Bob Seah, founder of House of Peranakan Group of restaurants, is one of the few pioneering Peranakan restaurateurs who have built a reputation for serving authentic dishes in all their hearty, saucy glory. Their restaurants used to draw round-the-block queues back in the 1980s and ’90s, but since then business has just been chugging along steadily, except for a surge in 2008 following the popular Channel 8 drama series The Little Nyonya.
Many see these older restaurants as recession-proof businesses, but Seah, 75, acknowledges the need to adapt this heritage cuisine to suit both the worldly palates and fickle whims of Singapore’s youth. “We want to make the cuisine accessible to a new generation of customers,” he says. He even allows his daughter Bee Leng, 38, to update some of his dishes, even though he is personally resistant to the idea.
“We have a lot of discussion – even arguments – because my father doesn’t believe in fusion food or serving watered-down dishes,” says Seah. Nevertheless, compromises have been made, with dishes such as a “scallop lemak” (S$26) made with premium shellfish instead of fish cake – a hit with younger customers. They aren’t the only ones who have evolved their food over the years.
Blue Ginger Restaurant (founded in 1995) boasts cleaner, sleeker flavours while being rooted in authentic home recipes. “We use less oil and salt where possible, and reduce the level of spiciness slightly,” says Susan Teo, 62, one of the original founders. Ingredients such as petai beans or chinchalok are also avoided or downplayed, as they are acquired tastes, she adds.
Such tweaking is done with care however, because like many others, Teo believes that some things are just not to be messed with. “Traditional cuisines have longer lifespans, compared to fads; we can modernise the look and presentation of the dishes, but never compromise on the taste,” she says.
That’s why when they decided to expand two years ago with a casual, younger brand, they went with the rice-bowl concept May May that mixes Japanese, Korean and Chinese influences with local ingredients. “We moved away from Peranakan food for such a modern Asian concept because we don’t wish to mess with traditional recipes,” says Teo.
Other players however, take a far bolder approach to modernisation. For instance, Japanese eatery Ippin Cafe Bar recently added Peranakan-Japanese dishes to their menu. Consulting chef Philip Chia keeps the Nonya dishes recognisable, but replaces ingredients with Japanese components, such as dashi instead of fish stock for the laksa, or miso instead of taucheo (fermented soya bean paste) for the pong tahu (beancurd meatball soup).
These tweaks are inspired by Japanese home cooking, which often adapts foreign cuisine by making dishes healthier. However, Chia draws the line at messing with Peranakan spice pastes, which he says must be properly fried. “The spices cannot be compromised. A rempah has to be a rempah,” he says.
Similarly, chef Malcolm Lee of the modern Peranakan restaurant Candlenut has no qualms about making things like buah keluak ice cream – as opposed to the famous Peranakan black nut stew – as long as it adds up to a better experience for his guests. And the fact that his six-year-old restaurant still hits full capacity most nights is testament to the adventurous appetites of diners here, the 32-year-old says.
(Related: The flavours of Peranakan cuisine)
“I think it’s just about having an open mind. If the traditional method works, and creates the best flavour and texture, then do it. If modern techniques allow you to create better tastes or textures, then do that. There’s no limit to how far you should innovate. At the end of the day, we just have to put something that is tasty on the plate,” says Lee.
While Lee opts for culinary innovation, others are changing the business model entirely. Zan Ho, 32, is the third-generation owner of restaurant Dulukala, and he’s adding scalable concepts to the family business. While he doesn’t mess with traditional recipes at their 17-year-old flagship, he has opened franchisable brands such as O’nya Sayang in 2011 at Tampines Mall, and Nya Nya Cafe at International Plaza in February this year. These concepts boast streamlined business models and lower price points – a central kitchen supplies to both.
“How many people of my age, in my generation, know how to cook Peranakan food, and if not, what happens next?” muses Ho, who spent three years in the kitchen before taking over the reins. “I think everybody has a very bad impression of expanding and scaling Peranakan food, but I always explain to them that if you don’t, how many restaurants will survive in the next 10 years? It’s about striking a balance and keeping the culture alive.”
Adapted from The Business Times.