Singapore’s Peranakan eateries keeping up with the times, while staying rooted in tradition
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SINGAPORE, July 16 — Peranakan cuisine is often associated with pricier restaurants, but this may soon change as more eateries offering the heritage food are opting to go the casual route.
In the last year, at least seven Peranakan eateries have opened and more than half have chosen to go casual and mid-range.
Family-style restaurant PeraMakan (Level 3 Keppel Club, 10 Bukit Chermin Road), opened casual dining outlet, Tingkat PeraMakan in February this year. Recalling how her first venture in the food business in 2003 – a Peranakan stall in China Square food court – did not work out because of poor profits, executive chef Kathryn Ho said that the market then was not well-versed in what Peranakan food really is.
“More than 10 years ago, the market was not ready for casual dining options for Peranakan food because people simply thought of it as Malay nasi padang. So only those who knew about Peranakan food sought out restaurants serving it,” she said.
But in 2008, the Mediacorp drama series Little Nonya aired and it piqued interest in Peranakan culture and traditions really took off, said Ho. “People started to get interested to learn more and gain greater understanding of what our food is really like, its preparation and what makes it so special.”
Besides a growing interest and awareness of Peranakan culture and food, some restaurateurs at the same time also saw a need to branch out and seek other profit-making opportunities in leaner times. Higher-end restaurants like True Blue Cuisine (47/49 Armenian Street) saw a drop in patrons as a result of belt-tightening in the recent economic slowdown. Add to that the labour crunch, rising food and rental costs, executive chef and managing director Benjamin Seck decided to look towards volume sales of simpler, less labour-intensive fare in a casual setting.
When an opportunity for a collaboration with the Peranakan Museum for a casual eatery came up, Seck took it on, along with the proffered space — a shop just two doors down from his flagship restaurant — and True Blue Space, a cafe-style eatery opened in April this year. The eatery is able to draw customers with wallet-friendly food offerings to “keep the cashflow going”, especially crucial in any food and beverage business in such times, said Seck. Its offerings (local favourites with a Peranakan flavour like laksa and curry chicken and simple fare like sandwiches) cater not just to museum visitors, but also the working crowd looking for home-cooked fare in comfortable, quiet surroundings.
Keeping with tradition
The culinary arts is often in a constant tug of war between modern fusion and heritage food. In Nonya cuisine, it seems like leading Peranakan eateries still have one foot firmly planted in tradition even as it keeps up with food trends.
Recently awarded a Michelin star for the second consecutive year, Candlenut is the first Peranakan restaurant worldwide to have ever received one. Its executive chef Malcolm Lee, who grew up on his Nonya grandmother’s home-cooked fare like ayam buah keluak shares that he takes his cue of “applying a modern sensibility to tradition” from her.
According to Lee, his grandmother saw how the keluak nuts, which take a lot of effort and time to prepare, would often go to waste when family members would sometimes take a bite and then leave the rest untouched. “Even at 90, she was still open to evolving recipes and decided to blend the nuts into the sauce, infusing flavour while making it rich and thick, and that’s how I make my buah keluak in the restaurant too.”
Furthermore, when it comes to food – perhaps even more so with Peranakan cuisine – the notion of authenticity itself is subjective.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to what is genuine Peranakan food, said PeraMakan’s Ho, because it originated from home kitchens. “So how it is cooked depends on who taught you and also how versatile and fussy you are.”
Roy Tan, chef and restaurant manager of Daisy’s Dream Kitchen, agreed. “Different families have different styles. For example the ngoh hiang that we serve in our restaurant can be traced back to my maternal grandmother’s hometown in Fujian, China where they make it in the shape of balls instead of the usual rolls.”
True Blue’s Seck said that experimenting with fusion dishes is a refreshing change, otherwise Peranakan food as it is would be stagnant. Some modern takes on traditional fare in True Blue Cuisine’s menu include jantung pisang or banana blossoms tossed in a salad with a coconut and sambal belachan dressing and prawns cooked in a curry fish head style.
Finding modern interpretations of traditional foods is also on Lee’s mind. He has embarked on a two-year journey researching the science behind tried-and-tested traditions and recipes. “In the past, the aunties will just say that this combination of ingredients or this particular brand works. But why? What is it about this particular brand of taucheo — is it the fermentation process or salt content, or the type of soy beans? It’s the same with French cooking, they use a particular vinegar or they boil the stock in a certain way, roasting the bones according to a certain recipe. I think we can apply that to our cuisine too,” Lee said.
Putting a different twist on food does not mean it lacks authenticity. As Daisy’s Dream Kitchen’s Tan puts it: “Is it traditional? It is to me because it’s my grandma’s food and we’ve grown up eating it all our lives.”
Wallet-friendly Peranakan eateries
Charlie’s Peranakan Food (B1-30 Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road; Daily 11:30-7:30pm; Tel: 9789 6304; www.facebook.com/charliesperanakanfood)
Ala carte dishes range from ayam buah keluak (S$12) and ayam pongteh (S$8) and babi pongteh (S$12)
Daisy’s Dream Kitchen (Blk 517 West Coast Road, #01-57; Daily 11-3pm &6-10pm; Tel: 6779 1781; www.facebook.com/daisysdreamkitchen)
Lunch set meals (S$9.80 to S$15.80) consist of one main with rice, one side like chap chye, a soup and emping belinjo crackers; top up S$1 to add a drink. Ala carte menu items include babi buah keluak (S$15) and black ink sotong (S$12).
Tingkat PeraMakan (119 Owen Road, Daily 11-3pm & 6-10pm, closed on Mondays, Tel: 9291 3474, www.peramakan.com)
Set meals – one main like ayam buah keluak, two sides like chap chye or chincalok omelette and rice, drink and dessert – range from S$10 to S$15. Ala carte menu items range from their signature beef rendang (S$10) to ikan garam masala (S$12) or soups like itek tim (S$3) and noodles like nyonya assam laksa (S$7.80). They also have a dessert stall in City Square Mall food court, Desserts PeraMakan, with options such as nonya green bean soup, bubur hitam and bubur terigu from S$2.
Tok Panjang Peranakan Cafe (392 East Coast Road, Weekdays 10-3pm, 5-9:30pm; Sat & Sun 9-9:30pm, closed on Mondays; Tel: 6738 1683; www.houseof peranakan.com.sg)
Under the House of Peranakan group of restaurants, this casual eatery features classic Peranakan snacks like kueh pie tee (S$6.50 for 4) and ngoh hiang (S$5.50), you can also find must-haves like buah keluak pork ribs (S$12), babi pongteh assam (S$8) and ikan tempra (S$10). Set meals (one main, one vegetable side and a soup) are S$12.90.
A second outlet (#01-03 Dorsett Residences, 331 New Bridge Road, Daily, 10-9:30pm ; Tel: 6538 4475) opened a month ago.
True Blue Space (51 Armenian Street; Daily 10-7pm (Fridays until 9pm); Tel: 6265 7398; www.truebluecuisine.com)
Lunch-time meals like laksa, mee siam or chicken curry with rice or bread are S$6.50, sandwiches (S$3.50) with fillings like otah or crab-meat; kueh (S$2); and coffee or tea (S$2). — TODAY