2016 was a key moment for Peranakan cuisine. Candlenut in Singapore became the first Peranakan cuisine restaurant to win a Michelin Star. It put the global spotlight on a cuisine that was already seeing a revival in Singapore for almost two decades before this announcement. I discovered this fascinating micro-cuisine during my first trip to Melaka (in Malaysia) back in 2013. But it's Singapore's hawker centres that have been my 'go-to' destinations to explore what has become one of my favourite Asian cuisines. You don't have to get on a flight for an authentic Peranakan meal anymore. At least not if you're in Chennai.
The origins of Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine date back to the 15th Century and the Peranakans, descendants of the early Chinese migrants who settled in vibrant trading hotspots like Penang and Malacca. The cuisine combines Chinese, Malay, Javanese and South Indian culinary influences. The term Peranakan refers to locally born, a term members of the community used to distinguish themselves from the newer Chinese immigrants who made Singapore and Malaysia home in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Many of them married local Malay women. Men were called "Babas" and women Nyonya. Peranakan cuisine is also known as Nyonya cuisine. The largest group of Peranakans were of Chinese ancestry but there were also groups like the Jawi Peranakans and Arab Peranakans.
One of my favourite restaurants for Peranakan cuisine in Singapore is Violet Oon. It was set up by Violet Oon, the grande dame of Singaporean cooking and one of the best-known exponents of Nyonya cooking. The restaurant offers a choice of three locations across Singapore including National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery. But it's the restaurant at Jewel that is conveniently located next to Terminal 1 Changi Airport that is my favourite location.
India's interest in Master Chef Australia peaked in 2018 when Sashi Chelliah with Indian roots won the contest. He grew up in Singapore (before he moved to Adelaide) and Pernakan cuisine was a big part of his childhood memories. He selected this cuisine for his first restaurant venture in India - Pandan Club, that has just debuted in Chennai. The restaurant serves some of the quintessential Peranakan dishes in an elegant setting. You will find signature Peranakan design elements like handmade ceramic tiles and rattan frames that complement the dining experience.
There are subtle regional variations in the cuisine. You're likely to unearth a lot of tamarind flavoured dishes in the Penang area thanks to the nearby Thai influences while the Indonesian influence is evident in dishes from Melaka (like the Coconut Vegetable Curry at Pandan Club) with the generous use of coconut milk. Chennai and Tamil Nadu have a strong historical connection with Southeast Asia. Sashi Chelliah's family has roots near Madurai in Southern Tamil Nadu. Sashi told me about the restaurant's zero compromise policy on ingredients to ensure that the authenticity of the cuisine is not lost. One of the stars of the menu is the blacknut lamb curry flavoured with blacknut (also known as buah keluak) that enhances the flavour profile of the piquant blacknut lamb curry. You can savour this exotic cuisine at Pandan Club, Chennai or try Master Chef Sashi Chelliah's recipes at home:
How To Make Laksa Curry:
Recipe Courtesy - Master Chef Sashi Chelliah
- Shallots - 100 gm
- Red chillies - 2
- Garlic cloves - 2
- Lemongrass stalk, white section - 1
- Belachan (shrimp paste) optional - 1 tsp
- Oil - 50ml
- Mixed vegetables - 100 gm
- Coconut milk - 400 ml
- Cooked chicken or prawn - 100 gm
- Sugar - 1/2 tsp
- Salt - 1 tsp
- Fried tofu - 50 gm
- For garnish: spring onion and boiled eggs
- For the laksa paste: Blend the shallots, chillies, garlic, lemongrass and belachan into a smooth paste.
- If needed, add a small amount of water to assist in the blending. Cook the paste for 10mins over medium heat until fragrant and oil starts to separate from the paste.
- Add vegetables and cook for 1-2 mins and add the coconut milk and reduce the heat to simmer. Once the laksa comes to a boil, add meat, salt, sugar and fried tofu.
- Best served with your choice of noodles and garnish with spring onion and soft boiled egg.
How To Make Pandan Chicken:
Recipe Courtesy - Master Chef Sashi Chelliah
- Chicken thigh (replace half cooked pumpkin for veg option) - 500 gm
- Ground coriander - 1/2 tbsp
- Ground black pepper - 1 tsp
- Light soy sauce - 1/2 tbsp
- Sesame oil - 1 tsp
- Oyster sauce or vegan oyster sauce - 1/2 tbsp
- Garlic paste - 1/2 tbsp
- Coconut cream - 2 tbsp
- Palm sugar - 1 tbsp
- Pandan leaves - 8
- Mix all the ingredients with chicken thigh and marinate for 4hrs in the fridge. Wrap the chicken with Pandan leaves
- Cook the chicken over the grill or deep fry for 3-4 mins.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.