In this exciting new series, we’re speaking to some of Visit Singapore’s expert Passion Ambassadors, to find out what they do, why they love it so much, and to get their insider tips on life in the Lion City. To kick things off, we spoke to the king of Peranakan cuisine, Malcolm Lee, chef-owner of Candlenut at COMO Dempsey, and Foodie Ambassador for Visit Singapore…
What does being a Passion Ambassador involve?
Passion Ambassadors are individuals driven by an interest or ambition that’s inspired by, or made possible by, this city of ours. Many different aspects and people make up this vibrant destination. From our well-loved hawker centres to world-class restaurants, food plays a big role in our Singaporean lifestyle, with Peranakan cuisine very much part of this colourful local culture. Being a Passion Ambassador has given me a wider platform to share my passion for food, culinary heritage and Singapore, by telling my Peranakan story and those of others.
What makes Singapore’s food scene so exciting?
We have a dense collection of cuisines that showcases the multicultural society we live in. Nowhere else in the world can you find such a variety of cuisines and cultures, with restaurants and street food within a 30-minute drive. You can literally find everything you want to eat, at any time of the day. Not only do we have food from all around the world, we have our very own heritage cuisine that’s uniquely Singaporean. The culinary scene is always open to new ideas and forward-looking, just like the city itself, as it progresses into the future.
Describe Peranakan cuisine, and some of its standout dishes…
Peranakan cuisine is a wonderful fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures, with flavours of Malay-style curries and sambals combined with Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques. Well-loved dishes include ayam buah keluak (chicken in black nut tamarind gravy), kueh pie tee(vegetables and prawns in crispy pastry tart shell), babi pongteh (braised pork in fermented soy bean sauce), chap chai (assorted Chinese vegetables stewed in prawn stock) and pong tauhu(tofu meatballs and bamboo shoot in prawn broth).
What five things should visitors make sure they eat or drink in Singapore?
Chicken rice, bak chor mee (minced meat and noodles), laksa soup, durian fruit, kuehs (bite-sized snacks and desserts) and pandan chiffon cake
Image sourced from Candenut Facebook page.
Can you tell us about Candlenut and the story behind it?
As a child, I loved to eat. After years of helping out in the kitchen, I learnt how to cook from my grandma and mum. For me, Peranakan food has always been about the joy of sharing and gathering over a communal meal of rice, curries and other dishes. I trained with Western techniques, but it was during my culinary scholarship that I was reacquainted with Asian cooking and the complexities behind it. In 2010, Candlenut first opened on Neil Road, later moving to New Bridge Road and then to COMO Dempsey. I’ve always dreamt of having my restaurant at COMO, so this is truly a dream come true. In 2016, we became the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant – and we have received the star for four consecutive years. It is heartening to receive this recognition for heritage food and to see Peranakan food celebrated among other cuisines on the global culinary stage. Today, Candlenut continues to serve Peranakan cuisine that preserves the essence and traditions of heritage family recipes, but is refined to appeal to today’s diners, with dishes made from scratch using the freshest produce.
Who first taught you to cook?
My mum. Her chicken curry was the first dish I learnt to cook.
What are your favourite local ingredients to work with – and why?
Chilli is a must-have, as I love spice. Buah keluak is another favourite of mine as it has a unique flavour and brings back childhood memories for me. Coconut milk is an essential in many of my favourite dishes, including curry, nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf), kuehs, and desserts.
If you could only cook one dish for us, what would it be?
Definitely Mum’s chicken curry.
Image sourced from Burnt Ends Facebook page
Where are your favourite restaurants in Singapore?
Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Mustard Seed, Mellben Seafood, Burnt Ends (pictured above), TONO Cevicheria, Summer Pavilion, Firebake – Woodfired Bakehouse & Restaurant, and Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck.
Where do you go to relax?
I love nature, so whenever I get a day off, I enjoy going to East Coast Park or Bishan Park for a stroll or jog. MacRitchie Treetop Walk is another one of my go-to places to unwind and get a breath of fresh air.
Tell us something about Singapore that we don’t know…
Malay is Singapore’s national language.
What one edible thing should we take back home with us from Singapore?
Kaya is a delicious condiment, with rich local flavours.