Heritage Food Stories: Guan Hoe Soon

There's no denying Perenakan food is slurp-urlicious! Here's the spicy story of Guan Hoe Soon, Singapore's oldest Nonya restaurant.

Guan Hoe Soon might be a Peranakan restaurant, but the Yap family behind it is actually Hainanese. That hasn’t stopped them from becoming Singapore’s oldest Nonya restaurant group with numerous outlets to their name. Third-generation chef Kevin Yap, who returned to the family business only two years ago, tells us about his favourite dish, using modern kitchen tech, and his plans for the brand.

Hi Kevin! Tell us more about the history of the restaurant.

Guan Hoe Soon was started by my grandfather in 1953, and he named it after his sons Ah Guan, Ah Hoe, Ah Soon. My dad is Soon, the second son. Fun fact: my family is actually Hainanese, not Peranakan. The closest I have to being Peranakan is my great-great-grandmother from my maternal side, but the business was really started by my grandfather. He came down from Hainan Island and started working for the very wealthy Choo family - Joo Chiat Road is named after them - so my grandfather was fortunate to be employed with them. And that was where he learned to cook Peranakan food.

The first restaurant was at 214 Joo Chiat Road and we moved around many times. In the 80s, my father started helping out with the business when he was about 19 years old. It eventually became known as Straits Chinese by Guan Hoe Soon and we had five outlets at one time in various parts of the city like Middle Road and Shenton Way.

Are your other siblings involved in the family business too?

Guan Hoe Soon at Joo Chiat is now run by my sister, and the other children are heading the other restaurants. For me, I only came back around two years ago, and I'm using Esplanade as the testbed to try out new things and technology.

Ikan Assam Pedas 

You run the oldest Nonya restaurant in Singapore. Do you feel like you have something to live up to?

There's pressure on how to keep the business going. The brand and heritage is already strong, about 67 years already, so I don't want to see it end at my generation.

What’s the difference between the Straits Chinese outlets and the main one in Joo Chiat?

The dishes are actually all the same across the restaurants. That's just the original. All our restaurants also have a bit of heritage elements, and you can find old photos and old plates, carvings, and other things passed down to my father. Even in the design of the restaurants.

What is your favourite dish from the restaurant? What about the signature dishes?

I love the Buah Keluak. Traditionally, we follow the recipe passed down to my father. Our Buah Keluak comes mixed with pork and prawns for more flavour. Another one is the Assam Fish, and we use the whole golden prompret with a sour and spicy soup. The Kepiting soup is quite unique. My dad was saying last time they'd have a big crab shell and a lot of balls below for a big meal, so now we have a small crab and one ball below for one portion. Our otah is another popular dish - just fish meat, coconut milk, and spices, without any flour. Apparently the late MM Lee would send his driver to pick up the otah from here a long time ago.

Using more technology like combi ovens, to make cooking more efficient and consistently. For example we'd use pots to cook the buah keluak, now it's oven. More taxing way, it's like Ngoh Hiang balls as opposed to a longer roll shape. Steam then deep-fry. Takes a lot of time to prepare.

From top: Peranakan Chap Chye, Otah, Ngoh Hiang

Do you create new dishes?

We have a new Impossible Ngoh Hiang that I introduced late last year together with the spicy Brinjal and "minced pork" . We wanted to capture the vegetarian market, so we used Impossible to replicate the taste. It's very similar, but the flavour is still more beefy. We're waiting for the Impossible Pork profile to be released.

Is it difficult to teach Peranakan cooking to the next generation?

Last time they used to pound everything by hand. Now we have big blenders and modern equipment, vacuum sealers, and combi ovens which make it easier to cook more efficiently and consistently. Especially now since it's so hard to find workers, we need to make things easier to pass down our heritage to the next generation. We had some plans to franchise and maybe bring the brand overseas, but now it's more important to sustain our business.

What do you think is the future of Peranakan food in Singapore?

I think people are looking for cuisines from the past, with nostalgia and heritage. It's good that media and culture and influencers help, with things like The Little Nonya also. Things are also going online, and there are a lot of Peranakan restaurants nowadays, which you would never really see last time. We are opening a new central kitchen in Mactaggart at the end of the year, so I can do more delivery business!

Read our Burpple community's reviews of Straits Chinese by Guan Hoe Soon here! Straits Chinese can also be found at Cecil Street and Esplanade Theatres.