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ALMOST every morning, Bob Seah wakes up early and heads to the wet market for seafood, followed by a trip to Geylang Serai to pick up spices and herbs. He then goes into the kitchen and spends the next two hours cooking up a storm. It's a ritual that this Peranakan patriarch has kept for the past 30-odd years, ever since he started Peranakan Inn in Katong in 1985.
Except now, Mr Seah runs more than just one establishment - he has four. This sprightly 75-year-old is the founder of House of Peranakan Group of restaurants, which has outlets in Katong, Frankel Avenue and the Tiong Bahru area.
He is one of the few pioneering Peranakan restaurateurs who have built a reputation for serving authentic dishes in all their hearty, saucy glory. Their restaurants used to draw round-the-block queues back in the 1980s and '90s, but since then business has just been chugging along steadily, except for a surge in 2008 following the popular Channel 8 drama series The Little Nyonya.
Many see these older restaurants as recession-proof businesses, but Mr Seah acknowledges the need to adapt this heritage cuisine to suit both the worldly palates and fickle whims of Singapore's youth.
"We want to make the cuisine accessible to a new generation of customers," he says. Which is why his latest casual concept - Tok Panjang Peranakan Cafe, which launches this week along East Coast Road - serves bites and set meals at lower price points of S$5 to S$11, albeit still made from scratch from traditional recipes. He even allows his daughter Bee Leng, 38, to update some of his dishes, even though he is personally resistant to the idea.
"We have a lot of discussion - even arguments - because my father doesn't believe in fusion food or serving watered-down dishes," says Ms Seah. Nevertheless, compromises have been made, with dishes such as a "scallop lemak" (S$26) made with premium shellfish instead of fish cake - a hit with younger customers. They aren't the only ones who have evolved their food over the years. Blue Ginger Restaurant (founded in 1995) boasts cleaner, sleeker flavours while being rooted in authentic home recipes. "We use less oil and salt where possible, and reduce the level of spiciness slightly," says Susan Teo, 62, one of the original founders. Ingredients such as petai beans or chinchalok are also avoided or downplayed, as they are acquired tastes, she adds.
Such tweaking is done with care however, because like many others, Ms Teo believes that some things are just not to be messed with. "Traditional cuisines have longer lifespans, compared to fads; we can modernise the look and presentation of the dishes, but never compromise on the taste," she says.
That's why when they decided to expand two years ago with a casual, younger brand, they went with the rice-bowl concept May May that mixes Japanese, Korean and Chinese influences with local ingredients. "We moved away from Peranakan food for such a modern Asian concept because we don't wish to mess with traditional recipes," says Ms Teo. Other players however, take a far bolder approach to modernisation. For instance, Japanese eatery Ippin Cafe Bar recently added Peranakan-Japanese dishes to their menu. Consulting chef Philip Chia keeps the Nonya dishes recognisable, but replaces ingredients with Japanese components, such as dashi instead of fish stock for the laksa, or miso instead of taucheo (fermented soya bean paste) for the pong tahu (beancurd meatball soup).
These tweaks are inspired by Japanese home cooking, which often adapts foreign cuisine by making dishes healthier. However, chef Chia draws the line at messing with Peranakan spice pastes, which he says must be properly fried. "The spices cannot be compromised. A rempah has to be a rempah," he says.
Similarly, chef Malcolm Lee of the modern Peranakan restaurant Candlenut has no qualms about making things like buah keluak ice cream - as opposed to the famous Peranakan black nut stew - as long as it adds up to a better experience for his guests. And the fact that his six-year-old restaurant still hits full capacity most nights is testament to the adventurous appetites of diners here, he says.
"I think it's just about having an open mind. If the traditional method works, and creates the best flavour and texture, then do it. If modern techniques allow you to create better tastes or textures, then do that. There's no limit to how far you should innovate. At the end of the day, we just have to put something that is tasty on the plate," says the 32-year-old. While chef Lee opts for culinary innovation, others are changing the business model entirely. Zan Ho, 32, is the third-generation owner of restaurant Dulukala, and he's adding scalable concepts to the family business.
