1. Peranakan Khek
#01-03 CAVAN SUITES, 11 CAVAN RD, S209848. TEL: 6443-1213.
Open daily except Mon. Tues-Sat 11am-6pm; Sun 11am-5pm. Last orders at closing. www.peranakankhek.com
Peranakan Khek is a small cake shop hidden in one of the more obscure parts of grungy-hip Jalan Besar, beside a bunch of old industrial buildings. The little store is so nondescript you might actually miss it, which is a pity because this fortnight-old hole-in-the-wall joint is pretty cool. Think new-generation hawker, but with nonya kueh.
Sharon Low (above), 28, used to be a pastry chef with Privé Café, where she turned out everything from French tarts to rustic cakes. But she spent her weekends at home making kueh and other local sweets. “I’ve always preferred Asian flavours and have a soft spot for labour intensive heritage food that is going out of fashion,” says the little nonya. “Kueh is harder to make than Western pastries because you’re using raw ingredients from the market, and so consistency can only be achieved through experience.” The sociology graduate from NUS first started out with recipes from books and the Internet, before tweaking them into her own. With support from her dad Paul Low, 62 (above), she opened her own business when she felt confident enough to sell her kueh. The shop’s name is a tribute to her father, whose family is Peranakan and Khek (the Hakka dialect group; plus Khek sounds like ‘cake’). For now, it’s a small outfit geared mainly at takeaways: a simple yet sleek space with just two seats along a tiny counter.
ON THE MENU: There are about seven varieties of traditional kueh and a couple of cakes like chiffon. Sharon makes everything herself from scratch and sources for ingredients like freshly-squeezed coconut milk, pandan leaves from nearby Tekka Market.
Kueh Bingka Ubi, $2 a piece; $18 a loaf (8 DAYS PICK!)
Most versions of this tapioca cake we’ve tried tend to be dry and crumbly, but Sharon’s kueh bingka is smooth and supple like a firm custard. She says it’s because it’s made with no thickening agents, just pure steamed and mashed tapioca. She squeezes the tapioca pulp to extract excess moisture and bakes it with little more than some egg and coconut milk until the crust is gently caramelised. The result is a clean, naturally sweet tapioca flavour.
Ang Ku Kueh, $2.20 each (8 DAYS PICK!)
Okay, these little gems are more Teochew than nonya, and they’re really tasty. Super soft skins made from mashed sweet potato and glutinous rice flour, filled with mung bean paste studded with sesame seeds and a hint of rock salt for a burst of sweet-savoury flavour.
Kueh Putugal, $2 each; right in pic, with sugee cake
Sharon says she first tasted this kueh in Malacca and recreated it from memory. Chunks of sweet pisang raja bananas are wrapped in a layer of steamed tapioca, then coated in grated coconut. We enjoy the chewy tapioca, but the star is the sweet, tender yet not mushy fruit. Think a fudgier, chewier and (we hope) healthier goreng pisang.
Kueh Salat, $2 a piece; $48 a 9-inch round cake
This kueh has a gorgeously creamy custard layer, but a very mild pandan flavour (only pandan leaves are used instead of artificial pandan essence). Sadly, the coconutty rice beneath has bits of hard, uncooked grains. That said, it’s not bad, but the flavours are too light compared to Chalk Farm’s version, our fave for explosively lemak kueh salat.
Gula Melaka Chiffon Cake, $15 for a 20cm cake
This boasts a rich gula melaka flavour and cloud-like softness. Yum.
BOTTOM LINE: Nonya sweets handmade with humble ingredients and plenty of love. The treats here are more refined than those from the usual kueh chain stores. We just wish there was more variety. $
2. Tok Panjang Peranakan Café
392 EAST COAST RD, S428992. TEL: 9663-3392. Open daily except Mon. Tue-Sun 9am-9pm. Last orders at 8.30pm. www.facebook.com/tokpanjangcafe
“Tok panjang” is Baba Malay for a festive feast, and literally means “long table”. This casual diner along East Coast Road is the latest addition to the formidable House of Peranakan group, which includes the thirtysomething-year-old Peranakan Inn restaurant nearby, and two House of Peranakan restaurants at Tiong Bahru and Claymore Road. Founding chef and baba owner, Bob Seah, 77, created this concept to make Peranakan cuisine available at friendlier prices to a younger generation, and indeed, the prices here are the lowest among all his restaurants. Bob’s children manage Tok Panjang. The cosy 30-seater is done up retro Singapore-style, with batik tablecloths and a glass display near the cashier where you place your orders. Thankfully food is served to your table after payment.
