Saturday, November 12, 2016

Michelin Meal at Candlenut Restaurant

Earlier this year, the Michelin inspectors made their way to Singapore and awarded their very first Michelin stars to our local restaurants!  Singaporeans being the hypercritical, food-loving people we are, we derived a lot of pleasure critiquing the Michelin inspectors' choices (a soy sauce chicken restaurant to get a Michelin star??) and commenting that obviously they didn't do a proper survey.  But nonetheless, it remains a source of pleasure and pride that a Peranakan restaurant made the list!

Now, I have been going to Candlenut Restaurant, off and on, for the past few years.  It used to be in the Duxton area, then moved to Dorsett Hotel, right on the border of Chinatown.  And now, since 1 Nov 2016, it has shifted all the way to Dempsey Hill.  I assume that the loss of accessibility will be made up for by the increase in publicity from that Michelin star.

Anyway, my colleagues and I decided to to try it.  So we wended our way to Dempsey Hill to sample the Michelin star cuisine.

As there were a number of us, we were able to sample a variety of dishes.  I think that where Candlenut shines is indeed in its rempahs - or spice mixes - which are aromatic and flavourful.  Their rendang was delicious, with the tender beef and rich gravy complementing each other well.  I also loved their wing bean salad, with the subtle flavours of lemongrass and lime in the tangy dressing.  Their charcoal grilled sea bass was perfectly cooked, although I really did find the serving rather small.  I found the sayer lodeh ordinary though (even though it came with a large prawn) and the ladies' fingers quite boring.  In general, I must admit that the plating is of a much higher standard than the typical Nonya restaurant, where the food is just scooped into the dish with maybe a little coriander or spring onion sprinkled on top.

Pictured below (from top-down): Ayam buah keluak, beef rendang, sambal sotong, charcoal-grilled fish, wing bean (kacang botol) salad.

Not forgetting dessert.... .... I think my favourite dessert remains the "Textures of Coconut", with the coconut sorbet sitting on a base of coconut jelly, topped with coconut cream and desiccated coconut.  It's so fresh and light, yet rich and creamy at the same time.  Sorry no photo - I was too greedy and forgot to take one (just tucked right in).

Is this a Michelin worthy meal?  To be honest, I don't see it as being so superior to other good Peranakan restaurants (and others are "better value" aka cheaper).  But it is a very nice restaurant and it was a truly delicious meal.  So yes, I would definitely go there again.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nyonya Needlework

On the Curator's Tour
 The latest exhibition at the Peranakan Museum Singapore is on "Nyonya Needlework".  I had the pleasure of going on a Curator's Tour of the exhibition the other week, and learnt so much about the history of this beautiful craft as well as about the numerous beaded and embroidered exhibits!

The curator was at pains to explain two key points.  First, that "needlework" here was used as a generic term to cover embroidered and beaded items.  Second, that the exhibits may not have been personally made by the nyonyas themselves for their own use or that of their families.  Just like today, they may have been made by seamstresses/ shoemakers, or beadworkers/embroiderers who do this job for a living.  (There was one piece which was apparently worked on by the nyonya herself and the quality, according to the curator, was not so good).  I do tend to agree that the intricacy and scale of some of these pieces may have been beyond the scope of a normal household.

The exhibition is divided into 5 main sections: the first looks at needlework techniques and materials;
Phoenix in flight - detail from bed hanging
the second, on the auspicious symbols and elements which are often incorporated into the needlework pieces; the other three sections covered exhibits from Indonesia, Malacca/Singapore, and Penang.   Our curator showed us one of the oldest known examples of Peranakan embroidery - a simple bed hanging from Indonesia, which had been sent to a Dutch museum.  The date of acquisition, in the mid 1840s, had been recorded by the museum - it was really wonderful to see that even after all these years, the bed hanging was still in such good condition.

My favourite piece was another bed hanging, a very intricate bed hanging for a wedding bed which used a threading technique to thread the beads together.  It was a truly spectacular piece, designed to hang from the top of the bed.  The curator noted that it was likely used only for the wedding itself, given that it was rather heavy and not practical for everyday use.  Again, I marvelled that such a delicate item had survived for so long and in such good condition, that we could continue to admire it even today.

