Violet Oon, Singapore's Grande Dame Of Peranakan Cuisine, Introduces Her Favourite Food Haunts
Many may recognise Violet Oon as the lauded Singaporean chef famous for her Peranakan cooking—and aptly so, given that she co-owns a string of namesake restaurants, together with an investor Manoj Murjani, that are scattered across Singapore championing Peranakan cuisine. The former food journalist has also been Singapore's Food Ambassador since 1988 and is one of the most dominant voices in Singapore's food scene. Today, her children Tay Su-Lyn and Tay Yiming remain by her side to run her thriving establishments.
The Girl from the East
When we first got in touch with Oon about the series, she was quick to share about the neighbourhood of Katong—a residential area located in the East of Singapore. She started with the story of Kuo Chuan Ave near East Coast Road, wherein lies a stretch of black and white conservation houses, where Oon once called home prior to her years in London. For the uninitiated, the address may still exist but it is now cordoned off for residents only. And according to Oon, the houses back then remained under rent control at only $49 per month, so her family retained their home even while they were abroad.
A quick chat with Oon and you'll find yourself amazed at her sharp wit and in-depth knowledge of the culinary world. From the history of popular ingredients that give dishes an extra oomph to stories of Singapore from a bygone era; a conversation with her is always an interesting affair, and it's no doubt why the 70-year-old culinary doyenne remains highly respected among her industry peers.
"I grew up in Katong, and it's a lovely neighbourhood because many places still remain the same despite the fact that so much has changed," Oon shares. "My memories here are mostly tied to food too!"
Katong is where Oon's special relationship with food started. And from there, her long-lasting friendships also grew alongside the spirit of community among business owners and restaurants that continue operate in the vicinity today. Here, she takes us along to her favourite spots in Katong, and introduces us to familiar faces.
Watch the video below:
1/5 Rumah Bebe
The colourful enclave of Katong is best known for its vibrant heritage shophouses. And besides the ones along Koon Seng Road, a stroll along East Coast Road will instantly have you drawn towards a two-storey teal shophouse, lined with traditional Peranakan tiles and timber-framed arched glass windows. This is Rumah Bebe: your go-to establishment for everything related to Peranakan culture. It is run by none other than Bebe Seet, a long-time friend of Oon's, whose beautiful beaded works adorn the walls and interiors of the establishment.
One can find everything here, from traditional nyonya kuih to traditional beading workshops alike, making a trip to Bebe's the ultimate treat for culture vultures looking to learn more about Peranakan culture. "This house of hers is exactly what I remember a Peranakan house to be, decorated beautifully and full of kebayas," shares Oon. "I also love that Bebe does kasut manik (Peranakan beaded sandals). In fact, the glass beads she uses are fascinating as they are originally from Venice, Italy!"
Rumah Bebe | 113 East Coast Road Singapore 428803 | rumahbebe.com
2/5 Say Seng Tau Kwa Pau
Quite possibly the most underrated (and soon disappearing) hawker dish in Singapore, Tau Kwa Pau—pockets of stuffed fried bean curd slathered with a thick, savoury Teochew braised duck sauce—is a must-have for Oon whenever she visits the area. The location is unassuming, tucked in the basement of Dunman Food Centre having relocated for the second time from its original venue at the intersection of East Coast Road and Joo Chiat Road, where the now-defunct Hock Ann Coffeeshop used to be in the 1960s. In fact, ask any long-time resident of the neighbourhood (or the East) and they'd tell you how long the queues used to be.
Today, it is helmed by second- and third-generation hawkers Khoo Lian Hwa and his nephew, Toh Wei Kwan. For Oon, a taste of the iconic dish harkens back memories from her childhood and holds a special place in her heart, so much so that she even tried to adapt the recipe in her own cookbook in 1992, titled Violet Oon Cooks. "My version is slightly different," Oon shares, "it is a stuffed beancurd that uses chicken rather than duck meat. I use prawns as well as water chestnuts." Besides the delectable ingredients, it's important not to miss chilli sauce either, according to Oon.
