Story and pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng and New Straits Times.
I chance upon True Blue Cuisine during my visit to the Straits Chinese needlework and embroidery exhibition at the Peranakan Musuem. A casual chat with the museum gift shop’s sales manager about the beautifully embroidered slippers on sale inevitably leads to the owner’s own impressive vintage footwear collection. I am naturally curious and decide to walk to True Blue Cuisine which is conveniently located just two doors away from the museum.
The interior is decorated like a traditional Peranakan house complete with a chim chae area. This air well section is a very important feature in a Peranakan home as it is used to collect rain water as well as dry preserved foods like belachan and achar. I spend a good half hour feeling nostalgic looking at the large collection of vintage photographs and antiques. It is not difficult for me to picture the original occupants in the house as they go about their daily chores or prepare for major festivals like Chinese New Year. I am sure the place must have been a hive of activity with the children running around while visiting relatives update their hosts on the latest gossips.
Finally it is time to sit down and sample the food. I stick to my time tested method of asking the petite kebaya dressed waitress to recommend the house favourites. To my surprise, she rattles off nearly twenty names. It is not common for a restaurant to have such a long list of ‘must try’ dishes. Finally, after some serious contemplation, I greedily narrowed my order down to seven.
While waiting for the food to arrive, I meet up with Benjamin Seck who is the owner. Being a 6th generation Teochew Straits Chinese, he is very passionate about food and regularly doubles up as chef. During our brief chat, I learn that True Blue Cuisine first opened its doors in November 2003 in Katong which is the heart of the Peranakan enclave in Singapore.
“Right at the beginning I wanted True Blue Cuisine to be more than just a restaurant. I envisioned a place that will bring to life an all-round experience of the rich Peranakan culture. Five years later we decided to move here so that we can complement the Peranakan Museum by providing an even more complete feast for the senses. We try hard to promote a living heritage where culture comes alive,” Benjamin tells me passionately.
The first dish to arrive is Benjamin’s very own creation. The Jantung Pisang is served cold and has hints of green apple and carambola. I am impressed by the chef’s ability to remove the bitter taste which is commonly associated with banana flowers. This light appetizer is the perfect start to my Peranakan culinary experience.
The Chap Chye, Ngoh Hiang, Ayam Buah Keluak, Udang Masak Kuah Nanair, Beef Rendang and Haypoh cha Sambair arrive as soon as the last piece of appetizer disappear. The portions are generous and soon I begin to realise that other diners are eyeing my table. Like them, I am also wondering how I will be able to finish all the food.
My favourites for the evening must surely be the Beef Rendang and Ayam Buah Keluak. The beef is very tender and the chef is very generous with the spices and crispy kerisik. There are also hints of kaffir lime leaves, cinnamon and ginger. The rendang is served cold. I feel this is the correct way to serve this dish. Traditionally, the rendang is cooked the night before a festival and allowed to continue cooking slowly in its residual heat throughout the night before being served cold the next morning.
This is my first time trying Ayam Buah Keluak and I must say that it goes very well with the piping hot rice. The rice served here is a mixture of Jasmine and Basmathi. Benjamin tells me that this unique mixture is not only more fragrant but also has a healthier low starch content.
Benjamin, who has travelled all over South East Asia in search for new ingredients for his restaurant, tells me that the Buah Keluak used at True Blue Cuisine are imported from Indonesia. I am surprised to learn that the volleyball sized and jackfruit shaped Buah Keluak is in fact a poisonous fruit which has to undergo a series of ‘treatments’ before it can be safely consumed. Buah Keluak, which is also called Buah Kepayang, has to be buried in ash for several weeks after harvesting. Then it has to be soaked in water for 7 weeks before the nut is cracked open and pounded into a paste prior to cooking.
I savour every mouthful of the Ayam Buah Keluak after learning about the complex process. The dish has a dark almost black hue. The chicken is tender and there is certainly a distinct bitter chocolate taste as well as aroma. It leaves a lingering nutty taste which compliments my longan and red dates tea.
The menu at True Blue Cuisine features dishes are generally spelt out in Peranakan patois which is a charming blend of Hokkien and Malay. There are English translations and the helpful waitress can always provide more information about the dishes before ordering. The restaurant does not serve pork or lard-based dishes.
I catch a whiff of the traditional Peranakan bunga rampay on my way out. This sweet smelling potpourri of fragrant flower petals and shredded pandan leaves remind me of my visit to the Peranakan Museum earlier in the day. I am glad I have learnt and experienced so much of the rich Straits Chinese culture today.