Aside from the intricate threading work (the technique has been lost in the mists of time), I really like the cute little boatmen, the animals (birds, a little dragon, and some other strange creature), and the beautiful, beaded fringe.

Threaded Wedding Bed Hanging

The exhibits also helped illustrate the practices and way of life of the Peranakan community.  Use of European motifs (e.g. light haired children, dogs, cats etc) showed how the community sought to emulate the western way of life, but adapted to suit their own preferences.  It showed how the community thought of itself as still very Chinese, as can be seen in the use of Chinese symbols and motifs as well.  The Penang section, according to the curator, presented the items used in the wedding chamber, such as a lovely embroidered silk tablecloth, wall items and clothing items.

I am just a very amateur beadworker (and I am not too sure that I want to embark upon a second pair of shoes at this point in time).  But somehow, I did feel that sense of connection to nyonyas past who had painstakingly worked on making this beautiful items to delight the eye.

There are many more photos of the exhibition to be seen at my Flickr site:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Long Table

The "Tok Panjang" is a Hokkien/Malay "portmanteau word" which means "long table", or a table liberally covered with lots of yummy dishes where the family serves itself, buffet style, on special occasions such as Chinese New Year or birthdays, etc.

It's also the name of a new restaurant on East Coast Road, which ironically serves a limited menu meant for individuals/ small groups having a quick meal.   Dishes like mee siam, Penang laksa, Nonya Lam Mee, etc.  There are a few mains such as babi pongteh, rendang, and sambal prawns, which can be purchased a la carte or as a set (which comes with rice and a serving of chap chye and itek tim).  It has also a selection of appetisers for sharing, such as kueh pie tee, ngor hiang, etc.

In general, the food is tasty and good as one would expect of restaurants under the House of Peranakan group.  I enjoyed the mee siam, which was sharp and tangy, and the Penang Laksa tastes like the real thing.  Even my father (who compares every bowl of Penang laksa to his grandmother's family recipe) said it was "quite good".  On another occasion we shared a babi pongteh set and sambal prawns amongst two people and it was probably just right for two light eaters.

Prices are reasonable too - though obviously a little more expensive than hawker centres.  But I did find the appetisers a little on the expensive side, as portions are small.

In the highly competitive restaurant scene, it's really a struggle for all these small restaurants to survive and thrive.  All I can do is publicise my favourites as best I can on this blog.

So here's wishing Tok Panjang well!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tea on the Hill

Penang from Above
The last time I went up Penang Hill, I was around eight or nine years old.  My family is not big on holidays but we were on a week-long visit to Penang.  I remember us being taken around by our relatives, visiting the Snake temple and looking at the turtles at another temple. My brother was given a pair of terrapins by my grandaunt and somehow he managed to smuggle them back to Singapore, carrying them up the plane without being detected.  (We would have successive pairs of terrapins in the house for years, with the last one dying a few months ago aged about 20 years old).

The Funicular over the years
But one of the highlights of our stay had to be our visit to Penang Hill. For my brother and I, it was a real adventure to sit the little funicular railroad, chugging its way up the hill, as we watched the ground fall away beneath us as we moved ever higher and higher.  We stayed overnight in the little hotel there and I remember waking up and walking (and running) around on a misty morning - it was so strange and exciting for two children from sunny and humid Singapore. We never realised it could be so cold even without air-con!!  

Penang Hill today is very different.  There has been two changes in the funicular system since I last went there (this old poster really made me feel old).  No more chugging - its a smooth fast ride to the top.  The area is also a lot more developed, with an impressive viewing platform and far more little shops and stalls.  

English afternoon tea
It was a busy day, with everyone wanting a day on the hill that Saturday afternoon, so we queued for quite some time to make our way to the funicular.  But the journey up was worth it for the panoramic view of Penang.  And the beautiful flowering plants, which flourish in the cooler air.

Of course, my greedy family members were more interested in food than botany. David Brown's Terrace at Strawberry Hill for our tea. David Brown's is an old colonial bungalow, where presumably the British stayed whenever they couldn't stand the heat of the tropics any longer.  The area was formerly used for growing strawberries, hence the former name of Strawberry Hill.  We had ourselves an English afternoon tea of scones, sandwiches and dainty little pastries, eaten sitting by the "infinity pond" and the butterflies flying around us. Ah, the British influences are still alive and well in this corner at the top of Penang.

