“You can always reinvent yourself, at any age,” quipped Pang Seng Meng, known to the culinary society of Singapore as SM Pang, at his restaurant’s CHIJMES location. Twenty minutes of speaking to Pang, and his wise words reveal themselves — they are merely a reflection of what he has done.
The 64-year-old has lived many lives, he told VICE. He was a major in the Singapore Armed Forces. He was trained in classical economics. He worked in pharmaceuticals for several years. And now, he is Chef and Chief Operating Officer behind New Ubin Seafood, a restaurant redefining Singapore’s tze char tradition.
Tze char quite literally means ‘cook and fry’, and refers to the ubiquitous stalls around the island that serve up extensive arrays of home-style dishes that span all food groups, in a dizzying array of cooking methods and combinations.
He remembered his own family being extremely “disjointed” when it came to food. No single meal was the same. But Pang’s connection to food began then, when he would eat Western food with his parents at a time that most local Singaporeans would not. He also traveled, experiencing different cuisines which supported the development of his own palette. Before Pang decided to open New Ubin, he cooked for himself and his family. Beef, he said, was his specialty.
“Looking back, my path to owning this restaurant seems to have all come together seamlessly,” said Pang of his uncharacteristic path to becoming a restauranteur.
Now, he still often insists on cooking the rib-eye served at New Ubin himself, “to get it exactly right.”
The restaurant began 30 years ago as a family-owned business, which eventually reached critical acclaim for its unique menu options and hearty yet comforting taste. Since then, besides its upscale CHIJMES location in the city center, New Ubin boasts two others closer to the heartlands — at a hotel in Zhongshan Park, and in an industrial estate in Tampines. Each is united by its family-style ambiance and penchant for gathering assorted flavours native to Asia in a single setting. The laid-back, communal approach is reminiscent of Pulau Ubin, an island northeast of mainland Singapore, where the restaurant had its humble beginnings as an authentic seafood joint right by the water.
Pang credited the various culinary inputs from the different stages in his life as the stepping stones for his passion for food. But he acknowledged that having a diverse appetite is also quintessential to being Singaporean. This sense of open-minded appreciation for other cultures is a shared experience for most people who grew up in the country which has become a world-renowned mecca for food tourism.
Despite its self-proclaimed traditional roots, New Ubin also prides itself on revitalising food in innovative ways. Take their upcoming experimentation with plant-based substitutes for beef. Pang said that he and his team just has to “come up with the products to go into green cuisine," before applying them to their existing menu.
“It’s not fusion,” Pang clarifies. “But it’s our take on certain decisions, for people who have a very open and cosmopolitan outlook to food.”
Another venture is the New Ubin Test Kitchen, which Pang is using as an incubator to crowdsource community feedback on new recipes for ready-to-eat meals. Never one to shy away from diversity, the roster includes South Indian banana leaf curries and even a foray into organic Western meals.
All of this is a testament to Pang’s embodiment of Singapore’s melting-pot culture. From the more traditional Hokkien Mee to the ingenious Foie Gras Egg, to the innovative mix of characteristically Asian flavours in the deep-fried Fish Roe with Sambal Chinchalok & Petai Beans, the extensive menu belies the real secret to New Ubin’s success.
“We are well-known for our hybrid of truly Singaporean food. What we have is truly Singaporean, from the flavours to the means of producing to the food. But we also embrace the world,” he told VICE. “We Singaporeans are accepting of a lot of food. We have a unique palette.”