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Candlenut in Singapore: preserving an indigenous strand of home-cooking

13 Feb
  • Dates visited: 3 times in January 2015
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Address: 331 New Bridge Road, New Bridge Road, Singapore 088764
  • Phone: +65 8121 4107
  • Chef: Malcolm Lee
  • Style: Modern Peranakan

A distinction in Thailand between home-cooking and street food… 

While browsing David Thompson (head chef, Nahm) excellent book Thai Street Food, I was enlightened as to a distinction he makes between the older Thai traditional food and Thai street food (a relatively new development that started in the 30’s and 40’s). In the first half of the twentieth century, before most Thais began to work in urban areas, eating street food was actually viewed with stigma, as it indicated one’s family (usually one’s wife) was uncaring enough to not prepare full meals for the husband and breadwinner.

It is in Thai home cooking that we find the more labor-intensive dishes such as curries, soups, relishes and stir-fries, meant to be eaten with rice, and served all at once. In Thai street food we find single-portions, usually one-dish noodles or rice, along with some snacks. At Nahm, I was fortunate enough to have three great meals of traditional Thai food. From the description of David Thompson’s soon-to-be-open Long Chim in Singapore’s casino complex Marina Bay Sands, it appears he will cook Thai street food instead:

Recently awarded the No. 1 spot on San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 and 13th on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 for his restaurant in Bangkok, Long Chim is Chef David Thompson’s first venture into casual dining. The internationally acclaimed chef, restaurateur and cookbook author has crafted a tantalising menu that combines traditional street food and contemporary flavours, with a restaurant concept reminiscent of the vibrant streets of Bangkok. Rediscover Thai cuisine with beef with holy basil, chicken pilaf with turmeric and cardamom, and more.

It will be very interesting to see how Long Chim pans out, and is received by pan-Asian consumers (especially Singaporeans), because there is a lot of hand-wringing on the island of Singapore about the state of its own street food (or “hawker food”) and Long Chim may provide a solution – “sell it to a foreign audience unburdened with expectations” to reset. Ironically the success of Long Chim may solve the problem of local consumers not placing a high value on street food, but only by introducing it to a foreign and well-off audience.

… the distinction isn’t limited to Thailand, but exists wherever street food exists: If we think about it, historically street food required a few ingredients to arise: (A) a large working population,  either (B1)  no wives to prepare home-cooked meals or (B2) high costs for wives to prepare homecooked meals. In the most recent past, we had (A) and (B1) in Southeast Asia. Singapore for instance was a land of immigrants, and lacking wives they ate at street hawkers. To take the example of bak kut teh (pork rib tea), according to Dr Leslie Tay in The End of Char Kway Teow, “pork bone soup was being served by the Teochews around Clarke Quay, and the Hokkien around Hokkien Street [in the 1920s]” (p32, Tay). In Thailand, David Thompson mentions the development of Thai street food took place around that time period, and eating street food carried stigma about your lack of a caring family. Today, the (A) working population is doubled in size due to the entry of women into the workforce, and (B2) the opportunity cost of a working wife’s income forgone is much higher.

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Candlenut preserves the Peranakan tradition of home-cooking well, in my three meals there in January, I found the food to be robustly flavored with welcome touches of innovation. Take the buah keluak (pangium edule)  preparation, which has divided commentators like Wong Ah Yoke on authenticity – traditionally the meat (most commonly chicken) is cooked within the buah keluak nut and dunked in a sour broth. The chef, Malcolm Lee, here, prepares a sauce from the buah keluak independently of the meat, which tames the bitterness but is intensely meaty and flavorful (at least for the wagyu beef version). It is black gold to spread over rice. For me, to insist on authenticity is to miss the point, since Chef Malcolm Lee is the only one experimenting and innovating in this vein. If you want authentic preparations, there are multiple Peranakan restaurants on the island where you can get your fix. But I have found that this is the only place serving Peranakan food that has the capacity to surprise. In fact, the one ingredient I haven’t encountered at this restaurant is the eponymous candlenut!

Innovating away from haute street-food, which is not as fruitful as haute home-cooking. I am biased, but I don’t believe haute street food hits the mark as often as home-cooking or banquet-cooking dishes. I had quite a few over the past year – the HK waffles at Bo Innovation were okay, the cheese pimento at Sant Pau was a clever artifice but not much more, the street-food based canapes at Nahm were just overshadowed by the home-cooked mains, the everything bagel at Eleven Madison Park was another clever artifice… so on and so forth. The examples could be multiplied. I’ve also generally had a better time in Tokyo at kaiseki restaurants than at sushi/tempura restaurants (former street-food that has successfully entered the haute-cuisine pantheon). [I must note though the Fat Duck’s “lamb kebab” was my best dish of 2014, but it completely transformed from its street food origins] This observation that haute street-food doesn’t hit the mark quite as often is based on my eating experience. My theory about why this is so, is simply that they (A) generally involve less labor than home-cooked/banquet food, and (B) street food must often deliver a forthright punch to ensure customers come back, but this frontal impact comes at the expense of complexity of the dish. For instance, HK waffles pack oil and starch, tempura has an oiliness we crave. Many haute cuisine attempts to update street food just seem awkward, and I believe it is the impatience and lack of complexity with which street food unfolds its flavors.

