I have Peranakan blood - from my maternal predecessors. My grandmother and her mother (my great-grandmother) are full-blooded Nyonya with mostly family and food on their mind as accomplished homemakers and absolute Queens in the household. Till this day, I still have distinct memories of my great-grandmother being in the heat of her humid, cramped kitchen dressed in her wrap skirt and a glinting gold hair pin in a tight top-knot.
EDIT: Personally I don't see being an accomplished homemaker as a bad thing. Different women are allowed to aim for different things, and my grandmother (and her mother) definitely didn't undermine themselves or not 'achieve their potential' by being homemakers to an entire clan - not an easy feat for anyone.
Knowing this, my friends -- lovely people they are -- organised a birthday dinner for me at Blue Ginger.
I was glad to know of this decision - good Peranakan food is a rare commodity nowadays and many a Nyonya restaurant in Singapore have suffered from their lack lustre menu offerings.
Blue Ginger started with a hiccup right at the front door, since our reservation could not be found. As my companion had made a phone reservation (deja vu moment where I mention why I hate doing reservations over the phone), and somehow the person who took her booking didn't note it down so there was a moment where we had to show the manager that we actually did call (thank you call history) and he shuffled a table for us at the second floor of the establishment.
That being over and done with, we made quick work of Blue Ginger's menu - ordering up our grub as we took in the vintage furnishings, timber furniture, frosted, coloured glass windows with marble-top tables and tiled walls.
Starting off the essential belacan and achar, our food did not take long to arrive. We were glad to have a large table, because we really did order a colossal amount of food.
The homemade achar only served to increase our appetites. A mix of spicy-sour vegetable pickles created for the sole purpose of preserving food is now a modern appetiser to not only whet the appetite, it also now serves as accompaniment to many cuisines -- not just Nyonya food -- and can easily be found in many Asian restaurants and homes.
Here's a gratuitous view before I break down our meal dish-by-dish.
Otak-otak is a generally prevalent little snack in many Asian countries, particularly popular in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, with fish or other seafood paste fillings mixed with different variations of chillis and spices, from turmeric to lemongrass, all wrapped snugly in a banana or attap leaf and grilled to smokey perfection.
The Otak-otak at Blue Ginger, albeit delicious, was strangely very moist, with a springy texture. I'm not sure if I've eaten too many standard Otak-otak, or Blue Ginger just has a different way of cooking this babies, but I'm uncertain about this. It wasn't gross, just overly moist with a texture I've never had before in Otak-otak.
Itek Tim was an immediate consensus for soup at our table - simply said it's the very commonly seen Salted Vegetable and Duck soup, which is a mix of salted mustard greens, sour plums, tomatoes, duck meat, tamarind, ginger, garlic, and sometimes chillis as well, broiled until softened and giving you an earthy, fragrant stock of equal parts sour and savoury.
This was a good rendition of the classic soup - it was packed full of flavour - the mustard greens were not as soft as they should be, but that didn't take away from the taste. Generously full of ingredients, it was a good amount for more than the four of us.
Babi Pong Tay, or Babi Pong Teh is a pork dish cooked in a mixture of fermented soy bean paste (tau cheo) and cinnamon, to produce a thick, bubbly stew that is almost reminiscent of rendang. This dish can only, only be made with a fatty cut of pork like the knuckle or the pork belly so if you are not into having fatty meats then it's not something you would be able to finish.
The version served in Blue Ginger tasted authentic enough and was quite raved about through the table, with a rich, aromatic sauce and tender meat - perfect for dolloping onto rice. It was very nostalgic to be able to taste this again in such a familiar manner of eating.
Sotong Kunyit, again is a dish that features heavily on heavy spices like turmeric, galangal, lemon grass - giving it a lively yellow tinge.
Usually this dish is cooked with whole squid, or whole baby squids (cleaned, of course), but I supposed any way you slice it, as long as one doesn't mess up the sauce things will work out from there. It is however, a matter of experience, to not overcook the squid in this, because squid is a deceptive protein to cook. Blue Ginger didn't overcook their squid, but I did expect more out of the dish in terms of quantity. The sauce was on point, and the squid was lovely, but it was not a large amount by any means, at least not for a table of four.
Chap Chye Masak Titek, now this, this made me so very happy. Not just its taste, but also just seeing it on Blue Ginger's menu.
