Funky mojo. Magic fairy dust. This is the lingo you find yourself using when referring to the excellent spice mixes made at Thevar.
Chef and co-owner Manogren Thevar himself oversees the making of these near-magical blends. Open the treasure trove that is his spice cabinet and you’ll find neatly-packed containers. This apothecary is filled with smoky black and green cardamom pods, pearly coriander seeds, fiery red chillies, and too many more to list. Twice a week, Mano toasts the spices to coax out their natural flavours before putting them to the grind.
He might have sharpened his skills in the kitchens of Guy Savoy and Waku Ghin, but the Penang-born Thevar is a hawker boy at heart. His go-to comfort foods are chicken rice (with extra chilli), and Hainanese chicken chop from Uno Beef House in Toa Payoh.
When he opened Thevar in late October last year, the 30-year-old chef bought ready-made spice blends. But he quickly found himself eschewing the “very powdery” spice blends for their lack of punch.
“I have a friend who runs a spice mill in JB, and I thought I could get him to make a spice blend for me. That’s when he told me that some places use hay in the spices they make,” says Mano. The hay acts as a filler for mass-produced spice mixes that have to be made in large quantities.
“Garam masala usually doesn’t carry much heat. But I feel that chilli padi adds a deeper complexity, some umami”, he says.
Working with nuances
At Thevar, the garam masala appears in chicken chettinad, the classic South Indian dish. The tender bird is marinated in yogurt, turmeric and a paste of red chillies. It’s a dish Mano fell in love with when he took a month off last August to travel to India. There, he ate his way from the North to the South of the country.
“The chettinad I ate in Chennai was so different from what you’ll get here in Singapore. It’s a lot punchier, and it’s not overwhelmingly spicy like the ones here,” says Mano.
“Many people think Indian food is very spicy, but that actually masks the true flavours of the dish,” he says.
“The trick to spices is to make a blend where you can taste the different flavours of each spice, not just overpowering heat.”
The same magic comes through in another dish of pork belly wrapped in betel leaf, a crisp, golden sleeve that yields soft, buttery flesh in the perfect ratio of fat to meat.
“In the beginning, we used pork cheek for this dish, but it was a lot of fat and very little meat,” says Mano. “I got the idea to use pork belly instead when I ordered sio bak rice at the coffee shop, and saw it has just the right balance,” he says.
The rich, unctuous meat is laced with dollops of coconut sambal and Mano’s housemade fish curry spice blend, which adds a tanginess to the dish. It’s a masterful show of how this 30-year-old chef controls the nuances.
He says: “I want people to come in for comfort food and be able to enjoy the taste at just the right spice levels. I make a spice that can do more than whatever they can get elsewhere.”
9 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089117
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