Before I take any trip, I basically research it to death. I get tour books and surf the net and watch tv — anything to ensure that I don’t miss something I really want to see.
Just before I traveled to Singapore, I really lucked out and saw not only an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, but also an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern that featured several foods in Singapore, including Peranakan food. In particular, Andrew Zimmern ate at a Peranakan family establishment called True Blue, and as luck had it, so did I.
My host took me to True Blue, where I immediately flipped open the menu. Did they have it? Was it something you specially had to order? I was looking for the black nut that Zimmern tried, which would be poisonous if not properly prepared. The family had practiced cooking this nut for generations. I spotted a blurb about it on the back page of the menu. My taste buds were atingle. I just had to try this.
The restaurant, which is located next to the Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street, was absolutely beautiful and embodied everything I’d learned about the Peranakan culture on my museum visit. Chef Baba (term for Mister) and Nonya (Miss) Daisy have decorated the place with Peranakan grace and crafts. Nonya Daisy was dressed traditionally and served us one incredible dish after another, including Ayam Buah Keluak (chicken with black nut) – the dish Zimmern had.
The shell of the nut was like a blackened walnut, which makes sense since it has to be soaked in water for at least five days, with the water changed often. Others say to soak it for 30 days. Still others argue that the nut needs to be buried in ash. Then, the shell is sliced open and the nut is ground into a fine paste, stuffed back into the shell, and slow-cooked in a stew with chicken. Once it is finished, you scoop out the mixture and combine it with rice. It’s nutty and not unlike a truffle taste, or finely ground nut paste. It’s good, but it wasn’t my favorite dish.
We ordered several dishes and ate family style. One standout dish was the Banana Flower Salad. It was tangy and sweet and unlike anything else I’ve had. The Tiger Prawns in curry were fantastic, the beef rendang spicy and delicious, and I know this will sound silly, but I absolutely loved the tea. I think it was sweetened with palm sugar. It was heavenly, and the attentive staff served us cup after cup as we savored our dishes.
I did manage to try Peranakan food at another place as well. I had sticky rice balls wrapped and steamed in banana leaves at Kim Chao’s Kitchen, in the Peranakan living area. It was fantastic! So sweet and flavorful. I liked it better than the Ayam Buah Keluak. We had a bit of fish paste, too, in a banana leaf. I liked that as well, but could have popped rice balls all day, if they would have let me. Instead, I took a picture of the poster telling me how to make them myself. I’m already chuckling at the thought. There are nine steps to the process and I don’t even have banana leaves at my disposal. I’ll just have to live with the memories.
Have you tried Ayam Buah Keluak? Or eaten other dishes Tony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have mentioned?