Saturday, July 26, 2008

Its a small world after all

So I'm sitting in the plane as it descends into Soekarno-Hatta airport - and I freak. Frankly, Indonesia's never been at the top of my list of places to visit. News headlines about the traffic, corruption, disparate poverty and pollution have always struck me as less than ideal reasons to visit this country. And so, looking out the window as my flight fumbled its way through the thick smog surrounding Jakarta, it felt like each of these stories were unfolding before me - one by one. Facing unfamiliar territory, language and culture - I wondered how I was going to deal with spending the following six days. But just about everyone I had spoken to raved about the food in this densely populated city - and so I took a deep breath (of smog) as I emerged from the airport and proceeded with somewhat reserved excitement
Nasi Padang
Breakfast in Indonesia is never just about getting a kick start to your day. Indonesians love eating - and the first meal to the day doesn't have to be any different in content to lunch, or dinner for that matter. Fried chicken, curries, stews are all game in the breakfast meal and there's no better example of this than Nasi Padang, literally a smorgasbord of all of the above served with steamed rice. I was also surprised - and to be honest, a little disturbed, that there is no ordering that takes place in this sort of restaurant. Instead, the waiter brings out tapas portions of everything there is on offer and lays it onto the table. You proceed to eat your meal and the waiter than calculates the bill based on how much is eaten. What is not finished or untouched is returned to the pots and brought out again for the next batch of guests. It was bizarre - the food was appealing and off-putting, both at the same time. So here's my travel tip: Go early in the morning for Indonesian Nasi Padang - that way you stand a better chance of having food that didn't belong to a previous group of diners.

Kembang Goela
If you're looking to sample local cuisine in a more upmarket setting (think silverware, chandeliers, smartly dressed waiters and a jazz pianist performing while you dine) - then you can't go past Kembang Goela, a restaurant that serves up beautifully presented Indonesian food. The Empal Balado (Crispy stewed beef in a fresh chilli dressing) and the Nasi Kuning (Turmeric flavoured rice accompanied by an assortment of sambals and Indonesian fried chicken) were standouts. The service was also impeccable - which is something that I actually noticed in almost all the restaurants and street stalls we visited during my stay. It appears that good service in Indonesia doesn't have to come at a premium price - which I think is something that all cultures can learn from.

The Soup Godfather
One of my favourite Indonesian dishes is the humble Soto - which is basically a rich chicken or beef soup filled with a choice of meats - including shredded chicken, stewed beef, beef tendon, marrow or my favorite - tripe. I love this dish because it is great comfort food - and the fact that every region in Indonesia has its own version. Pak Sadi is the undisputed Godfather of Soto Ayam (chicken soup). Originating from Surabaya, a large number of his restaurants (named after himself) are scattered across Indonesia, and of course, Jakarta. Pak Sadi even has his portrait hanging in each of these restaurants and also imprinted on the bowls and plates. How's that for feeding an ego?

Just like home
My parents come from a little town in Sarawak called Sibu, which is also referred to as Little Foochow due to the large number of Foochow Chinese who first settled there. Consequently, Foochow food has always reminded me of the visits to my parent's hometown since I was little. So it was with some surprise that these feelings came rushing back on this trip when I came across dishes that seemed to have strong Foochow influences. Bakmie - the famous Indonesian noodle dish that consists of freshly cooked home made noodles tossed in oil used to fry up crispy shallots, soya sauce, MSG (of course) and topped with minced meat or chicken tastes strikingly similar to the Sibu Kampua Mee. I also came across the Indonesian versions of Deah Biang (a crispy fried rice cake filled with minced meat) and Gom Biang (a chewy bagel topped with sesame seeds) which tasted heart-warmingly familiar.

And so, I realised that my initial reactions to uncharted territory were unfounded - that maybe the world is not as intimidating and different as we think it is. That you should never judge a country by just its cover story. Yes - we were stuck in traffic for hours. Its true - corruption in Indonesia is simply a way of life. There is also an unimaginable gap between the haves and the have-nots. But put aside your judgements about the way things are - and you'll find a country of genuine and respectful people who enjoy good food - just like yourself. And who knows? Just like me - you might even find yourself standing on common ground in a foreign land.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A good ol' fashioned Japanese barbie

Everyone loves good barbie... and the Japanese are no exception. Instead of the steaks and snags found in the Aussie equivalent, the Japanese have skewers of scrumptious creations known as kushiyaki, all charcoal barbecued to perfection - often with a simple marinade of soya sauce, sugar, sake and mirin (tare sauce) or simply shio - sprinkled with salt.

