How To Eat Excellent Peranakan Food In A Stranger's Home
Tired of the same old restaurants? Dine in the cosy abodes of these four home cooks offering unique Peranakan private dining experiences. (A version of this story first appeared in Issue 1385, May 4, 2017.)
For reservations (two weeks in advance), call 9387-6399 or e-mail: annette [at] fatfuku.com. www.facebook.com/fatfuku
THE COOK: Annette Tan, 44. The veteran freelance food writer has contributed both recipes and restaurant reviews to many publications, including this magazine. But when she’s not writing, the nonya cooks and bakes in her spare time, generously hosting friends. Now, she has decided to let the public taste her cooking — Peranakan food inspired by her childhood and updated with modern touches. Think Crispy Mee Siam and Wagyu Beef Cheek Rendang. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a child with my late Peranakan mother, who was a fantastic cook and baker. Besides my Ladybird storybooks, I loved reading my mother’s cookbooks. So when I was old enough to stir and mix without ruining her kitchen, I would make simple chocolate cakes from a beautiful Hershey’s cookbook from 1934 that I still have today.”
The seasoned foodie has decided to open up her kitchen to strangers because “business has been slow lately on the writing front”, given the sluggish economy. “Of course I have to make a profit [from doing this], but it’s not a large profit — especially when you consider the amount of effort that goes into cooking this kind of food. You have to see it as a passion project rather than as something to build a lucrative career with,” she adds. And what about being fair game for criticism now, after years of being a restaurant critic, and er, having no qualms about declaring someone’s food not up to scratch? “My friends have encouraged me to do this for a long time, and one of my excuses for putting it off till now was that any bad review I had ever written would come back and bite me in the behind! But food is subjective, not everyone is going to like what I do. It’s the same at any other restaurant — one man’s wagyu beef cheek is another man’s bitter gourd.” As for the amusing name Fatfuku, it “embraces the Chinese saying that it is good fortune, fu, or fuku in Japanese, to be fat. It also translates to mean “fat luck”.
THE SETTING: A cosy 830 sq ft condo unit in Upper East Coast, where Annette lives alone. A rustic wooden dining table painted a cheery turquoise fronts the semi-open kitchen. Appetisers are served first, and you can sit and chat over drinks at the sofa in the living room with your fellow diners. It’s unpretentious and homey, like having a good feed in a pal’s pad. But Annette won’t impose on you here — instead, she and her helper will leave you to enjoy your meal in peace after introducing each dish. Like her food? She plans to conduct cooking lessons in her home soon, too.
THE MENU: $95 for seven courses. This gets you a snack, five large sharing plates (plus nasi kuning, turmeric rice), and dessert (you’re served two sweets here, counted as one, woo hoo!). But there has to be a minimum and maximum of six people if you want to makan here. So be prepared to sit with strangers if you can’t round up five of your kakis. You’re welcome to bring your own booze at no charge.
The standout dish of our meal. Says Annette: “My mother and grandmother used to make awesome mee siam and it was one of the first recipes I asked my mum for when I moved out of her house. So I wanted to re-create her mee siam, but give it a modern spin. I love the crispy bee hoon at zi char restaurant JB Ah Meng, and I knew it was something I could do with mee siam. I mean, what could possibly make the mee siam I hold so dear in my food memories even better? Crisping it up, of course!” The rice vermicelli, first fried in a piquant rempah (spice blend), is reminiscent of a tasty bee hoon goreng. It is then fried a second time just before serving so its edges are gently crisp while the middle remains soft and springy. It’s then dolloped with prawns and quail eggs slathered in umami sambal belacan. But the pièce de résistance is the gravy, served on the side. It’s cooked with a killer prawn stock (heads and shells from a kilo’s worth of tiger prawns are simmered for an hour), and the sweet brininess of the crustacean shines through the tangy assam-spiked orange sea in a way that made us dream about it for days after slurping up the last drop. Squeeze more lime juice on this for maximum shiokness.
Annette’s family friends are Eurasian foodies, that's why she has several good Eurasian recipes in her repertoire. Here, she takes the traditional Curry Debal (a vinegary curry traditionally cooked from Christmas leftovers like roast meats) and magicks it into a gorgeous pot pie. The spicy filling in this brims with pulled roasted chicken, sausages, mushrooms and carrots. A fiery counterpoint to the buttery, crumbly pastry adorned with pretty pastry flowers.
