[Singapore] Best Nyonya cooking at Charlie's Peranakan

Amidst constant complaints that the standard of cooking at top Nyonya restaurants in Singapore have deteriorated (think, Guan Hoe Soon, Ivin’s, Cili Padi, among others), it was really a delight to come across a “new” one that actually went against the trend of simplification and shortcuts in cooking. Charlie’s Peranakan, run by intrepid Peranakan chef, Charlie Tan, chose to return to the roots of Nyonya cooking: painstakingly reproducing labour-intensive, rare dishes like " Ekor babi masak asam" (pig’s tail braised with soysauce, palm sugar & tamarind) and “tulang babi buah keluak” - pork spare-ribs braised with “buah keluak” (an Indonesian black nut with a truffle-like scent)-inflected gravy with spices.

Charlie’s Peranakan actually has a 30-plus-year history, first in Bukit Merah, then in Katong (East Coast Road, opposite the Holy Family Church), and subsequently Thomson Rd, before Charlie Tan “retired” 8 years ago. Thankfully, for us Nyonya food connoisseurs, Charlie Tan decided to come out of retirement and run this one-man kitchen, with his wife Amy taking orders and serving the food, at Golden Mile Food Centre. His latest venture is only a few months old right now, and many Singaporeans have yet to hear about it, let alone come and try it.

What I liked about Charlie Tan’s cooking is the honest-to-goodness, home-cooked flavours he managed to achieve in that tiny space where he works. His dishes were bursting with flavours, and easily put the cooking at well-known Nyonya restaurants to shame.

Some of the dishes we tried this time:

  1. “Tulang babi masak buah keluak” (pork-ribs braised in buah keluak sauce). Charlie’s version has fall-off-the-bone-tender, slow-braised pork-ribs replete with the flavours of lemongrass, galangal, chilis and “belacan”. The buah keluak gave the dish its deep flavours and distinctive sourish-bitterish slant which the Peranakan palate find so addictive, and imparted the trademark “buah keluak” dark colour to the gravy.

  2. “Nangka masak lemak” (young jackfruit, cooked in a thick, coconut milk-enriched sauce with turmeric and spices). It’s a very rich, slightly spicy stew, but so utterly delicious, one is tempted to finish every single drop of the calorific dish.
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  3. “Ekor babi masak asam” - pig’s tail, cut into 1-inch lengths, then slow-braised in soysauce, palm sugar, garlic, shallots, and with dried chilis to add a spike of heat. The stew was cooked down till sticky and glistening from all the collagen from the pig’s tail.

  4. Bakwan kepiting - pork-crabmeat balls in a savoury pork-flavoured soup. The meatballs also incorporated matchstick-sized slivers of bamboo shoots for an additional taste dimension. The firm-textured meatballs were some of the best I’d ever had, and the peppery soup was correctly flavoured to a tee.

  5. “Chap chye” - this is Nyonya take on mixed vegetables (“chop suey” in American-Chinese cuisine, “japchae” in Korean). Most Nyonya restaurants in Singapore (and even those in Penang and Malacca) produced a concatenated version of the Nyonya “chap chye”, slow-cooked cabbage & other vegetables flavoured with “taucheo” (salted/fermented soybeans). Charlie’s rendition harks back to the more flavoursome homecooked version where a basic “rempah” consisting of candlenuts, shallots & chilis is used, together with the “taucheo”. Cloud’s ears/black fungus, yuba/tofu skin and glass noodles (“tung hoon”) are also added.

  6. “Kari ikan masak India”. Charlie showed his well-known maverick streak by offering a fish curry with a distinctive Tamil-Indian spice accent, compared to Nyonya-style curry. The Indian curry has a stronger scent from its use of cardamom and fenugreek, which Nyonya curries don’t have.

Charlie’s Peranakan is indeed the food find of the month for me here in Singapore. Best lunch (and dinner) spot for a quick meal.

Address
Charlie’s Peranakan Food
B1-30, Golden Mile Food Centre
Beach Road, Singapore 199583
Tel: +65 81474832 (Amy)
Opening hours: 11.30am-7.30pm daily

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That looks fantastic, klyeoh. I had just booked a table at Folklore for a brief visit to Singapore next week, but am now considering cancelling that and going to Charlie’s instead. Any thoughts on which of the two a visitor from KL should try?

