She’s bringing ‘a slice of Singapore’ to London: Ellen Chew on why her new restaurant Singapulah is about more than just food from the Lion City

Apart from the unavailability of certain ingredients, changing perceptions of Singaporean cuisine were also a challenge for the restaurateur back then.

Singapula occupies a large, three-storey space in London’s Chinatown. Photo: Singapulah

“At first, we found it tricky introducing our concept to the London audience as some of the dishes were unfamiliar. When we first opened Rasa Sayang we served whole fish and people freaked out,” she says.

“I quickly noticed we appealed to students, so I’d serve huge portions so they’d share our story with others and come back with their friends. Those students are now professionals and bring their children, the next generation, to eat with us.”

An assortment of traditional Singaporean dishes at Singapulah. Photo: Singapulah

The restaurant marked the start of her Chew On This culinary portfolio that has grown to 15 venues, including Mrs Chew’s Chinese Kitchen, Arôme Bakery, and Chinese fusion restaurant Shan Shui, a nostalgic concept for Chew that draws on memories of her mother dancing in Shanghai during the ’30s.

Chew’s company now employs around 300 people and in 2023 she was named one of the Women of the Year by London restaurant authority Code Hospitality – for her community building and advocacy of Southeast Asian gastronomy in the UK.

Opening the 100-seater Singapulah is another level, however, for the restaurateur who grew up in a public housing estate in Singapore’s Geylang district. The concept is supported, in part, by Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Brand Office, with promotional support from the Singapore Tourism Board.

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There are three floors, starting with the casual kopitiam-style coffee shop on the ground floor where diners can also grab and go. The distinct feeling of Singapore continues upstairs, where diners can sit down for cocktails and escape the busy streets of Chinatown and Soho outside.

Lastly, Chew describes the basement as “totally different”, with a speakeasy entrance to a very intimate space that runs as another dining floor but also a private area for events.

Design touches are personal, relating to Chew’s upbringing.

We’re trying to bring Singapore culture, cuisine and heritage, serving unique Singapore dishes

Ellen Chew

The walls alongside the staircase have photos of Singapore through the ages, and there are bespoke chessboard tables that call to mind those used “by the uncles back in Singapore”. Small figurines positioned throughout depict Singaporean chicken sellers and hairdressers, while the space also features Singapore artists and ceramicists.

All the food on the menu incorporates products from Singaporean manufacturers.

“It’s a lot easier to create [the dishes] using authentic ingredients. We have 13 manufacturers coming on board, such as chilli fish balls from Dodo, sambal chilli from Kwong Cheong Thye, or Mao Shan Wang durian ice cream by Udders,” Chew says.

Chew has also hired a Singaporean chef who formerly ran his own restaurant in the Lion City’s Boat Quay district, but she remains hands-on, stressing that she is with him every day, throughout the day.

Laksa is a must-have menu item at Singapulah. Photo: Singapulah

“Making the bak chor mee [minced pork noodles], you need a proper chef,” she says. “We’re not working with any paste manufacturers, everything is made in-house and the ingredients are far superior from what you can get in London. We are also reinventing, for example using silver pin noodles instead of vermicelli in our laksa.”

Her obsession with crafting the best versions of dishes came from growing up in Singapore. Chew was always interested in food, trying different things and watching her mother and grandmother at work.

“In the [public housing estate] you have a lot of neighbours and in that environment you’re mostly in the kitchen. You always cook with the thought of making things to let your neighbours try,” Chew says. “Singaporeans eat all day, five times a day.

Bak chor mee, a dry noodle dish with pork, is one of Ellen Chew’s favourite Singaporean dishes. Photo: Singapulah

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had time, trying to make the best food with the least amount of money. When not working, my mom would make rice dumplings – not just 10 for us, but 200 for the neighbours.”

Chew hopes that she can bring that same feeling of community with Singapulah, while also helping to change perceptions of Singapore.

“I just wanted to bring a slice of Singapore culture as a lot of people don’t know it – it’s such a small red dot [on the map],” she says. “We need to shout a bit louder, educate people, so food is the talking point.

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“Everything is authentic: the decor, culture, retail, carrier bags, even the packs of tissues we use to chope [reserve] tables at night markets and hawker centres. The market is right as people are looking for authenticity and new experiences. The time is right to shout.”

Singapulah isn’t the first spot trying to bring authentic Singaporean flavours to London. A number of places have tried to do the same, but Chew says her mission is about more than just recreating tastes.

“We’re trying to bring Singapore culture, cuisine and heritage, serving unique Singapore dishes and food but also telling the story of how Singapore has changed since independence, from the 1960s until now.

“It’s about how we transitioned from a kampong fishing village to where we are now – a place for innovation and technology. We’ll bring out the tastes of the dishes by telling the story.”


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