Everything goes well with rice. Two sauces here can be classed as “world-class”, up there with any multi-Michelin-starred restaurant. They are the buah keluak sauce with wagyu beef rib, and the gula melaka sauce with king prawn. I could not dump them onto my rice fast enough. The swimmer crab curry was another highlight, but almost every dish whetted the appetite. It was sophisticated comfort food, and it felt like we were eating at a Peranakan relative’s house.

Candlenut deserves to be grouped with Nahm as an innovative restaurant that simultaneously respects tradition. I opened my post talking about Nahm’s David Thompson because the two restaurants Candlenut and Nahm remind me of each other in a deep way. The head chefs (Malcolm Lee, and David Thompson) are not showy celebrity chefs, but are deeply-aware and well-read on the history and preparation of Peranakan and Thai food, unlike so many other chefs who are chasing fame and notoriety in the wild-west of Southeast Asian fine-dining. Both restaurants, Candlenut and Nahm, produce food that reminds me of home-cooked food, comforting and yet sophisticated. Both have chosen family-style serving of dishes in pursuit of this ideal of traditional food. The dishes are made with high quality ingredients. And yet the chefs have been trained in the Western-style. They know of the latest developments in molecular gastronomy. Here Candlenut is slightly more innovative, but only deploys some modernist techniques (sous-vide, espumas) when it serves the dish. But every so often there is the potential to surprise you with a completely novel dish (Candlenut’s buah keluak ice cream, and their desserts in general are interesting) which reflects a keen culinary intelligence. Singaporean food is for the richer that a chef of Malcolm Lee’s talent has chosen to cook Peranakan food instead of molecular cuisine a la The Fat Duck.

Relevant reviews:

Excellent dishes are highlighted with a  *

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  • Canapes: Gula melaka/Brinjal chip, with prawn quenelle, cilantro. An appetizing palate opener. It had the right amount of sourness (I would guess it involved calamansi). It was very well done.
    • 4.25/5

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  • Kueh Pie Tee: braised turnips, pork belly, prawn filling
    • 4.25/5

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  • Ngoh Hiang: Crispy beancurd roll stuffed with minced pork and prawns, water chestnut, mushrooms
    • Not a bad rendition. I am a bit spoilt when it comes to ngor hiang since my aunt makes a terrific version (the best I’ve tried in Singapore by a mile), but I would prefer if it were shrunk down, to ensure more crispy beancurd skin to stuffing ratio. This ensures the savory skin gets maximum flavor. It would also be better (I am out of fashion here) if the ingredients were more coarsely chopped, such that you can taste the texture of the prawns (important) and meat. It would benefit from more prawns.
    • Too many people make the mistake of throwing the ingredients in a blender. That is absolutely the last thing you should do. The joy of ngor hiang is to sample the varying textures of ingredients in one savory package.
    • 4/5

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  • Wing Bean Salad: prawns, crispy fish, shallots, lemongrass, chilli, cashew nuts, mint, coriander with lime dressing
    • 3.75/5
  • Turmeric Wings: Deep fried mid-wings
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Omelette Chincalok: Fermented blend of salted baby shrimps, folded with spring onions
    • An simple yet addictive dish, with a real depth of taste. Had not had this simple dish done so well since Xu Jun Sheng in Joo Chiat closed down.
    • 4.5/5

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  • * Sambal Goreng Mushrooms: wok fried with crispy shrimp sambal
    • I love mushrooms. I recently learnt from Michael Pollan’s Cooked that there are three umami chemicals (L-glutamate from seaweed, inosine from fish, and guanosine from mushrooms). Much of the Straits Chinese cooking I love uses dried shrimp (umami, but is it from inosine?), and and this combined two of the three umami archetypes (fermented seafood and mushrooms). It was interesting to see mushrooms in place of the usual kang kong.
    • 4.5/5
  • Chap chye: braised cabbage with mushrooms, sweet & dried bean curd, pork belly and black fungus in rich prawn stock gravy
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Candlenut Satay: pineapple peanut sauce, cucumbers, red onions
    • Just the right amount of crispiness on the meat (slight at the edges), which was still juicy.
    • 4.5/5

