For our wedding anniversary this year we decided to utilise some of the hotel loyalty points I have acquired through the course of my travels for work (mainly to Hanoi, Saigon and Bangkok) to have a staycation in a Singapore city hotel. As part of the celebration we decided to have dinner at a Peranakan restaurant we had previously visited in January (when some friends headed back to Europe).
Peranakan food is unique to South East Asia, well really to the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore and is an amalgamation of traditional Malay food with the food of the eighteenth century Chinese merchantmen and settlers to the region. The story goes that an early trader visited the region to sell his wares, fell in love with a beautiful local lady and decided to stay. In order to please him she started to incorporate the flavours he missed from his Chinese home into the local dishes she knew how to cook. And so Peranakan or Nonya cuisine was born.
A key ingredient of Peranakan or Nonya cuisine is the fruit or nut from the mangrove growing Keluak tree, found extensively throughout the South East Asian countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore. The fruit or nut is highly poisonous when it is harvested from the tree and contains Hydrogen Cyanide (not a great plus for the human diet) but can be made edible through a fermentation process involving boiling and burying in ash and banana leaves. It is thought that the process makes the cyanide soluble in water and can therefore be washed away. I often wonder how people discovered these processes to convert seeming dangerous items into something that can be safely eaten (the other one I really want to try is the Japanese fish, fugu), especially as these processes were developed in the distant past without the benefit of modern scientific practices. In Singapore and Malaysia the nut is known as Buah Keluak or the Candlenut (hence the name of the restaurant).
So to our dinner with the poisonous nut. Candlenut, located at the Dorsett Residences on New Bridge Road, on the western edge of the Central Business District, operates a tasting menu philosophy for dinner at the weekends (a different concept from when we previously visited) with the menu changing dependent upon what is available and fresh when the chef visits the local market. The menu comprises of a number of appetisers, main courses and a choice of dessert. When we booked the table we were sent the week’s menu and asked if there was anything we’d like to change due to dietary requirements / challenges. As I cannot eat mushrooms we requested beforehand that one of the dishes was substituted for something else.
The starters (as you can see) were Kueh Pie Tee, warm minced pork in a laksa leaf, chicken satay and tumbuk prawns with starfruit.
Kueh Pie Tee - little cupcake-like shells filled with yummy savoury goodness that come in self-assembly format at Candlenut. The filling was a prawn based sauce with ginger that is spooned into the shells and topped with crunchy peanuts. One needs to eat the shell quickly as the crispy base tends to absorb the moist sauce.
Before (above) and after (below)
Laksa Leaf Pork Relish – little parcels of minced pork wrapped in a laksa leaf. It was similar to a Chinese dish I had many years ago where the pork or chicken was wrapped in a lettuce leaf but this one had a tangy after-taste of banana chili.
Chicken Satay – satay is one of our local favourites (in fact we ate a lot over the summer when we had some young visitors here) and is served at Candlenut with a sharp apple and mint dressing that contrasts excellently with the succulent chicken skewer. The apple and mint makes a great change to the usual serving of peanut and chili sauce.
Tumbuk Prawns – this minced prawn dish was served on a slice of starfruit and was the perfect bite-sized morsel. The sharp freshness of the fruit complimenting the savoury deliciousness of the minced prawn.
The main dishes were then served with a bowl of sticky Thai-style rice, and consisted of a rawon soup with beef cheek (containing the Candlenut), a vegetable curry dish (our substituted non-mushroom dish), braised pork belly, baby squid and tiger prawns.
Rawon soup of beef cheek, Buah Keluak and fried shallots – the dark colour and texture of the soup is dictated by the use of the candlenut (rawon refers to a rich gravy created by grinding the processed nut into a paste) with the once under-used and now trendy beef cheek being delicious and melt in your mouth smooth. Pleased to state that this dish was excellent and although it contained a once poisonous nut we are both still very much alive and kicking.
Braised Pork Belly – a wonderful pork dish in a soy bean and chili gravy, where the pork fell onto the fork with just the right mixture of flesh and pork fat to make the dish excellent.
Wok Fried Baby Squid, Cherry Tomatoes, Sambal – this was a great and spicy addition to the meal that gave a real chili kick with the sweetness of the cherry tomatoes. Usually I try to avoid sambal sauce as it can often be way too much and can over-power the dish it accompanies (a classic example of this is the BBQ stingray that many hawker stalls serve) but not in this case. The balance was perfect.
Grilled Tiger Prawns – these were excellent and I ate them both as the blog owner is not usually one for overt sea food like prawns in the shell. The prawns were sweet and the coconut sauce complimented perfectly.
For dessert we chose the Buah Keluak Ice Cream (that nut again) which comes complete with popping candy and the Textures of Coconut, with both being excellent palate cleansing finishing touches to an excellent meal. Unfortunately we were too busy eating to take any photos of these!
Candlenut is an excellent restaurant with great service that aims to keep the Peranakan traditions alive whilst updating the dishes with modern twists. It is a great place for an informal dinner with tasty food that is tailored towards Singapore residents and tourists looking for an exotic taste adventure alike. Well worth a visit.
For other Peranakan restaurants the reader could also try Blue Ginger, the rendang is great, as is the achar, in Tanjong Pagar (take a look at this post for some photos of some of the delicious food we had on our visit) or Chili Padi, try the popiah, in Joo Chiat.