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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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