When the early Chinese migrants settled in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, their marriages to locals produced a truly unique culture and cuisine known as Peranakan. Chef Malcolm Lee of Michelin-starred Candlenut restaurant in Singapore discusses his high-end take on this unique cuisine
“There’s a perception that [Peranakan food is] traditional, it’s grandmother food, it’s old-fashioned – and just based on that alone it already has a bad image for any young chef trying to do it. People will always go: ‘Oh, my grandma can cook this, my mum can cook this, why should I learn how – or even go out to a restaurant?’ And because it’s also a local-style food, again the perception is that people do not want to pay a lot for it, and if you combine that with the fact that creating it is actually very tedious and laborious, it doesn’t make that much sense.
“The food combines my experience of the culture in terms of the ingredients we use, or the combination of traditional flavours with new ingredients, even the presentation in terms of the menu and the space and experience that we provide. So all of these things come together in order to provide a very special product – it’s not like home food, but it’s also not too fancy as well. It’s still comfort food that represents what the cuisine is about, what the culture is about. It’s how a young Peranakan cook will cook Peranakan food.
“And we’ve drawn in a much younger crowd. This is something I’m very happy about. When we started this restaurant, I had a vision: why can’t our Peranakan food be seen as cool, young, sexy – an environment to bring your date? And that’s what we have achieved over the past year. For me, it’s not about the money or awards, it’s that people see that Peranakan food can be cool enough to bring my date here.
“The [Michelin star] award is really something that I think is not just a win for Peranakan but for all heritage food. Because Singapore is not just Peranakan, we have many heritages: Indian food; Malay food. I think for us we have to share that information with different people from different backgrounds that, hey, you can still be proud of your heritage and still have your food stand on the same level as the other top cuisines in the world. Why not?”
This article was published in the April edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.