How Jiwa Singapura Spotlights Singapore’s Best, in Five Dishes
Singapore is a small country with a larger-than-life food culture. And the cuisine hits both the heart and soul of chef Pepe Moncayo. He is the marquee name behind Jiwa Singapura, an elegant restaurant with an open-air kitchen and buzzy dishes attracting diners just beyond Washington, D.C.’s Beltway.
For Moncayo, Singapore is everything. He’s a Michelin-starred chef who opened his first solo restaurant in Singapore in 2013. This is also where he met his wife, Aishah Moncayo, and what he still refers to as his “forever home.” Living in Singapore for a decade, he was exposed to a variety of dishes — from fried carrot cake to chili crab and ice cream loti — which feature prominently on his new menu.
Jiwa Singapura is something new for the Mid-Atlantic region too, blending Singapore-style street food with high-end dining, and incorporating a chef’s tasting menu (coming soon). It’s the story of Moncayo and his passionate love for Singapore.
“This restaurant is my life,” Moncayo says. “I was sent by my mentor to Singapore, and I spent 10 years there. I ended up opening my own restaurant, meeting my wife, and having a family. I really ended up very connected and living like a Singaporean. Singapore also became part of my home cooking, and it is food that I feel is underrepresented in the United States. With such a wide variety of dishes, I want to share this love and passion with everyone.”
Here’s how Moncayo is interpreting Singaporean cuisine, in five dishes.
1. Chili Crab
Snow crab, chili sauce, and mantou buns
“Chili crab is very deep in my memory because that’s my Saturday night. After working six days each week in my restaurant in Singapore, I would leave, sometimes at midnight and crave this spicy crab dish.
It would be the end of the work week, so this is a dish that was especially fun to eat. Of course, it is a staple of Singapore cuisine, and it must be on my menu. But it’s messy!
Here, in the restaurant, we give diners gloves and a bib, so they don’t get dirty picking apart the crab. In Singapore, when I order this dish, I usually pick it up and eat it at home, so I can lick my fingers, like you’re supposed to do it.”
2. “Carrot” Cake
Daikon rice cake coated with a dark soy glaze
“This is a vegetarian dish. It’s an umami bomb, a dish with radish, soy, and eggs. It’s funny because the dish is called carrot cake, but it doesn’t have carrots. We caramelize the daikon rice cake with a dark soy glaze, and it gives this explosion of flavor. This is also an essential dish that you will find on menus almost everywhere in traditional Singaporean restaurants. It’s also typically a very heavy dish that will leave you feeling quite full. My interpretation on it is a much smaller portion, so you can try a few other dishes alongside it.”
3. Salt Egg Shrimps
Salted duck egg, chopped chile, and curry leaf
“I confess that I put my finger in all almost all the recipes. I tweak, and I adjust. However, this dish is the same as what my wife and her family makes — passed down over time.
This is a simple and flavorful dish. When the shrimps get cooked to their color, I add some garlic, chopped chile, and curry leaves, and then you cut it with a bit of evaporated milk and a paste out of duck salted eggs. It is so nice, and so simple. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing? Sometimes simplicity is all you need.”
4. Whole Fish Tiga Rasa
Fried fish with sweet and sour sauce
“Tiga Rasa is what we used to eat on Sundays. We didn’t have a car in Singapore, so we would rent a car and cross the border into Malaysia. We drove to this seafood place, and we would eat this fish flavored in three ways: sweet, sour, and spicy. My version here calls for a whole fried fish, which we debone and fry it crispy to maintain the juices in the fish. The presentation is stunning too. We put a lot of passion in what we do, and we skewer the fish in a way that when we fry it, the fish maintains a shape to be perfectly positioned on the plate.”
5. Ice Cream Loti
Pandan brioche bread with kaya spread, pandan ice cream, and caramelized shortbread
Save room for dessert: Jiwa Singapura pastry chef Greg Baumgartner puts playful twists on dishes that dazzle both the eyes and the taste buds. His can’t-miss dish is ice cream loti — a pandan-flavored ice cream sandwich that he says was inspired by his childhood.
“To be honest, I’ve never dabbled in Singaporean cuisine before.” Baumgartner explains.” It is a completely new and fun experience, and I wanted that to translate into the desserts. For the ice cream loti, I was going after something that’s reminiscent of me as a kid. The pandan ice cream loti is kind of a play on three things.
“First, there is a common dish throughout Singapore, that looks like an ice cream sandwich. Typically, it’s served with milk bread and a scoop of ice cream. It’s common in terms of finding it with street vendors, especially on the hotter days. Second, for breakfast, there’s something called kaya toast. Kaya being the egg coconut jam that’s typically spread on milk bread and served with tea in the morning. And then as a kid, I love the strawberry shortcake pops — like the ones you could find at the grocery store. That’s just the trashy American in me.
“So, I really wanted to marry those three things together to get that sandwich, essentially. Hopefully it kind of gives you an idea of the three directions I was going with in terms of that. Our goal with this menu is to really honor the culture and cuisine of Singapore and have some fun in the kitchen.”
Tim Ebner is an award-winning food and travel writer. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Eater, Thrillist, Travel & Leisure, and Edible DC. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.