Repping the Peranakan end of the mod-Sin spectrum, chef-owner Malcolm Lee cuts a pioneering figure on both the local and international stages – and he's even got a Michelin star to show for it. In keeping with the cuisine's penchant for borrowing influences from the East and West, dishes at Candlenut, now at COMO Dempsey, are gussied up with premium ingredients.
Dining here is a communal affair. Opt for Lee’s signature ‘ahmakase’ menu ($65/ lunch, $88/dinner) or order from the new à la carte menu. There's kueh pie tee ($20) stuffed with hamachi tartare, pickled shallot and laksa leaf pesto; buah keluak ($22) of braised local chicken and wagyu beef brisket rendang ($28). These are dishes that definitely go better with rice.
The chap chye ($18) is the standout because of its simplicity. Other highlights include the wok-fried sambal tiger prawns with petai beans ($24) and curry of Petuna ocean trout ($30). Wash it down with a Tiger ($10) to show your Singapore pride. After all, Lee’s cooking is definitely a rallying point that we can be proud of.
With two swish restaurants and counting, Violet Oon knows how to dress up and elevate humble Peranakan cuisine – her joints are where you’d take your friends from out of town. Besides a few dishes she’s kept exclusive to each restaurant, the extensive menus feature the same cuisine favourites like chicken buah keluak ($23), sweetened braised daging chabek beef cheek stew ($35) and Oon's invention of dry rice noodles, coated in a rich laksa sauce ($22).
At the National Gallery, Oon and her children – Tay Su-Lyn and Yiming – are inspired by their museum digs, pulling heritage dishes back into our collective memories: chewy Hakka abacus beads ($16), roti jala ($10) and Southern Indian idly cakes ($7) among them. And count us firm fans of Oon's Ju Hee Char ($13), a wok-tossed plate of jicama, carrots, shitake slices and cuttlefish, and the beef shin rendang ($23), best enjoyed with fluffy jasmine rice and a good rake of sambal.
There’s no denying you’ve stepped into a Peranakan Restaurant when you enter Chilli Padi. Red batik cloth drapes over the tables, a framed kebaya hangs on the wall and the restaurant is even located in a heritage shophouse from the pre-war era. Awards and media accolades line the walls beside colourful Peranakan art, enticing you to order more than you can manage, because you know you’ll be getting the legit stuff. Some of the tables come with a Lazy Susan, so no one will have to stretch to reach that claypot filled with ayam buah keluak. Whether it’s to entertain friends from out of town or an inter-generational gathering, Chilli Padi is definitely a top pick for a cosy gathering. It won’t be a proper Peranakan meal without ayam buah keluak ($12.80/$17.80) at the table. Chilli Padi’s rendition comes the closest to what you’ll find in the home of a Nyonya grandmother, with generous chunks of chicken and whole kernels of buah keluak that have been conveniently cut to fit the length of your fork. Another must-have is the cabbage roll ($5). Homemade otah is wrapped in Chinese cabbage and then steamed before it’s covered in a rich and spicy coconut curry.
Yes, Daisy's Dream Kitchen has a celebrity connection – you'll see where Dim Sum Dolly Selena Tan gets her looks when her mother, Daisy the chef, comes out of the kitchen to say hello. But what arrives out of the kitchen stand well on their own, transcending the borrowed glitz, a soundtrack of Singaporean oldies, and well-shot #flatlays pinned on the walls.
The menu weaves the lore of the matron nurturing her clan, and how she’s passed the business down to her son, Ray, who's kept the flavours on point. Chunky ngoh hiang ($8) is rolled into balls so you have a maximum surface area of crisped bean curd skin to crunch into. A plate of robust squid ($12), dressed in its own ink, is coloured in flavours of deep caramel and smoke. And though the plates are a tad smaller than its peers, you'll come to understand why after chewing on the pulp of fragrant rempah that thickens a bowl of beef rendang ($12). Daisy’s seriously not cutting corners here – this place is indeed a dream for the palate.
Together with Rumah Bebe on Tanjong Katong Road and Kim Choo Kueh Chang down the Joo Chiat row, Guan Hoe Soon is one of the last few bastions for authentic dining in the historically Peranakan neighbourhood. Serving since 1953, the echoey shophouse dining room stocks a mini-museum of vintage tableware at the back – but, of course, we're here for the food.
