Singapore's Private Kitchens Are the Ultimate Insider Experience
In apartments and houses across the city, Singapore’s cooks are preserving—and remaking—the island’s traditional cuisines.
One of Singapore's most talked-about dining spots has no signs. The door, on the ground floor of a 1960s apartment complex, is marked simply with red bunting and small paper banners covered in Chinese characters. Tinoq Russell Goh, the chef at 1CattynAPinch, often called Tinoq’s, answers the door sporting a fuchsia apron and a shock of bright canary-yellow hair. The tiny room behind him is just as vibrant: Flowery pink and blue fabric covers one wall, an assortment of painted enamel plates decorates another, and paper lanterns hang from the ceiling.
This is the front room of Goh’s apartment, a space that was once his living room but has now been transformed into a private kitchen, one of dozens of in-home eateries that have popped up in Singapore over the past five years. A well-known makeup artist and stylist by day, Goh and his partner, Dylan Chan, spend two evenings per week cooking for friends, acquaintances, and an increasing number of customers and local celebrities who have heard about their unofficial restaurant through word of mouth.
While private kitchens have been popular in other Asian cities for over a decade, Singapore’s versions only opened recently, thanks to guidelines that allow cooks to serve food prepared in their homes. Today, there are dozens of these “home dine-ins” (as some call them), which allow families or groups of friends to enjoy a private meal in a variety of residences all over the island.
The foods offered at these informal eateries range from high-end Cantonese seafood to hand-rolled pasta. But the majority showcase Singapore’s truly local, original cuisine: the food of the Peranakans—a community descended from the Chinese workers and others who came to the area centuries ago and married local Malay women.
The night I visit, Goh has prepared 12 Peranakan dishes. The meal starts with bakwan kepiting, a bowl of minced pork meatballs with blue crab meat and winter bamboo shoots served in a rich seafood broth. Then comes a parade of dishes flavored with myriad herbs and spices: a tender beef rendang redolent of coconut cream and fresh spices; steamed sea bass bathed in spiced tamarind sauce with ginger flower and Vietnamese mint; all accompanied by a bowl of bright blue rice dyed with blue pea flowers from Goh’s small garden.
The first private kitchen to put the trend on the map was Lynnette’s Kitchen, which Lynnette Seah opened in 2015. Seah is an acclaimed violinist and the co-concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and her cooking attracted a lot of press, which encouraged others to open their own establishments. Seah serves her own versions of Peranakan dishes (such as a blue pea flower rice mixed with mackerel, ginger, lemongrass, ginger flowers, and seven different herbs) and other classic Singaporean dishes, like chili crab.
“This is home-based cooking, not restaurant food,” says Raymond Leong, who runs The Ampang Kitchen out of his four-story home in the upscale neighborhood of Bukit Timah. Leong, a retired accountant in his 70s, serves a style of Peranakan food made by cooks in Penang, Malaysia. Many of the dishes that he and his son, David, make in their open-air kitchen are similar to local foods but richer, packed with even more spice and flavor. Others—like a salad of prawns, cucumber, and mango dressed with prawn paste, lime, sugar, peanut, and fried coconut—are not traditionally found in Singapore and stretch locals’ ideas of what Peranakan food tastes like.
Annette Tan, the food writer behind the popular FatFuku kitchen, also likes to play with what Peranakan food can be, modernizing recipes and incorporating flavors and dishes from Singapore’s other ethnic groups. To make chicken buah keluak—a dish that is traditionally stewed for hours in a gravy of black buah keluak nuts, which have a bitter, earthy, cocoa-like flavor—she rubs a compound butter made with the nuts under the chicken’s skin and roasts it whole, then serves it over a plate of rice with shallots and cashews cooked in ghee, a nod to the biryanis made by Singapore’s Indian population.
While most private kitchens are run by home cooks, a few local chefs have also embraced the format. Shen Tan, who previously served modern Singaporean (what locals call “mod-sin”) food at her small restaurant, Wok & Barrel, opened Ownself Make Chef in an apartment near her home that she bought as a rental property. “It gives me the creative space to do something new,” she explains. Tan’s dinners are all themed (popular menus include Sinfully Seafood and aPORKalypse) and offer twists on local dishes. One popular fusion is a flavorful combination of spotted shrimp, Hokkaido scallops, and local grouper cured with calamansi juice and dressed with chile and tamarind—a fresh take on traditional mee siam.
Tan is also on the forefront of another private dining trend: allowing guests to book just one or two seats at a dinner instead of having to reserve the entire space. (Lynnette’s Kitchen offers similar meals a couple times a month; Leong, at The Ampang Kitchen, recommends guests without large groups contact him for his takeout service.) Tan holds her public dinners on Saturday nights and offers single-seat and group reservations through her website. “I wanted to make my food more accessible. And there are also people who are interested in meeting new people,” says Tan. “It’s like going on a culinary adventure!”
Where to Stay
While Singapore’s cooks revive the island’s classic foods, local hotels are breathing new life into some of the city-state’s oldest buildings. At the Capitol Kempinski Hotel, luxurious suites and a bar with the city’s largest selection of rums have revived the interior of the stately 1904 Stamford House. (From $280, kempinski.com) The Fullerton Hotel offers 400 guest rooms in the grand neoclassical building that served as the General Post Office; a block away, its sister property, The Fullerton Bay, has turned historic Clifford Pier into an airy restaurant. (From $465, fullertonhotels.com) The city’s most storied hotel, the Raffles, has also reopened after an extensive renovation that updated every element of the building without eliminating any of the original charm. (From $539, raffles.com)
How to Book
Register your interest via an electronic form on Seah’s website, lynnetteskitchen.com, or get in touch directly via WhatsApp +65 90102901.
The Ampang Kitchen
Find out about Leong’s dinner at facebook.com/TheAmpangKitchen Singapore.
Check out fatfuku.com for details on how and when you can book, as well as a few house rules, or email annette@ fatfuku.com.