Say Seng Tau Kwa Pau | 271 Onan Rd, Singapore 424768
See also: Rosita Lau's New Book Delves Deep Into Her Chinese Peranakan Heritage
3/5 Eurasian Community House
The Eurasian culture was very much integrated into Oon's childhood growing up. Not only did she spend four years (albeit on two separate occasions) in Malacca—one of the main Eurasian hubs of the world—but her neighbourhood of Katong in Singapore is also known to be an Eurasian enclave. Today, it is also where the Eurasian Community House is located at, nestled in the heart of the residential area of Ceylon Road.
Oon says: "Eurasian life to me is filled with food, dancing, weddings and sugee cakes—which I love!" She then goes on to give us a short rendition of Jinkli Nona, a traditional Portuguese-Malaccan folk song sang in the Kristang language.
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Fun fact #1: Former President of Singapore S. R. Nathan used to live across the street from the Eurasian Association Singapore and was an ardent supporter of its activities.
Fun fact #2: The first Eurasians in Singapore hailed mainly from Penang and Malacca as well.
After learning about the inception of Eurasians in Singapore and the larger Southeast Asia region at the Eurasian Heritage Gallery, head downstairs to savour the flavours that reflect its vibrant and rich culture. For those in the know, Quentin's restaurant serves up a delectable array of classic Eurasian dishes, including Devil's Curry (a fiery curry made with either chicken or oxtail), Curry Feng (a traditional curry made of diced pork, liver and heart), Bostador (a thick coconut-based dish with prawns), and the quintessential dessert, sugee cake.
Eurasian House | 139 Ceylon Road Singapore 429744
4/5 Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah
This storied establishment that serves the much-loved Singaporean dish, the popiah, has garnered a loyal following over the past 83 years and is now in the hands of the third-generation owner, Michael Ker.
"I think it's amazing that Michael is continuing this tradition. This is a skill that is similar to the art of kungfu, with a shifu (master) handing the skills down through the generations," Oon shared.
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But what is it about this homegrown business that keeps customers like Oon coming back for more? The star quality lies in the fact that they are adamant on sticking to tradition—making their paper-thin popiah skins by hand only. In fact, it is normal for Ker to have 12- to 14-hour work days that are mainly spent making layer after layer of popiah skins—especially during peak periods over the Chinese New Year holidays when demand is high. It's no doubt that the art of mastering how to make popiah skin is a tough one that requires hours of back-breaking work—no wonder it's the only place Oon frequents for genuine Hokkien popiah skins since she was a child. Today, her restaurants get their supplies for this important ingredient from Ker himself for customers to enjoy the humble roll.
Kway Guant Huat Joo Chiat Popiah | 95 Joo Chiat Road Singapore 427389 | joochiatpopiah.com
Sentiment is so important in the food you love.
5/5 Kim Choo Kuey Chang
Feast your eyes on the spread of snacks that Kim Choo Kuey Chang has to offer, with a wide assortment of multi-coloured kuih as well as sweet and savoury dumplings hanging from the racks of the shopfront. Kim Choo Kuey Chang was founded in 1945 by Lim Kim Choo, and is now a mainstay establishment in the heart of Katong, in the good hands of third-generation family members Edmond and Desmond Wong. Back in the day, Oon even got to interview Lim herself during her time as a food journalist.
Kim Choo Kuey Chang was also a place where Oon used to frequent in her 20s to satisfy her cravings for nyonya and Hokkien bak chang (glutinous rice dumplings). According to her, the leaves used for each dumpling impart a distinct flavour that gives it a unique taste. The nyonya version is typically wrapped in pandan leaves; the Hokkien version uses bamboo leaves, while the Cantonese version sees the use of lotus leaves.
Kim Choo Kuey Chang | 60 Joo Chiat Pl, Singapore 427784 | kimchoo.store
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