Saturday, 23 August 2014

A Remarkable Peranakan Lunch with Candlenut's Malcolm Lee and Ascott CEO Lee Chee Koon

I was recently invited to a remarkable lunch hosted by young Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Restaurant, and Ascott Serviced Apartments' CEO Lee Chee Koon.  The occasion was the launch of a Peranakan cookbook authored by Lee to celebrate Ascott's 30th anniversary, and which will be placed in Ascott properties worldwide.  I saw a delicious irony in Lee being enlisted by Ascott to celebrate such a significant milestone, given Malcolm's heralded Candlenut Restaurant is housed at the rival Dorsett Residences near Outram Park.  But evidently, neither Malcolm nor Ascott (nor Dorsett!) were particularly concerned about this.

The lunch was hosted at Ascott's property at Raffles Place.  Half expecting to be led to the breakfast room or a function room, I was surprised when the friendly Ascott welcoming team took us into the lift and up to a random floor in the property.  As the lift door opened, the smell of Peranakan herbs and spices hung in the air, so I was hoping that there were not any pedantic guests in the neighbouring rooms wondering what those smells were!  

We soon learned that the lunch was going to be hosted in one of the Ascott's suites.  Which was a surprise, but the thinking was apparently that as the food being served were home-style Peranakan classics, serving it in a home would be far more appropriate.  And surely enough, this was the sight that greeted me when I walked into the suite:

(L to R): Chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, Ascott CEO Lee Chee Koon
How often do you see one of the leaders of corporate Singapore getting his hands dirty and cooking for a bunch of hacks, not to mention acting as commis to a chef who is barely thirty years old?  Not very often, and this all set the very warm and fuzzy tone for a memorable afternoon.

In short, the company was great, the food was sensational, the sense of occasion palpable.  But as I ate, I felt a certain sense of sadness, which I felt unable to put in words then and still struggle now.  More on that later, here are pictures of what we ate and a couple of tasting notes:

Winged Bean Salad

Lee and Lee were preparing this salad as I walked in, dressing the salad with their hands to make sure that every morsel was covered in the tart, lemon juice-based vinaigrette.  Amazingly fresh flavours, with a beautiful crunch, snap, crisp in each mouthful, and it shows up the tired, monotonous, wilted bollocks that often passes for "fresh salad" in Singapore.  Gorgeous. 

Cod and Prawn Otak (Steamed Fish Mousse)

I remember my grandmother in Ipoh used to make this dish when I was a little 'un, pouring the mixture in an enamel plate and lining it with daun kaduk before steaming it.  That was how we did it at home, but most of the otak / otah that you see being sold these days, often by illegal immigrants, are wrapped in banana leaves and grilled.  Lee luxes up this Peranakan classic by using cod and prawn, adding a phenomenal sweetness and textural contrast.  Excellent.

Chap Chye (Mixed Vegetable Stew)

Lee uses fermented brown soybean paste to flavour this very old-school and labour-intensive vegetarian dish.  My mother makes this dish every Chinese New Year, but uses fermented red bean curd which hits a higher register of tartness.  It is delicious, very different from what my mother makes, but no better.

Bakwan Kepiting (Pork and Seafood Balls in Soup)

Of all the dishes today, this was the one dish that fell flat.  The stock itself was beautifully concentrated and sweet, but the meatballs themselves, made from an underseasoned mix of pork and crabmeat, were a letdown.

Ayam Buah Keluak (Chicken with Indonesian Black Nuts)

Thankfully, this dish tastes better than it looks.  Instead of mixing the flesh of the buah keluak with minced pork and stuffing it back into its shell, Lee extracts the flesh and turns it into a thick paste-like sauce.  It's hard for me to say whether it is better than the original, but it sure makes eating the dish a lot easier!

Nasi Ulam

A cold rice salad redolent with the cleansing bitterness of herbs.  Some might find it bland, but I think it is a beautiful counterpoint, flavour, texture and temperature-wise, not to mention visually, to the hot, rich, dark foods that populate the Peranakan dinner table.  Delicious.

Chendol Cream

Lee reinvents the Chendol into a coconut cream flan, topped with noodles of green pea flour and gula melaka palm sugar.  Pretty good, but I wasn't sure the deconstruction of this cooling street dessert added anything to the original recipe.


As I noted above, this was a stonkingly good lunch and a wonderful and low-key way in which to celebrate Ascott's 30th anniversary.  When you consider the fact that Singapore herself only recently notched up its 49th anniversary as an independent nation, it is always nice to see a homegrown success story maturing with the nation, as it were, winning global success but still remaining proud of its local roots.  My heartfelt thanks go to Philomena Ang and Magdaline Tan of Ascott for their very kind invitation.

But there were a couple of aspects of this lunch which provoked a bit of deeper introspection.  Firstly, walking in and seeing Lee and Lee painstaking assembling the dishes by hand.  Such was the effort in preparing the dishes that lunch started rather late.  Not that I minded at all, of course, but it was a stark reminder of the intensity of labour and preparation required to prepare good Peranakan food, and how difficult it is to reconcile such traditions with the fast-moving times in which we now live.

On a more personal level, however, having an intimate encounter with such an array of traditional dishes reminded me of what an unworthy heir I was to my own heritage and culture.  I am not of Peranakan stock, but my family had / has its own traditional dishes which bear a great resemblance to those that Lee and Lee put forth.  I cook, but I don't know how to cook these dishes, and I don't know how many other dishes were part of our repertoire but have since been lost to the sands of time.

Could I start again now?  Sure, I might learn a few of the recipes which we still have, although I am not sure I would have enough to cater for an eight-course dinner.  And yes, I could try to recapture some of that tradition by learning out of cookbooks, maybe even Chef Malcolm's cookbook.  But then I would be parroting Chef Malcolm's family traditions, and still lose the specific nuance and evolution that would inevitably have crept into our recipes being handed down over the generations.  

So maybe, at the end of the day, food isn't really all about taste, texture and the other superficial aspects about which food writers like to wax lyrical.  Coming to think about it, I'm not sure it ever was.

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