article #6 .
Photos by Masaki OKADA
Of Long Tables and Funerals
This month's feature article takes us to Katong, the home ground of many Nonyas and Babas. Here we visit the Cheng Heng eating house in a row of shop houses next to Jago Close in East Coast Road.;quite well known for its simple peranakan food. Like one or two other peranakan restaurants in this area, the owners of this 40 year old business started as cooks in the household of some rich peranakan family in their bungalow by the sea, when Marine Parade was not yet reclaimed land. As Violet Oon would tell you, rich peranakan families in the old days maintained a good kitchen to prepare meals for their families and guests. And since peranakan dishes were complicated, they usually had full time cooks. According to the present owner his father was one of the "Gang of Four" the 4 original peranakan male cooks who came out to start restaurants and first made peranakan food available outside the home. Ah Seow,Ah Tiew,Ah Hai and Ah Seng did outside catering for peranakan parties and funerals which were called "Tok Panjang" or "long table" because the food was always on long tables where the Hee Piow soup ,curry chicken, Babi Pangang (roast pork) chap chye etc was served. As Singapore modernised and less people did their cooking, peranakan restaurants served those who miss this food. Thus at Cheng Heng you can find many peranakan modern families who come here to eat a reasonably priced dinner before they go home because to cook it at home is too time-consuming.
I went there with my wife,and my good friends Mr. and Mrs. Masaki Okada who kindly consenetd to take the pictures which you see on this page. We ordered four dishes. Hee Piow Soup (fish maw - see photo right) was quite delicious, containing fish maw,cabbage,pink coloured fish ball ,pig stomach and minced pork ball with bits of red carrot and pig's ear fungus. I think compared with the same dish at other peranakan restaurants like Nonya&Baba, Ivin Ivin, Guan Soon and even the chic Peranakan Inn a few doors away, this one is the best. The ingredients are made on the premises whereas I suspect that others get theirs from suppliers.
- Chicken Buah Keluak / Udang Asam Goreng / Sambal Timbun
The next dish of Udang Assam Goreng (prawns firen in shell with tamarind) was reasonably good although I think this dish would be improved if bigger King Prawns were used and even better if grilled instead of fried. I ordered the Chicken Buah Keluak for my Japanese friends to try, and they found the taste quite strange although they were quite fascinated with what kind of fruit or nut is this buah keluak.. Mrs Okada said it had a Chinese medicinal taste. Buah Keluak is an acquired taste , and those who like it can get addicted to it, and get withdrawal symptoms if they can't find it. The buah keluak at Cheng Heng is better than average although nothing can beat Ayam Buah Keluak as cooked in the home where we don't have to worry about cost of ingredients. Home-cooked buah keluak often has pork ribs combined with the chicken to give a richer taste, and more buah keluak is used, so that the gravy is black instead of yellowish-red.. Kept in the fridge and reheated, left-over Ayam Buah Keluak is even more delicious eaten with french loaves as the gravy fully absorbs the taste of the meats and buah keluak.
The last dish of Sambal Timbun (cucumber salad in a sourish chilli dressing with onion slices and chicken liver) was a disappointment. It actually is a classic perankan dish. Good Sambal Timbun is dry, not wet, and the chicken liver is slightly overfried to add more of the liver flavour as a contrast. Also dried shrimp should be fried, ground and mixed in. This month's featured eatery is no great find, but its about the best that you can find for reasonably priced peranakan food. Actually there a few other dishes you can try at Cheng Heng. Prawns and Pineapple in a thin yellow gravy with lemon grass (Udang Nanas Geram), Babi Panggang (roast pork) with pickles radish and vegetables, hati babi (liver balls), babi pongteh (braised pork with bamboo shoots and green chillis, Bawan kepiting(stuffed crab soup),and much more.
Take a look at this other Cheng Heng page for more information.
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