Step into the stately Garden Court Cafe at the Asia Society between now and June 4th and you’ll be treated to a rotating menu of Peranakan dishes from Chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut in Singapore. Candlenut is the first and only Peranakan restaurant to boast a Michelin star, awarded last year.
“Peranakan is part of being Singaporean,” says Chef Lee, after presenting lunch in the sunny atrium off of the museum lobby. “Singapore cuisine consists of two things: The hawker centers selling chicken rice, chili-crab and all that where you have so many different kinds of dishes in one location. Then you have the Peranakan side. This spectrum forms the unique aspect of Singaporean cuisine that you can’t really find in any other parts of the world.”
Peranakans are Straits-born Chinese, meaning ethnic Chinese whose descendants married and settled in the Malay archipelago, rendering a cuisine that is a fusion of cultures. One of their most popular dishes of laksa, a spicy curry-based noodle soup, has “escaped the Peranakan recipe books,” says Lee. “It’s essentially a Peranakan dish, but it escaped to the hawker centers, so that’s become more famous for being Singaporean than Peranakan.”
Some of the elusiveness of the cuisine may be due to the unique ingredients still tough to source, even in our global metropolis. The gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) sauce used to top the coconut panna cotta dessert was nearly a no-show: “We almost didn’t have it for lunch today. We used up what I brought from Singapore, so [the kitchen] was rushing to find it. They searched all of Chinatown and when I came in at 10 [this morning], they said ‘we still can’t find it.’ Things that can be so simple, so common, can be hard to find, but it’s such a great flavor to eat.” Fortunately, a source was found—though not revealed—and the sweet sticky syrup redolent of a toffee-like caramel came to be drizzled over the cloud-like dessert laced with translucent jelly bits made using pandan, a bright, fragrant herb commonly used in southeast Asian cooking.
The sourcing of ingredients was one of Lee’s primary considerations when conjuring up his state-side menu—“If they would have problems sourcing it, there’s no point, right?”—as was the importance of creating something visitors to the museum would enjoy while maintaining the integrity of his native cuisine. “These are really dishes based on the Peranakan culture. The principles behind it are there, the ingredients are there, it’s just the combination that may be a little bit different. This is quite acceptable, I think. We do more interesting combinations with more interesting ingredients at the restaurant, but I think this is a very good introduction to the cuisine.”
Chef Lee’s Charred Octopus with Cucumber and Pineapple Achar (a pickled condiment) will be featured this week at the Garden Court Cafe. For information on the rotating menu items from Chef Lee, go to asiasociety.org or check out the museum’s Twitter @AsiaSocietyNY.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 14, 2017