When Singaporean chef Pearly Teo, 36, was deliberating what to name the restaurant she was opening in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, she took inspiration from a keepsake her late grandmother left her: An old glass soft drink bottle filled with red saga seeds.
Her grandmother had loved collecting the little heart-shaped seeds when they fell off their trees, filling her house with them, and when she died a decade ago, she left bottles of saga seeds for each of her grandchildren.
Relatably for Gothenburg’s restaurant-going population, “Saga” is also a Swedish girls’ name and the name of a goddess in Norse mythology. And, of course, in English, it also refers to an epic story.
Teo had moved to Gothenburg 10 years ago to be with her Swedish ex-boyfriend, whom she’d met through online gaming when she was a university student in Australia. While the relationship hasn’t lasted, she has built a blossoming career for herself in the restaurant scene – all without formal culinary education.
On Teo’s tasting-only menu are dishes like kombujime zander dressed with assam dashi, with pickled coriander seeds and kohlrabi; Swedish mussels with fermented potato and curry; and Jasmine milk tea ice cream with gula melaka, vanilla cake and apples from a local farmer.
Flavours like calamansi, which she uses in a palate-cleansing sorbet, are novel for Swedes, but she does try not to jolt diners too much. “I haven’t done anything too spicy,” she said, quipping, “Cili padi is probably not going to fly.”
While guests who are from or have lived in Southeast Asia recognise and appreciate the flavours, she’s also had to explain the cuisine to some of the other guests. “They might have heard of Singapore but don’t know what the food culture is like”, or even draw a blank on where Singapore is. “People who know think of Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab. It’s also hard to explain to them that I am not going to make chicken rice, chilli crab or laksa.”
She then interned for fine dining Japanese-Swedish restaurant VRA, a Michelin Guide restaurant, and mentioned to the head and sous chefs that she was thinking about going to a culinary school in Sweden. “They both said, ‘We went to that school. Honestly, if you work with us, you’re going to learn so much more.’” She remained there for two years, travelling and working at other restaurants while VRA was closed for summer vacations and learning what she could. “I’m very grateful because they’re such a known restaurant here – having worked with them also put me on map for a lot of other restaurants,” Teo acknowledged.
It was also at VRA that she met her Swedish best friend, who is now her sous chef at Saga. “After we left, we went to different restaurants but I always knew I wanted to work with her again.”
The more she worked in fine dining, the more she thought about doing something she could call her own. In this sphere, “You tend to meet more chefs who are interested in the food, how it tastes, the quality of the dishes”, she said. Additionally, “What drew me to fine dining was the creative aspect of it, like plating – making the food taste good and also look good.” She was also studying a lot, dreaming up dishes and experimenting with fermentation. “If I’m doing so much for someone else, I might as well do it for my own restaurant,” she reasoned.
THE SAGA BEGINS
Some of the dishes are inspired by her family’s home-cooked food, like the zander with assam dashi. “My mum cooked an assam fish curry, which is why I’ve associated fish with tamarind,” she said. Additionally, “my family is Teochew, so we ate fish every day growing up.”
Another dish was born from her love of fried Hokkien mee. “We don’t have the big shrimps in Sweden, but I’ve made a steamed egg custard with squid sauce and garlic, based on Hokkien mee flavours.” The dish also uses seasonal squid, sliced into noodles.
The dessert of milk tea ice cream, which features gula melaka, is inspired by bubble tea. “I carried 5kg of gula melaka back with me from Singapore” for its sake, she laughed.
She also works with a local farmer who grows seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs. “Recently, she started growing laksa leaves,” Teo said. “I learned this year that laksa leaves are also called Vietnamese coriander. I’m trying to make my own laksa paste right now. That’s going to be on the near future menu. I’m not going to make a traditional laksa, but I’m going to try to make it in some form of sauce, with seafood.”
She’s had to learn about Swedish seasonal produce, the culture of using a lot of root vegetables and even the names of different fishes in Swedish (she understands the language but uses English to communicate). “In Singapore, we get things all year round. In Sweden, asparagus season, for example, is such a big thing because you get it only once a year in the spring, and it tastes nothing like what I’ve ever had in Singapore.”
In line with trying to be sustainable, she tries to keep locally unavailable products like rice and calamansi to a minimum, while challenging herself to stay true to “the flavours I remember and want to use”.
Often, that means making her own ferments and sauces from scratch. “I make my own miso, fish sauce and oyster sauce,” she said. “I’m trying to make a Swedish soya sauce using only Swedish ingredients – it’s based on yellow peas and wheat. Since soya beans are not grown here, I’ve been experimenting with local beans. It’s almost ready – it takes one year.”
Needless to say, her pantry is filled with jars of ferments, and her home with books on fermentation. “I have friends who said, ‘You’re going to ferment anything not bolted to the floor.’”
She also goes foraging regularly, picking mushrooms and edible herbs.
What is staff meal at Saga like? Often, “Fish noodle soup, the milky one. Since we have fish bones all the time, they make a good base.” She also wants her co-workers to “taste what a more typical Singaporean dish would taste like”.
Teo said her parents visited her before the restaurant opened and are planning to visit again soon. “In typical Asian parent fashion, they won’t say they’re proud of me directly, but they have video called to ask how everything is going at the restaurant,” she shared. “I think that’s their way of saying it.”
Restaurant Saga is at Aschebergsgatan 26, Gothenburg, Sweden.