While he doesn't mess with traditional recipes at their 17-year-old flagship, he has opened franchisable brands such as O'nya Sayang in 2011 at Tampines Mall, and Nya Nya Cafe at International Plaza in February this year. These concepts boast streamlined business models and lower price points - a central kitchen supplies to both.
"How many people of my age, in my generation, know how to cook Peranakan food, and if not, what happens next?" muses Mr Ho, who spent three years in the kitchen before taking over the reins.
"I think everybody has a very bad impression of expanding and scaling Peranakan food, but I always explain to them that if you don't, how many restaurants will survive in the next 10 years? It's about striking a balance and keeping the culture alive," he says.
Claymore Connect, #02-01/17
442 Orchard RoadOpen 11am-10pm daily
Raymond Khoo has dabbled in French, Indian, and Spanish cuisine during his 30 years in F&B, and even hawker food concepts such as Rasa Singapura in Macau. But this 52-year-old Peranakan chef and consultant has never whipped out the family recipes, not until now.
Just this week, his latest project, simply named The Peranakan, opens at Claymore Connect. This 130-seater spans about 3,000 square feet, a S$600,000 investment that returns the entrepreneur to his roots.
"I'm semi-retired and getting bored, but I was thinking I should do one more cuisine for the books," says Mr Khoo, who has been cooking Peranakan dishes for friends and family for 10 years.
It took a fair amount of convincing before the bibiks in his family would relinquish the recipes. "If you want to learn, you watch - if you touch anything in the kitchen, they will scold you for spoiling their dish," he laughs. "Every Peranakan household has different palates and recipes, and any true-blue Peranakan will insist that their mom's cooking is the best."
That's why he sticks to the family recipes, no gimmicks or fusion elements allowed. "I won't serve a salad with a rendang, or do wagyu rendang, which spoils both the wagyu and the rendang."
Expect soups such as itek tim (duck and salted vegetable; S$7) and bakwan kepiting (crabmeat, prawn and meat balls with bamboo shoots; S$9), or classic mains such as udang gala rempah nenas (prawns in pineapple gravy; S$27) and satay babi (pork belly satay; S$19).
There are also sharing platters called "tok panjang" menus (referencing traditional long-table banquets) at S$45 and S$65. These feature signature items like ngoh hiang, kueh pie tee, beef rendang, and even nasi ulam, a cold rice and herbs salad that's rarely seen these days - even in Peranakan restaurants.
While Mr Khoo keeps the recipes traditional, he's also come up with degustation menus at S$188 or S$288 (requires one-week advance booking) to cater to the corporate crowd. "Some have told us excitedly that they can finally entertain their clients with local food here now!" he says.
He hopes these tasting menus will also draw foreigners and expatriates. It's all about plating and portioning, while controlling the direction of the tasting, he says, which makes the cuisine less intimidating for foreign palates.
"Sometimes, foreign guests may love the dishes but they get overwhelmed with all the flavours in communal Peranakan dining, and they don't know what they are eating," says Mr Khoo, who is in fact prepping the restaurant for an American couple's wedding next week.
Future plans include Peranakan cafes in the vein of Toast Box or Hong Kong cafes, with dishes averaging S$10. "Peranakan is going casual, going hip, and it's becoming more accessible," says Mr Khoo. "Currently, you can only have say, buah keluak if you go to a proper restaurant. With a cafe concept, you can have buah keluak any time."
Expect playful spins at these cafes, such as coconut linguine instead of coconut cream in traditional desserts like pulut hitam or chendol.
By Tan Teck Heng
Chong Wen Ge cafe
168 Telok Ayer Street
Open Mon to Fri, 7.30am-6pm, Sat and Sun, 9am-6pm
CHONG Wen Ge cafe is a doorway to the past. The first thing that greets you is a three-story pagoda, right smack in the centre of a stone courtyard. Look to the left, and you'll find the cafe's indoor seating area, complete with old-school wooden furniture on a Peranakan-tiled floor. It's all part of the Thiam Hock Keng temple complex - one of the oldest Hokkien temples in Singapore which is also considered a national monument.
So it's only apt that you won't be finding things such as waffles, eggs Benedict, or truffle fries on their menu. Instead, what you will find is simple, no-frills servings of local heritage food, with a little more emphasis on Peranakan cuisine since one of the cafe's founders is of Peranakan descent. That means dishes such as Nonya Curry Chicken (S$9.80), Nonya Mee Siam (S$6.80), and Nonya Laksa (S$8.80), alongside Satay Bee Hoon (S$8.80) and Sambal Prawns with Rice (S$8.90).
