Peranakan cuisine: Devouring Singapore’s original fusion food

Peranakan cuisine: Devouring Singapore’s original fusion food

Overlooked by many, Peranakan is a delicious mashup of Malay and Chinese culinary traditions
Ngoh hiang, a five-spice meat roll.

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Despite Singapore’s rise as a world-class food destination, Peranakan cuisine remains overlooked by travelers who come in search of pocket-friendly street food or buzzy new restaurants.

A shame, seeing as it's actually Singapore's oldest fusion cuisine.

And arguably its finest.

“To understand the cuisine, one has to first appreciate how the Peranakan culture evolved,” says Peter Wee, president of the Peranakan Association of Singapore and author of "A Peranakan Legacy."

“Peranakan culture had its ancestry from Malacca even before Singapore was founded.”

According to Wee, 15th- and 16th-century Chinese immigrants settled down in Malacca and adopted aspects of the local culture.

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The White Houses' silky-smooth Penang otah features an egg-and-coconut milk custard surrounding a sea bass fillet.Their descendants, referred to as Peranakans ("baba" refers to Peranakan men, "nonya" to Peranakan women), not only developed a unique language (Baba Malay, a mix of Malay and Hokkien) but also created their own unique culture.

This is manifested in the eclectic East-meets-West Peranakan architecture, elaborate Peranakan pottery and exquisite fashion of beaded embroideries, kebaya and shoes.

What is Peranakan cuisine?

After formation of the Straits Settlements (a British colony comprising Singapore, Penang and Malacca), Peranakan culture proliferated as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans) flocked to these cities.

“Although Chinese immigrants embraced Malay practices as well as doses of British, Indian and Thai influences, the Peranakan culture is anchored on the Chinese culture,” says Wee.

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And so is the food. 

“Dishes like chap chye (stewed vegetables) and babi pongteh (braised pork with fermented soya beans) are classic Chinese dishes commonly offered by Peranakans at the altar for ancestor worship during qingming (or tomb-sweeping day),” says Wee.

According to book "Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia," by David Wu and Chee Beng Tan, Peranakan food is a result of Chinese utilizing both Chinese and non-Chinese cultural principles as well as local ingredients in preparing food.

In the early days, nonyas in Singapore worked with ingredients indigenous to Malay culture, such as turmeric, galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass and tamarind, a combination of which forms the basis of rempah, a heady spice mixture at the core of nonya cooking.

A case in point is ayam buah keluek, probably Singapore's most iconic Peranakan dish. Chicken stewed with buah keluak, it includes an earthy Indonesian black nut, and a complex rempah paste made with blended shallots, garlic, galangal, turmeric, candlenut, lemongrass and belachan.

Ready to give it a try? Here are some of the best restaurants serving Singapore's oldest cuisine.  

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Chilli Padi Nonya Restaurant

Chilli Padi does traditional Nyonya with dishes like cabbage rolls, curry fish head and chilli shrimp.Colorful dishes.

Authentic recipes.

Helpful staff.

A lively neighborhood that transports visitors to a Singapore of old, with traditional shop houses, street stalls and the click-clack of mahjong tiles.

Add affordable prices and an array of flavorful dishes -- cabbage rolls and curry fish head are fan faves -- and it’s easy to understand why this atmospheric Chilli Padi Nonya Restaurant in the Joo Chiat area has built a loyal following of locals and even out of towners who keep coming back for spice and flavor combinations found nowhere else.

Chilli Padi, 11 Joo Chiat Place #01-03 Katong, Singapore 427744 Singapore; +65 6275 1002

Candlenut

A Candlenut star -- sous-vide beef short rib smothered in a rich coat of buah keluak. Candlenut stands out from the clutch of Peranakan restaurants in Singapore not least because it's helmed by 31-year-old Malcolm Lee.

It serves non-classical Straits Chinese dishes prepared with Western techniques.

Dishes like sous-vide beef short rib smothered in a rich coat of buah keluak (Indonesian black nut) puree and chap chye (mixed vegetables) in prawn stock gravy are exemplary of Lee’s talents.

So is his outstanding steamed banana cake with warm caramelized banana and gula Melaka ice cream on a bed of ginger crumble.

Candlenut, 331 New Bridge Road #01-03 Dorsett Residences, Singapore 088764 Singapore; +65 8121 4107

Indocafe The White House

For Penang-style Peranakan fare, Indocafe is a star. Plugging a gap in the market, Indocafe dishes out Penang-style Peranakan in an elegant wood-and-rattan setting that harkens to the colonial era.

In addition to an assam laksa that showcases the cuisine’s Thai-Chinese influences, the restaurant serves rarely seen creations like kerabu bok nee (black fungus and shredded chicken tossed in sambal dressing) and the silky-smooth Penang otah (chawanmushi-like egg-and-coconut milk custard with a piece of sea bass fillet ensconced within).

Complementing these are classics like itek tim and babi pongteh, as well as modern creations like buah keluak fried rice.

Indocafe the white house, 35 & 35A Scotts Road, Singapore 228228 Singapore; +65 6733 2656

 

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Originally published September 2013. Updated March 13, 2015​

Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in Destin Asian, Travel + Leisure SEA and Conde Nast Traveller. For a collection of her gourmet jaunts, visit www.bibikgourmand.com.

Read more about Evelyn Chen

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