ON THE MENU: Some 30 items, from snacks like home-made Otak Otak to rice dishes such as Nasi Lemak and classic Peranakan braised meats like a sweet and fragrant Babi Pongteh. It’s less elaborate restaurant food (which makes the banquet suggested in the shop’s name rather odd) and more quick bites, almost like Peranakan hawker fare, albeit in a comfy, air-conditioned setting.
Bob’s Pork Belly Buns, $8 for two
This came highly recommended by the staff. It's kong bak pau, featuring two steamed buns filled with pork belly slices cooked in a sticky black sauce. But the pork and buns are sadly dry. On the plus side, there’s a nice smoky sear on the meat, and the sauce is tasty.
Nonya Ngoh Hiang, $5.50 (8 DAYS PICK!)
This is a triumph of deep-fried crispy beancurd skin and juicy, subtly spiced minced pork filling dotted with prawn and water chestnut. Also good is the Kueh Pie Tee: stewed turnip strongly flavoured with dried shrimp, and garnished with a prawn dabbed with zingy sambal, all encased in a crispy shell.
Assam Laksa, $8.90
A sign outside the cafe proclaims that they’ve got the best assam laksa in town, so when this small bowl arrives at our table, our expectations are pretty high. The truth? It’s not bad, but we find this Penang-style laksa too light-tasting — it needs more of a spicy kick and tamarind tang. Also, the broth of Indian mackerel is far too sweet, though we like the topping of crunchy pineapple, ginger flower and flecks of tasty fish.
Ubi Kayu, $6 for six (8 DAYS PICK!)
If you’re looking for sweets, skip the shamefully bland Chendol and zoom in on these babies: pleasantly sweet tapioca balls with a hint of savouriness, dusted with coconut shavings. They’re soft, pillowy and still warm.
BOTTOM LINE: The makan here isn’t as sedap as nearby sister restaurant Peranakan Inn’s. But prices are reasonable and a few the dishes are pretty well-made. Portions are a bit modest, though. And skip the chendol. $
3. Chong Wen Ge Cafe
168 TELOK AYER ST, S068619. TEL: 9168-3208.
Open daily 10am-6pm. Last orders at 5.30pm. www.facebook.com/chongwengecafe
Thian Hock Keng Temple is one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese temples and it used to house Singapore’s first school for girls, Chong Hock Girls’ school (Chong Wen Ge in Mandarin), which is also the name of this quaint Peranakan-inspired café nestled on the temple premises. Done up with eclectic vintage Peranakan furniture and lovely Peranakan floor tiles, this breezy 30-seater has a quiet, old-world feel with lovely views of the temple grounds. It’s owned by three silent partners and self-taught cook, Sharlene Peh, 39, who isn’t Peranakan, but cooks the food here based on recipes she developed at home, and with help from a chef friend. Sharlene, who used to run a fusion cafe, says the shareholders were looking to create a café with local character. When they found this previously unused space at the temple, they decided to give it a nonya flair… even though the temple itself used to be associated with Hokkien migrants.
ON THE MENU: Comforting one-dish meals like mee siam and kopitiam-style toast filled with otah or Sharlene’s zesty, crunchy achar (though the sandwiches are marred by the bread's off-putting yeastiness). Colourful nonya kueh made by a supplier are also available. Skip the so-so coffee and go for the refreshing iced Teh-C Special instead, served with a drizzle of gula melaka.
Nonya Mee Siam, $7.80 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Light tangles of bee hoon in a slightly sweet, tamarind-kissed broth made with dried shrimp. Topped with fresh, bouncy prawns, tau pok and egg. It’s fragrant and quite piquant but a bit too stingy with the spicy rempah. Nonetheless, it’s one of our favourite offerings here.
Nonya Laksa, $10.80
This is super lemak with a generous amount of coconut milk, but too much of a good thing clearly isn’t, um, good. The gravy is bland and lacks umami and heat.
Nonya Kueh, $1.50 each
There’re about 15 varieties on offer here, and they’re not bad. While the Ondeh Ondeh is a bit too sugary, we enjoy its springy texture and filling of oozy gula melaka. Also good is the subtly fragrant rainbow-hued Kueh Lapis Beras. Meanwhile, the Kueh Dada is a bit dry, but has a delish gula-melaka and grated coconut filling.
BOTTOM LINE: The food isn't amazing, but it's decent, affordable and homey. We'll be back for a quiet afternoon tea in restful, historical surrounds. $