At the top of foodies’ must-lists when visiting Singapore, you’ll likely find Candlenut.
Since opening in 2010, chef Malcolm Lee’s restaurant has been heralded for its unique flavors and modern twist on traditional Peranakan cuisine. Earning a Michelin star in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore last year didn’t hurt, either, and a reservation at Candlenut is one of the hardest to get.
For the next few months, New Yorkers interested in trying Lee’s acclaimed cuisine don’t have to hop on a plane to the island city-state off southern Malaysia and try their luck at a seat.
For the past week, the 32-year-old chef has been in the kitchen at the Asia Society’s Garden Court Cafe, training staff in dishes that will be served in honor of the museum’s new exhibition, “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia,” co-organized by the Asia Society and the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and featuring artifacts recovered from a 9th-century shipwreck.
Peranakan — or Straits-Chinese — food is one of Singapore’s oldest fusion cuisines, with a blend of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian influences. It was a natural choice to convey the exhibition’s theme of multiculturalism, said Kershing Goh, regional director for Americas for the Singapore Tourism Board, which is collaborating with the museum on a showcase of Singaporean culture throughout the exhibition’s run, including Lee’s menu.
“It’s quite distinctive to our part of the world,” Goh said. “It’s not exactly Chinese, it’s not exactly Malaysian — it’s a blend of the two.”
Staples of Peranakan cuisine include kueh pie tee — handmade shells filled with vegetables or meat — and buah keluak — an Indonesian black nut often referred to as the Asian equivalent of truffles that’s traditionally used in a stew with chicken or pork.
Due to a lack of the necessary equipment to make the shells and easy access to the nut, neither dish will be on the Asia Society menu. But Lee has crafted a handful of dishes that tell the story of Candlenut — which Michelin heralded for its top-quality ingredients, distinct flavors and skillfully-prepared cuisine.
First up among the specials, which will rotate weekly throughout the exhibition’s run through June 4, is an appetizer, gula melaka (palm sugar) coconut shrimp ball with curry leaf, which speaks to Candlenut’s unique take on flavor.
“This is a dish that is created by our restaurant,” Lee said. “It’s not found in traditional recipe books, it’s very unique to our restaurant. We’re looking at the ingredients and saying, how can we combine them to make a new flavor?”
Another story of Candlenut is family. Lee, a third-generation Peranakan chef, opened the restaurant with his mother. One of the recipes on the menu, a white curry, is by Lee’s great-grandfather (the curry is referred to as “yeye” on the menu, which means grandfather in Mandarin).
“These recipes and culture is always passed down from one generation to another,” Lee said. “It’s a very family-style culture. That’s something we wanted to share with people here.”
The white curry will be served with coconut chicken. Other dishes planned throughout the run include a charred octopus with achar (pickled spiced pineapple and cucumber) and a coconut panna cotta for dessert.
As far as the Singapore Tourism Board is aware, this is the first time Peranakan cooking will be offered in the United States. Candlenut’s Michelin star — the first for a Peranakan restaurant — was the “cherry on top” for Singapore, said Goh.
“It’s a really heartwarming story,” Goh said. “Malcolm puts his heart and soul into the food. He’s a household name in Singapore that represents the authenticity of Peranakan cooking.”