Synonymous with top-notch Cantonese fare, award-winning Chinese restaurant Hai Tien Lo is a grand space seated on Level 3 in Pan Pacific Singapore, with an opulence that recalls an imperial palace. It has never disappointed with its authentic Cantonese flavours and premium produce, and so it is with its revamped menus; rolled out recently in March, they give a contemporary twist to classic Cantonese favourites by way of combination cooking methods, innovative ingredient pairings and beautiful presentations.
Driving the refresh is new executive chef Ben Zeng, whose personal style – a mesh of traditional Chinese cooking methods, such as braising, wok-frying and steaming, and more contemporary ones such as grilling and baking – epitomises the new menus. The chef, who hails from Guangzhou, China, takes pride in finding perfection and giving his personal best to each dish – a value he seeks to foster within his team – and the result is beautifully plated creations that look as good as they taste. We chat with him about his passions and inspirations, the new must-tries and more…
Tell us more about your love affair with cooking; what shaped your cuisine?
I’ll share an unforgettable memory I had when I was 16 or 17. Our family patronised the restaurant my dad, also a chef, was working at. He prepared a simple, traditional Cantonese meal for us – stir-fried scallops and broccoli, steamed fish and the soup of the day – and I was impressed with how the natural taste of each ingredient was so beautifully brought out, and marvelled at how a master chef could create such flavoursome dishes that amplified the produce’s original tastes. And so in my cooking now, I place a strong emphasis on helping ingredients realise their fullest taste potential – it’s something I hope my team will do too.
So what do you love most about Cantonese cuisine?
The double-boiled soups, wok-fried dishes, and the fact that the natural tastes of the ingredients are not masked by condiments and spices. Fish, for example, is usually lightly steamed with a mild-tasting soya sauce.
And a favourite classic of yours would be…
Double-boiled lotus root soup with peanuts and pork trotters. It conjures fond memories, as my mother used to prepare it for me when I was a child. I love how a clear soup can have such rich flavours, and is the perfect combination of taste and textures – the not-too-hard lotus roots, the pleasantly soft peanuts and the tasty pig skin.
Cantonese soups, which are slow-cooked to preserve the nutrients of the nourishing herbs and ingredients used, have the ability to soothe the soul while being tremendously rich tasting and satisfying.
When I was a child, if my siblings and I were hungry before a meal, our mother would scoop a bowl for each of us, to curb our hunger pangs – I believe this is still the norm in many Cantonese households.
Your recommended soup from the new menu?
The Double-boiled Chicken Soup With Abalone, Dried Scallops, Fresh Prawns And Chinese Mushrooms Served In Young Coconut. It rewards the palate with the fresh flavours of the sea and is immensely fragrant.
“Classic Cantonese flavours” has often been used to describe Hai Tien Lo’s menu. What does the term mean to you?
That the original taste and freshness of the ingredients used are retained and elevated. A prawn dish, for instance, should retain the sweet freshness of the prawns, while an abalone dish should have a natural abalone fragrance. Fish, meanwhile, should be lightly cooked via steaming to draw out the natural sweetness of the meat. To me, classic Cantonese flavours are characterised by traditional dim sum, barbecued roasts, wok-fried dishes and slow-cooked soups.
Talking about dim sum, Singaporeans, whether they are Cantonese or otherwise, love to yum cha. What about yourself?
To me, yum cha symbolises reunion; it’s when the family comes together and catches up over heart-warming food. A good dim sum has the ability to touch one’s heart, and shows the amount of effort and heart a chef puts into making the items.
Our updated dim sum menu actually features a nice mix of traditional and fusion specialities, such as the Steamed Crystal Dumplings With Sea Perch And Foie Gras, and the Steamed Buns With Diced Chicken, Mushrooms And Cheese, which are shaped like mushrooms. My personal favourite is actually the Steamed Charcoal Barbecue Pork Bun With Black Truffles.
You’ve also refreshed the lunch and dinner menus; tell us more.
I’ve used more modern cooking methods, along with a sleeker, tidier presentation, to make the dishes more appealing to the modern palate. Take the gelatinous sea cucumber, for instance, which is traditionally served braised or slow-cooked. It may taste good, but aesthetically, it just doesn’t appeal, especially to those new to Cantonese cuisine.
In our take, the sea cucumber is deep-fried until beautifully crisp on the outside, yet soft on the inside, for a combination of textures. This way of cooking also transforms the appearance of the traditional delicacy, which I enhance with elegant plating to increase its appeal to diners, so that not only the older generation but also the current one can appreciate this wonderful traditional dish.
I’ve also incorporated two of my favourite ingredients: orange peel and lemongrass, both of which are refreshing on the senses. Adding orange peel to a fish dish, for example, makes it less heavy on the palate, while lemongrass has a soothing and calming scent that adds to the pleasing tasting experience.
To round off, what are the top three must-tries?
The Double-boiled Chicken Soup With Abalone, Dried Scallops, Fresh Prawns And Chinese Mushrooms Served In Young Coconut; Baked Sea Perch Fillet With Kumquat Chilli Sauce; and Deep-fried Crispy Sea Cucumber Stuffed With Minced Pork And Shrimps Accompanied With Preserved Vegetables.
Hai Tien Lo, Level 3 Pan Pacific Singapore
Tel: 6826 8240