Peranakan food is a walk down memory lane, with the best spice and Umami for company. In a country like India that thrives on a rich and varied culinary heritage, there’s little doubt that casual diners and connoisseurs alike will resonate with the flavours and keep walking on.
Shashi Cheliah doesn’t wear a chef’s hat. In fact, by his own admission, calling him ‘chef’ is a bit of a misnomer. After all, the policeman-turned-celebrity-chef had no formal training in the culinary art when he won Master Chef Australia in 2018, as he honed his undying passion for cooking into winning one of the most coveted titles in the era of reality television. It’s some of that very same skill on display in Chennai, where Shashi has launched his first restaurant in India, Pandan Club.
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“Winning Master Chef Australia opened many doors for me and being South Indian myself, I had an affinity for India, where I’ve been welcomed with open arms,” says Shashi, as he sits down for a chat with CNBC-TV18 between lunch and dinner service.
Over the last two weeks, the Singapore-born Master Chef Champion with Tamil roots has been on a mission: introduce India to Peranakan cuisine. He’s managed to do that with some help from business partner and maverick chef Manoj Padmanabhan, who runs a Chennai-based lifestyle brand, Big Bandha.
For the uninitiated, Peranakan cuisine refers to the food eaten by Peranakans, or the first wave of Chinese settlers in Singapore, Malaysia and the Indonesian Archipelago between the 14th and 15th centuries. For these immigrants, Peranakan food was a mixture of their native Chinese food along with ingredients local to their new home. Then, it married South Indian ingredients thanks to a wave of Tamil settlers that migrated to the Malay Peninsula, bringing in a new burst of flavour.
“We brought in a lot of spices and bold flavours to the country and that influence made it to the dishes, “Peranakan food has a lot of coconut milk, chilli, garlic ginger and onions, all of which are our staples.” Then there are ingredients that Peranakan cuisine has made its own — like the fermented black nut, used in the famous Kambing Buah Keluak — lamb with black-nut and lemongrass paste with turmeric. But there’s more to the Indian-Peranakan food connection than just ingredients. “There’s also a lot of braising involved — very similar to how we cook our curries and lambs,” he adds, “The food is slow-cooked, there’s a lot of caramelizing that takes place.”
At Pandan Club, some of Shashi Cheliah’s signature dishes occupy pride of place. The talk of the spot is without a doubt the Ikan Bilis Pedas or Anchovies with peanuts, chilli jam, kafir lime and honey — each of these ingredients going the extra mile to serve up a mixture of sweet and savoury in perfect harmony with each other. The Har Cheong Gai (chicken wings smeared with shrimp paste, Chinese cooking wine and sesame oil) and famous Kueh Pie Tee, which is pretty much an edible cup filled with radish, fermented soypaste, cucumber and spring onion, bring up the rest of the restaurant’s lip-smacking starters.
Our grill course is admittedly partial to a bit more seafood. We are served the signature Sambal Udang — a Peranakan-style chilli prawn with Sambal and pickled shallots — and the Ikan Bakar — a whole fish smeared with Sambal paste with kumquats and shallots. “One feature of Peranakan cuisine is balance,” Shashi says, “even though the fish has Sambal — and Sambal is a chilli-based dish — you don’t feel the heat. There’s a balance between chilli, sweet and sour and that’s what gives these dishes a unique flavour.”
There’s plenty more on offer. A personal favourite is the Roti Prata, a reminder of our very own naan, while the more radical Roti Jala which looks like a thin omelette is a netted crepe that Shashi whips up in the kitchen with a series of spiral motions after adding turmeric, egg and coconut milk to the mix. A more comforting Nasi Goreng Kampong makes for the lone rice dish that has the scent of jasmine rice wafting through the air, only to be complemented by the Ayam Masak Merah — the signature chicken dish with chilli paste, tomato, shallots, lemongrass and pickled cucumber.
If there’s one ingredient that’s a non-negotiable in every plate of Peranakan food, it’s nostalgia. While any dish, served anywhere and at any time, comes with its burst of emotions — love, care and service to name a few — you can’t help but feel that the experience is heightened while eating Peranakan food. Think of it this way: for the average Singaporean — part of a fast-paced lifestyle and ever-evolving culture — a plate of Lor Bak, Kueh Pie Tee or Sambal Udang is a throwback to a simpler time; a childhood memory of dinner around the table or just warm, homemade, feel-good food. Every Peranakan plate has a story.
The nostalgia couldn’t get more romantic than it does as our plate of dessert is brought out of the kitchen — the Singapore Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s a staggeringly simple preparation of ice cream, condensed milk, milk bread and soy caramel, but there’s so much more to this plate.
“After school, the ice-cream sandwich would be something that I’d crave. I’d be waiting for the ice cream man to ring the bell, before I’d run down the apartment building and get a hold of that ice-cream sandwich. There are a lot of childhood memories that go into this cuisine.”
In a nutshell, Peranakan food is a walk down memory lane, with the best spice and Umami for company. In a country like India that thrives on a rich and varied culinary heritage, there’s little doubt that casual diners and connoisseurs alike will resonate with the flavours and keep walking on.
First Published: Oct 15, 2022 5:49 PM IST