You may have wondered why, since I moved to Singapore 9 months ago, there hasn’t been a single post on the wealth of food found on this island. On the topic of food in South East Asia, one of the first things that pop into mind is the varied and abundant hawker fare this country is known for.
Singapore is truly a food-obsessed nation. Multi-storey hawker centers with hundreds of small stalls dedicated to street food of every genre are scattered around the city. You could sample the best of SE Asian cuisine with just a handful of change in your pocket. Hawker stalls don’t even begin to graze the surface, there’s chili crab institutions, chicken rice joints, food courts upon food courts in air-conditioned luxury malls, new spanish tapas bars that open every week, heavy hitters from the likes of Boloud, Tetsuya, Batali…
I could go on.
But the reason why I haven’t written about it is simply because I haven’t eaten much that is worth exalting. Sure there are the one-off items here and there that have been a revelation. A bowl of pork bone soup that was peppery bliss. A plate of chicken rice that may just trump poutine as greatest hangover food in the world. A finger-licking good black pepper crab claw.
But I wasn’t as inspired as I am by regional Chinese cuisines. The flavours in Singapore often seemed to singular to me. Or it was a hodge podge of dishes from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, anywhere else but Singapore, it seemed. I’ve traveled a fair bit in SE Asia, and found dishes sometimes too cloyingly sweet, or face-puckering sour. The flavours were big, but I didn’t see a lot of balance or complexity behind them.
But a few months ago, thanks to a local Singaporean friend, I discovered Peranakan cuisine. This changed everything.
Peranakan cuisine was the original fusion food. The love child of Chinese and Malaysian food, it began when early Chinese settlers ventured into the Malay Peninsula and the Straits of Malacca and married the local women. These women, called Nonyas, are fascinating. They wore traditional Malay clothing of sarongs and kebayas while upholding Confucian beliefs. They loved to cook with spices, coconut cream, local herbs and chilis, while strong ties to mainland China brought continuous imports of pickles, sauces, and other ingredients into their dishes.
I was enchanted by the history, the culture, the crockery – some of the most beautiful hand-painted porcelain I’ve ever seen (picture above), the traditions, so much of which revolve around food.
This relatively unknown cuisine outside of Asia is about to get an injection of mad street cred when Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma opens his Peranakan cafe in Copenhagen in November. Peranakan food. In Copenhagen. By the owner of the world’s best restaurant. Just let that sink in for a second.
Later this week I will write a post dedicated to the richness of Peranakan culture and food. It deserves a dedicated post, and this one was supposed to be about fried chicken…
So my homegirl FFH (who is a fellow Canadian but of Nonya decent) and I have talked a lot about this cuisine. She thinks her mother’s cooking is the greatest thing ever, and I believe it. Mother’s food is always the best.
I’ve been reading up on Peranakan food a lot, and purchased a couple cook books. We’ve talked about starting to cook some of these traditional recipes together, and this weekend made our first couple dishes. They were fantastic.
Pictured to the right is the Nonya Fried Chicken. We also made Nonya fried rice, which I grinded fresh chili paste for and suffered serious burnage on my fingers. It was freaking delicious, but I’ll save it for a future post.
This dish takes some preparation before hand. The chicken needs to be soaked in the marinade for at least three hours or preferably overnight. The spices are key in this recipe. You can find everything in full or powder form in any Western supermarket. We couldn’t find any powdered spices in the budget grocery store we went to and actually ground everything old school style in a mortar and pestle. We put some back-breaking work into it, but mortar & pestle is the true, Peranakan way and totally paid off as the flavour in the end were mind blowing good.
4 shallots, pounded
2 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp fennel powder
1/4 tsp clove powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp sugar, or to taste
100 ml thick coconut milk
1.5 kg chicken, cut in 16 pieces
1 cup oil for deep frying
Sauce (mix together)
1 tsp mustard powder
3 tbsp Worcestershire/HP sauce
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp lime juice
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 red chillies, sliced
1. Combine all spices paste ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add chicken and toss together to coat well. Set aside to marinate for 3 to 4 hours, or preferably overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or fryer, and deep fry the chicken pieces until almost cooked. Remove and drain.
3. Reheat the oil in a wok or fryer, and deep fry the chicken pieces until golden brown and crispy.
4. Remove from heat and drain on paper towels. Serve hot with the sauce.
Honestly this chicken is so so bomb. The prep work and frying don’t take long to do, so the reward:effort ratio is off the charts.
This dish is a hit at potlucks and picnics. Try your hand at it and let me know how it is!
You can also expect to see more Peranakan posts in the future as we cook and eat our way through this amazing cuisine.