Young chefs in Singapore reflect on the culinary traditions of the city. They have sharp critics though.
When the door to his restaurant Candlenut opens and a tiny old black-haired woman enters the room, Malcolm Lee stands for a brief moment, his heart pounding with shock. “There is one person I fear more than any restaurant critic,” he says. “My grandmother.” And although he has been awarded a Michelin star since 2016, the over 80-year-old remains for him the highest culinary authority of all. Because she is, as in every Peranakan family in Singapore, the guardian of the Holy Grail of Family Recipes.
- 1 The grandmother will notice immediately if the grandson doses the spice paste differently
- 2 In the past, the street was full of food stalls, today you can find them with luck in market halls
- 3 Jungle with highway
- 4 The chefs refine the cultural heritage with delicious ingredients
- 5 “Whether I have to go here or go back makes no difference”
The grandmother will notice immediately if the grandson doses the spice paste differently
She notices when her grandson has dosed just one of the many ingredients for the traditional Malaysian spice paste: Rempah is called and is based on red chili, turmeric, galangal, lemon grass and a dozen other spices. Lee still remembers in detail the delicious Rempahs and Currys that his mother and grandmother cooked when he was a kid: “The scent drew in my nostrils as soon as the elevator door opened on our floor.” It’s the flavors of his childhood that he conjures up in his restaurant today. For example, in “Mum’s Chicken Curry”, which is always on the menu: fried chicken in a spicy, potato-bound curry sauce, wafer-thin strips of kaffir lime leaves provide citrus freshness.
“We’re the only Peranakan restaurant ever to win a Michelin star,” says the young chef proudly. Which of course is because the Peranakan cuisine exists only in Singapore and only in recent years, a revival learned. “Peranakan” means “Mischling” in Malay, as the descendants of those Chinese immigrants who settled in the busy ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang in the mid-19th century and married Malaysian women. Their culture, language and cuisine was and is a fascinating mix of Chinese and Malaysian, sometimes Indian or European influences. Singapore, with its 5.6 million inhabitants today, its globalized lifestyle and its cityscape of steel and glass skyscrapers, has always clung to the cliché of the melting pot. In the search for their own identity, they recently discovered the Peranakan, which today is considered a kind of primitive cell for the multi-ethnic city.
“People want to understand where they come from,” says Damien D’Silva. “Especially in such a young city as Singapore, we are all immigrants here, and the Peranakan cuisine gives us culinary roots.” D’Silva also specializes as a chef in the traditional recipes of his family, currently serving as chef in a hotel restaurant called Folklore. But we meet him in Katong, a less crowded area in eastern Singapore. Here at Joo Chiat Road, he grew up learning the secrets of his Peranakan grandmother’s crush on the traditional granite mortar chilies that she used for her belacan, a fermented crab paste. Joo Chiat Road is still the heart of the district, which stands for the reviving Peranakan culture. Here many of the typical “shophouses” have survived, whose inhabitants operated a shop on the ground floor and lived on the first floor. When Singapore’s colonial economy began to boom in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of the enterprising Peranakan families made small fortunes. They built the narrow, two-story houses, whose facades are often decorated with lush stucco and colorful tiles and were painted in pastel shades of pink over yellow to mint green; in the front gardens, white frangipani trees are blooming. “The houses look small from the outside,” says D’Silva, “but they are very deep, and at the very back was always the kitchen, the heart of every Peranakan household.”
In the past, the street was full of food stalls, today you can find them with luck in market halls
A pungent-spicy scent rises as D’Silva opens the door of a tiny food stall, over charcoal an old man grills Otah-Otah, a popular street food. Fish or shrimp are finely chopped and stirred with chili, garlic, lemongrass, flour, egg and coconut cream into a paste that is stuffed into a banana leaf and grilled, a delicious snack for the equivalent of 70 cents. “When I grew up here in the 1960s, Joo Chiat Road was still full of street vendors selling noodles and dumplings around the clock,” says D’Silva. The Singaporean government banished the flying traders with their delicacies for reasons of hygiene long ago in so-called hawker centers. In such covered market halls you may still find real Peranakan cuisine, especially the colorful desserts such as tapioca cakes with coconut or blue-colored rice cakes, such as those served at Peranakan weddings.