"Our cafe's founders wanted to raise awareness about our cultural roots, that's why they didn't want to focus on things such as cappuccinos or lattes, they wanted kopi. And I'm pleasantly surprised that we sell about 10 cups of traditional kopi for every cup of 'modern' coffee," says Grace Soh, who does marketing and design for the cafe, and is the daughter of one of the founders.
She explains that the 30-seater cafe was started just three weeks ago by a group of friends - all middle-aged adults with their own day jobs. Since most of them preferred to be silent shareholders, Ms Soh runs the day-to-day operations together with just one of the shareholders - Sharlene Peh, who is in charge of the kitchen.
While Ms Peh is not a chef by training, she picked up her skills through experience as a home cook and from previously running her own cafe (now closed), plus some coaching from a friend who works as a professional consultant chef.
It's all about sincerity for them, says Ms Soh. "We don't claim to be an authentic Peranakan restaurant, but we try to convey sincerity through our food, service and ambience. We get feedback before we put new dishes on the menu, especially from people who are Peranakan. Because although we ourselves aren't Peranakan by blood, we want to try to make our food as honest as possible."
By Rachel Loi
Ippin Cafe Bar
18 Mohamed Sultan Road, #01-01
Open 12pm-11pm, Mon to Sat
PERANAKAN-JAPANESE food sounds totally bizarre, but Ippin Cafe Bar - a Japanese home-style eatery - is out to prove that "fusion" isn't necessarily a dirty word when it comes to culinary experimentation. This pairing isn't all that odd when you consider how much of Japanese food draws from unlikely sources - Castella cakes from the Portuguese, "wafu" pasta from the Italians, or Hamburg steaks from the Germans.
This 11/2 year-old restaurant only started introducing Peranakan-Japanese dishes this week, in collaboration with chef consultant Philip Chia. Chef Chia is a family friend to the Fujishiro family which owns Ippin, and they have worked together on various culinary events prior to this menu revamp. "We became very good friends, and he would use Japanese products like miso for Peranakan dishes and bring them to us for tasting - we found them so delicious," says marketing manager Ayumi Fujishiro, daughter of Ippin's chairman Masaki Fujishiro. "Chef Chia then suggested that we do it officially at the cafe, and we also always wanted to show how we can use Japanese ingredients in local cooking."
It's also her hope that the Peranakan additions to their menu will encourage their expatriate regulars - such as Japanese tai-tais - to be more adventurous when it comes to appreciating Singaporean food and culture.
"Many Japanese housewives here can't speak English and just hang out within the community; they are in Singapore but they only visit Isetan and Meidi-Ya, or go to Lau Pa Sat and claim they have been to hawker centres," says Ms Fujishiro, who has been here for two years. "It's so wasted; they are in Singapore - they should try more local food!"
On his end, chef Chia adapts traditional recipes so they are not too overwhelming. "I retain the essence of the Peranakan flavour, but make tweaks so it's a healthier choice and not too heavy. Miso for instance can be used over taucheo (fermented soya bean paste)," says chef Chia. Dashi is also to replace stock bases in dishes such as Nonya laksa with prawns and oysters (S$24) or pong tahu (beancurd meatball soup, S$10), resulting in lighter and cleaner flavours while keeping the fragrance. Meats in the tau yew bak (braised pork belly in a bun; S$10 for two) or the ayam goreng kunyit halia (fried chicken wings in turmeric and ginger; S$10 for five) are also marinated with sake and shoyu.
His fusion dishes are inspired by a trip to Yokohama in 2013: "I was intrigued by Japanese cooking: while some say it's bland in some ways, it's so much healthier with less salt, oil and sugar, so I feel we should adapt some of what they are doing."
While there are only five Peranakan items available currently, chef Chia will add five more dishes every month, with a grand total of 30 by the end of the year. Also in the pipeline: finger food or otsumami, to be paired with sake and beer. Expect canapes such as buah keluak caviar on wafers or papadum with satay babi.
By Tan Teck Heng