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Peranakan Flavours

One of the first cuisines born of an assimilation of cultures, Peranakan food continues to evolve today. Seah Bee Leng from House of Peranakan details the adaptable nature of the cuisine

Before it became derigueur to lace French cuisine with a hint of Japanese influence, and before the age of sambal fries and kimchi hotdogs, there was Peranakan cuisine. “Long before innovation and fusion were buzzwords, the Peranakan community was already adapting and adopting ingredients from various cultures,” says Seah Bee Leng, a second-generation family member who quit her job in the United Nations to run the House of Peranakan group of restaurants. “While we borrow heavily from both Chinese and Malay cuisines, Indian and European (Portuguese) influences are also evident in Nonya dishes.”

To be sure, when her father, Bob Seah, started Peranakan Inn in 1985 at a pre-war shophouse located in Katong, his signature dishes included long beans stir-fried in sambal, Nonya-style ngoh hiang and claypot curry fish head – similar to what one might find at an Indian restaurant. Thirty years down the road, the patriarch – who makes his rounds of the group’s three restaurants every day to ensure quality control – continues to innovate.

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Bob Seah, who founded Peranakan Inn 30 years ago, continues to develop new Peranakan dishes, such as a scallop dish served with a gravy of turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, onions and garlic

“Over the years, we have created several Peranakan-inspired dishes to suit the palate of the younger generation who request for greater variety and healthier options,”shares Bee Leng. More recently, a dish of Scallop Lemak was introduced at the group’s latest outpost – House of Peranakan Petit in Tiong Bahru. “Previously at Peranakan Inn, the dish was served with fishcake. The fishcake has been replaced by scallops as we adapt to more affluent and diverse tastes.”

Adapting to modern times is not just about creating new flavours, but also about adopting new equipment. However, Bee Leng stresses that even with modern-day equipment, the methods remain unchanged. “Peranakan cooking requires patience. We need to fry (tumis) spices over a slow fire till they caramelise, to bring out the aroma and sweetness and take away the acidity of the fresh spices. To prevent burning the spices, we need to stir it continuously. An important aspect of Peranakan cooking is in the proportion of spices used. This is something that comes with experience and Bob personally trains and oversees the chefs at the restaurants.”

Experience is not the only thing built over time – so are relationships. “We have been getting our seafood and poultry from the same suppliers since establishing Peranakan Inn thirty years ago. These are suppliers who would reserve the best and freshest lot for us even during public holidays and festive periods,” reveals Bee Leng.

42 Eng Hoon Street

 

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NEW HOUSE RULES

Opened early in 2015, House of Peranakan Petit provides a modern, updated setting for enjoying Peranakan food – and a different spread to appeal to a different crowd. Bob’s children, Russell and Bee Leng, together with Bee Leng’s husband Eu Jin, were not just thinking about the neighbourhood’s hipster appeal when they set up House of Peranakan Petit in the heart of hipster haven Tiong Bahru. Really. “Our first and second restaurants, Peranakan Inn and Baba Inn (thereafter renamed House of Peranakan Cuisine), are located in the east.

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Not just a chic space that showcases the modern side of Peranakan food, House of Peranakan Petit also reveals other aspects of the Peranakan culture

We have always wanted to spread the culinary heritage of our family to other parts of Singapore. Tiong Bahru, in particular Eng Hoon Street, was a Peranakan enclave, and we felt that this would be a perfect place to showcase our rich culinary culture,” says Bee Leng. Apart from offering healthier options – such as steamed otak and a refreshing wrap of turnip, bean paste and bamboo shoots in lettuce – dishes with a touch of luxe (think crayfish and scallop lemak) are also available. “Petit also has a wider dessert menu that includes Gula Melaka Sago Pudding with Coconut Ice Cream and a modern take on Durian Chendol.”


TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Seah Bee Leng reveals the essential equipment in her family Nonya’s kitchen
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01 TO THE GRIND

“Nonyas in the past  would never be seen using a blender. They used the batu giling (granite rolling pin and flat granite slab) and batu lesung (mortar and pestle) to grind and mix ingredients and spices.”

 

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02 CAST IN STONE

“In every kitchen of the House of Peranakan group of restaurants, there is a batu lesung for the occasional bruising of lemongrass and chillies in small quantities.”
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03 POT OF GOLD

“Bob introduced the concept of cooking and serving food in claypots at Peranakan Inn 30 years ago to retain the heat of the food.”
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