Craving for a bit of grilled goodness today, I wandered off in search of some kushiyaki for lunch. I was thrilled to stumble upon Kushigin (#01-01 Cuppage Plaza), a little restaurant tucked away in Cuppage Plaza on Orchard Road. This building is filled with surprises - not much of a retail joint - it instead houses several Japanese restaurants often patronised by the local Japanese community. Kushigin is one of these.

I decided on the yakitori bento which is a bit of a misnomer because aside from grilled chicken, the bento comes with grilled pork as well. But I digress. The bento includes an assortment of 5 skewers which are cooked to order. Included in my lunch were grilled chicken with spring onions (yakitori negima), asparagus wrapped in pork (asupara maki), pork loin and belly rolled with shisho leaves (shiso maki), chicken balls (tsukune) and quail eggs. Accompanied by a miso dipping sauce, rice with nori, shitake mushrooms and a minced chicken topping (which I found too sweet for my liking), it made for a very satisfying meal with miso soup and a dessert of azuki bean with Japanese rice cake. Not bad quality for under $15, considering it sits on Orchard Road (Where good food is hard to come by at a reasonable price).
Browsing through the rest of the menu, I noticed other very interesting items on the ala carte menu which I will come back for, including Japanese oysters wrapped in pork belly and pork grilled with tomato, cheese and shiso leaves.
Definitely a good place to come with friends for a bite and an Asahi or two. After all - there's nothing quite like putting another skewer on the barbie.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Putting food on the table

I am unemployed. There - I've said it. But let me rephrase that - I am temporarily, transiently, and totally voluntarily without work at present. I rephrase, because being unemployed has such negative connotations in this day and age - and regardless of how much I'll like to say I don't care what people think of me - I do.

Dad passed away recently and I decided to apply for an extended career break from my employer in Australia to return to Singapore and spend some time with my mother. And so my working life as I have known it has changed dramatically - no more annoying alarm clocks; no more stress about deadlines I know I cannot meet; no more meetings that I "have to" attend; no more business calls, e-mails and flights.

And whilst I appreciate this time to ponder, reflect, write a blog and of course, to spend time with mum - life without work is not as great as it sounds. I have often dreamed of leading a life of leisure - and just like everyone else, retiring young sounds fantastic. But - its not my turn. Like it or not - we spend more time at work than we do in our personal lives - and naturally you develop a strong sense of community with those that you work with. Like the geeky science club you joined in school to meet like minded people with common interests, the workplace is, by default, a social club gathering of people who have similar skill sets, education backgrounds, and professional interests. Its easy to make friends at work because you share a common thread - bosses you dislike, difficult clients, ridiculous workloads - heck, even common meal times.

But aside from the friendships that you form - working gives you a sense of purpose, direction and self importance. Nobody likes to admit that your work defines who you are - but it does. "What do you do?" has become the natural conversation starter once you get past the name of someone you've met for the first time. Don't get me wrong - I hate alarm clocks, deadlines and meetings as much as the next person - but there's something satisfying and fulfilling about having dealt with all of the above. That being able to overcome the obstacles and challenges of the workplace somehow makes you a stronger... even a more fulfilled person.

Of course - being jobless comes with a whole suite of unemployment benefits - or lack of. For one - there's the moolah. Yes, I confess that I am blessed in that whilst I am currently without income, I am financially comfortable (albeit for the time being) thanks to my savings and the lack of a mortgage or family to worry about. But I know, that too, in itself, is temporary. Expenditure on life's luxuries becomes more of a consideration now because somehow, it doesn't quite feel the same when you don't feel like you've earnt or are about to earn it.

And then there's of course the judgement. Regardless of what people say, my current employment status will always be viewed as less than admirable. Without a job that I can go to each day and inevitably whine about, I lack responsibility, ambition and there's that word again - purpose.

So next time you feel frustrated at your boss, stressed about your work, angry at your clients or just fuming mad at that darn alarm clock - be grateful that you have all those emotions that come with fulfilling your purpose. In the mean time, I will temporarily, transiently and totally voluntarily wait for my turn.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Gimme more Ghim Moh

Neighbourhood hawker centres in Singapore are an incredible concept - an intoxicating amalgamation of cuisines from different cultures and countries, brought together within walking distance of your home at a fraction of the prices you will pay for a restaurant meal. More often than not - incredible dishes are born from these culinary communities and some hawkers have achieved rock star fame thanks to the plethora of food guides, TV shows and blogs that publicise their greatness.
Breakfast in a local hawker centre is a great experience - so much to choose from - will it be Roti Prata? Wanton mein? Cantonese porridge? What about all of the above washed down with freshly brewed local coffee sweetened with gooey condensed milk? Heaven.
Mum and I found ourselves in Ghim Moh market this morning for breakfast after an early game of tennis. I'm not sure if it was the exercise or just the amazing blend of aromas at the hawker centre that prompted us to want to order... everything. But we restrained ourselves.
We decided to start with fried carrot cake ($2) from Hock Soon Carrot Cake (Stall #01-18). This came highly recommended by a friend and it was pretty good. A good amount of chye poh (pickled radish) and pork fat was evident and the chilli used had just the right amount fire power. The radish cake and eggs were fried to a crisp without too much grease often found in other versions of this dish. Delicious.

