Gourmet Trips

The Little Nonya

Katong and Joo Chiat are dotted with many beautiful pre-war shophouses that are decorated with Peranakan motifs. Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese are a segment of the Fujian-Guangdong diaspora in the 19th century that came to Singapore and Malaysia, married local Malays, settled here and developed a culture of their own. Together with the Eurasians, they made the cultural fabric of Singapore more diverse and colourful, a perfect example of racial harmony.

Of course I digressed. I came to Katong to dapao (takeaway) some Peranakan cuisine. Marrying the best of Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese cuisines, Nyonya cooking is a tantalising mix of aromas, tang and spice. The Malay word “nyonya” is a term of respect for women of prominent social standing (equal parts madam and aunty, if you will) and has throughout the years come to refer to the cuisine of the Peranakans.

Peranakan enclave in Katong

Peranakan cuisine is soul food for the Straits-born Chinese, and requires a high level of patience and preparation in advance. In order for the meat and seafood to properly absorb the essential spices, they must be marinated for many hours before they can be added to the cooking process. Even the spices require manual pounding, as fresh spices are ideal for strong flavours. The bibik (auntie) cooking the dish will often use a mortar and pestle to pound and grind lemongrass, blue ginger and turmeric root that give Peranakan food its strong and distinct flavour.

Here’s some of the classic dishes which I bought from Peranakan Inn, one of the stalwart of the art in Katong.

Ayam Buah Keluak

Ayam Buah Keluak

The icon of Peranakan food is a small black nut called buah keluak. The kepayang tree is native to this region and is one of Nature’s monsters. It is a poisonous tree with awkward looking fruits suggesting a stomach crammed with big seeds. The poison, hydrogen cyanide, occurs in all parts of the tree. 

There are a number of methods traditionally used to leach buah keluak of its poison and prepare it as food. The fruit is usually left to ripen until the flesh falls away, after which the seeds are taken out. In one method, the seeds are crushed, boiled and put under running water for a day. After a second boiling, they are ready for consumption.

The more common method, boiled seeds are buried with ash in a pit to slowly ferment over a period of 40 days, changing their flavour and reducing the toxicity of the hydrocyanic acid. Much of the buah keluak imported into Singapore are prepared this way. Other methods involve variations in the soaking, boiling and fermentation periods. Consumption of improperly prepared or unripe seeds can cause vomiting, abdominal swelling, contraction of the tongue or even death. Kind of skirting with death with fugu (puffer fish).

The fermented seed is the source of ayam buah keluark’s (braised chicken in a spicy tamarind gravy) complex flavour – smooth and moreish with full-bodied notes similar to that of dark cocoa or truffle. Our founding Prime Minister and the current PM are said to be aficionados of this dish.

Curry Fish Head

Curry Fish Head

Nyonya curry fish head has it’s roots in Indian fish head curry. But the Nyonya version is more herb-based while the Indian version is spice-based. And some make it with more assam (tamarind) to give it that sour taste that you don’t find in Indian curry. But either case, you need a fresh fish head to start with. And the typical fish head to use is the ang go li fish (white snapper fish). I don’t know why it’s called the white snapper when it is red all over. The fish head is steamed and then simmered in the curry in a casserole.

Their version is a mix of Nyonya and Indian, with very distinct spice mix taste profile with hints of assam and other aromatics. Didn’t quite like it because it has deviated from tradition.

Sambal Prawn

Sambal Prawn

Sambal means chilli in Malays and there’s a thousand and one way to make sambal prawns. And because there’s the Nyonya touch, it means that the sambal making process just got upgraded. The sambal has lemongrass, galangal (blue ginger) and tamarind blended into the chilli paste, in addition to other spices according to each family’s secret recipe. For the home cooks, you can always use the ready made sambal.

While the nyonya sambal asked for brown sugar to be added, I find their version too sweet.

