Peranakan eatery Violet Oon apologises for cultural appropriation of nasi ambeng, a Javanese dish

PHOTO: Facebook / Violet Oon

Violet Oon is a respected brand in the local F&B industry, the de facto name when it comes to opulent Peranakan cuisine. 

Unfortunately, their reputation got a wee bit tarnished in the past few days since the brand shot itself in the foot with a bullet called cultural appropriation. 

What had happened was that the restaurant chain announced some new additions to their menu for home delivery — family-sized platters of rice and assorted side dishes that go for at least $115 each. As frightening as the prices are, it’s par for the course for Violet Oon restaurants, which offer fine-dining experiences across four atas outposts (including one at the National Gallery) across the island. 

The questionable bit came when it involved the actual entrée itself: Nasi ambeng. A traditional dish that originates from Java, Indonesia, it’s a popular communal platter with an assortment of meat, vegetables, sauce, spices and rice. Served in a large tray (the dulang) lined with banana leaves, the dish is usually eaten by hand and can feed a group of four (or more) sitting around it. 

Royal Ambeng 2pax

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Though it holds deep roots in Javanese-Malay cuisine, the original post on the Violet Oon Facebook page makes no mention or reference to its origins. Instead, the post calls for folks to commemorate the end of the circuit breaker the “Peranakan way” with “Nyonya Nasi Ambeng”. 

PHOTO: Facebook / Violet Oon

It’s also key to note that nasi ambeng could be an unfamiliar concept for Violet Oon patrons, who are more than likely to be on the wealthier side of the spectrum. Introducing the dish to this new audience without making any mention about its cultural origins can be deemed as dismissive to its roots as a humble communal meal eaten by old Javanese families

The criticisms arrived quickly in the comments section with folks accusing the brand of cultural appropriation and profiting off it. 

PHOTO: Facebook screengrab

Others tried to educate the restaurant chain about how it is deemed insensitive. 

Dear Chef Violet Oon (Violet Oon Singapore) As you have claimed that Nasi Ambeng is a Nyonya dish, perhaps you can...

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After days of receiving backlash, Violet Oon released a statement of apology, acknowledging its insensitivity while re-interpreting nasi ambeng to suit its Peranakan motif. The brand gave thanks to the many who came forward to explain the significance and subtleties behind the traditional dish. 

“As a brand dedicated to exploring the rich and diverse food culture of Southeast Asia, we have fallen short by culturally appropriating this dish,” the statement read. 

The restaurant’s new offerings have since been renamed as generic “Family Trays”, and will still be sold at the same (lavish) prices. What has changed now is the addition of Nasi Ambeng’s cultural significance in the Javanese community. 

𝗧𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗽𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝗵𝗮𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝗲𝗱 We recently launched a family tray featuring an assortment of dishes and called it ‘Nyonya...

Posted by Violet Oon Singapore on Monday, June 1, 2020

ilyas@asiaone.com