For some pre-meal snacking, we're presented with a plate of too-fresh achar ($3) curiously spiked with the livery notes of chicken gizzards. As the weathered marble tables start to stack with dishes, the chunky otah-otah ($8) becomes a fast favourite, as is the imposing, must-share portion of tangy assam pedas pomfret ($38). The menu includes a section dedicated to Chinese food, and unlike the soya-rich chap chyes ($10) found elsewhere, Guan Hoe Soon’s reads almost Sino, with strong tones of shitake and oyster sauce. And if you're ever tempted to order their fried bakwan kepeting ($12) creation, don't – Guan Hoe Soon's forte is in its classics.
The Blue Ginger’s location smack in the middle of the CBD might explain why there’s a constant rotation of white-collar types and expats there looking to get acquainted with the cuisine. For the seasoned palate, this does ultimately mean that the food tastes blander than most other Peranakan joints, like the steaming claypot of mild Nyonya fish head curry ($30.50), or the tall bowl of chap chye ($11) bereft of the promised flavours of prawn stock.
Thankfully, there’s redemption in the rolls of crispy ngoh hiang ($11.50) and punchy otah-otah ($4). If anything, it’s a convenient spot to take a colleague visiting from out of town for a dose of Peranakan Food 101 – without scaring him or her off with the cuisine’s more intense aromas.
Nyonya Kathryn Ho's cleverly named restaurant is hidden past a trellis-lined walkway and through greenery-lined drive into Keppel Club. Inside, the pong of sambal belachan – all ready and laid out at each empty table – fills the air, along with the chatter of families and older aunties, no doubt regulars of the restaurant. They're likely here for the beef rendang ($16), fat chunks of pork belly that go into the rich babi pongtay ($14), and perfectly done, smoky rings of squid, slathered with a tangy-spicy tomato-based sauce ($16), all highly recommended by the staff. It all goes by really quickly – the dishes arrive in a flurry after you’ve ordered, and before you know it, you're dipping sticky rice pancakes ($6) in a thick banana toffee to end the meal. Not bad for the lengths you travelled to find it at all.
Despite its secluded location at the top of Beauty World Centre, Dulukala has high aspirations to become the name 'synonymous with Peranakan dining'. To help you draw your own conclusions, the restaurant's helpfully put together weekday lunch sets of cuisine staples ($12.90-$14.90) and dinner dish permutations for groups of four ($79.90) and six ($108.90) to suit the heartland crowd that arrive as a clan.
Skip the too-sweet chap chye ($10.90) and bakwan kepeting soup ($12.90), which harks of a hawker fishball noodle broth, and instead gun for the stewed dishes. The babi pongteh ($11.90) is a lighter, less cloying version than its rivals, while the fragrant sambal is a lovely complement for fried and salty ikan selar ($15.90). And the scrambled egg-wrapped chinchalok (fermented shrimps, $9.90) – also rarely found elsewhere – is another full-on experience of smell and pungent flavour.
Five essential ingredients of Peranakan cuisine
It’s deadly with hydrogen cyanide – until someone with an (incredibly) bright idea came up with a way to make it edible: boil the seed, bury it in a mix of ash and soil, then leave it to ferment for 40 days. You would think its name, which translates to 'the fruit that nauseates' in Bahasa, is enough warning to stay away, but this blackened, earthy nut – usually cooked with pork or chicken – has pretty much become the de facto poster ingredient for the cuisine.
Used as a food dye, cooks boil blue pea blossoms and sprinkle streaks of this shade of azure over glutinous rice dishes like kueh salat and Nyonya chang.
Nyonya cooks were using candlenuts as a thickener even before this current fad of nut butters came along. Ground up with rempah and cooked – essential, otherwise you'll find yourself down with a bad case of the runs – you'll find this in chicken curries and good rempah-based chap chyes.
The smell of mortar and pestle-flattened dried shrimp on a hot, oiled wok can best be described as the embodiment of salt. Like its smell, the ingredient (also known as hae bi) can complement a veggie fry-up, or hold its own with chilli.
Extracted from the bulbous pods of the tamarind tree by boiling, the tart juice is a vital part of the Peranakan diet in seafood curries, fried with prawns and, yup, in Penang assam laksa.