We walked around the hilltop a little before going down.  It was nice to see a mosque and a Hindu temple here, side by side, looking down on the city below.  But we had our driver waiting for us below and soon we found ourselves back in our funicular railway.  I stood in the front of the car and believe me, it's a lot more exciting than going up. 


Check out my other photos of Penang Hill here.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Penang Nonya Meal

Little Kitchen@Noordin Street
Surprising as it may seem, I have never had a meal at a good Nonya restaurant in Penang.  One reason is because of our insistence of chasing down every single lead we have on yummy hawker food.  Another reason is that my Penang relatives keep on talking about how "home cooking" beats all the restaurants hollow.  So they don't really have good suggestions for us.  Lastly, there are other good Chinese restaurants in Penang (eg the time I had a simple, tasty Hainanese meal).

So this time round we made special efforts to find a good Nonya restaurant to host dinner for our relatives.  After consultations/online research etc etc we finally found "Little Kitchen@Nyonya" which was located just behind our hotel.  The sheer convenience sold it for us.  

Lucky Bat
Having said that, there are a good number of reviews of the Little Kitchen online, such as this one. Set in a residential area, the restaurant is a family-run business and they run it from their own home.  All the restaurant "staff" are family members, with the host/owner Mr Loh taking the orders, his mother, wife and other family members doing the cooking and serving of the food.

The restaurant is actually the front reception room of the family home.  The family used to run a bird's nest business and there are samples of the nests on the walls and in big jars standing on the tops of the cabinets in the home.  Evidently the business did well, as this is a beautiful home - large, ornately decorated in the Peranakan style.  Cast-iron grilles adorn the windows and doors, and the rooms are decorated with beautiful plaster mouldings and with lucky symbols such as the bat (which represents the five fortunes of good health, wealth, longevity, virtuousness and a peaceful death) on the pillars. The furniture looks mostly antique - from the old carved cabinets, the massive dark wooden chairs, the wood-and-marble day bed, etc etc.  It looks and feels like what it is - a traditional family home.

Family dining table, also used when the diners overflow
restaurant area
An ornate screen separates the restaurant area from the family area. Whilst the restaurant is meant to be confined in the front reception room, on busy nights, it overflows into the family dining area behind.  The kitchen is traditionally located at the back of a peranakan house but in this case, they moved it to the adjacent garage/driveway to be nearer to the dining area.  Not many households would have had a car in those days, so you can tell that this was indeed a well-off family!

There is a set dinner of about 8 dishes (a soup, vegetables, chicken, prawns, fish, curry, meat, rice) for RM128 per person.  There's a 5 dish set as well, and a more expensive set but this is the one we chose.  Food is traditional Penang nonya, cooked by the women of the family.  According to the owner, Mr Loh, they decided to start up the restaurant because his mother was lonely and bored after her husband died and she had no one to cook for.  She's now in her eighties and still going strong!

Mrs Loh senior preparing Nasi Ulam
The food also comes with free flow of drinks - nutmeg (hot and cold), longan tea and green tea.  Prepared in advance, you can help yourself from the large thermos flasks on the sideboard.  There's kueh kueh to start off with, and dessert to end up with.  After our kueh kueh, dinner proper started off a traditional nasi ulam, the mixture of rice and finely chopped herbs and dried prawns which I've written about in an earlier post.  This is indeed the highlight of the meal, where Mrs Loh senior slices and dices the herbs finely whilst we watch and admire her knife skills.  Mr Loh explains the dish and presents the herbs which are used in the dish.  He even gives a little quiz and hands out a prize to my aunt, who gave the right answer.  Together, they give a polished performance.  Mr Loh admits that his mother still won't let him wield the knife as she says his knife skills just aren't good enough.  Light, fresh and tasty, the nasi ulam doesn't last long as we eat it with gusto.

The other dishes come quick and fast - pig's trotted soup, chincalok pork, prawn and pineapple curry, my favourite four-angled beans and lady's fingers with sambal, kari kapitan (chicken curry),  and the tangy ikan belanda.  We finished off with pulot hitam, the black glutinous rice porridge served with coconut milk.  The food won't win any prizes for presentation ("plating" is certainly not a concept known in the Peranakan kitchen), but for good, hearty traditional home-cooked nyonya food - this is a winner.  

More photos on Flickr.


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