not for their inherent flavour. They wanted to showcase the flavours of the ingredients after applying fermentation techniques to them, which results in a whole new dimension of flavours that people may not associate with the raw ingredients. Therefore, the ingredients for each dish don't make sense together on paper. Savoury becomes sweet, sweet becomes sour.


“Rather than say hey, for our menu I want one noodle, one rice, and one soup, we look for ingredients then try to put them in. We don’t have a clue what we were going to present. Based on the flavours we extract (post-fermentation), we said okay, now we’re going do this and we’re going to do that,” Eric said. “Which is why when you first look at the menu, you’ll go like “huh?””


“We were surprised by how such deep flavours could exist in mushrooms, how the crocodile ribs could taste so porky and so meaty, and also how vegetables like the Jerusalem artichoke and corn that are grown here could come together.”



Meet Vincent and Kim from the kitchen team–they've been part of the research and development of the menu from day one


In their search for local suppliers, they chanced upon Mushroom Buddies, a social enterprise that provides employment for people with special needs, and Natsuki’s Garden, which produces speciality vegetables and fruits that are seldom cultivated in Singapore’s climate.


“Just simply cooking with local ingredients was not quite good enough. We wanted to present it in a way that would change your perspective. That change will come about when we present it with a different kind of flavour profile or textural profile or in ways you would least expect,” said Eric.


I admire Eric’s commitment to showcasing local suppliers beyond just awarding them a line of credits in small print at the bottom of the menu. I mean, they even named the dish “Natsuki’s Garden” after the plot of land where all the dish’s components were grown from. In my opinion, the dish itself is one of the most beautifully plated dishes in the menu. It looks straight out of a The Art of Plating YouTube video.



A delicate medley of seasonal vegetables including Hokkaido corn, ice plant, Jerusalem artichoke, celeriac, cherry tomatoesall grown in the Sprout Hub urban farm


While searching for locally-farmed sources of meat, Eric chanced upon crocodile as a potential protein option. Crocodile–that was the word that stopped me in my tracks from the beginning. I was always under the impression that crocodile meat could not be sourced locally after the only crocodile farm, Long Kuan Hung Crocodile Farm, ceased public tours years ago. However, through Eric, I found out that the farm is still providing crocodile skin to the fashion industry. The meat often gets discarded, which is honestly quite wasteful. (Note: I have my own ethical reservations about crocodiles being farmed for clothes...but that's not for us to discuss today)




The Communal Croc was first presented as a rack of ribs then split into portions for each guest


“Crocodile meat is quite conventionally used in Chinese herbal soups. There’s a lot of stigma attached with this as people drink it for asthma, etc. They believe in the crocodile’s medicinal properties but it’s not eaten as a dish that you would really enjoy. So we want to look at it from a different perspective. We just want to serve it as a rack of ribs, something that does not present a shock factor, and ultimately it has to be delicious and healthy,” Eric said.


“I think it is familiar and comforting, yet it surprises you.”


So time for the million-dollar question: what does crocodile taste like? I would say it has the juiciness of a pork rib, but the elasticity of a chicken thigh. From just the look of the ribs, I wouldn’t have any reservations digging into it if I had no idea it was from a crocodile.


Lots of sides to feast on alongside the crocodile such as roti, their take on nasi ulam with puffed rice, smoked coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves, achar, serundeng, and additional gravy


FERMENTATION


I learnt a lot about fermentation from my conversation with Eric and I’m so glad he went above and beyond the usual kombucha and kimchi making. He shared that in the kitchen, they utilise three different techniques: garum (transforming ingredients into a concentrated extract), lacto-fermentation (used to develop flavours in vegetables) and sugar fermentation (used to make makgeolli).


“The process of fermentation is not new. We’ve all had pickled mustard leaves, olives, even ketchup is a fermented product. If I can brew, if I can make alcohol from rice and water, seriously I realised that the boundaries are probably non-existent,” Eric said.


“We’ve done things like we use sourdough and combine it with the koji that we grow and it becomes sourdough-so (a miso made from sourdough bread). So sourdough bread that is typically thrown away is converted into another product. It actually has very deep umami, it has caramel notes. It still has a tinge of tanginess from the sourdough itself. It’s actually very versatile, we combine it as a spread to make sourdough butter. We use it to roast chicken or do a mushroom stir fry.”



We tasted the sourdough-so in the first course, together with crackers made from the lees (residue from filtering the rice) of makgeolli, teasing the start of a makgeolli adventure


We found out that the dinner comes with makgeolli pairings, which was a world away from the typical beer and wine pairings one would expect when paying top dollar for a tasting menu. It reminded me of the first time I had freshly brewed makgeolli in Jeonju, straight out of a kettle and into a copper bowl, so it was refreshing to see home-brewed makgeolli in Singapore. By introducing makgeolli to the dining table, People Table Tales definitely stood out from other private dining experiences, I thought.


Throughout the meal, we were served different home-brewed wines, fermented at different stages of the makgeolli making process. It was the first time we tasted cheongju, a clear rice wine that is extracted from the top segment after the rice sediments settle to the bottom. Fun fact: soju is actually the distilled form of cheongju!


For the grand finale, makgeolli was the star of the show. In the pre-dessert, makgeolli lees were boiled and combined with ginger flower and herbs to become moju, a traditional Korean hangover drink with red dates and cinnamon, which they served as a granita. The main dessert featured variations on the theme of makgeolli—makgeolli tuile and crumble, makgeolli crémeux, makgeolli ice cream, and blushing makgeolli (made from short-grain rice and black rice). It almost sounds like it would taste one-dimensional, but as I slurped up the potent (from the high ABV) river of blushing makgeolli along with the crémeux, ice cream and a bite of the tuile, the varied textures and intensities of flavours threw a party in my mouth.



Fermentation is always a work-in-progress; this house is filled with many jars and bottles on that long journey


Eric told me that he wants to continue letting their guests enjoy ‘lightbulb moments’ and discover new flavour possibilities. I certainly have. I’ve learnt so much in this interview about fermentation and its culinary applications. I’ve also gained a renewed respect for people who are crazy passionate about something and want to make it into a reality.


Of course, this does come with challenges—Rome was not built in a day. Eric didn’t come from a culinary profession, nor was he a restaurateur. As a homecook and a makgeolli brewer who learnt purely from online Zoom calls with a Korean brewer and YouTube videos, starting People Table Tales seemed far-fetched.


“In Singapore, we have a lot of challenges. The scale is not there, the costs are high, the market might not be viable, but we do have to start somewhere isn’t it?” He said.


At the end of the day, as long as it’s delicious, Eric calls it a success worth celebrating.


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See you soon for Menufestations 03!



-Christy


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