And yet, Nonya food is becoming something of a lost art. Out of the diversity of food you can get on this island, Peranakan cuisine is not something that you can find in every hawker center or food court.
Worse, it is becoming harder and harder to find places that do classic Peranakan food the way it is supposed to be made. And when you do find one, chances are it is also heavily priced.
Peranakan cuisine has a rich history, originating from the chinese descendants of Penang, Indonesia and Singapore. Marrying into the local Malays, the resulting food is actually a blend of both traditional chinese and malay influences. And what a cuisine this is!
Nonya food is at once, spicy, aromatic, herbal and tangy. A mix that is rather unusual yet when you savor the Nonya dishes, it is immediately comforting and reassuring.
Recently, Orchard Cafe has revamped their buffet to a selection of both classic and some "enhanced" Nonya dishes and I was there to sample some of the dishes on offer.
Chap chye is one of those dishes that look positively uninspiring. Basically it is braised vegetables in a tao chiu sauce (fermented soya bean paste for the uninitiated). But if done perfectly, the beauty of the flavors that are infused into the crunchy vegetables is just amazingly flavorful and simply tasty.
|Ayam Buah Keluak|
Ayam Buah Keluak has always been one of my most desired Peranakan dishes. It is actually braised chicken cooked with the nuts from what is generally known as a Kepayang tree. This is a really laborious dish as the nuts have to be washed and soaked for 3 days and the flesh has to be painstakingly removed prior to cooking.
After which, chicken meat is marinated and a rempah needs to be concocted before the whole lot is cooked and braised for hours. A tedious recipe indeed, but under the watchful eyes of an experienced Nonya matriarch, the resulting dish can be utterly awesome.
|Kueh Pie Tee|
As a kid, I used to love these crispy cups of Pie Tee. Essentially, Pie Tee is a deep fried pastry shell filled with vegetables and shrimp. At Orchard Cafe, they actually included some crab meat as well, which is interesting. It is the Nonya canape of choice.
|Black Cod Otak|
Otak is bascially spicy fish paste made from fresh fish, wrapped in fragrant banana leaves and then it is either charcoal grilled or steamed. The resulting flavors are usually very aromatic and when combined with the lovely textures of the otak itself, it can be a winning combination.
This is stewed pork in tao chiu and it is again, one of those dishes that require a lot of effort. The rempah has to be made from scratch, and coupled with the hours of stewing the pork meat into a tender submission, the final dish can always be a gastronomic delight if all the elements come together as a whole. It may not look like it, but it can taste incredibly good.
Whilst the rest of the dishes mentioned previously are actually hard to find, nonya kueh is relatively quite common and can be easily found in most shopping malls. They are usually bite sized cakes and make use of the ingredients that are commonly found in the Nanyang region. They usually have things like coconut, gula melaka (palm sugar), tapioca, glutinous rice etc.
|Cempedak Creme Brulee|
At Orchard Cafe, they did come up with this very original take on a classic dessert. Infusing cempedak into the custard, the dish took on a few sharper notes that actually worked very well with the richness of the burnt sugar and the luscious custard. A winner in every sense of the word.
|Wide Range of Selections|
I have but touched on only a few items in the entire buffet spread, which is quite wide ranging. All in all, if you are a Peranakan cuisine noob, this will be a perfect place to get you embarked on the journey of Nonya gastronomy.
The fusion Nonya dishes may not appeal to purists, but if you are keen to know more about the Nonya culture, the sampling of the unadulterated Peranakan dishes will probably point you in the general direction of this great food heritage.
And yes, we need to keep Nonya food alive for future generations.
The Straits Cuisine Buffet at Orchard Cafe
Orchard Hotel Singapore
442 Orchard Road