Peranakan cuisine is famously elaborate and tok panjang, the traditional feast, takes that to an extravagant extreme. Tok panjang quite literally means long table; it is a linguistic hodgepodge – ‘tok’ is Hokkien for ‘table’, and ‘panjang’ denotes ‘long’ in Malay – that reflects Peranakan culture’s amalgamation of Chinese and Malay influences.
Tok panjang is de rigeur for Chinese New Year, and also rolled out for both happy and sad occasions like milestone birthdays and death anniversaries. Peranakan hospitality dictates that every inch of the long table is laid out, and dishes number anywhere from 12 to more than 20.
Folklore, the flagship restaurant of Destination Singapore Beach Road hotel, is where chef Damian D’Silva devotes himself towards championing Singapore’s heritage foods, digging deep into his own Eurasian-Peranakan roots. Since its mid-2017 opening, Folklore has been widely held up as among the last bastions for traditionally cooked heritage foods. Peranakan cuisine is notoriously laborious, which makes Folklore’s tok panjang – a 15-dish buffet, complete with chendol and assorted kuehs – all the more compelling, especially at the reasonable price of $68 per adult.
Tok panjang essentials
The Peranakan are big on symbolism; for Chinese New Year, foods that represent prosperity and plentifulness are especially prized. According to D’Silva, instead of yusheng – the raw fish salad that is commonly tossed in Singapore and Malaysia – Peranakans typically open their lunar new year extravaganza with a prawn salad that is loaded with propitious allusions: The word ‘prawn’ is a homonym for ‘laughter’; the red hues of the poached prawns and fiery hot chilli plum sauce signify wealth and luck.
For this important Spring Festival, auspicious ingredients are often co-opted into tok panjang classics. Chap Chye, the Peranakans’ go-to vegetable dish – bountiful in itself with numerous ingredients such as glass noodles, shiitake and beancurd skin – will be supplemented with fatt choy (black moss) because it is a homonym for prosperity. Tender bamboo shoots are synonymous with spring, and that calls for mixing them into meatballs, and for enriching Pie Tee (golden, crispy pastry shells filled with braised jicama). Sambal belimbing is also apt. Belimbing (an astringent cousin to starfruit) plants flourish in spring-time and the tart flavours make this a welcome palate cleanser to the heavy fare characteristic of the Peranakan repertoire.
No tok panjang would be complete without soup. Like his grandmother, D’Silva errs on the side of over-feeding, so Folklore will showcase not one, but three soups – fish maw soup, itek teem (duck and salted vegetables soup), and bakwan kepiting (crab meatballs in a rich prawn-and-pork broth). All are deeply comforting, but the fish maw soup deserves special mention for its wealth of flavours and textures: Pig stomach, intestines, fish maw stuffed with minced meat, fish balls, prawn balls and sea cucumber. The soup itself is carefully calibrated from three bases – pork, fish and prawn stocks. It is also hoped that indulging in seafood – an expensive luxury – over Chinese New Year would in turn attract prosperity throughout subsequent months.
The Peranakan psyche
The Chinese New Year tok panjang takes place on the first day, with the extended family reuniting at the matriarch’s for the festivities. While dishes are primarily curated for symbolism, the tok panjang also serves a secondary purpose of displaying wealth and generosity. It is not so much to intimidate as it is for the matriarch to bask in her culinary prowess, and to show the lengths she (and the daughters-in-law enlisted) can afford to take.
As D’Silva quips, the Peranakan attitude is often “because I can”; that the more complicated a dish is, the more special it seems. There’s glory in slaving for days, if not weeks. The result might seem deceptively simple, but the Peranakan social contract expects guests to have a tacit understanding of the painstaking work involved.
Take tow hay, pork belly braised in red wine lees, for example. It sounds straightforward, but the dish would not be possible without the know-how for making fermented red wine lees from scratch, and savviness in properly procuring and cleaning the krill that goes into the lees. It’s the gourmet’s #humblebrag. Alas, Folklore will not be serving up tow hay, only because the right krill is near impossible to obtain nowadays.
There is also no question of counting the guest list in planning for tok panjang. The matriarch sees it her duty to cook more than enough to feed everyone, whether that may be for 50 or 100. Besides the main spread, there are still the kuehs and biscuits, pickles and sauces to deal with – which effectively mean that preparations need to start at least a good month ahead. It is a lot to undertake, but for the matriarch, the show must go on.
The Folklore Chinese New Year Tok Panjang is available for dinner throughout the Chinese New Year period, from 15 February to 2 March, 6-9.30pm. $68 per adult, $28 per child.
Level 2, Destination Singapore Beach Road, 700 Beach Road. Tel: +65 6679 2900.