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The two eateries are just across the road (Beach Road, to be precise) from each other. But they have pretty different ambience, though.

  1. Charlie’s Peranakan Food is just a stall within a food centre, with very basic seating arrangements. It also does mainly lunch business and closes around 7.30pm, after serving early dinners to customers.

  2. Folklore, on the other hand, is located inside the new Destination Hotel, and is a "proper’ restaurant.

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Much depends on what you’d like to try: Charlie’s Peranakan does better food overall. But Foklore’s Sambal Buah Keluak Fried Rice alone is worth a trip there, and they have some utterly marvellous desserts.

If you plan carefully, you might even be able to sample food from both places on one evening, although I would not recommend that as it detracts away from the full enjoyment of a meal at one place - and each of the eatery does deserve that much.

Charlie Tan and Damian da Silva are two of the very best chefs in Singapore at the moment. Both are able to coax the full-bodied flavours out of what they are cooking, both able to achieve that subtle balance of flavours which younger, lesser experienced cooks seemed unable to do, and both provide memorable tastes which even many of Singapore’s Michelin-starred chefs cannot achieve.

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Your follow up review of Folklore has me even more torn! I will try to get to both, though not for the same meal…

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Yes, catching both would be great. Enjoy!

I thought the same about both reviews. These look like must visits next time I’m in Singapore. I"ve had Nyonya cooking twice in Melaka and twice in Penang so it would be interesting to taste the Singapore style. Will have to make sure I’m wearing my eating trousers though.

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Chris - Singapore-style Nyonya food originates from Melaka, so their dishes are pretty similar.
The only difference is the otak-otak - whereas the Melakan one has a firm texture similar to Chinese fishcakes, covered with a spice paste, the Singapore version has a softer pudding-like texture (though not as soft as Penang otak-otak with its mousse-like feature which is similar to Thai “hor mok pla”).
I’m guessing that Singapore otak-otak evolved from the Thai “hor mok” as well, but somewhere along the way, it took on a much firmer characteristic. It’s also much larger in size, though similar in taste & texture to Johore otak-otak which I understand was introduced by a Thai-Chinese lady who immigrated to Johore from Southern Thailand after World War II.

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I managed a meal at both Folklore and Charlie’s, and Charlie’s was definitely the standout. I went by myself for a hasty lunch before a flight, so had chap chye and the bakwan kepitan. The chap chye was the best I’ve ever had, with a remarkable complexity of flavours and the freshness of the lettuce. Delicious. I hadn’t had the bakwan kepitan before and thought it light and delicious. The bamboo shoots klyeoh mentioned were a fantastic touch. Also, there was a lovely sambal on the side.

Dinner at Folklore was also very good, but I think we ordered badly, being led astray by the waiter and my dining companion’s not feeling very well at the time. The buah keluak fried rice and the desserts were excellent (I loved the egg with an added dollop of buah keluak in the former), to which we added some angle bean salad (nice and fresh) and pineapple prawns. The latter was the weakest dish of the evening, but all of it felt a bit flat especially compared to the vividness of Charlie’s Peranakan the next morning. In retrospect I should have insisted on the otak-otak and one of the Eurasian dishes.

Other meals were at Amo’s - ok Italian, where I hoped to recreate a superb meal I’d had at the now-defunct Angeleno’s. It simply didn’t have the same focus on good quality ingredients. At Ottomanli, a slightly over-the-top Turkish restaurant we had lovely pit roasted lamb, and at Maxwell Hawker Centre some tasty frog porridge. The restaurant highlight was Man-Man Unagi, with some of the best eel I’ve ever had, and well worth having to queue half an hour at weekday lunchtime. All in all, Man-Man and Charlie’s were the highlights of my flying Singapore visit.

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Well done, tavegyl. I’m glad you enjoyed Charlie’s Peranakan - it’s truly a hidden food gem.

Just curious, that waiter who gave not-so-good recs at Folklore, he doesn’t happen to have a rather odd name - Thumper - does he?

You actually braved the queues at Man Man Unagi! Half an hour is not too bad - average waiting time usually exceeds one hour there.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold