By Huang Li Jie
These foodies know their otoro from chutoro, ask for chicken rice and prawn noodles from specific stalls, attend adult culinary classes and are barely over 15 years old.
Call it the rise of the kiddie gourmets.
In the last five years, everyone from restaurateurs and speciality food shops to culinary teachers and parents have noticed that more and more children and teenagers are becoming seriously interested in food.
Mr Willin Low, 36, chef-owner of Wild Rocket in Upper Wilkie Road, for example, was taken aback when he heard a 12-year-old diner explain to his parents that the Granny Smith apple in the restaurant's black pepper soft shell crab dish was meant to counter the spice and richness of the deep-fried crustaceans.
He says: 'I was quite impressed because there are adults who think the apple is for garnish only.'
Similarly, sushi chef Hideaki Yoshida, 57, of Sushi Yoshida in Devonshire Road notes that while Singaporean kiddie customers at his restaurant, some as young as five years old, may have trouble resting their feet on the ground when perched on the counter seats, they have no problems ordering sushi and sashimi in Japanese.
He says: 'They will ask for botan ebi (Japanese sweet shrimp), not prawn.'
Some of their palates are so well-honed that Ms Edith Lai, 38, director of operations for gourmet cheese store La Fromagerie in Jalan Merah Saga, says they are able to enjoy pungent cheeses that even some adults cannot appreciate.
And far from running amok in the restaurant, these budding gourmets are well-mannered and sit quietly savouring the food, says owner Ignatius Chan, 45, of fine-dining restaurant Iggy's in The Regent hotel.
'I recently received a hand-drawn card from a 10-year-old diner, saying that he enjoyed his meal at the restaurant very much,' he says.
For many of these young gastronomes, their interest in food stems from the basic, visceral pleasure of eating and a curiosity about the magic process of cooking.
Shannon Lee, 11, a Primary Five pupil at Rosyth School, finds great pleasure in dining and sometimes takes pictures of attractive-looking dishes and creates a slideshow on her computer to relive the dining experience.
Others such as Jessica Tan, 13, a Secondary One student at CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), have seen their interest in food evolve further.
The teenager says her gastronomic passion has grown from a love for eating and cooking into a deeper appreciation for the various cultures and history through food.
She keeps folders of recipes, some passed on from her Peranakan great-grandmother, while recipes for Thai and Malay dishes are clipped from newspapers and magazines.
Indeed, the growing presence of kiddie gourmets prompted Gordon Grill restaurant at Goodwood Park Hotel to launch a child degustation menu this month.
Its marketing communications manager, Ms Justina Loh, 29, says parents take their children to the restaurant's Michelin-star guest chef promotions and sophisticated young diners ask for seasonal produce such as white asparagus.
The new menu, with smaller portions for diners aged seven to 12, offers three- ($38) and six-course ($68) options.
The items are designed by executive chef Gan Swee Lai around dishes favoured by children, such as meatballs and pasta, albeit with a more refined taste profile. They include wagyu and foie gras meatballs, and angel-hair pasta with king crab and caviar.
The appreciation of good food among young gastronomes, however, is not limited to haute cuisine.
Mr Paul Liew, 28, manager of the popular zi char eatery, Keng Eng Kee Seafood in Bukit Merah Lane 1, says he has a regular customer in his early teens who often gives feedback on the taste of the food.
He says: 'What he says, like the sauce this time is richer than the last time, is usually found to be accurate after we do our own taste checks.'
Housewife Caroline Ang's son, Ethan, seven, is also able to tell the difference between his favourite prawn noodles in East Coast Road and inferior imitations.
Mrs Ang, 39, says: 'We once had prawn noodles in Thomson Road and Ethan said it was not nice and he didn't want to eat it again. That surprised me because I didn't think he could tell the difference or be that bothered about the taste of food.'
Indeed, housewife Sylvia Loi, 39, makes it a point to take her daughter Christy Loi, 10, to dine at both hawker centres and restaurants to prevent her from becoming a gourmet food snob.
She says: 'I don't want her to grow up thinking there is good food only at restaurants.'
So, the Primary 4 pupil at Singapore Chinese Girls' School is equally happy tucking into langoustine and fish beignets at Goodwood Park Hotel as she is eating char kway teow from Outram Park Char Kway Teow in Hong Lim Food Centre.
Mr Daniel Tay, 39, chief executive of Bakerzin which runs children's baking school Bakerzin Kids in UE Square, offers another suggestion.
He says: 'We always emphasise to the children who come to our classes that food that is cooked with love, passion and patience tastes best, rather than food that is bought from an expensive place.'
For many of these young gourmets, the love for food also extends to cooking.
Pearl Wee, 14, a Secondary 2 student at The School Of The Arts, who enjoys escargot as much as a good black soya sauce chicken, says she started cooking when she was seven, after she saw her parents whipping up tasty treats in the kitchen.
These days, she cooks the family dinner when her receptionist mother runs late at work and even makes her own caramel snack from scratch for tea time.
These serious kiddie cooks are not content to attend culinary lessons only during their school breaks either.
Ms Siti Mastura Alwi, 45, managing director of baking school Siti's Delights in North Bridge Road, says she had to lower the age limit for adult baking classes from 15 to 12 recently because her younger students wanted to continue taking classes after the school holidays, which is when the children's baking programmes end.
Muhammed Iylia, 15, a Grade 8 student at St Joseph's International who attends adult cooking classes, including a recent one on ice-cream making at Siti's Delights, says he has no problems learning in a classroom full of adults.
Ms Judy Koh, 45, managing director of cooking school Creative Culinaire in Eng Hoon Street which organises culinary classes for children, says: 'Gone are the days when the kids follow a recipe because the teacher says so, or because the recipe says so. Now, they want to know the hows and whys of baking, so we try to satisfy this hunger for knowledge.'
Ms Siti Mastura remembers a similar experience.
She says: 'I once had a student, about 12, who asked if she could use her grandfather's diabetic sugar to bake him a cake. This triggered a lot of interest and discussion among other children in the class.'
Associate Professor Vineeta Sinha of the sociology department at the National University of Singapore, who teaches a course on the sociology of food, says the rise of kiddie gourmets is an 'interesting trend', although it is expected in a developed country where 'eating has transcended the basic need for nutrition'.
She attributes the presence of young gastronomes to increased exposure to different cuisines readily available in eateries in Singapore, on holidays overseas and via TV shows.
She adds: 'While Singaporeans know their food and where to get good food, it would be nice to think that this sophisticated palate will translate into greater awareness about food, such as where the food they eat comes from, how much they should eat and what effect the food will have on their health.'
Well, the cooking classes organised by the People's Association might just help move the development of kiddie gourmets in that direction.
The theme for its cooking courses this year is Eating Healthy is Delicious, and children are taught to cook healthy meals and use healthier ingredients in their cooking.
Parents can help play a part too.
Human resource executive Appolina de Silva, 48, says: 'My 12-year-old son, Karl, likes to eat and cook, so we take him to farms on our holidays overseas to show him where the food he eats comes from.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.