Friday, June 8, 2012

Restaurant review: Whole Earth, Singapore

One of my very close friend cum colleague is of Peranakan Chinese descent. For the uninitiated, Peranakans are descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Indonesia and Singapore, inter-marrying with local Malays. The old Malay word "nonya" (also spelled nyonya), a term of respect and affection for women of prominent social standing, has come to refer to the cuisine of the Perakanans. Nonya cuisine, combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique blend. Since my friend and I share a common love for food, it is one of the topics that invariably comes up during our daily lunch/coffee breaks. Considering she has an impressive understanding and appreciation for Indian cuisine (she was recently explaining to me how she likes her jalebis!), I have always wanted to be more aware of and experience the cuisine that is an integral part of her culture and identity. 

Nonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay/Indonesian community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal, candlenuts as both a flavoring and thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves, belachan, tamarind juice, lemongrass, torch ginger bud, jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf, rice or egg noodles and cincaluk.

I recently heard about Whole Earth, a Thai-Peranakan Vegetarian restaurant on Peck Seah street in Singapore. I was surprised to hear that it served only vegetarian food (vegan to be precise). Somehow, I wasn't really expecting that! Whole Earth is where the rich Peranakan fare is creatively fused together with authentic Thai fare for fresh and flavourful Southeast-Asian cuisine. After some discussion and last minute coordinating of schedules, me and my colleagues decided to go there for lunch. I had heard that the place can get crowded so I made a lunch reservation in advance.

The restaurant is conveniently located right opposite Exit A of the Tanjong Pagar MRT station. The interior is plain and minimalistic (to put it bluntly - it looks clinically white). I'm not sure if they were going for a 'save the planet' kind of theme with their decor! The ambiance is quite ordinary. I wouldn't recommend this place for a romantic meal for two because it can get a crowded and noisy. I was leaning forward to catch what my friends across the table were saying on several occasions.

Soon after we were seated, we were served fried seaweed chips and sour mango pickles/salad. I initially assumed that they were complimentary but later suspected otherwise. The pickle was nice enough. As for seaweed....I don't care for it (even if it is deep fried!). My friends seemed to like it though.

We decided to order a soup first. We ordered a medium portion of Tom Yam soup. Take note that this can easily serve 5 people. The soup was tangy, aromatic and mildly spicy and we all enjoyed it.

Next we ordered the Signature Olive Brown Rice. It was surprisingly flavourful and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was the simplicity of this dish that caught me off guard. The rice was cooked well and it didn't need any accompaniment to go with it. However, I assumed that some people may find it a little salty but I thought it was fine (I tend to be very forgiving where salt is concerned!).

We then ordered the Sambal King which is a mix of 4 different vegetables namely eggplant, lady's finger, long bean and petai bean. To go with that, we ordered a few portions of plain white rice. I must say....this dish was my favourite. I'm not surprised that it is considered a best-seller at Whole Earth. But I must confess that I did not enjoy the taste of the petai beans! It was the first time I was trying it and fortunately for me, my friends had warned about it beforehand so it did not come as too much of a shock. The petai bean is also called as bitter bean or stink bean. It has an extremely unusual smell and taste. I wasn't really put off by the smell but I thought the taste was overtly pungent and bitter for my liking so I simply avoided them. The good thing is that the taste of the petai bean does not overwhelm the rest of the dish.

Also as an accompaniment to the rice, we ordered the Nyonya curry which was a all-round hit. Apparently, it takes 8 hours of preparation and slow-cooking! This is a dish made of shiitake mushrooms with a thick piquant sauce. I loved the potatoes in it. But one look at it and you will get a little confused whether you are still sitting in a vegetarian restaurant. This one really looks like a meat-based curry!

We had decided  to order the Oatmeal Tofu with Curry Leaves because I had heard that it was good but I  mistakenly ended up ordering the Silken Tofu with Premium Abalone Mushroom. Big mistake! The dish was quite disappointing and I was greatly annoyed with myself for the screw-up. The Tofu was soft and melt in your mouth, but the dish on the whole was very bland. Since we were terribly full by then, I made a mental note to order the original intended dish the next time we were there.

This restaurant is a little expensive. We unanimously felt that the set meals were overpriced. You can expect to cough up 20-40 dollars per person (depending on how much you order of course!). As I mentioned before, the ambience is just about average. During our visit, the service was quick and efficient and the staff seemed polite and friendly. The food in general was well cooked and flavoured, the portion size was decent and there was an appreciable variety in the menu.

To conclude - If you want some good vegetarian food with the exciting flavours of South-East Asia, this is where you should go. I can't wait to go back to try the Assam Pedas, Oatmeal Tofu, Penang Rendang & Thai Sweet and Sour Delight which are some of their other signature dishes.

My rating for this restaurant would be 3 out of 5

Whole Earth Vegetarian
76 Peck Seah St
(Tg Pagar MRT Exit A)
Singapore 079331

Tel: 65 6323 3308

Operating Hours:
Lunch: 11:30am to 3pm (last order at 2:30pm)
Dinner: 5:30 to 10pm (last order at 9:15pm)

       Note: This is not a sponsored review. The comments and opinions in this post are solely my own.


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