This is something we see everywhere in Singapore. Food stalls everywhere sell this in different variations but hardly any are what I call the authentic Nyonya-styled Chap Chye. I have terribly fond memories of eating this as a result of my grandmother's hard work in the kitchen - she would specifically cook this for me and my sister every time she heard that we were visiting her.
It's basically a Nyonya vegetable stew, and all the ingredients mean something - it's usually had around the Chinese New Year, so it is believed that all the ingredients, when combined in this delicious stew, will bring you a good start with fortune and blessing. Ingredients such as mushrooms, lily bud roots, vermicelli, black fungus, black moss, cabbage, jicama, tau kee and other miscellaneous bits and bops according to the availability of each cook.
No matter how you cook it or what you add in it, it should result in a softened cabbage with its sweetness merging perfectly with all the other ingredients to create a sweet, fragrant stew with a load of things that are incidentally good for you as well. Blue Ginger's Chap Chye was delicious, albeit a little heavy on the fermented soybean paste so it was more spicy that I would usually have it.
It is still -- for obvious reasons -- not as good as my grandmother's version.
Nyonya Fish Head Curry was our pièce de résistance for this meal - it takes a little than the others to be served up, but we waited less than 20 minutes so this was not an issue for me, when there were other dishes in the repertoire.
A whole red snapper head, served with a sweet-spicy-sour curry, with the fix-ins of eggplants, tomatoes, okra, a spice paste consisting of chili belacan, shallots, coriander, cumin as well as tamarind juice and coconut milk. It takes a very large amount of effort (and an equally large pot) so as to not destroy the fish head and ensure a good stew that's worth your time. This is not a light dish or a calorie-low eat, it is hefty, comforting and very, very delicious when done right.
Blue Ginger's fish head curry was very sweet - more sweet than it was spicy or sour, but it's not so sweet that it would turn you off. As someone who isn't too great with spicy food, this was great for my tastes.
The red snapper head was well-cooked with it's flesh still quite firm, so I'd like to assume they didn't steam the fish head prior to putting it in the curry. A lot of restaurants tend to cook the sauce beforehand to save time and to cultivate a deeper taste, then steam the whole fish head to let it simmer with the assorted vegetables to speed up the cooking process. I'm still undecided as to whether this process is a good idea or not.
Clean, fresh fish meat, a deeply rich sauce, pour over steaming white rice and you've got a winner.
As we slowly and surely made our way through the dinner, conversations were had about incorporating more dinners like these into our weekly catch ups.
It didn't dawn on us how much Western food we had every week (not that Western food is an issue), when clearly, there are more and more Asian restaurants that are presenting comforting, homely cuisine in themed environments. We were also preparing ourselves for dessert - despite the hoard of food we just inhaled over the course of a little under two hours, we were very clear that dessert would not be missed.
Durian Chendol was our go-to, and highly recommended by our servers.
Chendol, or Cendol, is a beautifully colourful Asian dessert, with a fluorescent green rice flour jelly, red beans, coconut milk, gula melaka syrup over a bundle of shaved ice. A standard dessert for many Asians, not just Peranakans, Blue Ginger served theirs up with or without the topping of durian flesh - adding a hit of custard goodness to an already well-loved treat.
Pulut Hitam was also a dessert of the day, another classic Asian dessert of sweetened black glutinous rice cooked until soft and served warm with coconut milk and gula melaka syrup.
For the best effect, please have both these desserts together so you can experience full and complete utopia. I am speaking from personal experience so you can trust me.
I would visit Blue Ginger again. I would recommend it if you want to have a good, Peranakan dinner in an intimate setting on the very entertaining Tanjong Pagar area. Prices are a little steep (they aren't listed here because I only noted the dishes and not the costs of individual plates, very silly), but it is a small price to pay for a good meal. All in all we paid a little over $100 for the entire meal, including dessert.
Service is a little slow from the get-go, (I was without water for about 15 minutes until I realised they weren't actually going to pour me anything and asked for some - not favourable but not a dealbreaker) but once they warmed up and gained enough momentum things were back on track and we had a good time, overall.
Just make your reservation carefully.
Blue Ginger can be located at:
97 Tanjong Pagar Rd, Singapore 088518
Tel: 6222 3928