Candlenut: The Nonya Omakase
The problem with Peranakan food here is the word "authentic".
Truth be told, there is no real yardstick or measure, and the real deal is often nenek's or mum's version.
This has been Chef Malcolm Lee's bugbear for the longest time: "Everyone wants the best and most authentic ayam buah keluak, babi pongteh, assam fish... and nobody will concede whose (recipe) is good. Except their grandma's, even if it is some strange recipe."
He also admits it can get boring and one dimensional in his kitchen if things don't change.
You can see his quietly rebellious streak from his menu. Besides the usual items, he has come up with a white, peppery Yeye's Kari and even turned the iconic buah keluak nut into an ice cream.
He demonstrated the Buah Keluak Ice Cream at the recent World Street Food Congress. It so impressed the Indonesian contingent and they invited him over for their local food festival in June.
And that was the turning point for Chef Lee's menu at his Candlenut restaurant.
Indonesia is a land that has a heavy influence on Peranakan food, like the concept of the rempah and the art of using local greens and herbs.
So, we went trying everything from Manado specialties, Sundanese bites, street-style nasi uduk and even the humble goat satay with kicap, ginger and pickle dip.
And Chef Lee declared that things would "be different" in his kitchen on his return.
Today, you can still find the usual crowd-pleasers on his lunch menu but for dinner, Candlenut transforms. He now offers a "Nonya Omakase" (for lack of a better term), and it is a "cook whatever I feel like as a Peranakan boy" kind of menu.
At $50 for 14 items, it is good value for money as it includes shellfish, red meats, fish, four surprising starters and teasers, and choice of desserts.
When I went to try it out, for starters, instead of the usual turnip, he put Jiu Hu Char (a stir-fry of julienned turnip and dried cuttlefish) into his kueh pie ti shells. Same, yet not same.
There is also the wonderfully ingenious Tumbuk (pounded) Prawns with sambal hae bi (dried shrimp) on starfruit with dill. This one made me stop and admire, then devour.
He also put out a meltingly soft Grilled Pork Cheek. There was also this gula melaka ice cream and kaya kueh duet - this one cannot be denied its Nonya DNA no matter how strange it looks.
And he has a Textures of Coconut that showcases five textures - granulated, ice cream, sorbet, coconut milk and soft slices.
Authentic is an expression of who you really are. And in this case, it is truly, authentically Chef Lee's heritage.
Makansutra, founded by KF Seetoh, is a company that celebrates asian food culture and lifestyle. It publishes food guides in and around the region, produces a food series, develops interactive mobile content and services, operates foodcourts and eateries, organises food tours and events, and consults on culinary concepts.
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