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  • * Buah Keluak chicken

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  • * Buah Keluak F1 Rangers Valley Wagyu beef rib
    • I have tried both versions, but I would say the succulence of the beef fat has outperforms the chicken version, which is tender but marginally less flavorful. The sauce is like black gold you pour over your rice, a moorish flavor that recalls a Mexican chocolate mole, but with that bitter nuttiness that is unique to buah keluak. Fantastic, an innovation to be celebrated.
    • chicken (4.75/5)
    • beef (5/5)
  • Rendang: dry coconut curry with kaffir lime leaves and roasted coconut
    • 4/5

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  • Babi pongteh: pork belly braised in perserved soy bean gravy topped with chilli
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Yellow coconut curry of crab: blue swimmer crab meat, turmeric, galangal, kaffir lime
    • Ranges from 4.75/5 to 4.25/5. I have had this dish three times, and on the first two times this dish was almost perfect. (On the third time the crab had a slight bitter tinge to it which made the dish less enjoyable)
    • I mentioned to Chef Malcolm that I thought this dish was comparable to Nahm’s coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime. He probably thought I was joking but I meant it. The swimmer crab was generous in portion, and the curry deliciously complex. the note of galangal was probably what recalled Nahm’s almost instantly
    • Nahm’s swimmer crab curry, picture for comparison:
    • The Candlenut version is slightly spicier than the Nahm version (if I recall correctly), but both are thick, savory curries you would love to splash upon your rice.

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  • * Gula Melaka King Prawns: coconut butter sauce infused w gula melaka, lemongrass & roasted coconut, fresh herbs and chilli
    • Another masterpiece. This dish is completely new to me, but the sauce concocted is absolutely addictive, with a butterscotch taste and a perfect counterpoint of gula melaka. It is now made with soft shell crab, but the two times we had it with king prawn were amazing
    • 5/5

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  • Passionfruit, watermelon-wasabi granite, basil
    • A good palate cleanser.

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  • Chendol cream: Signature coconut custard, gula melaka sauce w pandan jelly
    • I think that this dish had the right idea, but on the two occasions we had it it was barely cold. The joy of chendol is that it is a cold treat, and we look forward to the sweet icy coconut milk soup. For me the serving temperature was off. My friend Y also commented astutely that it was missing the red bean element. If it were colder, and had the red bean element, I believe this dish would be much improved.
    • The pandanus noodles (lod chong) also were a bit doughy, and lacked bite.
    • (Open question: While I was in Thailand, their pandanus noodles tended to have a roasted flavor. I still don’t know where roasting comes into the process though)
    • 3.25/5

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  • Textures of coconut: Coconut sorbet, coconut espuma, coconut jelly, grated coconut, coconut flesh
    • This dish is surprisingly light on the coconut taste. (The glaring omission is coconut milk). Presumably the kitchen wants to make this a light dessert. In this they succeed, the coconut jelly has the salty-sweet taste of the older coconut. My personal taste is towards a heavier coconut dessert though, but this is amiable.
    • However, it would be improved (within the parameters of a light coconut dish) if they were to use younger and sweeter coconuts.
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Durian Soup: Creamy durian ice cream with feuilletine, fresh durian puree
    • A winner. Decadent, creamy durian, no holding back. With a biscuit to provide textural contrast. The only minor change I would make is not to pre-add the corn flakes and the feuilletine so that they don’t get soggy so fast.
    • 4.75/5

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  • Banana Caramel Pudding: Steamed banana cake, caramelized banana, ginger crumble with gula melaka ice cream
    • A technically excellent banana cake, made with overripe banana. An admirably even brulee across two banana halves, and an equally  balanced gula melaka ice cream.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Corn Hoon Kueh: Caramelised Baby Corn, Gula Melaka, popcorn, corn ice cream
    • There were two aspects of this dish that I really liked – the caramel-butterscotch note and the vegetal crunch. Vegetal. It was an inspired decision to put halved baby corn onto the dish, they have a unique texture. The corn in the hoon kueh also provided that note. Caramel. The caramel sauce, the caramelised corn, and the popcorn all had the caramel note that made it a sophisticated dish. The kueh was well made, and the ice cream provided the contrast in temperature. A texture-based dish (powder, ice cream, popcorn, baby corn, kueh) enlivened by those two factors.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Buah keluak: buah keluak-chocolate ice cream, salted caramel, chocolate crumble and chilli specks, warm milk chocolate espuma
    • This needs no introduction – the most popular dessert here by far. An earthy concoction that has the hints of the bitterness of buah keluak (a natural and inspired pairing with chocolate) that is contrasted with salted caramel. An unique excellent dish that only a restaurant like this, balancing both a Singaporean tradition and and innovative ethos could come up with.
    • 5/5