Singapore, Food –
Timeless culture in cuisine
AMANDA DOES NOT UNDERSTAND a word when her grandmother scolds her for being a lazy oaf. Nor does she want to spend hours in the kitchen pounding spice pastes or cooking ayam buah keluak (this one actually takes 2 days to prep). She is the young generation of the Peranakan, a fascinating community of mixed Chinese and Malay cultures. Her grandmother yells at her in a creole of Chinese Hokkien, Malay and English words. The recipes she has inherited but shuns are windows to some of the best food dishes in the world.
‘Peranakan’ means ‘local born’ in Malay. These are the offspring of Chinese traders, who settled in the trading ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang, and who married the local girls, many of whom are indigenous Malay. Their origins can be traced as far back as the 15th century in Sumatra, Indonesia. Peranakan males are called baba and the females, nonya. Little is known of the ‘other’ Peranakan communities – Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) and Eurasian Peranakans.
Adept in business, administration and trade many Peranakan Chinese were wealthy and held high status. In the British controlled Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang in the 19th century, they were influenced by the British colonialists and were also called the Straits Chinese. The Peranakans picked up English and worked for these ruling officials, boosting their socio economic status even higher.
The Peranakans in Singapore keep their Chinese surnames and Chinese cultural practices such as ancestor worship. They eat pork and wear baju kurong, and sarong kebaya, traditional attire of the Malays. Their homes, many of which are in the East Coast area, are colourful, and are highly decorated with symbolic embellishments and neo-classical forms – all aimed at showing off wealth and status.
In their kitchens, the skilled women produce outstanding dishes that have Chinese, Malay and western elements. They love their spice pastes known as rempah – a heady blend of chilli, ginger, lemongrass, onion, garlic and other herbs – that form the base of dishes like babi pongteh, ayam buah keluak, ikan bakar and assam pedas. They love tea time and gossip, and create wonderful desserts and colourful kueh (cakes and snacks) to entertain.
Favourite Peranakan Dishes
Ayam Buah Keluak – Buah keluak chicken curry. Buah keluak (Pangium edule) fruit comes from trees in mangrove swamps. It is poisonous, and made edible by a fermentation process, then soaking in water before cooking. A hole is made in the nut to reveal the black kernel, which we eat by scooping out. It has a nutty, earthy, truffle-like taste, and a texture like mashed chocolate. Ayam buah keluak curry has buah keluak nuts, chicken, lemongrass, turmeric, chilli, tamarind juce, onions and galangal, and is thickened with ground candlenut.
Rendang – Dry beef coconut curry. Adopted from the Malays, this slow cooked beef curry is made with coconut milk, dried chilli, garlic, onion, tamarind juice, gula melaka, turmeric leaf, galangal, lemongrass and kerisik (toasted grated coconut pounded to a paste).
Babi Pongteh – Braised pork with fermented soybean. Pork shoulder, trotters or belly is braised for hours till tender, with dark and light soy sauces, cinnamon, star anise, gula melaka, garlic, shallots, and fermented bean paste (taucheo).
Ikan Gerang Assam – Spicy sour fish curry. The light curry is made with tamarind juice, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chilli, ladies fingers and pineapple. Seafood makes good garam assam dishes.
Chap Chye – Mixed vegetable stew. Cabbage, jicama, carrot, beancurd sheets, mushroom, lily flower buds, wood ear fungus, glass cellophane noodles, garlic, dried prawn, pork belly and prawns stewed in fermented soy bean chicken stock.
Kueh Kueh – Cake and desserts are a must in the Peranakan food repertoire. Try kueh salat, coconut pandan custard sitting on glutinous rice; kueh kosui, grated coconut covered springy cake of tapioca starch, gula melaka and coconut; bubur pulut hitam, sweet porridge of black glutinous rice, sugar and coconut milk; kueh dadar, grated coconut with gula melaka rolled in a green crepe of coconut milk, pandan and egg.
Where to Eat
17A Dempsey Road, Singapore 249676
One Michelin star and the pleasant greenery of Dempsey draw foodies as chef/owner Malcolm Lee creates refined traditional and modernist Peranakan dishes. Try the assam sotong hitam, blue swimmer crab curry, wagyu beef rendang, ikan bakar, buah keluak fried rice and mao shan wang durian pengat.
Godmama Restaurant & Bar
109 North Bridge Road, Funan Mall, #04-07, Singapore 179105
Traditional and modern Peranakan, such as Fried Chicken Wings with Belacan Mayo. Interesting brunch items such as Otak Benedict.
442 Orchard Road, Level 2 Claymore Connect, Singapore 238879
Executive chef Raymond Khoo serves the recipes of his ancestral clan in a lovely setting. A favourite for years.
301 Upper Thomson Road, #02-44 Thomson Plaza, Singapore 574408
Authentic, homestyle Peranakan food that is decent and inexpensive.
Ivins Peranakan Restaurant
21 Binjai Park, Singapore 589827
Homestyle food in a homestyle setting. The food comes out fast so is ideal for busy lunches. Favourites include rendang, babi pongteh and itek tim.
Violet Oon’s Kitchen
881 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 279893
Singapore food personality Violet Oon serves Peranakan favourites like buah keluak ayam, sambal udang, babi assam and kueh pie tee. The interiors reflect Nonya chic with colourful tiles and wood furnishing. Also The National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery.
The Blue Ginger
88197 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088518
This Michelin Bib Gourmand family-run restaurant has been around for years serving favourites such as ngo hiang, babi pong tay, ikan masak assam gulai and ayam buah keluak. Its elegant setting in a shophouse makes it ideal for business luncheons.
86 East Coast Road, #01-01 Katong Square, Singapore 428788
Traditional favourites in a cosy setting.
