A date with the Peranakan side of Singapore

Published May 12, 2022, 1:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

My affair with Singapore is a slow burn.

And yet, although I consider Hong Kong my gateway to the world, it was to Singapore that I first went on a work trip. I’ve since been there multiple times, Singapore being a hub in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.

It wasn’t until I started going there for personal reasons, such as for weddings, or for reasons personal to me, such as the opening of the National Gallery or the 10-day Singapore Writers Festival, that I started to fall for the city state.

NYONYAS AND BABAS The word Peranakan is defined as ‘a native-born with mixed local and foreign artistry.’ In cookery, it means a mix of Chinese ingredients and Malaysian/Indonesian spices and cooking methods. Cover design by Jovanni Bernasol

On a recent trip, in sweltering April, I arrived at Changi International Airport on the day the Ministry of Health announced that all vaccinated travelers arriving via air or sea would no longer be required to take a pre-departure Covid-19 test. The trip unpeeled for me another facet of Singapore to get lost in—Peranakan cuisine.

My first brush with Peranakan was through a Louis Vuitton old world map. It was a fling too brief, although it led me to Malacca and even Penang, only to decide there was no way I could fall for such places, not realizing back then that I was too young, too stupid, and too broke for these historic Malaysian gems on the Strait of Malacca.

JACK OF ALL STRAITS This writer with The Way of the Kueh author Christopher Tan

Decades later, in Singapore, Peranakan, otherwise known as Nyonya or Straits-Chinese cuisine, revealed itself to me.

I didn’t realize until the third Peranakan meal that a seduction was going on, though I knew that eating was a big component of this trip organized by Travel Warehouse Inc.’s Jaison Yang, in partnership with Cebu Pacific, for the Singapore Tourism Board. 

The proverbial wink at the bar was in the morning after I arrived late at night at the Holiday Inn on Orchard Road. It was at The Kitchen Society, an intimate kitchen studio for culinary masterclasses and workshops on Tessensohn Road in the harbor town of Serangoon, with no less than Christopher Tan.

Tracing his roots to Fujianese ancestors, this cooking instructor and award-winning writer and photographer spent decades in London, but in three words, when asked who he is, he’ll say “I am Peranakan.” His forebears settled in Southeast Asia, absorbing local influences, social and genetic, into their families, culture, language, and cuisine, which is now a mix of Southern Chinese, Southeast Asian, and colonial, particularly Portuguese, maybe also a bit of Dutch and British.

ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL Mummy Soh flanked by her two Filipino kitchen assistants Evelyn and Wilma, and her son Calvin (rightmost)

Just as well as he uses his tongue to full advantage as a cook, Christopher also puts it to good use to articulate all that has made him decide to build his whole life around food. While he was telling us about growing up with Indian neighbors, who would shower his family with sweetmeats during Diwali in August and whom, in turn, his family would shower with auspicious treats on Chinese New Year in January or February, I thought that listening to Christopher was like reading Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram at the same time. Not only does he speak in images, but also in flavors, in smells, in memories.

He later demonstrated to us the way to make Peranakan desserts, using a few samples from his latest book The Way of the Kueh—the sticky pandan-flavored kueh cara manis, the Hainenese Yi Bua typically served at weddings, and Bua Da’art, a crunchier, more gingery version of Yi Bua.

Kueh, simply put, are “cakes,” but not really because they can be sweet or savory and they’re not always baked, as they are just as good grilled or fried or steamed to be eaten hot, cold, or at room temperature. These are heritage desserts in Singapore that, according to Christopher, are in danger of being lost.

WHERE TRADITION MATTERS True Blue Cuisine restaurant interior

Off to lunch, the typical hawkerstyle food at Keng Eng Kee Seafood at Bukit Merah, where we feasted on straight-from-the-pan crispy fish skin (TDF!) and chili and pepper crabs and other local Chinese eatery dishes. But it was at the dinner that followed that the Peranakan flirtation resumed.

We went to True Blue Cuisine on Armenian Street, right beside the Peranakan Museum. At this point, I had yet to connect the dots between the items on the itinerary my hosts, in cahoots with Cupid, prepared for me.

Nyonya cuisine or Peranakan cuisine is the creation that arises from cultural borrowing and cultural innovation through contact with local ingredients and non-Chinese principles of food preparation. —Tan Chee-Beng

At this Michelin Guide-listed restaurant, which is more like a Peranakan ancestral house, replete with an airwell used typically in Peranakan homes to collect rainwater, as well as the potpourri scent of shredded pandan leaves and safflower-drenched dried petals, Peranakan cuisine had me at the first spoonful of bakwan kepiting, crab and chicken meatballs in umami broth.

LIVING HERITAGE Clockwise from top left: Blue pea rice, cendol, and bakwan kepiting from True Blue Cuisine

Before the soup, a platter of ngo hiang, otherwise known as heh gerng lor bak, chicken and prawn meat in beancurd skin, was served. What followed was bowls of Peranakan specials like rendang sapi or beef rendang, ayam buah keluak or a chicken in black nuts stew, and chap chye, stewed cabbage with glass vermicelli and mushrooms. The iced dessert cendol, white as the pearly gates, was no less divine, with a caramel surprise at the bottom. That was it—I was smitten.

But over lunch the next day, at One Kind House on the East Coast of Singapore, I fell, mouth first. Who can resist the charms of the mistress of the house, 79-year-old Mummy Soh, Ng Swee Hiah of Teochew-Chinese heritage, who had been a teacher for 40 years before she found her calling in the kitchen?

One Kind House is a two-story affair tucked away on a residential street, a private home of over 50 years in which she has raised two generations of the Sohs, her son Calvin and his children with wife Arlette, Ava and Dylan. Now it is some kind of a kampung, a village open to anyone interested in learning to cook with Mummy Soh, cooking with Mummy Soh, and then eating what has been cooked, just as we did.

It’s a simple house, but it’s a huge space for everything—kitchen, dining room, workspace, meeting room, bodega, atelier, studio, even an incubator for ideas. Also, One Kind House is a garden, more like a farm, abloom with June plums, blue peas, mulberries, ginger, coriander, lemongrass, chili, chives, and more, all of which enable Mummy Soh and her kitchen crew of guests to cook everything from scratch, such as the curry yong tau fu, for which we let her bully us into preparing the okra and ampalaya, stuffing them with fish meat.

No fuss eating at One Kind House. All Mummy Soh made sure of was that we ate well and enough, with her, her Filipino kitchen assistants, and her daughter-in-law Arlette always ready to serve us more of her all-you-can-eat blue pea rice. With the yong tau fu served soup style came a beautiful fried pomfret with fermented soy bean paste or taucheo, chap chye or mixed vegetables, and Wagyu rendang. By the time dessert—a simpler, more traditional cendol—was served, I had decided I was in too deep.

I have yet to try Candlenut on Dempsey Road, the only Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant in the world, and Rempapa, from the Malay word rempah, meaning “spice paste,” which Gerard Ho, Singaporean ambassador to the Philippines, readily suggested when he came across what I posted on Facebook about Peranakan cuisine driving me stark raving mad.

Now I’m in love. I have a compelling reason to go more often to Singapore.