Peranakan is Malay for “born here”, which refers to the Straits-born people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. The “Straits Chinese” lead vibrant lives that comprise of many Chinese and Austronesian facets. Male Peranakans are addressed as “Baba”, while females and the culture in general of this matriarchal community are referred to as “Nonya”. They enjoy living in ornate dwellings, which one can experience in establishments like Candlenut, PeraMakan and National Kitchen by Violet Oon, where you can also taste Peranakan dishes adapted from Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian tables.
“In the old days, young Peranakan girls had plenty of opportunities to learn the Peranakan crafts like beading and cooking from their mothers,” explains Kathryn Ho, who owns the popular restaurant chain PeraMakan. “In Peranakan households, there are always guests to feed, so matriarchs have lots of opportunities to cook, bake and create elaborate dishes that are not only delicious but colourful, artistic and creative.”
Kueh are sweet bite-sized snacks adapted from Malay recipes. When you partake in these indulgent treats, you are sharing in the joy that the giver of the kueh wishes to convey to you. The most popular confections among the Peranakans’ plethora of kueh include rainbow-coloured and layered kueh lapis, as well as rolls of coconut and gula melaka (palm sugar) called kueh dadar. Various kueh can be enjoyed at Guan Hoe Soon, which opened in 1953 and seats guests at ornate marble tables and around engraved antique furniture—a common feature in some Straits Chinese homes.
Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant. 40 Joo Chiat Place, Singapore 427764. +65 6344 2761.
Daily 11am-3pm, 6-9.30pm.
Come Chinese New Year, Kim Choo Kueh Chang, located a few doors down from Guan Hoe Soon, rolls out a special menu of confections in bottles, such as the leaven and sugared kueh bangket. Visit Chinese households during the Lunar New Year and these snacks will be presented to welcome you. Kim Choo Kueh Chang opened right after World War II and grew into a wealthy empire built on nonya kueh chang, which uses sweeter condiments than the Chinese sticky rice meat dumpling bak chang. Kim Choo Kueh Chang also offers a tok panjang experience, which comprises of an abundance of dishes that can feed a large family.
Kim Choo Kueh Chang. 60 Joo Chiat Place, Singapore 427784. +65 6741 2125.
Meaning “long table” in Malay, tok panjang is literally a lengthy table of Peranakan delicacies painstakingly prepared to honour an important person or occasion. Significant Peranakan events, such a Peranakan wedding, can last for up to 12 days. The braised pork and fermented soy bean stew babi pongteh is a favourite of the Straits Chinese, while spicy and sour shrimp dish assam udang uses assam, which is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Savour these dishes at True Blue Cuisine, recommended by Michelin Singapore’s Bib Gourmand Guide. Walk your hearty meal off at the Peranakan Museum just next door. Housed in a former Chinese school that was backed by many Peranakan benefactors, the Peranakan Museum exhibits a collection of priceless heirlooms such as crockery and garments made from precious materials, which the Peranakans had a penchant for.
True Blue Cuisine. 47/49 Armenian Street, Singapore 179937. +65 6440 0449.
Daily 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30-9.30pm
Alvin Yapp sought to gain better understanding of his Peranakan roots and ended up assembling a mini museum. He inadvertently founded The Intan, which now elucidates the many aspects of nonya culture to visitors and holds premium tea experiences upon request. The Intan also organises ‘interactive tea experiences’, during which guests are taught how to prepare the crispy canapé kueh pie tee and bead their own bespoke slippers. “Peranakan culture assimilates the many cultures of our region,” Alvin opines. “The Peranakans’ religion, lifestyle, food, practices and behaviour encapsulate their surrounding ethnicities like nowhere else in the world.”
The Intan. 69 Joo Chiat Terrace, Singapore 427231. +65 6440 1148.
Daily 7am-10pm. By appointment only.
One-Michelin-starred chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut personally selects his ingredients from wet markets, before using them to prepare his French gourmet-inspired renditions of nonya fare. Like any other authentic Peranakan chef, he meticulously treats his buah keluak (a black nut indigenous to Southeast Asia) for days, before these underground nuts are safe to eat. This young chef, however, has different ideas for signature Peranakan flavours, and his inventions like Buah Keluak Ice Cream have been well received. Purchase Peranakan condiments and treats from the rattan shelves of Candlenut, which stand on colourful Majolica tiles, which were first produced in Western Europe but gained popularity among the Peranakans thereafter.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon too seats customers in vintage style settings. Fans made of rattan swirl above its idyllic dining space, where Violet not only purveys the dry Peranakan version of laksa, but also showcases prawn bostador (prawns in a fragrant, tangy and spicy paste), which the Peranakans learned from interacting with Eurasians. Savour her trademark chap chye, a mixed vegetable dish whose recipe Violet has demonstrated in numerous cook books and television programmes over the decades.
Candlenut. 17A Dempsey Road, Singapore 249676. +65 1800 304 2288.
Mon-Thu & Sun 12-3pm, 6-10pm; Fri-Sat 12-3pm, 6-11pm.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon. 1 St. Andrew’s Road #02–01, National Gallery, Singapore 178957. +65 9834 9935.
Daily 12-3pm, 6-11pm.
The culture lives on
“You have to see Joo Chiat and Katong to understand our way of life better, as it is the gateway of Peranakan culture,” recommends Raymond Wong, an internationally acclaimed kebaya (traditional nonya dress) designer who is also the son of Kim Choo Kueh Chang’s founder. Formerly a coconut plantation where the Peranakans would socialise, the famous enclave of Katong and Joo Chiat had a two-storey police station, which now houses the modernist Peranakan restaurant Baba Chews. Baba Chews infuses classic dishes like beef rendang (braised beef cooked in coconut milk and spices ) and kueh durian (kueh dadar stuffed with durian [a spiky tropical fruit that is unique to Southeast Asia], instead of the usual shredded coconut and palm sugar) with eclectic flavours and textures. To complete your journey toward becoming an expert in all things Peranakan, walk off your hearty meal while admiring the colourful neighbouring shophouses and their French reliefs, which have housed this unique ethnic group for generations. “The architecture of Joo Chiat and Katong are part of our arts and culture,” opines Peter Wee, President of the Peranakan Association. “We try to preserve these old houses as evidence for future generations to better understand the past.”
Baba Chews Bar and Eatery. 86 East Coast Road #01-01, Katong Square, Singapore 428788. +65 6723 2025.
Mon-Thu & Sun 6.30am-11pm; Fri-Sat 6.30am-12am.