We don’t fancy traditional baklava, the Middle-Eastern sweet of filo pastry filled with nuts and dripping with honey. But it’s another thing altogether when the crackly pastry sheets are crammed with bak kwa jam, a delightful mélange of the barbecued pork with bacon bits, maple syrup, fish sauce, brandy and balsamic vinegar, all cooked till caramelised. Like a salty, meaty version of hae bee hiam. A clever and toothsome pre-meal morsel.
This rendang is less “wet” than the usual versions, but the chunks of cheek are meltingly tender. They’re braised for hours in a velvety, punchy sauce perfumed with goodies like candlenuts and chillies, then showered with impossibly fragrant serundeng (spiced grated coconut).
The gado gado's thick, silky sauce chock-full of chunky roasted peanuts, chilli, garlic, sugar and tamarind is so good we could drink it on its own. Instead, we civilly pair it with the succulent, crunchy green beans, radicchio and toasted tempeh. And that home-made keropok, which involves steaming minced prawns, mixing it with flour then drying it in the sun? It’s one crunchy umami bomb.
It took years for Annette to get this recipe right, after prying it from the secretive hands of a reluctant Eurasian auntie who makes a mean version. The result is a bar of semolina cake that has a chunkier than usual texture due to rougher-cut almonds, and an alluring toasty flavour. It’s thankfully not as dry as most other sugee cakes. But the star of this plate is Annette’s home-made malted corn ice cream, churned with a fun mix of Cap'n Crunch cereal and polenta. It’s silky and lush with a caramel-corn flavour that will please both adults and kids. You also get a devilishly rich dark chocolate tart along with this.
BOTTOM LINE: $95 is a reasonable price to pay for something quite priceless: a sedap meal prepared by one of Singapore’s foremost food critics and recipe developers. She prepares her family’s treasured Peranakan dishes with a charming dash of contemporary pizzazz and some Eurasian elements. Doesn’t hurt that she’s one hell of a baker too. $$$
2. Lynnette’s Kitchen
For reservations (two weeks in advance), go to www.lynnetteskitchen.com or e-mail lynnette.seah.sg [at] gmail.com.
THE COOK: Lynnette Seah, in her 50s. The SSO violinist and Cultural Medallion recipient started her home-based private dining service Lynnette’s Kitchen in 2015, after years of throwing dinner parties for her family and friends. Lynnette, whose dad is Peranakan, learnt how to cook from her pianist mum. She recalls, “My mother used to lock me in my room to practise the piano and violin, and after that I had to go to the kitchen to help her prepare dinner.” The no-nonsense maestro creates her own Peranakan recipes. Lynnette juggles cooking, teaching violin and her SSO duties with “[her] good helper, who has done so many dinners with [her]”.
“This is going to be good,” chirps Lynnette as she stirs a wok where fat chilli crabs are simmering. She lifts up a spoonful of gravy, tastes it, and beams in satisfaction. “This is my happy face, this is the right taste,” she declares. Lynnette cooks with the same sort of concentration you’d see when she’s on stage playing her antique Gabrielli violin. “I love giving through music and cooking,” shares the consummate hostess as she bustles about in a form-fitting dress. “My life is all about the crescendo — I start [the meal] light, build up to the climax with my beef rendang, and then I’ll bring things down with a dessert.”
THE SETTING: Lynnette’s spacious five-room HDB flat in Tiong Bahru, where she lives with her two sons Maurice, 33, a lawyer, and Andre, 31, an IT programmer. Once we step inside, the apartment feels more like a cosy restaurant than HDB flat. The decor is tasteful with elegant lamps casting soft lighting. The living room is dedicated to entertaining guests. There’s a wine cooler, while cabinets are filled with stemware and teddy bear figurines playing tiny violins. For our dinner with her musician friends, Lynnette prepares an intimate setting for the party of 12, joining two long dining tables for a tok panjang-like feast. There are floral Peranakan tablecloths and charmingly mismatched chairs. Diana Krall croons gently on the stereo system. We feel like we’re dining at a posh friend’s crib. Lynnette and her helper, Emmy, trot out sharing platters course by course from their open kitchen beside the table. Lynnette, who’s divorced, covers her “cost, effort and time — I go to two or three different markets to get fresh spices, meat and seafood, and my stocks are made from scratch —” with the fees she charges. And no, home-dining isn’t lucrative for her. “Unless you go into catering,” she says. “When I retire, I’d like to open a casual cafe serving nonya food. It's too expensive to open a [proper] restaurant in Singapore! I'm looking for investors [to fund my cafe],” she muses.
