BAKWAN KEPITING TO DIE FOR

An interview by K F Seetoh with Chef Ben Teo

It is a special event in my life when I tumble upon a Nonya eatery that's worthy of attention, so you'll have to excuse me if I start to gush.

In the past, I have raved about Damian D'Silva's Immigrants Gastrobar, where I devoured buah keluak fried rice. There's also Malcolm Lee's Candlenut Restaurant with its raised beef ribs in buah keluak sauce. It's Yeye's Kari (white coconut curry with minced pork, green chilli padi, green peppercorns and kaffir lime leaves) is also sublime.

Now my latest find - Peranakan Flavours Restaurant. Just four months old, it is helmed by Chef Ben Teo who spent 16 years in the kitchen of the famed Li Bai Cantonese Restaurant before deciding to return to his Nonya roots.

He ran a Nonya-style nasi padang restaurant in the Central Business District for a little while. But with little return for his efforts, he went on to helm a Nonya kitchen in a Joo Chiat guest house.

"But these budget foreigners just wanted free bread and butter in the buffet breakfast," laughs Chef Teo, rolling his eyes.

He's now started Peranakan Flavours. The restaurant, at The Ardennes Hotel, seats only about 36 - and that's if they extend seating into the boutique hotel's lounge. The limited seating comes with the advantage that Chef Teo can afford to painstakingly make his own rempah and stocks daily; he is ably assisted by his godson - and assistant chef - Gabriel Goh.

Chef Teo is no greenhorn, which makes me ask: How have I managed to miss his food for so long?

Trying his creations (some done with a wicked twist that takes nothing away from the heritage), I'm ruing what I've missed all these years. The starter is unexpected - it's fried yam cake. Not Nonya, but a shout-out to his Cantonese food training and past. Ben still serves it for two reasons. First, he likes the dish. Second, many of his customers will not let him remove it from his menu.

The crispy shell gives way to mushy soft centre filled with bits of hae bi (dried shrimp) and Chinese sausage. Dip it in sambal, and the whole thing comes alive in the mouth. Then came the potential deal-breaker - the bakwan kepiting ($10 each). Looking like a large golf ball after a particularly rough match, it is a mix of chopped shrimp, crab meat, turnip and minced port served in a broth infused with shrimp heads and flower crab shells.

I could eat it every day. It is simply the best bakwan kepiting I've ever had.

After that delight, I immediately fall for the ayam buah keluak ($24). It's the buah keluak's rempah, done with sharp hints of blended belimbing (sour wild starfruit) instead of tamarind, that floored me. There is also a version with pork ribs or trotters. Next up is the wicked makeover of udang nanas. The shrimp are mashed and stuffed into tofu before being deep-fried and served with pineapple in that classic sour sweet and spicy sauce.

Chef Teo calls it nanas yong tau foo (family portions at $20) The ayam kerabu salad is off the menu, but available on most days. The sauce is so complex yet so agreeable, that I soon give up on figuring out the details. Just enjoy scoop after scoop wrapped in fresh, crunchy lettuce leaves and leaves the thinking till later. One of the signature dishes, and another favourite of mine, is the ikan sumbat - a double deck stack of snapper fish and otah wrapped and deep-fried in fish skin. Hearing Chef Teo describe the intricate method of how this is created made me appreciate the cooking on a whole new level.

Finally, if all that is not firing you up, ask for the humble hae bi hiam (spicy dried shrimp). Chef Teo says it's made "just like how grandma used to - with lard and fat".

This may not be a dieters' paradise, but when it taste this good, forget the diet. Enjoy the heritage.

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