This interesting community in Singapore creates exciting food
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 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.
You can explore more about this interesting culture at The Peranakan Gallery at Orchard Road, and The Peranakan Museum at Armenian Street.
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 it out. It has a nutty, earthy, truffle-like taste, and a texture like mashed chocolate. For ayam buah keluak curry about 30 buah keluak nuts are cooked with a 1-kg chicken, lemongrass, turmeric, chilli, tamarind juce, onions and galangal, and thickened with ground candlenuts. The curry has an enticing black colour.
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). Mushroom and potato may be added.
Sotong assam pedas – Spicy tamarind squid curry. Assam pedas means ‘sour spicy’ in Malay referring to the light curry made with tamarind juice, shallots, lemongrass, polygonum leaves, turmeric, chilli and pineapple. Squid and other types of seafood make good assam pedas.
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. The ingredients can be as elaborate and as humble as you choose. Recipe on Recipe Page.
A Chat with Peranakans about their food heritage and culture:
Raymond Khoo – Founder and Executive Chef of The Peranakan restaurant, and Founder of The Peranakan Gallery
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 Did you inherit your recipes?
None of the recipes are mine. They have been handed down over the generations.
5 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.
6 Many young Peranakans give up on the recipes they were handed down from grandma because they are too elaborate and time-consuming to prep.
There is no shortcut in Peranakan food.
7 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.
8 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.
Christina Keilthy – Co-owner of Godmama Restaurant & Bar
1 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.
2 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. It is so difficult to find this dish in restaurants today and even in modern Peranakan homes. What other Peranakan dishes are slowly dying out?
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. Hopefully, Godmama can introduce these wonderful Nyonya flavours and get them interested again.
3 You and fellow Peranakan co-owner and head chef Fredric Goh aim to present modern and tradition of Peranakan cuisine. How did you two turn these timeless 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 it, let alone have tasted it.
4 What dishes of your Godma’s and Mama’s do you miss the most when you are away from home for work? Is there a book of family recipes you’d carry with you?
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 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. Even Godma had to get my help detailing the recipe for the Nyonya Food Competition back then. I’d have to weigh each ingredient and note down the process for submission. All the recipes are in their heads.
5 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. As I had mentioned earlier, Godmama can start by allowing them to have a place to explore and appreciate Peranakan food.
6 What top 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, of course. 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). For the latter, we switched it up by pan-searing the sea bass for a crisp skin to add texture.
Where to Eat
17A Dempsey Road, Singapore 249676
One Michelin star and the pleasant greenery of Dempsey draw foodies as chef/owner Malcolm Lee dishes out a mix of 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 fare such as Otak Benedict.
301 Upper Thomson Road, #02-44 Thomson Plaza, Singapore 574408
Authentic, homestyle Peranakan food that is decent and inexpensive.
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 famous Peranakan restaurant in Singapore for many years.
Ivins Peranakan Restaurant
21 Binjai Park, Singapore 589827
Homestyle food in a homestyle setting. The food comes out pretty fast. Favourites include rendang, babi pongteh and itek tim.
Violet Oon’s Kitchen
881 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 279893
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
#02-01 National Gallery Singapore
Singapore food personality and true blue Nonya, 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 classy wood furnishing. Her other restaurants Violet Oon Singapore at ION Orchard and Jewel Changi Airport serve a collection of Southeast Asian and colonial favourites rather than solely Nonya items.
The Blue Ginger
97 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