There’s an old saying (probably) that behind every great dish lies a story, and like any good story, it all starts with a journey. So take those first steps, wander into the remarkable and newly-renovated BABA’S restaurant at hu’u bar and find yourself in a chic Peranakan wonderland, where whimsical touches connect with a menu of proper Asian fusion cuisine from a bygone era. A place where every ingredient, every seasoning, indeed every last morsel, has a tale to tell.
The term ‘Asian fusion’ has been bandied around so recklessly of late that it’s easy to dismiss as a modern fad. But centuries ago entire communities connected by the movement of free trade and transmigration around Southeast Asia were mixing it up fusion style, to produce Peranakan dishes that took a dash of Chinese, a pinch of Malay, a whiff of the East Indies, and a dab of Thai to create home cooking for the masses – rich and poor, families and wanderers, and in particular, the Babas. These men would wander the region; educated nomads seeking out prosperity by bridging the gap between locals and colonials. Well-versed in literature and the arts, not to mention a thirst for exploration and a hunger for only the very best, the Babas represented what it is to be a global gastronome.
Remaining true to that ethos, the BABA’S menu embraces the finer points of traditional Southeast Asian cuisine, mixing it all up into a kaleidoscope of flavours, textures and colours that is as much about the taste as it is a reflection of the mish-mash of cultures in which the Peranakan concept evolved from.
Take the bundle of mixed satay sticks from the tok panjang appetiser platter for instance. One legend suggests that a group of British soldiers on a tour of duty to the Southeast Asian region a century or two ago were big on hunger but short on cooking utensils, and found an inventive use for their rifle bayonets by skewering three chunks of meat upon them, then roasting over an open fire. The idea soon caught on amongst locals and Chinese travelers, who labeled the dish sa tay, meaning ‘three pieces of meat’. And that’s just one part of a platter that is bursting at the seams – a veritable feast of classic Asian tapas with a twist, including wok fried wanton ingots, crispy spring rolls, golden soy bean curd and tempeh goreng, corn cakes, glass noodle salad with crispy chicken, corn cakes and soi salad. Despite there being more than enough to share, everything is hungrily devoured and washed down with a good glug of shiraz.
there’s more than enough to share and everything is devoured and washed down with a good glug of shiraz.
Next in line comes one of the dishes I, for one, have been looking forward to the most – the Singapore laksa noodles, and we’re not disappointed. The spicy coconut broth packs a neat kick and the assorted seafood is cooked to perfection. Speaking of perfection, the inventive caramel coffee baby back ribs are pretty hard to fault, as is the street-style grilled peng gang sole – another dish with a nice bit of heat, courtesy of the Baba’s special sambal on the side.
The last two dishes we tuck into are the grilled jumbo king prawns, as succulent and meaty as it’s possible for prawns to be, and the exotic lobster on a bed of crispy noodles, the recipe for which I’m told was discovered by BABA’S owner Sean Lee on his travels at a tucked away Asian eatery in the London borough of Bayswater of all places. A fact that mirrors the satay story but the other way around, kind of like returning the favour somehow. We finish off with a very traditional helping of the Indonesian classic dadar guling, the thin pandan pancake stuffed with roasted coconut and palm sugar enhanced even more by the large dollop of coconut ice cream on the side.
It’s been a culinary trip of epic proportions, but don’t just take my word for it, make your own journey into the Peranakan world of BABA’S, and who knows what stories you may uncover.