An Interview with Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Singapore

Chef Malcolm Lee of Singapore's Candlenut Restaurant at World's 50 Best in London
Chef Malcolm Lee of Singapore’s Candlenut Restaurant at World’s 50 Best in London

Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, this young unassuming chef has done something that no one expected. He has managed to elevate this little known, secretive Peranakan cuisine from home cooking onto the culinary map and gaining a Michelin star in the process.

His restaurant, Candlenut, serves Peranakan food or sometimes called Nyonya food. It is a fusion cuisine that’s born out of centuries of trade between the Chinese and the indigenous Malays who live along the Malacca Straits. This little strip of water has long been a major trade thoroughfare for the since the heyday of the spice trade in the 15th Century. Spices were rare, mysterious and very expensive. Early Portuguese ships led by the famed explorer Vasco da Gama sailed these then unchartered waters to find the highly prized nutmeg in the spice islands. A shipload of spices like black pepper and cinnamon can fetch a king’s ransom (something like £20m in today’s money). This fascinating book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is a great tale of those times.

The Emperor of China wanted a piece of this lucrative trade and sent envoys to Malacca and the spice trading ports. The mass arrival of Chinese traders to those shores led to intermarrying of the races. From that, the unique Chinese Malay fusion Peranakan cuisine evolved.

Peranakan food can be found in the states that were the most prominent ports of the time. All the way from Phuket up north, through Penang, Malacca down to Singapore. Singapore was a tiny Malay village that became a big trading port and were one of the many communities of Peranakans came to be.

Malcolm’s has an unconventional route into his gastronomy career. He ditched his desk-bound job when he got a scholarship at Miele-Guide At-Sunrice. He started his restaurant with his mum in 2010.

Not having been to his restaurant, I was not familiar with this food. He introduces it as “A more refined version of Peranakan food, a bit younger and more modern. What was really evident is that he is really passionate about his heritage and really loves this food. You can feel his passion for discovering more about the origins of Peranakan food, the ingredients and stories. This is evident that everything on the menu at Candlenut is food that he likes to eat.

He is now travelling all over the region to explore the different iterations of this cuisine to build up on his own knowledge. Recently, he returned from a trip to Phuket where he discovered that they have a version of Peranakan food. They use similar ingredients but all the dishes taste vastly different.

Q: Traditionally, these Peranakan recipes are closely held secrets. Where did you get your recipes?

His recipes are passed down from his Grandma and mother. They were never written down formally, it was all done in a very vague way, where the ingredients are just like “a thumb size of ginger”. This is where his passion is, in deciphering these age-old recipes. Just by eating, smelling and tasting, he is recreating these dishes. At this restaurant, he is very hands-on with the dishes that they serve. Even by following the recipes, they can’t always get the right balance of flavours. With Peranakan food, it is a matter of experience, intuition and a feeling which you can’t write into recipes. It’s all about the love of food, love for people and it’s not easy to replicate. It takes a lot of patience to work with the old recipes and techniques.

He is working with his young team in the restaurant to trace old stories and revive old techniques. They are trying to record these tastes and techniques and translate them into recipes that can be reproduced consistently.

Q: A modern interpretation of Peranakan food. What have you done with these old recipes?

It’s a very traditional style of food, some people call it Grandma’s food but he doesn’t believe that as if you cook it the original way and put a lot of attention to detail in the food, making it relevant to the audience today. It’s a younger style that appeals to the younger generation.

Some of the old customs are still the same in the clothes that they wear and the foods that they eat. In his cooking, the making of the rempah or sambals, bases for many of the dishes, the idea of fusing different flavours together, they continue to do that.

They still serve it family style, shared dishes, served with rice. Keeping all the important elements of this cuisine.

Candlenut Tok Panjang Peranakan feast

Q: How have the public or food critics receive this new version of Peranakan food.

Crucifixion at the beginning. Lots of people who were the early customers all had a lot to say. Every family had their own recipes.

But over the years, he has learnt to be more confident in their cooking and their style. Their foremost concern is that the food is tasty. They want to keep pushing and improving.

On the positive side, there are many supportive voices. They support Malcolm’s efforts in modernising this cuisine and this makes them proud of their cuisine again. This is where they can push it forward to the younger generation who are unsure about this. He is giving them the opportunity to experience the flavours. This gives them the opportunity to inform and educate their customers about the rarer ingredients like the black nut, buah keluak. One of their signature dishes is the Buah Keluak Rendang, which uses the ingredient in a non traditional way. Adding it to the recipe brings another level of flavour and colour to the dish.

Over the last 8 years, they have begun to change perceptions and is gaining more support.

Candlenut Tok Panjang Peranakan feast Buah Keluak Beef Rendang
Buah Keluak Beef Rendang

Q: What has changed since you got the Michelin star in 2016?