THE MENU: Prices start from $100 per pax (for five dishes and one dessert). Our Peranakan dinner had eight dishes and a dessert ($140 per pax). She can cook either a Peranakan or Western meal. Each dinner requires a minimum of eight diners, and can cater up to 16 pax. Lynnette will sit down to dine with you — expect witty, engaging conversation (bonus if you like classical music). Some privileged guests may get a violin performance from the virtuoso herself if she “feel[s] moved to play something, or if the party is celebrating a special occasion”. But be a model guest and don’t demand a performance. Nobody likes to be forced to perform after slaving all day in the kitchen. Lynnette doesn’t charge a corkage fee if you BYOB, though she jokes that the ‘requirement’ is that the hostess gets to try the tipple.
Oven-grilled squid stuffed with an aromatic medley of juicy, gooey glutinous rice, chopped shiitake mushrooms and hae bee hiam (spicy dried shrimp). The lightly seared squids are cooked just enough so they still have a soft bite, and are slathered with an earthy and piquant truffle herb chilli oil. “You’ll be tempted to eat a lot at the start. Don’t. There’s more to come,” Lynnette’s friend kindly advises us. But we couldn’t help ourselves and scarf down a few helpings of the moreish squid ’cos it’s just so sedap.
One of the best bowls of laksa we’ve eaten. The rich, super lemak gravy is incredibly well-balanced, thanks to the intense rempah paste chockfull of ground dried shrimp and spices, thickened with fresh coconut milk. Each bowl is garnished with bouncy fish cake, quail eggs and plenty of coarsely-chopped laksa leaves which Lynnette liberally sprinkles like fairy dust. So good.
Plump Sri Lankan crabs bathed in an eggy gravy spiked with galangal and lemongrass that add exceptional flavour. It may be a tad sweet and mild for folks who prefer their chilli crabs spicier and tangier, but we like that it does not overpower the clean, delicate sweetness of the firm crabmeat. Mop up your plate with lightly crunchy fried mantous.
One of the five main dishes that Lynnette serves as a single course (the other four include buah keluak fried rice). Our favourites from the main courses are the delightfully crunchy, tasty string beans with chye poh, hae bee hiam and water chestnut, plus this luscious rendang. Short ribs are slow-braised for three hours till soft in a thick, coconutty gravy choked with spices like dried chillies and tamarind.
Though she makes baked treats like (a so-so) sugee cake, Lynnette decides to serve bubur cha cha for our dinner. The warm, comforting coconut milk treat is lush and crammed with chewy chunks of home-made tapioca jelly, sweet potatoes and yams. We really wish we had evolved a second stomach for desserts.
BOTTOM LINE: Prep yourself for dinner at Lynnette’s Kitchen like you would for a serious buffet. The half-Peranakan Lynnette feeds her guests with almost overwhelmingly generous helpings of wonderful home-cooked food made from scratch, like a true nonya matriarch. We like the inviting, homey setting too. And the fact that the violin virtuoso sometimes performs for her guests… if you’re lucky. $$$$
3. Ampang Kitchen
For reservations, call Raymond at 9618-7107. www.facebook.com/TheAmpangKitchenSingapore
All in the family: David with his father Raymond Leong.
THE COOKS: Raymond Leong, a sprightly 70-year-old grandfather and his 26-year-old son, David Leong. They’re the team behind Ampang Kitchen, named for its location at their home in Jalan Ampang in Bukit Timah. Here, they serve Penang-style Peranakan food. Surprise surprise, the men have no Peranakan blood in them. In fact, they’re Cantonese. Head chef Raymond fell in love with Peranakan food as a young lad after tasting meals cooked by a schoolmate’s nonya grandmother. He later picked up Peranakan cooking in 2003 by chance, from a two-week course at a Penang cooking school, ’cos “[his] friend’s uncle was teaching there and asked if [he] wanted to learn”. The former chartered accountant who retired in 2002 has been dabbling in F&B ever since. He set up Ampang Kitchen three years ago as a catering business offering home-cooked Peranakan food, which he still runs now using his own recipes. Earlier this year, he expanded the biz by opening his elegant four-storey semi-detached home for guests to sample his freshly-cooked dishes. “I save on rent, and when I'm done with cooking, I can watch TV,” he explains. The father-of-three is grooming his youngest son, David, to cook alongside him full-time. The latter, who has degrees in marketing and criminology explains: “I initially wanted to work as a criminologist, but the market in Singapore for the job isn't big”.