Here in Katong, the old art is still maintained, for example, in the Guan Hoe Soon, which advertises to be the oldest Peranakan restaurant in the city, founded in 1953. Through the shop window you can watch as old women with nimble fingers from sticky rice forming small dumplings, which are then colored colorfully. “In the old days green pandan leaves, blue dried bunga telang flowers and yellow turmeric were used,” says D’Silva. “Today, a lot of food coloring is used.” Not so in the Guan Hoe Soon, the scent of rice and pandan leaves, which reaches down to the street.
Today, Singapore is proud of the Peranakan heritage, but until ten years ago, very few people knew how to use the term. The old culture owes its rediscovery not least of the popular TV soap “The Little Nyonya”, which was broadcast from 2008 to 2012. Nyonya is an old Malaysian word for a lady, a woman of some social status, which is why Peranakan cuisine is often referred to as nyonya cuisine. Today, visitors can find out more about the life of the Nyonyas in the Peranakan Museum. The neoclassical white building was built as a Chinese school in 1912, and today, in multimedia settings, the old stories come to life. Among the most beautiful exhibits are the Kamcheng, colorfully painted porcelain bowls with lids, in which the Nyonyas served their artful dishes.
Right next to the museum is the True Blue Restaurant, whose entrance is decorated like a typical Peranakan house with many plants and colorful lanterns. Even inside, in the guest room, furnished with original furniture, you feel like you are on a journey through time. Classics of Nyonya cuisine come on the table: chab chye, a vegetable dish with cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, tofu and fine vermicelli in a fragrant broth; or Ayam Buah Keluak, Lemongrass and Spa curdled chicken in a sauce of black Buah-Keluak nuts used only in Peranakan cuisine. The mother of the owner – who else – takes care of the fact that everything here comes on the table according to the traditional specifications.
The chefs refine the cultural heritage with delicious ingredients
“Peranakan chefs in Singapore have a big problem,” says KF Seetoh, street food expert and founder of the popular Makansutra Food Guide: “Every guest who comes, tells them that his mother’s beef ripen or coconut prawn curry, Grandmother or aunt tasted much better than the one in the restaurant. The fight against the guests’ childhood memories can not be won. ” That’s why Malcolm Lee does not even try that. His way to Candlenut is different. He wants to show his guests how to rediscover the flavors of childhood in a contemporary kitchen. He serves his soups and curries in contemporary ceramics, his sauces are not quite as thick as in the traditional versions, the ingredients much higher quality than in the food stalls. For his beef rendang with grated coconut and Kurkumablättern he uses noble Wagyu Beef from Australian breed. And for the yellow coconut crab curry with pineapple, he prefers to use more delicate crab meat instead of the classic shrimp.
But it’s a dessert made from Buah Keluak nuts, which are so typical of Peranakan cuisine, and perhaps best exemplify his style of cooking: he mixes the finely chopped raw nuts with fine French dark chocolate to make an ice cream with an incomparably earthy texture. bitter-sour aroma, reminiscent of coffee beans. Served with slightly salty caramel sauce, chocolate crumbs and chilli flakes, it’s a treat to enjoy, somewhere between traditional Nyonya kitchen magic and global fine-dining trends. “Malcom’s cuisine is very progressive,” says KF Seetoh. “But that’s the way to go, you have to take your cultural heritage and get it moving – otherwise the Peranakan kitchen will die out.”
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Munich to Singapore from 596 euros in Economy Class, www.singaporeair.com
Stay: For example, Goodwood Park Hotel, built around 1900, large garden, www.goodwoodparkhotel.com
Peranakan cuisine: Candlenut, contemporary-creative Peranakan cuisine with Michelin stars in trendy Dempsey Hill, www.comodempsey.sg; True Blue, traditional Peranakan cuisine in historic decor, www.truebluecuisine.com; Blue Ginger, Authentic Peranakan Cuisine, Be sure to try Sambal Terong Goreng, www.theblueginger.com
Peranakan culture: www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg
Additional Information: www.visitsingapore.com