November 5, 2020

As the rest of the world braces itself for the effects the pandemic, Hong Kong’s F&B scene reverberates with excitement. Between restaurant closures, fines being slapped for flouting Covid-19 rules, and homemakers fighting over a limited supply of cream cheese, there are newfangled restaurants emerging onto the scene—ready to weather the storm. One of them originates from Singapore. Chefs Tinoq Russell Goh and Dylan Chan of @pasirpanjangboy (who are most known for their private kitchen escapades) have partnered with Jia Group to open Bibi & Baba, aimed at bringing Nyonya cuisine to the city.

Founder Yenn Wong of Jia Group, an established hospitality group in Hong Kong, has a diverse portfolio from Michelin-style dining to more casual tapas bars, met the duo at an intimate Christmas lunch in Singapore some 12 years back. They lost contact but nine years later, a mutual friend Lynn Yeow-De Vito connected the dots. “We were asked to cook for one of our god sisters, Dolores Au for Chinese New Year,” says Tinoq. “The opulent feast went swimmingly and Lynn who happened to be one of the guests that day was blown away by the spread. One phone call later and Yenn’s interest was piqued.”

Subsequently, the duo cooked for Yenn and her husband Alan Lo at their private dining quarters for two days straight. Impressed and inspired, Yenn initiated a challenge for them to cook a dinner for 80 guests at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong. The meal sealed the deal and once the dinner was over, they sat down and discussed the concept.

Bibi & Baba means “married lady” and “man” in Nyonya, which indirectly reflects a merge of culinary influences that transpired when Chinese immigrants married South East Asian partners in the 15th century. The result was a confluence of Chinese, Malay, Javanese and others from the region including Thai and Indian where flavours and techniques were explored and employed, giving birth to what we now know as Peranakan cuisine.

When I ask Tinoq and Dylan about the common misconceptions about Nyonya cuisine, the pair is quick to remark that “pungent and spicy are words associated with it.” Certainly, some dishes have heat, but they are infused with nuances of texture and fragrance. Regardless, the duo is adamant on preserving a disappearing heritage by “educating customers on not just the food, but also about the intricacies of the Peranakan culture and history.” The true testament of a Nyonya restaurant lies in its spice and sauce blends, which Bibi & Baba strictly makes in-house to maintain its authenticity. Peranakan cuisine talks less about culinary brinkmanship and more about individuality. Unlike the straight-laced recipes that form the hallmark of French cooking, every Peranakan family would have their own unique recipes and styles passed down from generation to generation. As a result, “there’s bound to be subjective perceptions and opinions,” says Tinoq, who sees that as a good a thing—like it’s almost a crucial part of their psyche. In keeping with tradition, the duo has stayed true to their traditional pestle and mortar methods, a strenuous approach to ensure that their dishes are a labour of love.

Working in styling and make-up has bolstered their culinary identities, which is why a private home dining experience by them is achingly hip amongst celebrities and the upper crust. Beyond their pink hairdos is a complementary relationship that “lifts the spirits, warms the heart and makes people feel loved.” Just so you know, the reason why they chose shocking pink is because white keeps them grounded; it signifies pureness and humility, while red can be a bit intimidating but it represents auspiciousness. When you mix the two colours together you get pink and they plan to keep it this way for a long time.

“Dylan is really good with all the prep work. He is gifted with sourcing the best ingredients and is skilled at accounting, logistics and the bonus, social media guru,” confesses Tinoq. “I, on the other hand, pretty much control the PR, marketing and the creative aspect of the food.” The duo’s synergy is palpable, an enjoyable union that stems from respect inside and out of the kitchen. “We’re very hard on each other and our perfectionist nature is in every project we embark on,” adds Tinoq.

I ask which is the star dish at Bibi & Baba and the pair claims that it is the ngor hiang. I am tempted to agree as it is made with daily fresh peeled water chestnuts and a special blend of spices that is not privy to anyone else’s knowledge. The kampong-style rustic laksa comes in a close second.