In 2012, when my brother and I decided to open Violet Oon’s Kitchen with our mother, many people questioned our decision to go into F&B. But our relationship with food and Peranakan cuisine is something very precious to both of us.
My mother (Singaporean celebrity chef Violet Oon) was originally a journalist. She went into chefs’ kitchens to document recipes and would practise until she perfected them. We grew up watching her promote Singapore through food – we tagged along when the tourism board sent her overseas; we talked to foreign journalists when she had them over to our house for dinner.
3 days: Roughly how long it takes to make ayam buah keluak (chicken and black nut in a spicy tamarind gravy)
We felt it would be a shame if we didn’t continue her life’s work. Indeed, when you open a restaurant, you’re effectively preserving the recipes and techniques. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to taste the same flavours that I grew up with.
To me, Peranakan food is Singapore’s best-kept secret. You have Malay dishes such as beef rendang sitting next to Hokkien-influenced dishes like ngoh hiang (five-spice pork rolls). It’s an exquisite cuisine that’s on par with, say, a royal Thai meal, and it should definitely have a place in the global culinary scene.
We try to make guests feel at home by telling them stories such as why Peranakans feast on a tok panjang (long table), or why we use taucheo (fermented soy beans) instead of soy sauce.
Transitioning from a family business and turning that into a restaurant group, Violet Oon Singapore, was surprisingly smooth. It helped that we had the right business partner and CEO in Manoj Murjani who saw the value in upholding the integrity of our food. Our biggest challenge was learning how to maintain consistency while scaling up. If a dish didn’t taste right, we had to think of how to improve the processes instead.
“When you open a restaurant, you’re effectively preserving the recipes and techniques”
We’ve modernised some of our methods – pounding kilos of rempah (a spice paste consisting of over 10 ingredients) manually is not feasible anymore, and we’re using better ingredients such as kurobuta pork and beef ribeye. But we also make a conscious effort to preserve the flavours and textures. Foreigners make up nearly a third of our customers, but we don’t tone down the spices as we want it to resonate with locals. The best compliment is when somebody says their grandmother approves.
Previously, people would go to Peranakan restaurants with their grandmothers. These days, young people are dining there with friends or bringing out-of-towners. Local outfits such as Candlenut offer Peranakan food at a refined level, and it’s been interesting to see how perceptions of the cuisine have shifted recently.
Illustrations by Stuart Patience
This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine