Although Mr Sean Lim's restaurant, Mojo in Telok Ayer, serves trendy grain bowls, he still yearns for his father's simple home-cooked food.
One dish, in particular, is an indulgent potluck party favourite - kong bak pau (pork belly buns).
The 28-year-old has fond memories of the dish - thick-cut slabs of tender pork belly cooked in a herbal braising sauce, sandwiched with crisp lettuce and coriander in a steaming hot bun. The ingredients are plated separately so everyone can have fun filling his own bao.
He says: "I love eating the bun with the gelatinous fat from the pork, dipped in my grandmother's super spicy chilli. The flavours are always consistent and good. It is a simple one-pot dish that can be done in a pressure cooker as well."
The recipe is part of his father's repertoire. The older Mr Lim keeps a folder of recipes which his son uses as a reference point for his cooking.
The dish is open to adaptation too. Add fried minced garlic for more texture and the oil used to fry the garlic can be used in other dishes.
And if you are not having the pork belly in a bun, add a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce and serve it over rice instead.
The younger Mr Lim also puts his own spin on another of his father's dishes - braised pork ribs with Shaoxing wine - adding peanut butter for another layer of flavour.
"Recipes are guidelines," he says. "You shouldn't have to follow them so strictly. And you learn more when you play around with flavours and ingredients."
Both his father, 54, a civil servant, and his maternal grandmother, 86, have been influential in inspiring his culinary journey. His 54-year-old mother is an accountant and his older sister, 31, is a paediatrician.
At the age of 16, Mr Lim set his sights on going to culinary school and graduated with a culinary and catering management diploma from Temasek Polytechnic. He has taken part in cooking competitions and worked at the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore, as well as the nowdefunct Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands.
His entrepreneurial streak kicked in and he ran his first start-up at the age of 22, doing consultancy work for a food-and-beverage group. Next, he ran a crepe shop for 18 months before changing the concept, selling curry chicken and laksa instead.
In 2014, he started Sin Lee Foods in Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, which served Asian-style cafe food such as har cheong kai (prawn paste chicken) and waffles as well as salted egg sweet potato fries.
It closed last year after its lease ended, but he has plans to relocate.
Shortly after, he started Mojo with a few business partners and is now looking to expand the brand locally and overseas, as well as potentially set up an e-store or sell recipe books.
He counts zi char restaurants Sik Bao Sin and JB Ah Meng, both in Geylang, as among his favourite places to eat, and does not rule out heading back to the kitchen to pursue his love of cooking when he is financially ready.
"Chefs fail because they can be great cooks, but are not businessmen," says Mr Lim, who has a girlfriend. "Pursuing passion has to be sustainable."
KONG BAK PAU (PORK BELLY BUNS)
- 2 garlic cloves (optional)
- 2kg pork belly
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 star anise
- 2 tsp five spice powder
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tbs brown sugar
- 1 cup dark soya sauce
- 1/2 cup light soya sauce
- 2 Tbs oyster sauce
- 12 garlic cloves
- 5cm ginger, skin removed and thinly sliced
- 1 piece cao guo (black cardamom)
- 5 slices chuan xiong (Chinese lovage root)
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup Shaoxing wine
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 litres water
- 30 Chinese buns for kong bak pau
- 30 lettuce leaves
- 1 bunch of coriander leaves
- 5 Tbs cornstarch to mix with 1 cup water (optional)
- Finely dice two garlic cloves. Heat oil in a wok and fry the garlic for a few minutes until fragrant and crisp. Drain from the oil and set aside.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the pork belly for a minute. Remove from the water and cut into 1.25cm-thick slices. Set aside.
- Place all the ingredients from the cinnamon stick to sesame oil in a pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce heat to low, cover and let the ingredients simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust to taste with more dark soya sauce, sugar or salt.
- Add the sliced pork belly and enough water to cover the meat and bring to a boil again. Then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for at least another two hours. You can leave the meat to simmer for up to five hours.
- In the last 30 minutes of simmering, steam the buns in a steamer for 10 minutes or until soft. Set aside on a platter.
- Remove the meat and place in a serving dish.
- Skim off the oil from the sauce and bring to a boil before serving.
- To assemble, place a piece of lettuce in the bun, followed by pork belly, and garnish with coriander and fried garlic. Add more sauce to taste.
- Alternatively, to eat with rice, stir the cornstarch mixture into the sauce. Bring to a boil until the sauce thickens. Pour over pork belly and rice. Garnish with coriander and garlic.
Makes 30 buns
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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