Nyonya Chap Chye

Nonya Chap Chye

Hokkien for “mixed vegetables”, chap chye is a simple stir-fried vegetable dish with its roots in Fujian province. It’s surprising how the mild-looking dish has managed to hold its own among the spicy, sharper flavours of Nonya cuisine. The secret is in its liberal use of taucheo (bean paste)and prawn stock.

Their version was a bit too sweet for my taste, but I guessed the older generation liked a bit of sweetness in their dishes.

Beef Rendang

Beef Rendang

Rendang is a spicy meat stew originating from the Minangkabau cuisine and adopted by Peranakans throughout archipelago as part of their taste palate. Rendang is most often described as slow-cooked meat in coconut milk and spices. The cooking technique flourished because of its role in preserving meat in a tropical climate. Cooking the meat until tender with almost all the liquid evaporated requires great care, keeping it from getting burnt. And every family has their own rendang recipe.

I like this version, very flavourful, complex and the fried shallot was a nice touch, an idea I would steal for my homemade rendang next time.

Ngoh Hiang

Ngoh Hiang

Ngoh hiang, also known as lor bak in Penang, is a unique Hokkien and Teochew dish widely adopted by the Chinese and Peranakan in Southeast Asia. The technique is simple. You take minced pork, chopped water chestnuts, chopped carrots, Chinese celery and other ingredients, wrapped them in a dried bean curd skin into rolls, and then deep fried. The combination of the ingredients and the use of five-spice distinguish the difference between Chinese and Peranakan ngoh hiang. In fact the Chinese name 五香巻 five-spice roll in the dialects of Hokkien and Teochew is ngoh hiang.

Princess liked their version over our homemade one because it did not use parsley or celery in its filling. But the flavour was really homemade.

Ikan Otak Otak

Ikan Otak Otak

Otak-otak is a dish involving fish pieces wrapped in banana leaves and is widely spread on both sides of Malacca Strait and also Java. It is believed that the dish was a fusion of Malay and Peranakan origins. Otak means “brains” in Indonesian and Malay, and the name of the dish is derived from the idea that the dish somewhat resembles brains, being whitish grey, soft and almost squishy. Nevertheless, only the Indonesian otak-otak has whitish colour, while the otak-otak from Malaysia and Singapore has reddish-orange or brown colouring acquired from chili, turmeric and curry powder.

This is not the machine made type, you can taste the pieces of fish in the otak-otak.

Itek Tim

Itek Tim

Also known as kiam chhai ak thng 鹹菜鴨湯, this soup that has strong Chinese origin with a twist. It consists of duck, preserved mustard greens and cabbage flavoured with nutmeg, dried shiitake mushrooms (optional), tomatoes )must have) and peppercorns.

Maybe because we make this at home all the time, and we are used to a clear and sharp tasting soup. So we find this version too mushy. And where’s the tomato?

Peranakan Inn

As one of the oldest Peranakan restaurants in Singapore, Peranakan Inn exudes an unpretentious old-school charm where its food is the centrepiece. This is where it all started. In 1985, driven by his passion to share his family’s Peranakan recipes, Chef/Owner Bob Seah bought the century-old Peranakan shophouse in Katong and established the restaurant.

Menu with President Wee’s signature

Over the years, the restaurant has hosted many past Singaporean leaders and old guards including President Wee Kim Wee, Goh Keng Swee, Eddie Barker and Lim Kim San.

We used to have a Nonya bibik (Peranakan lady) that worked in our restaurant, and my taste for Nonya cooking was formed by her cooking. That was my yardstick as she was an excellent cook. I find the dishes here have been adapted over time to suit the shifting local palate, as well as the tourist crowd that are not accustomed to the strong and complex flavour profiles of traditional Nonya cooking. In other words, the flavours and spices have been toned-down.

Peranakan Inn & Lounge
210 East Coast Rd, Singapore 428909
Tel : 6440 6195

Date Visited : Feb 2021

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