We then proceeded to order from one of our favourite stalls at this market - the steamed yam cake and steamed glutinous rice from Rong Yuan (Stall #01-19). The yam cake ($1.50) is always consistently good - fresh from the steamer, this dish wins with its great texture from the right mix of yam and tapioca starch. Filled with dried shrimp and garnished with sesame seeds and crunchy fried shallots, this is one dish you could eat lots of. Rong Yuan also does a fantastic steamed glutinous rice ($1.50). Filled with chopped up Chinese sausage that has been pre-fried, dried shrimp and topped with roasted peanuts, fried shallots and spring onions, the rice with its just right bite is accompanied by a delicious sweet chilli dipping sauce. Awesome.

Sipping on the freshly brewed local coffee - we decided that we still needed that final dish to satisfy our ravenous breakfast tummies... and what better way to finish it than to meet the Ghim Moh rock star himself - the char kway teow hawker. Guan Kee (Stall #01-12) is a bit of a legend at this market and has been recommended in food blogs, food shows, food everything. And the indication of his fame? Perpetual long qeues and an average waiting time of 25 minutes for your plate of char kway teow (starting from $2.50). What I discovered however was that part of the reason for the long waiting time is due to the owner being very... very slow at frying each plate of char kway teow. So slow because unlike most hawkers - he fries his rice noodles - twice. Yes - he removes the char kway teow after the initial stir fry before throwing it back into the hot wok for a second fry up with seasoning and the all important cockles. The result? Tasty - very tasty char kway teow with great "wok hei" which is well seasoned without being too greasy or sloppy.
Ahh... what a way to start the day and what a way to end a very satisfying breakfast. Breakfast at Ghim Moh? Rock on...

Friday, July 4, 2008

And the rest is Hamburger History

Hamburgers have become such an integral part of pop culture that we often forget that this food item has been around for yonks... and yonks. And my belief is that anything that has been around for that long deserves a history lesson dedicated to it.
Maybe its also because I recently tasted two very delicious but very different hamburgers in completely different parts of the world that ignited my curiousity for this global dish.

The first of these hamburgers was aptly named "Mr Big Stuff" courtesy of Fergburger(, a hole in the wall burger joint in Queenstown, New Zealand. 1/2lb of New Zealand Prime beef topped with Edam cheese, American streaky bacon & bbq sauce, lettuce, red onion and aioli. This burger was MASSIVE. It was a real struggle to hold it with two hands and a real challenge to eat the mother of a thing - but boy was it good. Two beef patties perfectly sandwiching the thick gooey melted edam cheese. The bbq sauce was tangy with just the right hint of sweetness and the aioli was creamy and garlicky. Beautiful fresh salad (red onion and gourmet lettuce were a nice touch) tried desparately to ease the guilt of the decadent contents of this meal. Incredibly, all of these ingredients managed to be stuffed into a freshly baked burger bun.
12 minutes later and approximately 1/2 pounds heavier, I was a very happy man and felt a sense of achievement for having polished off a darn big meal. Fergburger has a very interesting burger menu, from a tempura tofu burger with a spicy satay, coconut and coriander sauce to a falafel burger dressed in lemon yoghurt and chipotle (named Bun Laden which I kinda cringed at) - this burger joint caters to all burger cravings. Fantastic stuff and definitely highly recommended if you're ever in Queenstown.

