FOODIE CONFIDENTIAL

Memories of mum

Dick Lee co-owns Dancing Crab, a chain of seafood boil restaurants, and pancake joint Slappy Cakes, with the TungLok restaurant group.
Dick Lee co-owns Dancing Crab, a chain of seafood boil restaurants, and pancake joint Slappy Cakes, with the TungLok restaurant group.PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Music veteran Dick Lee's mother inspired his career as well as his food choices

Music veteran Dick Lee is known for writing songs and musicals with a strong Singapore flavour, but not many people know that he is also involved in the food and beverage scene.

He co-owns Dancing Crab, a chain of seafood boil restaurants and pancake joint Slappy Cakes, with the TungLok restaurant group.

The 59-year-old says he enjoys getting involved in the business and he loves to entertain.

He says: "I am not a gourmand, so my goal is not to create a very intense dining experience, but a 'great-night-out' experience."

He also takes a back seat in managing the restaurants, leaving TungLok to run the show. He says: "I have learnt that I cannot take up both creative and business roles at the same time. Either one will suffer."

The decision seems to have paid off.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • A plate of fried rice with sauteed cucumbersand chye sim, anda bowl of old cucumber soup.

Dancing Crab, which has two restaurants here, one at The Grandstand in Turf Club Road and the other in Orchard Central mall, has expanded overseas, with two in Japan and one in Indonesia, within 11/2 years.

His other ventures include Boom Boom Room nightclub in Bugis Street and Dragonfly, a modern Japanese restaurant in Ann Siang Hill, which he opened with plastic surgeon Dr Woffles Wu in the early noughties. Both have closed.

In 2012, he partnered TungLok to open Modern Asian Diner (MAD), a tapas and cocktails restaurant in The Grandstand. It closed in March last year.

It was his 1974 song, Fried Rice Paradise, that gave him the idea of making a comeback in the dining scene. "I own the trademark to the song title and every year, I have to stop eateries from using that name," he says. "That got me thinking about using the name for a food business."

He has not done so yet, but the catchy song will be featured in a segment in tonight's National Day Parade, together with gigantic 3m tall floats shaped like ice kacang, chilli crab and durian.

For Lee, who is the parade's creative director, this is a special moment to savour. The song was banned by Radio Television Singapore when it was released, for having Singlish words such as "shiok" and "lah" in the lyrics.

Lee, who is divorced, explained that the authorities then "were not comfortable with our identity and putting it on a pedestal".

The inspiration behind Fried Rice Paradise was his late mother Elizabeth's Nonya fried rice with cucumber and sambal. She died last month from ill health at the age of 80.

He says: "We have come a long way. Food has never been such a significant part of our culture as it is today, and it's great to be able to wave the flag of our identity."

How did the song Fried Rice Paradise come about?

I wanted to write a song about Singapore, but did not know how. Back then, we had hardly developed our cultural identity and our traditions were built on those of other countries. I looked at popular culture then, and even as a teenager, I knew that food and Singlish were what I could connect with.

What is a key lesson that you've learnt as a restaurateur?

It is very important to plan your menu carefully and to order the right amount of ingredients to avoid being over-stocked. I remember throwing away wagyu when I was running Dragonfly.

How did your interest in food start?

Dinners around the table were a family tradition. My mother was a really good cook and she learnt how to cook Peranakan food after she married into the family. Some of her great dishes were nasi ulam (Malay herb rice), Nonya fried rice and popiah with egg skin. Those dishes were special as they are troublesome to make, so we did not get them often.

What are your fondest memories of food growing up?

My Cantonese amah cooked a quick lunch during my primary school days, upon my father's request. He ate like a peasant. It was fried sunnyside-up egg with dark soya sauce and rice. It was so simple, but so fulfilling. I also liked her stir-fried sliced beef with Worcestershire sauce and shallots.

Tell us about one of your family's eating traditions.

We still have Cantonese-style fish porridge for breakfast on Sundays. We eat it with condiments such as you tiao (dough fritters), ginger and vegetables. Sometimes, we also have a Nonya-style porridge with tau cheo (fermented soya beans), pork belly and fried silver fish.

Do you cook?

I learnt how to cook from my mother before leaving to study in London for four years. I wanted to have a taste of home instead of pizza. I cooked "survival food" such as sesame oil chicken, braised pork in dark soya sauce and chicken rice. I also learnt how to make Cantonese-style soups.

What are your favourite Singapore dishes, and where do you go to eat them?

Economy rice. I like to order sauteed green vegetables such as chye sim and spinach with rice and curry gravy. It is consistently good in any food court. I also like yong tau foo, as it is simple and not too strong tasting, and mee pok. I do not have discerning tastebuds and will not go to a particular eatery.

What do you miss most about your late mother?

Her death was hard to bear as I was close to her. Among my siblings, I am most like her. She had a joy for life and a fun-loving nature, and that pushed me to continue writing music and to pursue a career when the music industry was dead in the 1970s. She taught me resilience, which I find lacking in young people these days.

Which memorable places did she take you to for meals?

I remember going to the nowdefunct Cockpit Hotel in Penang Road for its elaborate rijsttafel (Dutch for rice table) meals. We also frequented the Salad Bowl, a casual cafe above Cold Storage supermarket in Centrepoint. It was quite forward for its time, when eateries in town were formal.

Do you cook these days?

I had a helper for 20 years and I showed her how to cook my mother's recipes, so she could replicate them. I am teaching my new helper these recipes.

What's always in your home fridge?

Ingredients such as pork ribs, fish and chicken to make stock. It was my mother's training. There will also be vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumber to make sandwiches, and of course, chye sim.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

My mother. I miss sharing my triumphs and disappointments with her. She understood me so well. I would love to have her nasi ulam, which always comes together with itek tim (salted vegetable duck soup).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Memories of mum'. Print Edition | Subscribe