My first acquaintance with Nyonya food purveyor, Ivins, was back in 1989 when a colleague at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation found out that I was a Peranakan-Baba, like him. He came up to my desk and said, “Let’s me show you this fabulous new Nyonya restaurant at lunch.” Ivins was then just one year old, located incongruously in a quiet, upmarket residential area, and was also one of the very few Nyonya restaurants in town - beside Guan Hoe Soon (then located on Joo Chiat Rd), Peranakan Inn and Cheng Heng both on East Coast Road, Katong. It was in Bukit Timah, a short drive from our offices at Caldecott Hill. Singapore did not have that many dining options in that area in those days.
Ivins at Binjai Park maintained its spread from then till now: ayam buah keluak, babi pongteh, one of the best bakwan kepiting in town, Nyonya chap chai, otak-otak, itik tim, etc. For me, then as now, Ivins became a home away from home of sorts when it comes to Nyonya cooking. In the following 3 decades, there has been a Nyonya food revival, and many new competitors now crowd the market: PeraMakan (which started off in Joo Chiat, but now rules the roost at Keppel Club) which offers perhaps one of the best spread in town, True Blue (luxe Nyonya, originally in Katong, but now at Armenian St next to the Peranakan Museum), Candlenut (Michelin-starred modern-Nyonya) at Dempsey Hill, Blue Ginger at Tanjong Pagar, Dulukala at Beauty World (better catch it before the old mall is pulled down), and many others.
Cheng Heng has gone the way of the dodo, a pity since its “hee peow” soup is the best in town. Guan Hoe Soon is still my fave Nyonya restaurant for a family dinner, whilst Peranakan Inn remains the place for the most authentic-tasting “bakwan kepiting”, sharp & peppery the way it should be.
But last night, a cousin and his wife decided to introduce me to Ivins’ new branch - at the Heartland Mall in Hougang, northwest of the city into the burbs. Despite its mall setting, Ivins managed to maintain the tastes/flavours of its Binjai Park original. What we had:
Kueh Pie Tee. Not as tasty as those delicious ones I found in Penang, but I liked these more than those I found in most Nyonya restaurants in Malacca, which tend to be messy and bland.
Ayam Buah Keluak. The version here tasted above average as always - one of my must-orders since my first lunch at Ivins back in 1989. But the one here looks funny - it didn’t have the cooked-through, oil-dotted reddish gravy. Instead, it had a brown stew/curry-like appearance which surprised me initially. But the requisite flavours- galangal, turmeric, belacan, assam (tamarind), candlenut - were all there. I love the fact that Ivins also mixed minced meat into its “buah keluak” flesh and stuffed those back into the shells before cooking.
Babi Pongteh. This is one of the essential Nyonya dishes which I must have at every Nyonya meal I have in a restaurant. Ridiculously difficult to find in Malacca or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where Nyonya restaurants tend to be “halal” to cater to the Muslim-majority clientele there, whereas Babi Pongteh (like Ayam Buah Keluak) do not appear in Penang-Nyonya cuisine which has its own spread of dishes. The version here at Ivins was, again above average, though no really exceptional. To get the best Babi Pongteh, I still go to Guan Hoe Soon.
Bakwan kepiting (pork-shrimp-crabmeat balls with bamboo) soup. Ivins’ version has always been one of my go-to renditions, after those from Peranakan Inn and Guan Hoe Soon.
Otak-otak. Average. I go to Guan Hoe Soon for the best rendition.
Tau Kwa Pau - this is a new addition to Ivins’ repertoire. Tofu stuffed with meats and chopped vegetables. It’s not a strictly Nyonya dish, but is a familiar item in Katong, Singapore’s Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya) enclave. The version here is actually pretty good.
Sayur Lodeh - cabbage, carrots, long beans and tofu in a turmeric-spiced coconut milk-rich curry. The flavours here really hit the spot. This is how sayur lodeh is supposed to taste like, and Ivins really delivers.
Desserts: We went for the works - cendol, sago Gula Melaka, bubur cha cha and some of the Nyonya kuehs which we picked from the display cabinet: kueh sarlat, kueh kosui, pulut inti and kueh talam. All were pretty good - a testament to Ivins’ pedigree when it comes to Nyonya food.
Ivins at the Heartland Mal basically maintains its image as a casual Nyonya eatery with very low prices which seemed to have been frozen at 1980s level (incredibly).
Ivins Peranakan Retaurant
205 Hougang Street 21, Heartland Mall 02-03
Tel: +65 6288 7922