Welcome to Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG – our commitment to showing you the best of what's going on in the city this week. Every Monday, a guest writer who's "in" with the scene shares a recommendation on what to see, eat, do or buy in the city. This week, we chat with the doyenne of Peranakan food in Singapore, Violet Oon. The former food writer turned restauranteur shares more about her thought's on Singapore's F&B scene, her new restaurant at ION Orchard and more.
What gets you excited about Singapore?
I love Singapore’s vibrancy and also the many laid-back nooks and crannies all around the island – each with its character and pizzazz – some of it quirky. For those of my vintage, just hanging around corner Kopitiams is a pleasure and a treasure. I love Kampong Glam, Changi Village, Little India, Joo Chiat, Katong, Chinatown and Tiong Bahru – all enclaves with unique characters of their own and a lovely blend of old school and hipster. I love hanging around the public spaces of HDB estates like Yishun, Toa Payoh and Commonwealth – where older folk can line dance, play Chinese chess, chill out on garden benches and just shoot the breeze amongst the youngsters in a rush. I love the earnest innocence of people developing the Arts Quarter and trends like going green and building up a car-lite city centre during weekends and concern for our valuable foreign workers in the midst of censure amongst some quarters. I love the whole build-up amongst our younger folks of social consciousness and care for other concerns not centred on "me me me".
What are your thoughts on Singapore's F&B scene?
I think our F&B scene is vibrant and is at an important milestone at this particular juncture. As Singaporeans dine with gusto and embrace the foreign, we are now increasingly celebrating and rediscovering our love affair with all that is Singaporean. At our Violet Oon Singapore restaurants, we delve deep into Peranakan roots, flavours and textures as well as into the many exciting iterations of the Singapore food story with dishes that capture our history and heritage from our Chinese and Malay and Indian cuisines to the Hainanese-British cuisine. Happily, we are not the only restaurant celebrating all that is Singapore food – restaurants like The Coconut Club, Quentin's, Candlenut, British Hainan, Colonial Club, Baba Chew’s, Po and Folklore are on the same drumbeat. At the same time, old timer restaurants and food haunts of Singapore hold its own like Chin Mee Chin coffee shop and Glory in Katong, the Islamic in North Bridge Road and the Spring Court in Chinatown. It is lovely to see our own tastes and textures hold their own amongst the glitzy imports and that Singaporeans and visitors alike are embracing local with lots of love. We have graduated from an unabashed love affair with everything "abroad" to a love affair with everything "local".
What does Singapore cuisine mean to you?
Singapore cuisine means comfort, joy, bursts of flavour and a myriad of textures, it means history, it means a connection with our forefathers who left villages and farms and towns in southern China, Southern India, and the surrounding islands of the Malay archipelago to find a better life. I tell every Singaporean that the food on your table cooked by granny or grandpa represents the hopes and dreams of our immigrant forefathers and should be recorded and each family must write its own Singapore Family Cookbook.
You've been both a food critic and writer as well as a chef and restauranteur, which do you prefer and why?
I love all the facets of my life in food – from food critic, food writer, food cooker and food server – every aspect has been an adventure and is still an adventure! None of these food selves of mine takes prominence and all are still in existence.
Tell us more about your new restaurant – what can people expect?
The retail and all-day restaurant flagship at ION Orchard is the first concept of its kind for our Violet Oon Singapore group. It is also our fourth and largest outlet to-date. The exclusive retail selection at our gift shop has been curated from a collection of original recipes. Tourists and locals alike have the chance to sample and purchase baked goods like cakes, financiers and cookies and kaya. There are cashew nut cookies ($16/$30), gula Melaka coconut crunch cookies ($16/$30) and handmade pineapple tarts ($28). Our flagship also houses our first-ever cake counter of freshly baked cakes fit for celebrations big and small. The all-day dining restaurant serves local favourites and Nyonya signatures alongside a celebrated selection of British cuisine as interpreted by the early Hainanese chefs of Singapore. Specialities include the Mulligatawny Soup ($16), a rarely seen British East Indian dish and British Colonial cuisine like the Hainanese Pork Chop ($34) and Oxtail Stew ($42).
Where are some of your favourite places to eat in Singapore?
I don't have much time to eat out nowadays but there are some old and new favourites. One of my new finds is the Teochew steamboat at Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant in 116/118 Rangoon Road. Putien has been famous a long time but I have just discovered it on Level 4 of ION Orchard. The authentic Hokkien China Street Fritters in Maxwell Market, which I first tasted in the early 1970’s is my go-to comfort fix. Recently, I was introduced to Famous Treasure Restaurant in Capitol Piazza, and this is a real find – again I love the “real cooking” of the Nanyang – the South Seas where Chinese immigrants first created Peranakan cuisine and then they continued to create with a mish-mash of local ingredients with the deep art of Chinese cooking to create what we know as “zi char” style of cooking. My other go-to comfort food is Malay Nasi Padang and Rumah Makan Minang in Kandahar Street, just behind the Sultan Mosque, has been a long-time favourite. For “ang mo” food one of my favourites is still CUT in Marina Bay Sands as I do love a good piece of perfectly grilled steak – charred on the outside and pink on the inside.