Nonya Poh piah

A Peranakan restaurant without a Nonya chef is like a rebel without a cause. A rose without a thorn. A bibik without a sharp tongue. A grandmother who might wonder what her grandson is thinking, opening a Straits Chinese restaurant without a single patois-speaking, much less rempah-weaned chef in the kitchen.

Indigo Blue Kitchen is both tribute and challenge for Desmond Lim, chairman of the Les Amis Group, who puts his own palate on the line in honour of his paternal grandmother. With no recipes to refer to, he relies on memory to recreate the dishes he grew up with, through a conduit in the form of chef Chong Jun Xiang. Deliberately picked for his Nonya — and preconception-free — background, Chef Chong is a tabula rasa on which to build a Peranakan Order According to Lim.

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Without any obvious heritage trappings like a kebaya hanging here or kasut manek dangling there, Indigo Blue Kitchen comes across as just a simple but tastefully outfitted restaurant on the third floor of Shaw Centre. But when you open the menu, it’s almost like a tok panjang of choices, spilling over enough pages to rival that of a Chinese restaurant.

If in doubt, just order everything as there will be a minimum standard, with some higher than others. For one, order anything that has Nonya popiah filling in it, whether in crunchy kueh pie tee shells or the housemade eggy crepe-like skins. Either way, they’re good foils for the Goldilocks of braised turnip/bamboo shoot filling: not too salty, not too sweet, not too much taucheo and just enough rich broth absorbed by the turnip, which is evenly cut into thin spears (not conveniently shredded) for a satisfying bite.

At the risk of overstuffing yourself, opt for the popiah bundle of four D-I-Y rolls (S$32) and load up on the condiments – lettuce, omelette strips, pounded dried sole, Chinese sausage, beansprouts – and let the purists argue over the authenticity of lap cheong and dried sole in nonya popiah or the virtues of an egg skin over the chewiness of a white flour one. If you want prawns or crab meat in your rolls, add another S$8 or S$22 respectively.

Or you could invest in a single bolster of a roll (S$16). It seems pricey but is stuffed to the gills with prawns and crab. Imagine having a real bolster you can hug and nibble on at the same time: this comes closest.

For more delicate bites, the Indigo platter for two (S$20) is great for the indecisive. You get a trio of snacks comprising four kueh pie tee, ngo hiang and otah. The deep-fried ngoh hiang is stuffed with a bouncy mixture of pork, prawns and water chestnut, doused in sweet sauce to enhance the fragrant five-spice roll. The steamed otah is barely spicy but boasts an appealing smooth bouncy fish paste enriched with coconut milk.

Not quite Peranakan, but enjoyable nonetheless, is the chicken satay (S$12 for four sticks). These come plump and chunky, marinated in enough spices for that lingering familiar scent, plus a chunky peanut sauce.

Bakwan kepiting (S$22) seems pricey for a bowl of clear, sweet and delicate prawn-pork broth with two ping pong-sized balls of crabmeat, pork and prawns, but a lot of crab goes into each firmly packed ball studded with bamboo shoots for crunch to justify it. Dip it into the addictive sambal belacan, which goes with everything and should also come with a fire-hazard warning.

Also good and less pricey is the hee peoh soup (S$12), a clear chicken-and-pork broth simmered with cabbage and packed with a fluffy piece of fish maw, prawn ball and cute egg roll layered with fish paste.

Beef rendang (S$22) is requisitely fork-tender, with oil seeping from the rich thick gravy thickened with shallots and dessicated coconut. It’s competent, but tastes like the equivalent of a polite pat of the head rather than a genuinely affectionate hug.

The same too with the chicken buah keluak (S$24), which seems technically accurate but is perhaps lacking the oomph that a naggy bibik might have extracted from the chef. Still, it’s fun to dig out the meat from the black nut braised in its mild tamarind gravy, since you get to taste the smooth earthiness of the creamy flesh.

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We were hoping for the classic ayam sio or braised chicken in coriander spice mix, but it isn’t included in the current repertoire. But chap chye (S$16) is – a light vegetable stew cooked in a light taucheo-based gravy enriched with pork belly and prawns which passes muster, but could use an extra kick.

In turn, deep-fried prawns with chilli and kaffir lime (S$24), which doesn’t register on our Nonya radar, is pretty ordinary.

Desserts are extensive as well. Cendol (S$7) is sadly disappointing with the kind of shaved ice you need an ice pick to chisel through, served with commercial instead of fresh coconut milk, tough green worms and lacklustre red beans.

The jackfruit and coconut sago (S$7.50) is a much better bet with its soft tender sago in refreshing coconut cream and jackfruit slices. The baby apom (S$14) made from fermented rice flour batter has a nice mild tang and airy texture that you dip into a thick gula melaka sauce that needs a little something more than a one-note sweetness. Banana, jackfruit and durian make up the trio of dips.

Some of the dishes may be lacking in nuance and some “authenticity”, which is a really subjective matter, but overall, you’d be hard put to guess there isn’t a Peranakan chef in the kitchen. But more important, it’s the comforting, unpretentious nature of the cooking that wins you over and makes Indigo Blue Kitchen a place you want to come home to.

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#03-09/10/11 Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road. Tel: 6235-3218

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Indigo Blue Kitchen