Shortly after, I found myself in Kuching, East Malaysia, standing at 12 midnight by a roadside "Ramly Burger" stall. I watched with much interest as the hawker grilled a suspicious looking meat patty (which was not subject to refrigeration despite the 34 degree humid heat) in margarine on a portable hot plate. A thin egg omlette was then fried up in more magarine before the burger was placed in its centre. Lashings of Maggi seasoning and pepper were sprinkled over the patty before the omelette was wrapped around it like a parcel. This was then loaded onto a soft bun, topped with shredded cabbage, sliced cucumber, tomato sauce, chilli sauce and mayonnaise, before being wrapped up in grease proof paper. The Ramly Burger was probably about 1/5th the size of "Mr Big Stuff" - but I've learnt that as far as burgers go - size don't really matter (as long as you make up for it by eating more of them). It was also sloppy - very sloppy. But that made it all the more enjoyable. The burger didn't really taste of meat - as a matter of fact it didn't really taste of anything but lots of condiments - and strangely enough - it was darn good. The maggi seasoning added a nice umami flavour and by the end of the midnight snack (it didn't take very long) - you defintely felt like you could have many more of these messy fellas.
But back to class. Probably around the end of the 12th century, the battle crazy Genghis Khan, sent his men out on a lot of conquering. His men went on horses and often rode for days on end. Consequently, they required food that could be easily eaten with one hand whilst riding (Mr Khan ran a tight ship) and had to be easily transportable on horses. Hence, scrapings of lamb or mutton were placed under the saddle and by meal time, the scrapings became meat patties which had been tenderised by the saddle and the horses' backs. Pretty disturbing I know, particularly since the heavier set men probably had more tender burgers whilst those that had a problem with flatulence... ok - let's not go there.
This form of food proved to be so popular that when Khan's grandkid, Khubilai invaded Moscow, his soldiers brought along the same dish. The Russians discovered something good from the invasion and adopted the saddle tenderised meat as Steak Tartare (Tartars were how the Mongols were referred to).
All very interesting - but the hamburgers that were are more accustomed to today involve the meat patty sandwiched between a bun. Whilst there is ongoing debate about the origin of this form of the burger, one of these claims involves a Charlie Nagreen of Wisconsin, USA in 1885. "Hamburger Charlie" as he was known later in life started his career by selling meatballs in County Fairs. He noticed that his business wasn't doing well and soon realised that it was because his customers found it difficult to eat meatballs whilst strolling in a fair. In a moment of pure genius (or out of sheer frustration), he flattened a meatball and sandwiched it between two slices of bread - and so the Hamburger was born.
Hamburgers are unashamedly iconic. From an indulgent meal in freezing Queenstown to a midnight snack in sweltering Kuching... from strolling at a fair to riding horses to war - this dish has been embraced by millions the world over in its various shapes and forms. It may not be the most glamorous thing to be eating, and it probably almost always isn't very good for you - but hamburgers are a big part of history - and we all love a bit of history.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Eating for a Living

Alright - I might as well come out and say it - I love my food... alot. This should come as no surprise given the theme of this blog but I thought it would make this posting alot more palatable (bad pun I know) for all involved if I just confessed upfront.
I have long wondered why I am the way I am. Neither of my parents enjoy cooking and whilst they have always entertained and dined out, my siblings and I never really spent much time in the kitchen growing up. It was only during a recent trip to my parent's little hometown in Malaysia that shed some light on the subject.

I noticed on this visit that my extended family spend hours in the day (and night) just talking about food - planning what to eat for the next meal, debating where to sample the best local dishes, suggesting which markets to visit for the best ingredients... all whilst they gathered to make my grandmother's homemade rice dumplings. Love it or hate it - genetics has a big part to play in who you are as a person (how's that for an excuse next time I decide to indulge in an after lunch snack?)... and you can't blame genes. Did I also forget to mention that one of my uncles bakes for a living whilst another runs a restaurant?

And it was my restauranteur uncle (we'll call him Uncle G) who was the reason behind my recent binge eating session at various well established Chinese restaurants in Singapore. You see, Uncle G visits Singapore at least once a year to source ideas and inspiration for new dishes at his own restaurant back in Malaysia. He insists that any eatery needs to constantly evolve its menu in order to remain competitive. And so being the good Samaritan, I offered my services to assist him during his 4 days in Singapore - all in the name of research of course. What followed was actually more laborious than I had imagined. We visited 4 restaurants over the 4 days, being Huang Ting (located in the Central at Clarke Quay), Peach Blossoms (Marina Mandarin Hotel), Peach Garden (OCBC building) and Crystal Jade (Vivo City) and sampled a whopping total of 38 dishes. At each restaurant, we quizzed the waiters about the preparation of the dishes, jotted notes, took photos, studied presentation and discussed whether the dish was worth experimenting. The whole experience was pretty full on and I must admit that the novelty wore off towards the end of the second restaurant tasting.
Perhaps it had to do with the quantity we were eating (we were on a pretty tight schedule) but I was exhausted (and a little queasy) by the end of the four days. It wasn't even that the food wasn't good - there were quite a few highlights such as the lemongrass infused lamb rack with mint mayonnaise at Huang Ting, Deep fried cod fish coated in plum sauce and toasted almonds at Peach Garden and the Ginseng infused roasted duck at Peach Blossoms.

It was more that I began to feel like I was eating for a living instead of living to eat. I began analysing and dissecting each dish rather than appreciating the dining experience. Eating, in this case, became a science when really, food should just be an art. I mean the best food memories for me have always been the emotion and euphoria that are born of a fantastic meal rather than the understanding of how the dish came to be. By the end of the 4 days, I realised that I had done too much eating and too much thinking - all at the same time.

But like I said - you can't blame your genes.

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