A recent sampling of three Peranakan restaurant takeaways had us suddenly thinking about Goldilocks – possibly the original food critic with the cheek to steal three bears’ bowls of porridge and review them without being asked to. Too hot, too cold….and juust nice…
Candlenut, Kin and Indigo Blue Kitchen are all very enjoyable in their own ways and like Goldilocks, which one you pick really boils down to price and personal preference. And also, how close in proximity you live to a real-life Nonya or Baba – in which case all bets would be off because everyone fails compared to his or her grandmother who cooked babi pongteh over charcoal before electricity was invented. If not, then take your pick from the following trio.
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Nonya lite – Indigo Blue Kitchen
Indigo Blue Kitchen is the youngest concept of the three, with a chef whose enthusiasm compensates for his lack of Peranakan heritage. He may not get all the nuances right but the cooking is light, clean and homey with a few nice touches. Price-wise, it’s cheaper than the other two, since you can get a set menu for two people for S$68, including two free drinks. There’s a decent amount of food, although you have to share one portion of its signature bakwan kepiting soup – two crabmeat-packed balls in a prawn-based broth that’s full of depth. It usually sells at S$18 a portion. Add an ala carte portion of hee peow soup (S$10) as both soups are the highlights of the menu. The latter is less intense in flavour but still good for its clean and light cabbage-sweetened broth with puffed fish maw, fishball and a pretty fishcake roll.
Also holding its own is the ngoh hiang – fried beancurd skin stuffed with minced pork, shrimp and water chestnut with little chunks to bite on – and smooth-textured otah with enough bounce and spice. Buah keluak chicken is one large piece that’s smothered in a deep dark gravy that is adequate but doesn’t excite, while the beef rendang is a bit of a slacker that could use a good kick in more ways than one.
As with all deliveries, the food arrives promptly – early in fact, although with a minor hiccup in that they forgot our drinks. But they do apologise and promise to credit our next order. Not a deal breaker – the fact that we didn’t notice till after our meal shows we didn’t miss it at all.
Hardcore heritage – Kin
Kin is synonymous with Damian D’Silva and we all know what that means. You get a history lesson with your food, a no-compromise approach to the recipes and full-on authentic flavours in portions that look manageable but add up to a lot.
There’s only a limited range of a la carte items so the best variety is found in the heritage sets which are priced from S$138. Unless you are two ravenous people, there’s enough here for at least three, if not four average appetites, especially with rice.
You will need a lot of it to do justice to the vibrant orange-hued gravy from the ayam lemak chilli padi coaxed from the patient frying of rempah and rich coconut milk; or tender soft bone pork ribs in Aberjaw, a mild mellow Eurasian stew enriched with fermented soy beans. Chef D’Silva’s famous sambal buah keluak is a dish in itself, meant to add funky earthy goodness to white rice, or saved to make your own fried rice the next day (idiot-proof and very good).
Its original fieriness has been tempered -probably too many victims going into chilli coma in the old days – so you can add your own heat with the stingy amount of sambal belacan that comes with the set.
Add to all this a whole ikan selar stuffed with a chilli garam paste and char-grilled, deep-fried spiced chicken wings and an addictive side of okra dressed in a dried prawn sambal. Add on an extra of kueh bingka (S$12) – baked tapioca cake with a satisfying chewy mouth feel or slightly too soft kuih kosui (S$12) for a sweet ending. Overall, it’s an intense onslaught of Peranakan, Eurasian, Chinese and Malay culture on a plate that can be heavy-going but never disappointing.
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Middle of the road calm – Candlenut
Malcolm Lee’s Michelin-starred Candlenut probably has the most amiable disposition of the three, turning out balanced, refined flavours that don’t sock it to you but are just well-executed interpretations of Peranakan classics and his own creations.
The first thing that will bug you is the price – which seems reasonable at S$20 a dish until you see the size of the portions that arrive. You may complain about the single portion of pong tauhu soup until you taste the strength of the prawn stock – with shreds of bamboo shoot and streaky pork attesting to the ingredients that went into making it – and the four shrimp and crabmeat balls that are easily, if reluctantly, split between two people. Then there’s ngoh hiang, where you can literally see the evenly diced mushrooms, shrimp and water chestnut in the minced pork mixture wrapped in deep fried beancurd skin. The deeply inked baby squid cooked in tamarind and chillis is competent if not really a keeper, but the swimmer crab curry is. Not Peranakan unless it was adopted, this dish evokes buried travel memories of Bangkok with its familiar fragrance of kaffir lime, coconut and swimmer crab reminiscent of yellow Southern Thai curries.
Apart from that little detour, the rest is mostly Peranakan like the ayam sioh bakar – a riff on the coriander-onion marinated chicken that’s charcoal broiled and served with a tangy sauce from the marinade on the side. And fermented soy bean (taucheo) braised babi pongteh which more than passes muster.
If you’re tempted to buy a bottle of prepared sambal belacan (S$12.50) do note that it’s on the salty side without much fragrance. Indigo Blue Kitchen does a tastier version and it gives a decent amount for free.
For dessert, before you sputter in indignation at the palm-sized kueh sarlat that costs you S$25, know that a lot of work goes into achieving that picture perfect, glossy-smooth pandan custard that sits atop a thin layer of sticky glutinous rice.
Overall though, when you factor in the price of a complete meal, taste and variety, Candlenut isn’t totally off the mark. There’s no denying the quality and confidence of the cooking – not totally authentic but still solid stuff.
It might be Goldilocks’ idea of “just nice” but for us, we’re bears who like our porridge in all different ways.
Indigo Blue Kitchen: #03-09/10/11 Shaw Centre.
Visit indigobluekitchen.com.sg or call 62353218 / WhatsApp 89403920
(Min order S$40. Delivery Fee: S$5 to S$10. Free delivery for orders S$120 and above)
Kin: 31 Bukit Pasoh Road.
Visit straitsclan.com/restaurant-kin or call/WhatsApp 97237028
(Min order S$100. Delivery fee: S$5.)
Candlenut: 17a Dempsey Road.
Visit www.comodempsey.sg or call 81210176
(Free delivery above S$150)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.