It wasn’t vindication for what they do. They started years ago as a family restaurant. It brought a lot of attention to what they were doing. They got a lot of new customers but also a lot of new critics. Their response is to keep doing what they were doing and improving. It is a big win for all heritage food.

Q: Has this put Peranakan food on the map?

The Michelin guide has been a big influence and guide for where people want to eat. Peranakan food might be relatively unknown but they just continue to serve the same flavours and food of their family. It will take some time to win over some new fans by sharing their family stories and the stories of Singapore. It’s all about good food.

It’s all about good food.

Candlenut Peranakan Singapore
That buah keluak ice cream!

Q: Success with your Peranakan Restaurant, are there younger chefs following suit?

There are now more young people interested in their own heritage. Some of them have trained in good European restaurants. Some of them have taken that training and cuisine and fusing it with local Singaporean flavours, creating a new style of Singaporean food. The next 5 to 10 years will be very exciting for Singapore. Some younger chefs are creating their own style of food or opening hawker stalls serving their own heritage food. Some of his ex-employees have been inspired and ideas eg like making chilli paste and fusing it with a Japanese Kaiseki concept. It’s a very exciting time.

Q: Will people from non-Peranakan background be able to recreate these flavours from a recipe as they don’t have the taste memories to adjust the flavours?

The Peranakan background is quite important. You have to experience the smell of the rempah cooking, squatting on the floor pounding the spices for grandma, tasting those dishes for years to build up the understanding. Malcolm’s mum still drops by to check on his recipes. What they recreate in the restaurant is different from her recipe if the ingredients they use are slightly different.

To be able to cook well, it all boils down to having to love food, wanting to do it well, wanting to use the best ingredients and to know more.

On Making Cincalok, a fermented shrimp condiment

At Candlenut, they try to make their own base ingredients from scratch, things like Cincalok, a fermented dried shrimp condiment. They are dependent on the fishermen to deliver these tiny shrimp when they can find them as they are not easy to catch. When that arrives, they go through the painstaking task of fermenting them. This is the ethos behind Malcolm’s cooking. He likes to revert back to the old-fashioned methods to get the best flavours. This takes a lot of manpower and time which is reflected in their prices. This is one of the reasons why there are very many authentic Peranakan restaurants. It’s not often a profitable venture to cook the food in a traditional way.

On making Nyonya kuih

An example of how they have elevated the cuisine is in how they make and serve Nyonya kuih. Instead of making them in big pieces, they are making them in tiny bite size pieces. To go with this tea, they have worked with a tea company to make a tea that matches this dessert, made with pandan, lemongrass, jasmine and blue pea flowers.

They love making the kuih in a traditional way. This is a dessert which can be quite sweet and heavy. His team of pastry chefs are mostly trained in patisserie and going back to these old techniques is quite foreign to them. But they have come to embrace these methods and are now quite proud and excited to learn more from their aunties.

Q: What is the difference between the Peranakan food that you find in Singapore and that you find in Melaka or Penang?

M: Peranakan has a lot of regional differences. Singapore Peranakan food is called Southern Peranakan where they have taken a lot of influence from Indonesia. They use more coconut milk and spices. As you go further north, towards the Thai border, the style is lighter. They use a lot more aromatics, using a lot of mint leaf and torch ginger flowers.

The classic dish to showcase the difference is laksa. In Singapore, they use a lot of dried shrimp and coconut milk, it’s very rich and spicy. In Penang, the Assam Laksa has no coconut milk. They use tamarind and a lot of fresh herbs like mint, torch ginger flowers, pineapple, onions and cucumber. Both are unique. Near Phuket, you get the influence of Thai Peranakans.

Q: What’s next for you and your restaurant?

The last few years have been a bit of a journey for him as a chef. His restaurant and menu reflect who he is. He is starting to appreciate the traditional aspect of this and re-explore regional cuisines. Using traditional recipes and stories to present them in a way that they can share the stories. He has no plans to open another restaurant or write a book at this time.

It was a great pleasure to chat with Malcolm. He is steadfast in his belief, confident about his food and is still passionate about expanding his own horizons. By taking the decision to specialise in the food of his hometown, he has single-handedly taken a little-known cuisine and putting on the world map. All without compromising on the origins and heritage of the dishes. I am sure he is an inspiration to other chefs who have their own heritage cuisine and stories of their people to tell. His story has just begun and I am intrigued to see what heights he will scale next.

Malcolm is one of the three chefs that Singapore Tourism Board have brought over to host a series of Singapore Supper Clubs in association with D& D Restaurants.

Candlenut Peranakan Singapore Cendol
Cendol with pandan jelly

You can read the review of his Singapore Supperclub at Avenue Restaurant.

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