Guan Hoe Soon
40 Joo Chiat Place, Singapore 427764
Established in 1953, Singapore’s oldest Peranakan restaurant serves an irresistable ayam buah keluak and other authentic dishes.
A Chat with Peranakans about their food heritage and culture:
Christina Keilthy – Co-owner of Godmama Restaurant & Bar
The restaurant is a tribute to Godma Monica and Mama June, doyennes of Peranakan food in your family. Tell us more about the Peranakan cooking culture they’ve passed on to you.
They are my role models when it comes to being a good host; the graciousness and kindness of opening our home to family, friends and strangers (friends of friends). I carried that culture with me when studying and working abroad. My mom (mama June) used to send me care packages of dried chillies and the like to me so I could recreate the family dinners – think curries and Mee Siam – with my friends.
Godma Monica won the first prize in the Nyonya Food Competition for her sambal jantong pisang (banana blossom salad) and one of the judges was the late Madam Chua Jim Neo, mother of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Is it difficult to find this dish out there?
While the sambal jantong pisang is not difficult to make, the ingredient isn’t commonly used and, therefore, there isn’t a steady supply of it. Other dishes you rarely see is the Itek Sio (Nyonya braised duck with tamarind and coriander) and Hati Babi Bungkus (liver wrapped with pig caul lining). My family would prepare them only during Chinese New Year, partly because it is so time consuming to make.
How do you and fellow Peranakan co-owner and head chef Fredric Goh turn timeless Peranakan recipes into contemporary interpretations?
What head chef Fredric has done is use quintessential Nyonya dishes and flavours and introduce them into brunch dishes people are familiar with. There’s the Babi Assam Baked Eggs (our take on Spanish Baked Eggs) and the Pulled Pork Pongteh Sunny using the same robust stews Godmama serves in the traditional lunch and dinner menu. We don’t tweak the flavours of the original dishes in any way.
Buah Keluak (black nut) is also introduced in the Buah Keluak Bolognese Pasta. It has got such a unique flavour (black chocolate-like bitterness, earthy and truffle-like) that not many people know about.
What dishes of your Godma’s and Mama’s do you miss the most when you are away from home? Is there a family recipe book?
Definitely the Ayam Buah Keluak. Getting buah keluak is impossible in Hawaii. It doesn’t grow there and there isn’t a demand for it. In Hong Kong, I could still get some from mom-and-pop Indonesian stores at Causeway Bay. There’s also the Kiam Chye Ark (salted mustard greens with duck soup). Not only was it hard to find fresh duck but was also involved tedious preparation work. There is, however, no book. My mom (Mama June) used to come over to Hong Kong to teach the helpers how to make Nyonya dishes from scratch. All the recipes are in their heads.
Is modernising Peranakan cuisine and making it simpler the only way to getting young Peranakans back into the kitchen in this fast-paced world?
Godmama started out as my way of getting more people (young or old) to appreciate Peranakan food. We’ve made the ambience contemporary and comfortable, making it incredibly accessible for people from all walks of life. I’d love for more young Peranakans to head back into the kitchen and continue the delicious legacy that is Nyonya food, but I do know we have to start slow.
What dishes should be introduced to someone who has never tried Peranakan food?
Start with the classics. Like our Ayam Buah Keluak, which comes with the actual black nuts. You are given a teaspoon to dig out the flavourful flesh inside the nut, put it on top of rice, chicken and gravy and enjoy. You’d also want to try the Babi Assam and Babi Pongteh, with rice. And, for seafood lovers, there is the Sotong Masak Hitam (squid cooked in squid ink and tamarind sauce) as well as the Ikan Gerang Assam (pan-seared sea bass in assam).
Raymond Khoo – Founder and Executive Chef of The Peranakan restaurant, and Founder of The Peranakan Gallery
The new Peranakan Gallery of yours centres on a beautiful Tok Panjang table with all its finery. How does this Tok Panjang symbolise your Peranakan culture?
‘Tok Panjang’ meaning ‘long table’, is a longstanding Peranakan tradition that welcomes friends and family to reunite over a spread of elaborate dishes. Popular with weddings, birthdays and welcoming dignitaries, it follows the European tradition of long tables instead of the Chinese that prefer round tables.
What are some of the must-have dishes for a Tok Panjang feast and does your restaurant The Peranakan, serve these items?
We have 2 versions of the ‘Tok Panjang’ served in the restaurant. A classic menu includes BakWan Kepiting soup, Buah Keluak, Babi Pongteh and Chap Chye, while the heritage menu serves dishes like Sup Tahu Titek, Sambal Pisang Jantung (heart of the banana flower), Hati Babi Bungkus, Itek Sioh and Nyonya Mee.
What makes a dish ‘authentic Peranakan’?
They are made with a lot of spices and not chillies. That’s the biggest misconception about Peranakan food. People associate it with Malay and Indian food where most of the dishes are spicy. However, authentic Peranakan dishes do not use any MSG, but lots of fresh spices and slow cooking methods to bring out the flavours. There is no shortcut in Peranakan food.
Did you inherit your recipes?
None of the recipes are mine. They have been handed down over the generations.
Which is your favourite?
My favourite is Buah Keluak be it cooked with chicken or pork ribs. I call it the Truffle of the East and many of our American and European guests love it too.
How do you relax after a hard day at work?
Relaxing after work means a small meal with homemade Sambal Belachan that has been made using a pestle and mortar.
If a young student tells you he wants to preserve and practise his Peranakan heritage what advice would you give?
I would ask them to join me in the kitchen for a day and if he/she can go through the rigour and painstaking methods we go through just to prepare a single dish, then he/she can be trained.
Story by Carol Kraal. Respective photographs courtesy of Godmama Restaurant & Bar, The Peranakan, Candlenut Kitchen.