THE MENU: A simple three-course set lunch starts from $30 per pax (minimum of six pax). Dinner starts from $80 a pax (minimum eight pax) where you can choose nine dishes like soups, salads and mains to share. You can BYOB (no corkage charge).
This appetite-whetting Penang-style rojak features six ingredients, like crispy fried dough fritters, crunchy turnip and juicy starfruit that pair unexpectedly well with pungent century eggs. They’re even more delicious with a generous coating of Raymond’s tasty sweet-tangy sauce made with “top-grade prawn paste and fresh limes”.
Raymond boils pork bones and prawn shells for four hours to make the concentrated broth that goes into his prawn and pork rib noodles. It's excellent. The light crimson broth is infused with the distinctive sweetness of prawns, and made even more intense with the pork ribs’ full-bodied flavour. Raymond ladles out two fat wild-caught jumbo prawns with two pieces of juicy ribs, kang kong, and offal like intestines for us. Free-flow home-fried lard bits, fried shallots and chilli powder add to this bowl of deliciousness.
Rounding off lunch is Raymond’s homely chendol (the green jelly ‘worms’ are made with mung bean flour and flavoured with pandan leaves). He painstakingly squeezes the jelly through a sieve to create strands. Pity it's a bit stiff and the natural pandan flavouring slightly bitter. The moreish coconut milk, served with fragrant gula melaka and kidney beans, is better. But it doesn’t blow us away like how the prawn noodles did.
BOTTOM LINE: The father-and-son team’s lovingly prepared three-course lunch is great value at $30, considering they don’t skimp on the ingredients used. And you get to hang out with the warm, chatty Raymond, who reminds us of our own grandpa. $–$$$
4. The Modern Bibik
Tel: 9875-5128, www.facebook.com/themodernbibik
THE COOK: A former fashion and beauty editor for various women’s mags, Angeline Neo’s initiation into another F&B scene — this time food and beverage — happened two years ago when her friend, a co-owner of Epicurious cafe at Robertson Quay, encouraged her to whip up a few dishes for the restaurant. “One of the most annoying things about dining out is that you always end up paying so much,” explains the 42-year-old single lass and avid home cook. “People should be able to spend time with friends without it being too costly.” Inspired by the supper club concept in London, Angeline, who regularly cooks and entertains at home, decided to replicate it here. “Three-quarters Peranakan”, Angeline credits her love of food to the women in her family, whom she says are great chefs. “I started The Modern Bibik to pay tribute to my late grandmother,” she tells us. “Her philosophy is that if you love somebody, you cook for them. What I do is a cheeky and saucy twist on traditional Peranakan food."
THE MENU: Three packages to choose from, including a $68/pax tea menu with about six dishes (what we had) and a $128/pax menu with 10 dishes. All include a welcome cocktail and tea. There’s no corkage fee if you bring your own wine.
Our fave of this trio of appetisers is the babi assam, slow cooked pork sweetened with fresh chopped pineapples and a bit of coconut sugar, a nice counterbalance to the tanginess of the tamarind. Served on lightly toasted French loaf. The smoked duck kueh pie tee with turnip, Asian pear, carrot, cucumber and chilli padi is good too.
This dry laksa stir-fried with bean sprouts, fish cake, cucumber and prawn, could do with more potent flavours. The laksa spices are overpowered by the rawness of the sprouts.
Made with coconut water, coconut milk, orange juice, vodka and prawn stock, this nonya play on the French fish stew is a little underwhelming. The broth lacks the robust flavours of traditional Peranakan spices and is a bit too sweet.
This pretty platter is a collection of assorted sweets from The Tea Party Café and Fat Aunty, a home-based baker. (Angeline also prepares her own desserts if you prefer). We love the rich and velvety brownies from The Tea Party and the light yet decadent ondeh ondeh cupcakes by Fat Aunty.
BOTTOM LINE: Some hits and misses, but a decent effort for a home cook. And Angeline is a charismatic and chatty host with an easy-going vibe. However, her home’s limited space is only suitable for smaller groups. $$–$$$