The celebrated custodian of Peranakan fare says innovation is the key to ensuring its future

Though his restaurant Candlenut is often described as one that serves modern Peranakan food, chef Malcolm Lee is keen to point out that the definition isn’t quite accurate. “It’s not really modern,” he said. “It’s just Peranakan food brought into the now. It’s how we eat today.”

Modern though they may seem, the dishes are firmly rooted in their traditional essence; for example, ikan chuan chuan—a rustic dish of a whole fish, fried and served in a light ginger and tau cheo (fermented soybean paste) sauce. At Candlenut, Malcolm uses meaty fillets of threadfin, which he swathes in a smooth, rich sauce made with ginger paste and tau cheo. The resulting rendition is refined and elegant, yet unmistakably ikan chuan chuan.

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Above A beautifully elevated rendition of the ikan chuan chuan

“Our ideas are simple,” Malcolm explained, “What’s important is that we understand the original dish and decide how we want to present it to our guests. Traditional can be modern when you start at the beginning and ask yourself why this cuisine is unique.”

Using good ingredients and going back to the basics also help with innovating his dishes. For cincalok pork, his team makes cincalok (fermented baby shrimps) from scratch, an ingredient home cooks typically buy bottled. Being in control of the fermentation process means they can control the resulting, often pungent flavour that is so integral to the dish.

“Cincalok pork is usually made with pork belly, but we wanted to lighten it, so we made tau kwa (firm tofu) the main protein and add sliced Iberico pork secreto, which we stir-fry then braise quickly in the gravy before serving,” he said.

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Looking back to move forward

Like most other Peranakan restaurants, Candlenut gets plenty of flak from fussy Peranakans who are fiercely protective of their culinary traditions. Some would rather see beloved dishes like babi pongteh made the way it has been for generations; others are adamant that no one makes chap chye/buah keluak/insert-beloved-traditional-dish-here better than their matriarch or patriarch.

Malcolm has learnt to take criticism in his stride. “Restaurant and home cooking are different. Here, we cook for 100 people a day. There is so much that is unpredictable and yet we have to maintain consistency. Sometimes, innovation helps us deliver that consistency. So yes, when people say their mother or grandmother can cook better, I agree. But we can run a restaurant better.”

Earning a Michelin star for his efforts certainly help prove the point. But for the 33-year-old baba, this is just the beginning. His plan for the next decade is to travel and learn about the roots of Peranakan cooking, bolstering his already firm foundation with an eye on bettering his ideal of the cuisine.

My favourite forgotten dish: Loh kai yik

“I love all the different ingredients in loh kai yik—pig’s innards, cuttlefish, pork belly, pork skin, chicken wings... And it’s all braised in red wine lees and fermented bean curd; it’s like all the Avengers coming together in one dish,” a visibly excited Malcom shares. “It’s so tasty and is so good with rice.”

Each component of the dish is treated with care. “To keep the textures, we braise the pig skin, pork belly and intestines first. Then we use the same liquid to braise the chicken wings,” he explains. He stews the ingredients separately, so the chicken doesn’t break down before the innards are tender. He then reduces the gravy before serving.

“It takes time and effort, but it’s very refined,” he affirms. “Loh kai yik was on the a la carte menu at the previous restaurant but no one ordered it. Now we put in on the tasting menu, so people are forced to eat it (laughs).

“When they try it they love it. Some would even ask to da bao (take away). That gives me a lot of confidence in my decision.”

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Above The forgotten loh kai yik is one of Lee’s favourite things to eat
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