Jul 132014
 

I’ve been distracted for the last little while and have not published a thing – not on a blog anywhere, anyhow.

Things haven’t really calmed down – work is still work, Liz and I have a baby on the way – but we’ve moved out to the Heartlands again. Things seem a little more real out here away from the noise and the tourists. That, and perhaps I have finally worked through all the excuses :)

Anyhow, please expect to see more posts soon.

Oct 042012
 

I’m reading Martin Jacques’ book “When China Rules The World” at the moment – it is an interesting look at the political, economic and social changes likely to take place over the next 20-50 years. Mr Jacques has a number of interesting observations to make about the emerging economic powerhouse of China – past, present and future – and it makes for fascinating reading. I attended a couple of economic history units at university and find what he has to say both plausible and fascinating. But I digress.

Ordering lunch, Penang

The one point that jarred for me was this – top of page 150, 2012 Penguin paperback edition: “The instincts are tribal: in the food hall at the National University of Singapore, I was struck by how the Chinese students ate Chinese food, the Indians ate Indian, and the Malays ate Malay, with little crossover.

Let me start by saying that I have not eaten at the food hall of the NUS. I’ve attended talks nearby, but never knowingly even entered the campus proper. And also, as a guest within this country, I must exercise due caution when discussing matters of culture and ethnic background. The government (rightly) takes a dim view of racial vilification in social media.

I do not believe that this behaviour is representative of wider Singaporean society where people meet to eat in groups. As most Singaporeans are of Chinese cultural background, it makes sense that traditional Chinese dishes (mainly from southern China or derived from local Nonya/Peranakan culture) are a feature here. Similarly, given the numbers of Tamil-speaking immigrants from southern India in the past, there is a lot of southern Indian food in Little India and across the island. Does this mean that people from Mandarin or Teochow speaking households only eat Chinese food when they go out? Or that I, by birth a Caucasian from Australia only eat steak and chips when I go out to eat?

Good grief, no.

I don’t want to say that separation along cultural background lines never happens at NUS or anywhere else, but I do have to say that it is not my experience of Singapore at all.

When groups of former colleagues and I would go to Little India to share an Indian-style Fish Head Curry, we (a group of people from Chinese, Indian and Caucasian backgrounds) would sit in a room full of a very representative Singaporeans and foreign visitors – on a typical weekday evening at Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road it would be roughly half and half people of Chinese and Indian descent, with a fair scattering of “Europeans” (judging by accent, mostly from Canada, the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia). When I eat Prata at my local mall here in Tampines, I sit down to eat it with locals of mainly Chinese and Malay descent.

I can’t speak to how people eat within their homes over all. It may be that there is more differentiation along cultural/ethnic lines, especially at religious/cultural festival times.

I believe that there is no “tribal” distinction when it comes to foods that Singaporeans have made their own. The Singaporeans I’ve met overseas profess to miss the Indian Fish Head Curry, the Malay desserts, and Indian Roti Prata as much as any other food here. And that is a good thing.

Sep 212012
 

A friend asked me the other day who I was writing this blog for – was I trying to show Singaporeans something new about their food culture, possibly some out of the way places that aren’t overly popular yet?

Lunchtime crowd, Lau Par Sat hawker centre
I had to think about the answer – I said to be honest that this blog is very new, and most of the readership is definitely my social media contacts outside of Singapore, or colleagues and friends here.

Yours truly, Smith St, Chinatown

The answer I gave, on reflection, was that I wanted to share my enthusiasm about Singapore with whoever would listen. I’ve certainly been sharing and discussing my food journey – the experiences in my life that brought me to Singapore, and what has kept me here since then.

Fried Duck, Bali

To be honest I’m not sure I could claim to have anything new to show Singaporeans about their rich and unique food culture – a Robuchon or a Tetsuya might have something to bring to make this kind of contribution, but I think it would be too big a claim for me to make.

So I will keep sharing that enthusiasm about life and food here. I hope that you get to enjoy it too.

Sep 062012
 

It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.

For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.

Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:

  • The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
  • The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.

My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.

To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:

 

The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.

I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.

As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas.  Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.

The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists) :)

What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.

I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.

You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.

So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).

Aug 242012
 

Hello… My name is Andrew, and I love food. Malay food, Cantonese food, Szechuan food, Indian food, Peranakan food, that wonderful Aussie cafe/Asian fusion stuff they serve at the Kookaburra Cafe – it’s all Singaporean food.

I came to Singapore in July 2011 with work, and I seem to still be here, enjoying every day as it comes. I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the rich variety of food available in Singapore and the surrounding region.

I started this blog to talk about my food journey through Singapore. I have no intention to turn it into just another restaurant review blog per se (there are a hundred of those!). If anyone can do it better than hungrygowhere and Makan Sutra then they should try, but I guess this is more about me and what I like.

I will try to stick to mainstream generic English, despite the temptation I may have to fall into Singlish – I’d like to make my prose available to as many people as possible.