really rather decent nonya offerings from the catering arm of this popular home-grown chain of restaurants – and really, what better way to come back from a patriotic holiday than with a cuisine as local as it comes?
let’s do a bit of history – and then move onto the food.
the peranakan, or nonya, culture is that of the indigenous straits chinese in southeast asia – and its food the beautiful union of chinese, malay and indonesian influences. it’s a colorful culture, full of strong flavors and bright colors, but also one that we’re struggling to hold onto – intricate traditions and an already-small population of nonyas make it tough to preserve in modern times.
if you haven’t had it, the cooking style is rather a cross between chinese and malay: spiced spicy food with long cooking times and elaborate techniques. most of the time, it’s a blurred distinction between nonya, indonesian and malay cuisine – defined mostly by slight changes in spicing, and not one I can recognize easily. but let’s talk this meal.
these are items available off their catering arm (and also at the restaurant, actually), and a pretty darn good spread in all. I often dislike catered food – it’s all soggy or dried out by the time you get to it, and it’s often something-or-another in a gloppy sauce – but nonya food works very well for catering. the prevalence of stews stand up well to the constant heat of the food warmers – flavors just keep intensifying – and many dishes are meant to be pre-prepared and served up at room temperature anyway.
we started off with otak served on banana leaves, a coconut-milk-rich spicy fish paste – I did like the coconuttiness of it (though it made it a tad rich) and it wasn’t too spicy or dry. the ngoh hiang was also a pretty decent rendition, a thick roll of chicken wrapped in a beancurd skin and fried – though not the best I’ve had.
the mains came quickly – itek sio and ayam panggang. the first I’ve never had before – and really liked – slightly sweet stewed duck fragrant with five spice and braised in tamarind. the sauce was delicious with rice, and the meat incredibly tender; possibly my favorite dish in the meal.
ayam panggang is grilled chicken – and I believe this was dark leg meat cooked rather expertly with the skin on. not dry, flavorful and slightly spicy – this was very good too.
there were two fish dishes – this one a curry assam pedas with soft fish slices in a curry-type gravy tempered with tamarind, rather rich but undeniably tasty; and the other some battered fish slices in a sweet and sour sauce which wasn’t bad, but not recommend – there was a bit too much batter around the fish, liable to go soggy at your buffet table (especially when engulfed with sauce).
the rather strong-tasting food was tempered by a plate of kampong fried mee siam – rather a plain sort of fried rice noodles, but a good choice for being greaseless and appealing at room-temperature.
and lastly, the stews. ayam buah keluak and beef rendang are popular dishes – and rather common ones, but these were quite satisfying. the buah keluak is a tedious dish to prepare – you need to soak the black nuts for a couple of days, scoop out the flesh to pound with spices, and then restuff the shells before stewing with chicken – resulting in a rather indescribable flavor that’s divisive the way marmite is. but the chicken here was fall-apart tender, and really very tasty – and you can always wimp out as I did and have the chicken without the nut.
the rendang was a good coconutty version (I say that a lot in this post), one of the better ones I’ve had. it was rich, but without that unappealing layer of red oil you get on so many renditions – and the stringy meat was well soft. great with rice.
we finished with dessert – not from the catering arm, but from the restaurant, and I don’t think these were great. the soy pudding I had is that modern creamer-and-jelly-powder confection (which I don’t appreciate), and the chendol just about so-so – the chempedak was also clearly a packaged paste.
it strikes me that you’d do well with peranakan food as a rather less-obvious choice for a buffet, and the food was surprisingly good, undeniably a step up from most of what you’d get out a food-warmer.
Chilli Padi Nonya Catering (also known as Chilli Api Catering)
Blk 3015, Bedok North St. 5
#06-15 Shimei East Kitchen
p.s. I see on their website that they do confinement meal preparations too – so perhaps that might be a good option if you’re preggers and have a hankering for a nonya meal without all the work.
thanks to hungrygowhere and chilli padi for the invite!