The Peranakan community in Singapore and Malaysia dates back to the time of the Straits Settlements, as Chinese and Indian traders and merchants settled down and married local Malay women. Therein came the babas and nyonyas, whose culture continues to be deeply imbued into every facet of life in Singapore, from the architecture of Joo Chiat’s iconic Peranakan shophouses down to the iconic SIA uniform and even our favourite hawker foods. Striving to preserve the legacy of their Peranakan forefathers is the father-and-son duo behind Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant. Mr Yap Kow Soon and his son, Kevin Yap, are the second and third-generation owners of this restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1953. This makes Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant the oldest Peranakan restaurant in Singapore.
Passing the baton from father to son
Mr. Yap, a sprightly 72-year-old, shares that his great-grandmother was a Hakka Peranakan. He also tells us that he started cooking right after he left school, amassing 62 years of experience in the kitchen. Back in his youth, restaurants were a rarity. So he first began by cooking at countless Peranakan homes. And just as Mr. Yap’s own father passed the restaurant to him, he has also entrusted Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant into the care of his own son, Kevin.
Kevin tells us that in the past, his dad spent much of his time at the restaurant due to the long working hours. Wanting to see him means having to head down to the restaurant or having to catch him late at night. Jokingly, he says that he has much to learn from his dad, who is “very passionate, really passionate” about his craft.
His life is in cooking.
Third-generation owner of Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant, Kevin Yap, on his father Mr. Yap Kow Soon
Kevin came from a background in Engineering and only rejoined the family business 2 years ago. He certainly has had his fair share of getting tekaned by his father. Despite this, the duo is unbeatable when they work hand-in-hand in the kitchen.
“When you’re doing business, you must be honest,” was Mr. Yap’s advice for Kevin. To Mr. Yap, honesty means getting good quality ingredients and using fresh food, even when it comes to condiments like sambal.
A uniquely Peranakan dining experience
Stepping into the restaurant is much like going back to a world that has been lost to time. In conceptualizing their newest space at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Kevin shares that he wanted customers to feel like they have just walked into a Peranakan home.
On the walls, you’ll spot some of the Yap family’s own heirlooms. There’s a black-and-white photograph of a couple dressed in Peranakan wedding garb, and more of the Yaps’ predecessors smiling into the camera. Even at the front desk, you’ll find a glass case displaying colourful, age-old Peranakan ceramics. However, the most eye-catching element of this space is the Peranakan lantern that hangs above the dining area. While the style of the lantern is clearly influenced by Chinese culture, the colors differentiate it from the usual Chinese paper lanterns.
Straits Chinese Peranakan Restaurant’s classics
When it comes to Nonya cuisine, ayam buah keluak or chicken cooked in a tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts is a representative icon. However, Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant has its own take on this dish. Their recipe for Ayam Buah Keluak ($18), passed down from their grandfather, is more intricate than the usual sort you’d find anywhere else.
The flesh of the buah keluak nuts is first removed and added to a mixture of minced prawn and pork. After which, the pounded meat-and-prawn paste is stuffed into the emptied nutshells. Then, everything comes together after being simmered in a tamarind gravy. Savoury and tangy, with fall-off-the-bone pieces of chicken, this dish is a must-order at Straits Chinese.
Their Otah Otah(from $8), however, really takes the cake. Unlike the usual barbeque otah-otah that’s grilled over flames, these palm-sized fishcakes are grilled on a hotplate and made from fish paste that has been scraped by hand. That means that the springiness and bounciness of each bite is all thanks to the natural collagen in the fish—not flour or starch!
A wish to preserve Peranakan culture
“The Straits of Malacca [and] the culture, the food, how we dress, how we eat, is really something very special and unique to showcase to the rest of the world,” Kevin explains. And this is why Mr. Yap’s greatest wish is to see Peranakan culture continue to flourish.
Mr. Yap chimes in too. “When more guests come here, they will learn how to eat Peranakan food.”
It’s a remarkable feat for a family restaurant to be a culmination of three generations’ worth of sweat, hard work, and dedication to the art of Nonya cooking. But Mr. Yap harbours an even greater wish for the future of Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant.
“If my son can carry it onto the next generation, I’d be more happy. That is what I want.”