Promoting Peranakan culture & heritage
Bob Seah feels it is his duty to achieve this goal at his three restaurants and continues to come up with new dishes.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Slowing down isn’t in Bob Seah’s dictionary. At age 75, the chef and owner of The House of Peranakan Group of Restaurants (including House of Peranakan Petit, House of Peranakan Cuisine and Peranakan Inn) couldn’t be more gung-ho about his goal to promote Peranakan culture and heritage. He still goes to the market daily to pick up the ingredients for his three restaurants (one is currently undergoing renovation) and every Saturday, he makes it a point to share his music with the diners at one of his restaurants.
Ageless Online chats with the father of two and grandfather of three about his inspiration – his mother and his childhood memories, and his future plans:
Can you share some fond memories that you have of your mother’s cooking/culinary skills when you were younger?
I am the middle child among 10 siblings. My dad worked in the fisheries so we were blessed to have lots of seafood to eat. My mum was an excellent cook and also a very generous lady. When I was younger, she was usually in the kitchen the entire day, busy preparing and cooking for the family. Those days there was no blender so she used the traditional pestle and mortar to pound the spices. She would often make the Nonya Dumpling (bak chang) and give it to relatives during the Dragon Boat Festival.
I observed while she cooked in my younger days and also when she was cooking at my first restaurant, Peranakan Inn. (EDITOR’S NOTE, there is a picture of her in the restaurants.)
How did all this lead up to opening a restaurant in the 1980s (and later two others)? Was it so you could share your family culture with others?
My mother and my sisters were good cooks and there were always a lot of buzz in the kitchen and lots of good food at home. I thought that it would be great if we could share our wonderful Peranakan cooking and heritage with others. At that time and it was 30 years ago, it was rare to find a Peranakan restaurant. I bought a Peranakan shophouse in Katong with my savings. I then roped in my mother and sisters to work in the kitchen, and Peranakan Inn was born in 1986. We were probably the first Peranakan restaurant in a Peranakan shophouse, and the first Peranakan restaurant owned by a Peranakan family in Singapore.
I opened House of Peranakan Cuisine at the former Negara Hotel as we were invited to do so by the hotel. It was also my dream to open a restaurant in town. We were then the first and only Peranakan restaurant in a hotel. We have had so many VIPs at House of Peranakan Cuisine from local personalities to foreign dignitaries such as Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand. I am so proud to play a role in promoting Peranakan culture and cuisine to overseas guests and dignitaries.
I understand you have even created many of the Peranakan-inspired dishes at the restaurants as well as introduced the concept of serving nonya food in a claypot. Can you tell me more about some of these creations and how you came up with them? And why claypot? Any more dishes you are planning to create?
In my younger days, whenever I got home for meals, my mother would never fail to heat up the food for me. Hence, I have always liked having food served hot. This is why I introduced the concept of serving food in claypots in my restaurants as they can retain heat well.
I introduced a lot of seafood dishes into the Peranakan menu which is usually meat-focused. Dishes such as Assam Prawns, Sambal Selar Fish stuffed with Rempah, Nonya Crayfish with Taucheo, Pomfret in Chilli Garam, and Scallop Lemak are some of my creations. Yes, there are many new dishes in the making which we will be introducing soon at House of Peranakan Petit, our latest restaurant in Tiong Bahru.
Why is doing this important to you?
I love to create dishes. A chef is like an artist. I believe that my customers will be happy to have a greater variety of Peranakan dishes to choose from.
I understand you still go to the market daily to get the freshest of ingredients and then you are off to the three restaurants to make sure standards are kept. Why do you continue to do this?
I enjoy going to the market; it is not tedious at all. I get to meet people, interact with them and gain knowledge too. I go the market to also find out about the latest trends in raw ingredients, explore new products, and get a sense of the current pricing. This way, I am not dependent on food suppliers.
You also play the piano and sing oldies and Peranakan music at one of your restaurants every Saturday. Why do this?
I do this simply because I love music! Music and food are my two passions in life. I feel very proud that I can play music for my customers in my restaurant. I play mostly oldies and standards, and my customers enjoy such easy-listening music. It is a very unique experience for my diners to observe an elderly man play the piano for free at a restaurant. Not many restaurants offer such an interesting atmosphere.
I heard you used to be in a band in your younger days. Can you share more about this?
Yes I used to be in a band in my younger days, we called ourselves The Combo Continental. Our tagline was “We offer nothing but the best!” and we performed at tea dances. I played the vibraphone.
I learned music out of interest when I was about 18 years old. There was a piano in the house and no one was using it. I thought that it was such a waste so I enrolled myself in a music school. However, the class was filled with students who were half my age and I felt embarrassed so I dropped out of music school and started to learn music on my own.
What else keeps you busy?
In between spending time with family and grandsons, cooking and home development, I am on the lookout for suitable locations to expand House of Peranakan. I also love music a lot. I enjoy singing and sometimes I would invite my friends over so that we could spend time singing and dining together.
Do you think you might want to come up with a Peranakan cookbook?
Yes, maybe in the near future if I can find someone to help me with this project.
Are you grooming your children so they can continue the amazing work that you do at the restaurants?
Yes, my children are very interested in the family business. It is not just about the business but it is important that we are preserving and promoting our Peranakan culture and heritage.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Anything that you would like to achieve?
We have several interesting projects coming up as we approach the 30th anniversary of Peranakan Inn and the House of Peranakan Group of Restaurants. We plan to restore Peranakan Inn to its former glory. It is a preserved Peranakan shophouse in Katong and we own the building so we can do so much with it.
What would you say to a senior about active ageing? How will you encourage him/her to live an active life?
To be honest, it is not easy to encourage someone to be active unless he or she has my personality! But I would say, keep working, don’t stay at home, look for an interesting job or activity to keep your life exciting!
(** As part of the SG50 Seniors package, House of Peranakan is offering 15-percent off the total bill and complimentary dessert of the day for eligible seniors age 65 and above. The offer is valid until August 31, 2015 and is available at two restaurants, House of Peranakan Petit and House of Peranakan Cuisine.
The SG50 Seniors package, which was launched in May, is an initiative by the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, supported by Tote Board and the Singapore Business Federation. In collaboration with businesses, educational institutions and the community, the package offers exclusive benefits to eligible seniors in Singapore as a token of appreciation to them, as the nation celebrates its Golden Jubilee. With the SG50 Seniors package, it is hoped that these seniors will take advantage of the dining, leisure, lifelong learning, lifestyle and wellness benefits to “Stay Active, Live Well”.
The SG50 Seniors package offers over 200 benefits, from free admission/discounts to places of recreation and leisure, to discounted hotels rates, cheaper package tours, promotional dining meals, and learning courses for seniors. The benefits in the package expire at various dates so do hurry and take up the offers in the SG50 Seniors package before they run out of date. Eligible seniors from age 50 and above can enjoy these offers with their family and friends. For details of the offers in the SG50 Seniors package, please visit www.sg50seniors.sg.)