Guan Hoe Soon has been my family’s go-to place for Nyonya food for decades, and their standards have been consistently maintained throughout the years. Nyonya food is perhaps the most Singaporean of all cuisines one finds on the island. An amalgamation of native Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and European (mainly Portuguese & British) cooking styles and honed through the centuries, Nyonya cuisine is as local as you can get.
Nyonya cuisine itself can be divided into two distinct regional variations: the Southern Nyonya covering Singapore and Melaka, and Northern Nyonya centred in Penang. These days, some used the term “Peranakan” to refer to this culture, which is basically local-born Chinese, but which has assimilated local Malay & other customs into their lifestyles. The male Peranakans are called “Baba” and the female “Nyonya”. Since, traditionally, Peranakan kitchens were ruled by the womenfolk, Peranakan cuisine is often referred to as Nyonya cuisine.
My family is Peranakan, and I count myself fairly lucky in that I get to experience the full repertoire of Nyonya cuisine (both Northern & Southern styles) since young: I am a 6th-generation Northern Peranakan on my paternal side in Penang, whilst I am a 4th-generation Southern Peranakan on my maternal side in Singapore. I prefer Southern Nyonya, with its Indonesian influences and gentler (albeit still pretty spicy) flavours in dishes like “ayam buah keluak”, “babi pongteh”, “bakwan kepiting” and “ayam tempra”. These dishes do not exist in Northern Nyonya cooking in Penang, which has more Thai and Burmese influences, e.g. “Curry Kapitan”, “inche kabin”, “jiu hu char” and “perut ikan”.
But there are also Nyonya dishes which span both Northern and Southern styles, e.g, “kueh pai tee” , “popiah”, “otak otak” and “itek tim” (known as “kiam chye ark” in Penang) - although tastes & textures may vary slightly between the two styles.
My favourite Nyonya restaurants in Singapore currently are Peramakan (in Keppel Club), Ivins (Binjai Park, Bukit Timah), Dulukala (Beauty World, Bukit Timah), Peranakan Inn (East Coast Road), True Blue (Armenian Street), Blue Ginger (Tanjung Pagar Rd) and, of course, Guan Hoe Soon at Joo Chiat Place.
Had a quick lunch the other day in Guan Hoe Soon:
Nyonya achar, cucumbers & onions with sambal belachan, chicken livers & gizzards
Bakwan kepiting soup - pork-crabmeat balls with bamboo shoots in pork broth.
Ayam buah keluak - spicy chicken stew with Indonesian “buah keluak” nuts.
Ayam tempra - braised chicken with tamarind and soya sauce.
Sayur lodeh - spicy, turmeric-and-coconut milk-flavoured vegetable stew.
Complimentary Nyonya “kueh” (pudding).
A few doors down from Guan Hoe Soon along Joo Chiat Place is another famous Peranakan food joint: Kim Choo Kueh Chang. Similar to Chinese rice dumplings (“chang”) but using native pandan leaves instead of bamboo or reed leaves for wrapping as in the case of Chinese chang. The filling is also different, as Nyonya chang is savoury-sweet, with the addition of candied melon to the pork filling, and also the use of toasted, ground coriander for flavouring, which the Chinese don’t use.
Guan Hoe Soon
40 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: +65 6344 2761
Operating hours: 11am-3pm, 6pm-9.30pm daily.
Kim Choo Kueh Chang
60 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: +65 6344 0830
Operating hours: 10am to 10pm daily.