Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Taste of Peranakan

The Blue Ginger menu features Peranankan folk art
Peranakan is the term to describe Chinese-Malay people who, many generations ago, inter-married and created their own ethnicity. They wear clothes with floral designs in bright colours and their paintings are like folk art, colourful and playful. They have also created their own unique cuisine, called Peranankan food.
If you ask Singaporeans where the best place to eat Peranakan food is, they can only think of three or four restaurants, as the recipes are quite difficult, requiring hours of cooking. However the results are very complex flavours, layers of them particularly in the sauces.
One dining establishment recommended to us was The Blue Ginger Restaurant.
Kueh pie tee, a refreshing bite with shrimp
It's located in a quaint two-storey shophouse converted into a restaurant, a narrow long space that is very cosy and warm, with simple wooden tables, chairs and banquettes.

For starters we had some acha, a Peranakan version of kimchi, with a kind of zucchini, carrots and turnips in a vinegary chilli sauce that wasn't too spicy and made our appetites salivate for our main dishes.

First up was ngo heong (S$9.90), homemade rolls of minced pork and prawns seasoned with five-spice powder and wrapped in tofu skin and then fried to a golden brown. It came with a dark sweet sauce and was delicious and meaty.

Next was the kueh pie tee (S$7.00), apparently a staple dish that can be found in fast-food courts, but probably don't taste as good as these ones. They are small deep-fried cups filled with shredded bamboo shoots and turnips garnished with a piece of shrimp on top. The best part of it was the first bite into it -- it was so refreshing and light, but then got heavier towards the bottom with the deep-fried cups.

Sambal udang, stirfried prawns in a spicy chilli paste
A dark dish was ayam buah keluak (S$15.80), braised chicken flavoured with tumeric, galangal and lemongrass cooked with Indonesian black nuts. The bowl was filled with black liquid from these black nuts, which seemed a bit daunting, but it was a flavourful dish, the meat falling off the bone easily.

A favourite was the sambal udang, stirfried prawns in a rich hot and spicy chilli paste. The prawns were cooked with onions and wasn't too spicy, the prawns meaty and cooked just right.

For the chilli heads, the kang kong lemak (S$8.50) fulfilled their cravings. It was morning glory or water spinach and cubes of sweet potato cooked in coconut milk with a dried shrimp and chilli paste. Here the sauce was complex, with the layers of coconut, shrimp paste and chilli all combined in this reddish sauce.

Nonya fish head curry
My perennial Singapore dish is the nonya fish head curry (S$26.00). The head of a red snapper was cooked to perfection in a sauce that featured okra, here called lady fingers, tomatoes and eggplant. The fish was meaty and delicious, and I always wonder why there are never enough pieces of eggplant and okra to complement the dish.

Our guide told us that fishmongers will often sell large fish without their heads -- as many of them are sold for dishes like this.

For a bit of a reprieve from the spiciness was the scallops nonya (S$28.80), featuring fresh scallops steamed with cubes of tofu flavoured with preserved bean paste and topped with fresh garlic and spring onions. Again the scallops weren't too overcooked, the tofu silky smooth.

Another prawn dish we tried was the udang goreng tanyu lada (S$19.80), sauteed prawns with pepper in a sweet dark soy sauce. This dish wasn't spicy either, but I preferred the other one we tried earlier.

Finally, the ayam panggang Blue Ginger (S$11.00) is a dish of deboned chicken thigh and drumstick that are sliced thinly and grilled then marinated in a coconut milk sauce with exotic spices. By this time I was quite full, but the chicken was good, the sauce very delicate, again with various layers of flavours.

During the whole time we ate, the majority of the patrons were foreigners, coming for an exotic bite to eat. For many Singaporeans, Peranakan food is more of a homestyle thing, and at the Blue Ginger the owner is cooking from recipes passed down from several generations.

It was a good way to have a taste of one of the many cultures that make up Singapore.
The Blue Ginger Restaurant
97 Tanjong Pagar Road
(65) 6222 3928

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