Makansutra: Big flavours at tiny Peranakan cafe Rumah Baba Fred
Peranakan fare that leaves you wanting more
There are kitchens bigger than Mr Frederic Lam's entire cafe.
But in the makan world, it is not the size of the stove, but the open-minded and bold intent of the chef that matters.
Rumah Baba Fred is a small Peranakan cafe, but there is a lot more to it than that.
One of the fiercest defenders of Nonya heritage, Fred conducts private dining and catering gigs. Last year he opened this place in Changi Road - but only on Saturdays and Sundays.
He needs a week to cook and rest the rempah.
He runs the place with his family and serves a steady stream of regulars.
There is only one long table for eight people and latecomers sit out in the corridor, which is still charming.
The decor is awash in a blue hue, featuring nostalgic touches like a giant Nonya tiffin, portraits of British royalty, Fu Lu Shou statues, Chinese black and gold signboards and intricate wood carved framed mirrors.
The menu changes every week. There were just nine items on the chalkboard menu and we ordered all of them, plus dessert.
The first was Nonya Chap Chye ($4) - not mushy soft, and with just enough texture and drier than the mostly soggy versions elsewhere.
The prawn stock made itself known.
The Babi Buah Keluak ($8), the old-school pork version, was a treat, especially over the soft fluffy rice.
He fries some spices with the black paste and stuffs it back in the buah keluak. The rempah was thick, well reduced and balanced.
I love otah and have always thought the thick, chunky store-bought ones from Muar could stomp on many so-called hand-made renditions I have had.
But this version ($7) made me rewrite my notes. The fish was fresh and just as chunky, and steaming it over the banana leaf was a bonus. Plus, the otah paste was on point - just spicy enough, moist and lemak.
It was hard to stop eating this.
Even the humble Sambal Telur egg ($2) was done with pride. He uses ikan bilis and onions in the sambal and adds a cherry tomato for some flair.
Frankly, I could not bear to share the Ikan Patin Gerang Assam ($4 to $6). It was supremely fresh, not overcooked and juicy and the sharp sambal assam did me in - so we ordered two portions.
The Babi Chin ($8) was a lovingly braised little trotter, and the taste and aroma of coriander took centre stage. The texture was just soft enough and the braised skin a joy to devour, but it was a tad too sweet for me.
The Gula Sago Melaka ($3.50) was moreish because the sandy palm sugar was not fully melted and lent a beautiful crystal texture with each bite.
Mr Lam, a member of The Peranakan Association Singapore, said: "Don't come here (just) for the makan, it's not my intent. Please come and learn more about who we are and the food culture we celebrate."
I totally agree, and he reminds me that we can book his private sessions that come with storytelling and demos.
Sign me up.
Rumah Baba Fred
116 Changi Road, #01-01 WIS@Changi
Opens weekends 11.30am to 2.30pm
Tel: 9109-9898 (or book via its Facebook page)