Old-world charm, closely guarded traditions and a generation with the heart and head have helped heritage food establishments in Singapore remain as crowd-pullers even after decades in the business.
Nestled along a row of colourful shophouses in Joo Chiat, Kim Choo Kueh Chang is best known for bak chang – a traditional Peranakan (Straits Chinese) rice dumpling with meat fillings.
“But we don’t just sell dumplings. We’re a cultural business that showcases Peranakan heritage,” says Edmond Wong, 32-year-old grandson of founder Mdm Lee Kim Choo.
Indeed, besides the dumplings, locals also flock to Kim Choo Kueh Chang for its mouth-watering selection of Peranakan delights such as pineapple tarts, nine-layer kueh (bite-sized snacks of desserts) and melt-in-your-mouth fish otah (spicy fish paste).
The upper level of the shophouse – open to the public – is a treasure trove of Peranakan antiques and traditional costumes like the kebaya (a long-sleeved blouse incorporating Malay and Chinese influences) and beaded shoes.
Over at Samy’s Curry at Dempsey, traditions manifest more subtly. Fresh banana leaves lend a luscious aroma to soft beds of rice, accompanied by signature dishes like chicken masala and its famous curry fish head.
“It’s a South Indian custom to serve your guests using banana leaves, as they cannot be re-used and are considered special,” says 31-year-old director Nagajyothi Mahendran. The restaurant and its spirit to keep true to tradition have ensured that it continues to be popular since its founding in the 1950s, and is often hailed by some as the best Indian restaurant in Singapore.
Like Samy’s Curry, Beng Hiang Restaurant is also touted as the best for its cuisine category – traditional Hokkien fare. Its illustrious clientele ranges from former Singapore presidents to well-known action star Jackie Chan.
The Beng Hiang menu offers an array of dishes like the signature steamed bun with braised brisket, fish maw soup and fried oyster omelette.
Formerly located at Amoy Street, this Hokkien restaurant has now moved to Jurong East. It preserves its authentic flavours thanks to long-serving chefs who have been with the eatery for nearly 30 years, according to 74-year-old managing director Ng Han Kim.
Located in another famed heritage district, Hajah Maimunah at Kampong Glam will pacify those searching for authentic Malay food in Singapore.
This institution serves up appetite-whetting traditional Malay cuisine with dishes like Sundanese grilled chicken, lemak siput (needle snails in spicy coconut gravy), beef rendang (braised beef cooked in coconut milk and spices) and barbecued fish. The no-frills, family-run business is managed by 30-year-old general manager Mastura Didih, whose mother started the business in 1992. Her brother Ismail, 31, oversees marketing and business development.
“Heritage restaurants like ours have historical significance and are part of people’s memories. We’ve watched young customers grow into parents who return with their families,” says Mastura.