Singapore's Soul Food Guru
June 18, 2013
Singaporean food celeb Violet Oon makes a family affair of her re-entry into the island’s trendy dining scene. By Brian Spencer
Published on Jun 18, 2013
“Squeeze a little bit of the lime on the sambal—just a little bit—then what I like to do is mix that with the black sauce and the rice, but not too much.” Ming Tay watches me dig into a pan-fried baby sea bass fillet drenched in thick, sweet Nyonya-style sauce, anxiously noting that I’m not properly blending all the ingredients together. He would know how it should be done, since this fish tempra is, after all, one of the home-cooked Peranakan comfort foods that he and his sister Su-Lyn Tay have enjoyed since they were young. It is now served alongside other classics at Violet Oon’s Kitchen (881 Bukit Timah Rd., at the corner of Old Holland Rd.; +65 6468 5430; violetoonskitchen.com), the latest venture from their mother and local food personality Violet Oon. It’s her third restaurant, but first business collaboration with her now-adult children.
Ming, 31, handles daily operations (“It’s more like I stand around looking good”), while Su-Lyn, 36, a designer and co-founder of LA-based fashion company t-bags, conceptualized the dining room’s
elegant, monochromatic aesthetic highlighted by marble tables and countertops, black-and-white tiled flooring, and decorative Peranakan tiles salvaged from a century-old Singapore shophouse. “We thought it needed a homey atmosphere that really encapsulated my mom—the kind of cuisine and whole vibe that she has—but updated to the kind of place our friends would enjoy going to,” she says.
Mom, of course, manages the kitchen. Oon, 63, began her career as a music critic in the early 70’s, soon after becoming a leading voice in Singapore’s nascent food scene as a columnist for The New Nation newspaper. She later launched The Food Paper, was named the country’s food ambassador by the Singapore Tourism Board, and opened her first Violet Oon’s Kitchen in 1993 (since closed).
Oon’s work as a chef and journalist has led to ample international travel, from covering a Russian dance troupe to conducting cooking demonstrations at New York’s renowned James Beard House, and these travels have inspired the Western-influenced dishes squeezed onto the menu at Violet Oon’s Kitchen. Shepherd’s pie, for example, is a nod to the two years she spent living in London, while the recipe for a decadent bread and butter pudding, drizzled with whiskey and custard sauces, was picked up in New Orleans. She describes her sticky toffee date pudding as a dessert “like any good American mother would make at home,” and hints of her taste for Italian cuisine can be detected in a savory pulled-beef ragu rigatoni and meatless meatball pasta.
Still, the restaurant’s main focus is Peranakan cuisine, a uniquely regional style of food that incorporates Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian ingredients and cooking techniques. “We have all of these favorite things that we’ve eaten for our entire life, so we had so much to work with,” says Su-Lyn. While some of those favorites feature classic Peranakan tastes with a contemporary twist, such as a sublime hae bee hiam panini stuffed with spicy prawn floss, cheese, arugula and sweet onion relish, mama Oon still insists “the flavors are all traditional–we have not ‘fusioned’ them.”
I take one last scoop of black tapenade made from shrimp paste and foraged Indonesian buah keluak, a fermented nut that’s poisonous if not handled correctly (which Oon describes as the Peranakan equivalent of black truffles in French cooking). Rich, creamy and significantly smoky, the tapenade is paired with a gooey chili crab dip and fresh pita bread baked in a brick oven inherited from the previous tenants. Before I can inhale another bite, Ming recommends I try both dips mixed together—and he’s right. Like the restaurant’s combined décor, cuisine and personalities, they’re natural complements.