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Singapore finds its cultural feet with culinary renaissance

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It is often derided as a cultural desert, but a younger generation of Singapore’s residents and expats is determined to bring an edgier side to the city. They are leading an improvisation drive, chiefly culinary, and the results are rarely dull.

Borrowing from ideas hatched in New York and Hong Kong, secret dinner clubs are now the menu du jour, some with themes betraying Singapore’s inherently geeky nature.

Co-founded by expatriates Florian Cornu, 26, and Denisa Kera, 36, the Secret Cooks Club bases its dinners on novel technology, philosophy and food-science concepts. A recent five-course meal, labelled You are what you eat, But you can also eat what you are, required every dinner guest to send in saliva samples and then meals were created based upon their DNA.

Another dinner pushed conservative cultural boundaries by copying the Japanese practice of nyotaimori – serving sushi on a naked woman’s body.
The two self-declared nerds, who met at Singapore’s underground Hackerspace club, wanted to add an “element of excitement to a city full of potential, but a bit sleepy and dull”, Kera said.

Similarly interested in rebelling against what she felt was a lack of “personality, history or unique ambiance” in Singapore’s restaurants, Zina Alam, 27, decided to start her own Bangladeshi-style supper club, Khana Commune.

“Singapore is changing every day, politically and culturally,” said the former journalist, whose own change of direction was inspired by a visit to Edinburgh’s supper clubs. “People are a lot more open and adventurous now.”

Even larger establishments are catching on. At Kilo, a new Japanese-Italian fusion venture in a converted waterfront warehouse, diners are encouraged to step away from the table and into the kitchen where, from August, they will be able to act as “guest chef” for the evening. The aim is to prepare a meal of up to five courses that diners will “love, hate, scrutinise – and everything else in between”, said Kilo’s 32-year-old co-founder, Sharon Lee.

Ideas are also emerging beyond the dinner plate. At Blink-BL-NK, an evening out, once a month, where people exchange ideas, participants share their expertise on subjects in forums, along the lines of the increasingly popular TED conferences. Recent talks focused on pilgrimages, psychosis and sex – the latter two traditionally taboo subjects in a “rational, efficiency orientated society”, according to one regular attendee, Stella Lee, 28. “You wouldn’t see this anywhere else in Singapore,” she said.

Isaac Souweine, 32, the co-founder of Blink-BL-NK, said: “”This city is growing up. A hundred years ago, this place was a swamp. The economic development here happened really fast. Now the cultural development is following.”

While some grumble that Singapore’s music and arts scene is still far from robust, at the Crazy Elephant, a popular live music bar on the busy Clarke Quay waterfront, novice musicians are invited to perform on stage in a weekly DIY music night. Drums, keyboards, guitars and microphones are all provided. “It’s a great way to get the crowd involved,” said the venue’s manager, Anita Lydia. “Most people think Sundays are quiet, but budding artists too afraid to play in a bigger arena, or even well-known bands like Deep Purple, have all come to jam.”

The beauty of living in a “cultural desert”, some say, is that it provides an empty space upon which a promising new future, like Singapore’s, can be built. “We are definitely at the cusp of finding a real national identity,” Alam said.

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