Finding comfort in Candlenut’s elevated Peranakan fare, with three recipes by chef-owner Malcolm Lee that pay homage to family and heritage
From family recipes to old favourites, Candlenut’s chef-owner Malcolm Lee tells epicure why he believes in serving hearty classics even during challenging times.
The last few months have been difficult for F&B establishments, and Candlenut hasn’t been spared. COVID-19 measures in Singapore meant that eateries and restaurants were first restricted to takeaways and deliveries, before progressing to dineins of up to groups of two and five.
A glance at the mod-Peranakan restaurant’s spacious Dempsey location during lunch hour in the middle of Phase 3 (Heightened Alert) revealed a sizable number of guests enjoying their kueh pie tee, chicken curry and sago pearl pudding, but only in pairs, spaced at least one metre apart. There was obviously room for a lot more diners.
Despite the challenging situation, chef-owner Malcolm Lee is unfazed. If anything, the pandemic has put things into perspective for the 37-year-old chef. “It has allowed us to slow down and reflect on the business and direction of the restaurant,” he says. This means continuing to serve modern yet authentic Straits Chinese cuisine to guests young and old.
TRADITION WITH A TWIST
Refined Peranakan cuisine – full of complex flavours with Chinese, Malay and Indonesian influences – is what this one Michelin-starred restaurant is all about. Every dish on the menu is steeped in tradition and heritage but elevated through Lee’s clever tweaks to classic recipes.
The Wing Bean Salad, for instance, eschews coconut milk for a lighter contrast to the heavier mains on the menu. The Kueh Pie Tee’s filling is made with 50 percent bamboo shoot and 50 percent local turnip as it adds “flavour and very good texture”. The Mackerel and Shrimp Otah Lodeh features house-made otah (fish and prawn paste) wrapped in soft Japanese taupok and served in sayur lodeh gravy. “It’s a good mix of tradition and creativity,” he says.
Then there is his favourite ingredient – buah keluak – which he has incorporated into a variety of dishes, including soup, braised meats like lamb shank, and the latest, Maggi Goreng, stir-fried with the earthy black nut sambal. “We have also made buah keluak desserts. Ice cream, bon bons, tarts…whatever you can think of. That’s how much I like it,” he adds.
The creative tweaks are all well and good but Lee notes that half of his guests still want their ngoh hiang (minced meat wrapped in bean curd skin and deep fried) and chap chye (mixed vegetable stew). Traditional comfort food still rules. To achieve this balance of old and new, he always uses familiar recipes as the basis for any new dish, as long as they deliver the same satisfaction. “Don’t overthink too much. You can change the sauce, for example, but otherwise don’t play too much with the recipe. People are more accepting of such dishes and they will be more than happy to try,” he says.
“It just further confirms that this is the direction we’re heading towards, and the new dishes we create have to be heartwarming. Sometimes all you need is a good bowl of curry and rice, and everybody’s happy.”