December 5, 2022

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Can Cultural Identity Be Defined by Food?

4 min read

“The food your grandmother cooked, that everybody cooked — suddenly it’s called something else,” Johari said. “It’s convenient for people to say, ‘It’s all shared.’ Of course it’s shared, but please give recognition where it’s due.”

AT DAWN, FROM the Southern Ridges, the city was a set of dominoes against a sky of smoked orange. A steel walkway zagged and curved through the forest, easing the way for humans. Not a leaf lay on the grating underfoot, which seemed to have been tidied by unseen hands. Cicadas shrieked steadily. The presence of nature, gently tamed, was a reminder that Singapore has almost no agriculture to speak of and must rely heavily on imports; local food is, by necessity, made with nonlocal ingredients. Nevertheless, food is one of Singapore’s defining features, another of the country’s contradictions.

How much does identity rest on the way we eat? For the Peranakans, cooking was central but, like Peranakan identity itself, not consistent, and ever evolving. The day I ate at Baba Charlie’s, Tan reminisced about a Polish sausage stew that sometimes popped up on the menu, which he’d been told was a recipe from a foreign customer. In Kampong Gelam, Johari joked that the way to make a dish Peranakan was to add pork, which Malays, who are mostly Muslim, don’t eat. But at True Blue Cuisine, near the Peranakan Museum and Fort Canning Park, the kitchen uses neither pork nor lard to be more welcoming to Muslims. A few Peranakan restaurants have even taken to making ngoh hiang and kueh pie tee with Impossible brand plant-based meat.

Did it matter that some of the best Peranakan food I had was made by non-Peranakans, as at Peter Lee’s, where his mother’s recipes are prepared by the family’s Filipino cook? Peranakan women have historically been the guardians of the kitchen, Tan explained, but it was not always considered proper for them to work outside the home (although some, for financial reasons, had to). So a number of the first Peranakan restaurants in Singapore were run by migrants from Hainan Island in the South China Sea who, upon arrival in Singapore, found work as so-called kitchen boys in Peranakan homes, until they earned the title chong po (from the Hokkien for “chef”). Jenny Yap, 56, runs the oldest Peranakan restaurant in town, Guan Hoe Soon, which was opened by her grandfather Yap Chee Quee on Joo Chiat Road in 1953. On the wall, a framed newspaper article reports that Lee Kuan Yew used to send a driver to pick up favorite dishes, among them otak otak, slabs of fish paste steamed in banana leaves to the wonderfully dense but pliant texture of Mexican tamales; chap chye, cabbage braised with black fungus and dried shrimp in tau cheo (yellow soy bean paste), soy sauce and sugar; and, of course, ayam buah keluak.

One night, I had dinner with Anastasia Tjendri-Liew, 75, the Indonesian-born powerhouse behind the Bengawan Solo bakery empire, which is beloved for its almost unctuously buttery kueh lapis, a cake of many thin layers, baked one by one, and kueh salat, creamy pandan coconut-milk custard over chewy glutinous rice, faintly salted to hold its own against the sweetness, and marbled blue from steeped butterfly pea flowers; for flaky little pineapple tarts that can’t wait to crumble and chiffon cakes like sugar knit around air. Several Peranakans I spoke to described Bengawan Solo as a Peranakan bakery, and one even insisted that Tjendri-Liew herself was Peranakan — but she told me that she was ethnically Chinese.

One Peranakan chef to gain international stature is Malcolm Lee, 38, who’s behind Candlenut and the new, even more ambitious, prix fixe-only Pangium (after the Pangium edule tree), which opened in June at the Botanic Gardens. The 12-year-old Candlenut is a warmer, more relaxed space, with majolica Art Nouveau tiles, giant straw lanterns hung on high and a mostly familiar Peranakan menu. Pangium is austere, even devout: Some dishes are classic but reinvented from within, like ngoh hiang embedded with abalone or pang susi, a sweet Christmas bun from the Kristang tradition, here made with a hidden cache of Ibérico pork and candied winter melon. Each offering requires an explanation of culinary processes so lengthy and detailed (at one point, I think I heard the phrase “52 steps”), I began to fear that the price of the tasting menu — $180 per person — was too low; that there would be no way for the restaurant to sustain the cost of such labor.

The last bite of the meal was a black bonbon, a drop of night on the white plate, with a flick of gold leaf to catch the light. At first it seemed obvious. Chocolate, salted caramel, chile — and then something darker, turfier, almost bitter, undefinable. Buah keluak, we meet again.

Ligaya Mishan and Esther Choi

2022-11-03 09:03:21

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