Singapore is an exciting culinary journey that holds a novelty every day. With its fascinating immigrants’ stories dovetailed with deeply-rooted food traditions, Singapore never ceases to amaze an avid food blogger.
In a recent get together with three prominent Singaporeans artists/photographers, I asked, knowing their refined palate, “what is the place to go for authentic Eurasian cuisine?” Their answer came out as prompt as a shot! “Mary’s Kafe (with a K!), That is the mecca of Eurasian food.”, the three uttered in one breath!
Eurasian cuisine is the blessed culinary marriage of Portuguese and Spanish settlers’ food with Chinese and Indian spices. It uses esoteric ingredients such as Tamarind (also known as Assam), Belacan (dried fermented shrimp paste), chili, coconut (grated or squeezed), lemongrass and candlenuts, just to name a few.
After an introduction email to Mrs. Mary Gomes, the entrepreneur, cookbook author and the owner and chef of Mary’s Kafe, I was there at her eatery week later.
In a floral dress mostly covered by a green apron, Ms. Gomes received me with a genuine smile and warm handshake when I walked in. She invited me to sit on at a table of my choice and then excused herself to amicably greet a seemingly regular client who just walked in.
Mary’s Kafe is a cozy, well lit mom-pop restaurant, with long frosted windows, black and red chairs, round and rectangle Formica tables. The place could fit between 40 to 50 people. An unpretentious eatery, where the clients seem pretty familiar with the place and comfortably accommodated.
Ms. Gomes disappeared in the kitchen for a couple of minutes and came back with a tray topped with an array of small dishes for sampling. She invited me to try the dishes until she is done with a couple of quick tasks in the kitchen.
The inviting scene of a crowded table with comfort food and the wafting aromas of warm spices somehow conjured up some remote childhood memories in my grandma’s kitchen. I noticed the relaxed-looking customers and I realized that my feeling was not a rarity.
I started my tasting marathon with an oval ramequin of Chicken Shepherds pie— creamy mashed potatoes hiding a bed of soft ground chicken of complex flavors. The ground chicken —that I mistakingly thought it was beef—was cooked in dark soy sauce and seasoned with warm spices. It is possibly the closest relative you will find to Hachis Parmentier, the French dish, yet with a healthy spin.
The second dish was a Beef Smore. It is a cinnamon-cloves spiked beef stew with carrots and potatoes. The beef was fork-tender while the potatoes and carrots were with well-defined texture despite the long hours of slow-cooking.
Admittedly, It wasn’t easy to distant myself from the Beef Smore, even for resuming my tasting marathon. It was defiantly irresistible!
The next dish was a stew of fish curry and okra that was unapologetically spicy! The sauce was infused with spicy curry and bold spices. The perfectly steamed rice—served on the side— mitigated the fiery sauce and added body to the sauce. Spicy dish aficionados should find happiness savoring every bite of this dish.
That said, it was too much for me, a foodie without unlimited tolerance to overpowering spices. My taste buds were sort of numbed after a third bite. When I saw Ms. Gomes heading back towards my table, I figured it was perfect timing to start the interview!
Did you choose Eurasian cuisine as your repertoire or did it choose you?
I was born to Eurasian parents. My mom, who was from Malacca, was an exceptional cook. I learned first hand from her all the authentic dishes that made my fame. I inherited her repertoire and her god-gifted talent. That said, I tweaked some of her recipes to elevate them or to personalize them into my signature dishes.
When and how did you start your food business?
An unpredictable turn of events is behind where I am today. I was a banker for 28 years, yet I was unexpectantly retrenched at the age of 52.
When this happened, given my cooking passion, the idea of launching a restaurant business swiftly popped up, but my husband wasn’t crazy about it. He thought it was an uncalculated financial risk, that could easily devour my life savings.” She explains.
And while the idea of opening a restaurant was thwarted, another opportunity came up. The head of the Singapore Council Women organization (SCWO)—who was an acquaintance of mine— asked me to be one of the food suppliers to the Council’s cafeteria. I accepted right away. That was the first step!
Sometime after, she came back to me and asked me to completely take over the cafeteria. I accepted after hesitation! I successfully ran the business for almost two years until the council decided to entrust a program beneficiary with the cafeteria.
Simultaneous to the council decision, I received an offer from a methodist pastor— who was a frequent client of mine and staunch fan of my food— to run the cafeteria of the church he was leading. With confidence this time, I took him up on his offer. And for a decade, I had the chance to hone my entrepreneurial and management skills and this when I realized that it was about time to launch my own restaurant.
When you look back on those years, what was the best part about being a food caterer?
Despite the hard, long working hours, I enjoyed pursuing my cooking passion, meeting eclectic clients from across the Singaporean stratum and becoming friends with some of them.
What are the hardships that you faced along the way?
Competition and fatigue. The food business in Singapore is fierce. My loyal, frequent customers keep coming back for the combo of good quality and reasonable prices. In order to maintain this quality-price ratio, I had to cut my expenses. So I run the show with my daughter and a helper. That is it!
What is your best selling Eurasian dish?
The festive Sugee cake, which is a semolina-almond cake. We served daily it at our restaurant and we cater it constantly to wedding and birthday parties as well to funerals. The tradition in Singapore goes that the family of a deceased unmarried woman, toast champagne and eat sugee cake right before closing their loved one’s coffin.
You’ve been a banker, a caterer, cookbook author, and heritage keeper, What is next on your journey?
As for me, it is probably a good time to go back to cookbook writing. I had two published books: Food for Family and Friends and Food For Every day. My mind is now wandering about the theme of my next book.
Do you consider writing your food mémoires?
Do you think I should?
I have faith that the mémoires of a Singaporean woman who embraced her heritage and reinvented herself past the age of 52 to blaze her trail as a self-made entrepreneur will be an exceptional read.