Local custodians of Peranakan cuisine are lamenting the uncertain future of some classic dishes. Don Mendoza discovers why

If there is one thing today’s lauded best restaurants lists have affirmed, it is that innovation is key to ensuring that a cuisine makes its mark in an increasingly fickle market. The sad fact, though, is that an influx of new things to eat is often indulged at the expense of once treasured classics.

Thankfully, there has been a renewed interest in both innovating and preserving Singapore heritage cuisines, notably Peranakan fare. This was marked by the first-ever inclusion in the Michelin Guide Singapore 2016 of a Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut by Malcolm Lee (now located at Como Dempsey). And there is no denying the cultural significance of housing the National Kitchen by Violet Oon in the historical City Hall building that is now home to the National Gallery Singapore.

But these events don’t guarantee that no dish will slip through the tight embrace of this nation of food lovers; something more chefs are fighting to prevent.

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“Preserving our cuisine is preserving our heritage,” says Philip Chia, a fourth-generation Chinese Peranakan and self-taught chef who recently returned as guest chef at The Clifford Pier in The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore, for a three-week special in March. The menu featured some of his signature dishes as well as a few “forgotten” ones. These include the sasagoon, a simple treat, he explains, that is the product of Portuguese and Indian-Eurasian influences, with roots stretching as far as the Indian Catholic community in Goa, where coconuts are abundant. “It was a snack I enjoyed as a kid in the early 1960s,” he shares.

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A mixture of grated coconut and rice flour is first cooked in a copper wok, and then ground into a fine powder and mixed with sugar. “Young children would eat it in kachang putih paper cones, with their tips snipped off so that the mixture could be poured directly into their mouths.”

These days, most children prefer cleverly disguised mass-produced variations of flavoured sugar treats. In contrast, this laborious process is threatening the survival of dishes such as babi towhay—pork belly cooked in red wine lees.

Chia believes the dish is derived from the Hakka and Hock Chew dialect groups, as they would use red rice yeast to ferment cooking wines to make ang chow (red rice wine lees). The Peranakans decided to use ang chow to ferment gragoh (planktonic shrimps), which were cheap and plentiful in the day.

This process takes at least two weeks, shares chef Damian D’Silva, whose latest venture is Singapore heritage foods restaurant Folklore at Destination Singapore Beach Road hotel. “The Peranakans don’t make ang chow and the Hock Chews don’t eat gragoh,” he posits. “So obviously, it must have been an exceptional Baba or Nyonya who decided to add gragoh to the ang chow, and was even patient enough to ensure the mixture was fermented to perfection.”

That said, not many families know of this dish, adds Chia, who also notes that it is an acquired taste; if it is not prepared correctly, it can taste bitter.

Rare Pickings
Similarly, as families are cooking less at home, simple dishes are running the same risk of extinction. One of Candlenut’s Lee’s earliest memories of such a dish is the ikan chuan chuan, a whole snapper deep-fried and then stewed with ginger and preserved soy bean paste or tau cheo. “Mum would cook it at home and we always enjoyed this simple dish with a lot of rice; we would also fight over the fish eye,” he recalls fondly. “It’s a very simple and, in a sense, ‘boring’ dish.”

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But these dishes are still relevant, even in Singapore’s already diverse food scene, as they feature “tastes and flavours that represent, and give insight into the Peranakan culture, which is unique to this region and Singapore”.

“We chefs need to embrace the principles and the essence of Peranakan cuisine,” Lee adds. “In our present time, we have so much more knowledge, ingredients and techniques available to us; to constantly weave them into this traditional cuisine will keep it relevant, and people will start to enjoy and give traditional cuisines a chance.”

"...many of these 'lost dishes' were the
result of 'lost or forgotten trees, shrubs
and plants from our Singapore gardens'."

But it is hard to whip up an authentic version of a dish if there is a limited supply of key ingredients. It may not be a common problem in a country that imports a majority of its produce, but one might be surprised to learn that Singapore once had a vibrant array of locally grown fruits and herbs. In her research for the Treasures of the Nyonya Garden dinner at the National Kitchen last month, Violet Oon realised that many of these “lost dishes” were the result of “lost or forgotten trees, shrubs and plants from our Singapore gardens”.

“These were part of the gardens of Singapore families—Malay, Peranakan and Eurasian—living in the old areas of Katong, Joo Chiat and Bedok, and the moneyed enclaves of Bukit Timah, for example,” Oon explains. Examples included pandan bushes, the quencher spice root, blimbing plant, and even nangka and chiku trees.

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“What inspired me to go back to the past for the future was the introduction of the buah binjai (Binjai Park was once home to a plantation of binjai trees) to my kitchen by Wee Eng Hwa, daughter of late president Wee Kim Wee. She has written an amazing Peranakan cookbook called Cooking for the President that took her 20 years [to complete],” she shares, pointing out how many of the fruits and vegetables featured in the book are almost impossible to find in their raw form in markets and supermarkets.

“Luckily for me, Eng Hwa likes to send some of these harvests from her garden and friends’ gardens to my restaurant, so that I can cook and share them with our diners; her aim is to share the ‘treasures’ of our cuisines with as many people as possible.”

The buah binjai, Oon explains, is critically endangered in the wild of Singapore, with fewer than 50 mature trees (at last count in 2008) currently identified. The brown fruit reveals a white flesh with a hint of mango and pineapple flavour, but binjai trees only fruit once every three to five years—usually around the middle of the year.

“The fruit, though, freezes very well and it is usually made into a sambal with dark soya sauce, sliced chillies and a bit of sugar,” Oon adds. “It is eaten raw and often served with fried fish or mixed into the rice.”

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Suffice it to say, the solution to ensuring the future of these dishes is far from straightforward. But the rewards are delectably clear.

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