Peranakan cuisine is getting increasingly hard to find. Thankfully, there are a handful of restaurants that are keeping the culinary tradition alive – from comforting, traditional dishes to Nonya-inspired modern creations. In some cases, you'll actually be dining at someone's home – it doesn't get more authentic than that.
The traditional Peranakan dishes found at this restaurant aren't prepared based on written recipes passed down through generations. They are, however, recreated from memory – specifically, Les Amis Group chairman Desmond Lim’s grandmother’s cooking. “Vivid memories and my palate help determine what each dish should taste and look like,” says the restauranteur. “I want the food to be a reflection of what I grew up with.” One example is IB’s Nonya Poh Piah ($16), a communal dish that hearkens back to the days of his family crowding around the table to wrap their own spring roll. And everything, right down to the dough, is painstakingly handmade to reflect his grandmother’s original recipe. It took Demond over five years of consideration before deciding to open a Peranakan restaurant. He wanted a space where he could share and preserve Nonya cooking while paying homage to his grandmother. “I've noticed that in the last two to three years, there has been a revival in Peranakan cuisine in Singapore,” says Desmond. “So the timing is right for us to finally start.” TRY THIS The nostalgic IB’s Nonya Poh Piah ($16) that comes jazzed up with prawns and chunks of mud crab.
Peranakan food is meaty. You need only to look at its iconic dishes— ayam buah keluak, beef rendang, babi pongteh— to know that this is true. So when Raymond Khoo, the executive chef of The Peranakan, was brainstorming new ways to make the cuisine more approachable, he went in an unexpected direction: vegan and green Peranakan dishes. “Having Peranakan cuisine would never cross the mind of a vegan,” he says.
It took Raymond over six years to create the meatless menu. Papaya is used to flavour the broth in the sup bakwan kepiting, and seaweed is used in place of dried shrimp to make the samba belachan served with the vegan Tok Panjang (from $48). Meat-free substitutes also go into dishes like tau you bake chilli crabless cakes, and ikan-less asam peas. “It helps that we create a solid rempah that contributes to the flavours of the dishes,” he says. Even desserts like the kueh bingka is made with vegan butter.
Raymond hopes that his creations spark greater curiosity about Nonya food— not just within the health and sustainability conscious crowd. “Peranakan food certainly isn’t top-of-mind when it comes to eating out,” he shares. Still, Raymond continues cooking it. “The cuisine is a painstaking labour of love, owing to the slow cooking process,” he says. “No Shortcuts.”
TRY THIS Tok Panjang Bibik set ($48). The grand vegan feast features nine different dishes, including mutton rending, ayam pongteh, kueh pie tee, and nasi ulam.
When Fredric Goh was in school, he prepared a family recipe for his Food and Nutrition examination: babi assam. He was surprised that even his examiners were unfamiliar with this Nonya dish. It sparked something in him – he wanted to raise awareness of Peranakan culture through food.
Today, the 28-year-old is the head chef at Godmama. But he cooks more than traditional fare of Nonya chap chye ($13.90) and ayam buah keluak ($18.90). During the weekend, the menu turns modern, with familiar brunch items getting a Peranakan makeover.
“It’s our way of making Peranakan cuisine more accessible to a wider range of people, including the younger crowd,” shares Fredric. For instance, the usual tomato base is swapped for a spicy, tangy sauce in the Buah Keluak Bolognese Pasta ($19.90) while pork is stewed in a bean paste instead of barbecue sauce in the Pulled Pork Pongteh Sunny ($15.90).
Peranakan influences can be found in the cocktails as well, with spirits stirred with gula Melaka or shaken with housemade pineapple jam. These touches might seem blasphemous to some, but Fredric believes that this helps preserve the cuisine in its own way. He says: “I think that with each generation, we add a little of ourselves and build upon what generations of the past have accomplished.”
TRY THIS Those with a sweet tooth should order the banana pengat buttermilk pancakes ($17.90), where fluffy stacks come served with coconut milk and banana compote.
Many might be familiar with the old Baba Chews and their comforting Nonya dishes. But the restaurant went through an overhaul – it now sits at the former site of the Joo Chiat Police Station, and the menu is much more diverse and unexpected. Familiar dishes are served with a twist, like the ngoh hiang ($15) that comes with a sweet calamansi dip; or the otah yu tiao ($12) made with charcoal dough fritter. Peranakan and Western flavours mingle further to give you unique dishes like fragrant chicken rendang lasagne ($18) and ayam buah keluak burger ($18).
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. 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.
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 ($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 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, 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 – Daisy the chef is the mother of Dim Sum Dolly, Selena Tan. 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, shophouse dining room stocks a mini-museum of vintage tableware at the back. 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.
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. The star is 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 pong teh ($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. 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.
Private Nonya dining experiences in Singapore
You might have to wait for over a month to dine at Nonya Bong, but your patience will be rewarded with the homely dishes prepared by Jeffrey Chia. The seasoned 68-year-old chef delights with uncommon recipes that are rarely found in restaurants. The hati babi bungkus, for instance, made up of minced pork and liver wrapped in pig’s caul, is a favourite among diners.
Oh, how the tables have turned. Having spent the last 20 years reviewing restaurants around Singapore, food writer Annette Tan now prepares food for others to critique instead. But there’s nothing negative to say about Fatfuku. Annette’s Peranakan dishes of crispy mee siam, wagyu beef cheek rendang, and caramalised babi assam with sambal timun will surely impress.
In the day, makeup artist Tinoq Russell Goh helps celebrities like Contance Lau from Crazy Rich Asians stand out. And in his private kitchen, the Peranakan food that he prepares, with the help of his partner, commands the same attention. Expect a kampong-style feast of ngoh hiang and prawn noodles, flavoured using herbs and spices that Tinoq grows from the nearby community garden.
Raymond Leong has always been fascinated by Nonya food, so much so that after his retirement, he enrolled in a cooking school in Kuala Lumpur to learn all about the cuisine. 74 different recipes to be exact. When you do visit The Ampang Kitchen, just ask the welcoming host and he will be happy to share more about his Penang-style Peranakan food as you chow down on his satay bohong and ayam buah keluak.
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.