Monthly Archives: January 2010

Signs from Singapore: Non-Flatulent Technology Rice

Seriously?

QQ Rice is a Taiwanese company whose main product is a rice roll – you pick a type of rice, choose some fillings, and they wrap it into a little ball for you.  Kind of like inside-out sushi in a spherical form, without the seaweed.  I haven’t tried it yet, but you can bet it’s on my list of things to eat.

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Dish of the Day: Ice Kachang

According to Makansutra, Ice Kachang is “Singapore’s favourite dessert.”  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s certainly Singapore’s most colorful dessert.  It’s a mountain of shaved ice coated with different syrups, and then topped with creamed corn and red beans.  (You can also get additional toppings, such as durian puree.)  Mine came with three different syrup flavors and I had some trouble identifying them: the pink was certainly lychee; the green tasted like bubblegum (which is odd not only for the color, but since it shouldn’t be a recognized flavor in Singapore – so I think it was probably something else); and I have no idea what the yellow was – my guess is mango.

Now, I know you’re wondering why anyone would put red beans and creamed corn on top of shaved ice.  Red beans are fairly common in desserts here, so that’s not that surprising to me. (Granted, in baked goods, the red beans are normally mashed and sweetened with sugar – and they’re delicious.)  I have no idea about the creamed corn.  But think of the possibilities the next time your kids won’t eat their vegetables!  Throw the veggies on top of dessert and tell ’em it’s what the kids in Singapore eat.

But wait, there’s more! As my leaning tower of ice kachang literally toppled over, I discovered some buried secrets.  At the base of the mountain, mixed in with the ice, were pieces of grass jelly, more red beans, and a solitary lychee.  I felt like I’d just found the toy in a box of cereal – when I didn’t know it came with a toy.  Unfortunately, shortly after this point, the pink, green, and yellow ice mixed into an unappetizing brown color (with the aforementioned jelly pieces and beans floating in it).  It reminded me of the end of a Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster – you get to the point where it looks like a big, gross mess and you realize you’ve already had more than enough.

I’m not sure if I’ll eat Ice Kachang again.  I did kind of like it, but I think part of it was the novelty and trying to figure out what the flavors were.  Nevertheless, it was nice to have something cold after walking around underneath the hot Singaporean sun.  Somehow, though, I think I may just stick to ice cream.  (For an East-West compromise, I’ll make it red bean ice cream.)

For more food posts from travelers, see WanderFood Wednesdays at Wanderlust and Lipstick.

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Why I Love Singapore

You’re expecting me to talk about food, aren’t you?  Yes, that is one of the many reasons (let me count the ways…), but I also love Singapore because I’m forever stumbling upon interesting events/sights.  Thanks in part to Singapore’s multicultural population, it seems like there’s always a festival of some sort going on.

This past weekend I was heading from a durian tasting (more about that tomorrow!) to my friend Clayton’s birthday, when I walked by a Lion Dance competition.  Basically, two people put on a lion costume (one person’s legs are the lion’s front legs and the other person’s legs are the lion’s back legs) and jump around on narrow poles.  The poles vary in height, but the shortest ones appear to be at least six feet tall.  There are also a lot of smaller movements involving the lion’s head, eyes, and ears.  And these movements seem to be coordinated to live percussion beats from the team members onstage.  I have no idea how it’s judged (I imagine falling off is bad), as I only watched one competitor.

I took some video; the quality is not amazing, but at least I figured out that instead of trying to see between the four rows of people in front of me, I could climb a nearby staircase for a better view.  I only uploaded about 45 seconds, but the entire performance lasted about ten minutes.  (They just kept going…and going…and going.  Energizer should get a new mascot.)

Also last week, I stumbled upon the celebration of Pongal, the Hindu Harvest Festival, in Little India.  Much like Hari Raya Haji, I think most of the excitement happens in temples and in homes, although I was fortunate enough to find a tent with some cows and goats.  And not just any cows and goats – cows and goats wearing pretty flower garlands.

This reminds me of my dogs and how they look unhappy when my mom dresses them up. (Hi Mom: I still love you.)

Going further back in time, I attended a dragon boat festival shortly after I arrived in Singapore.  I’ll be writing more about dragon boating later, as I may be joining a team and the season starts this Saturday.  (I’ve been planning on joining since before I moved here, but am now wondering if I actually have the time and dedication to stick with it.)  Regardless, here’s a picture.  I’m basically including this because of the building in the background.

I’ve been wondering what this building is since the day I arrived, when I noticed its similarity to a UFO.  The mystery was finally solved by my friend Alek – it’s the Supreme Court building.  This immediately made me wonder if the members of the Supreme Court here wear long robes, preferably with hoods. (To which Alek replied that it’s actually the Supreme Court of Jupiter, not Singapore.)  Anyway, this building by itself is another reason I love Singapore.  And I haven’t even mentioned the building that looks like a durian…

Finally, this weekend I’m going to watch the procession associated with Thaipusam, which celebrates the birthday of the Hindu deity Subramaniam.  To show their faith, some devotees pierce their cheeks, tongue, face or other body parts with long, sharp objects.  They also wear a kavadi, a cage-like structure decorated with peacock feathers and pictures of Hindu deities that can weigh up to thirty pounds.  After the participants have been pierced and loaded down, they walk about 4km from one temple to another.  This should hopefully produce some interesting pictures….stay tuned!

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I Might Get Kicked Out of Singapore

I have something to say that may get my visa revoked.  I don’t like Chicken Rice.  Now that I’ve confessed, I won’t be surprised if the Singaporean Super Secret Chicken Rice Police come for me tonight under the cover of darkness. This organization is not an arm of the government, but of Singaporean foodies.  They’ll place me under some sort of citizen’s arrest and cart me off to an unknown location.  It’s your stereotypical intimidation room complete with peeling paint and a solitary lamp swinging above my head.  They’ll force-feed me chicken rice until I admit to liking it or until I go crazy and do something that will draw the attention of the real police/government and get my visa revoked.

I’ll probably break and admit to liking it.  It’s not bad -I’ll eat it if I have to, but it’s not The Most Amazing Thing Ever, which is the status it seems to garner here.  My Makansutra guidebook refers to it as “Singapore’s defacto national dish” and says that the Hainanese created the dish here and evolved it into “cult status.”  The dish is exactly what it sounds like – chicken and rice.  What makes it unique is that the rice is first fried in garlic, sesame, and chicken oil before boiling in chicken stock.  Sliced chicken is served with the rice, along with cucumber and chili sauce.

I tried it at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (Maxwell Stall 10), which is quite famous.  TV Host Anthony Bourdain apparently said “wow” after his first bite here.  I didn’t understand at first; as you might imagine, the rice tasted like chicken and the chicken tasted like chicken.  There weren’t any other flavors, so unless you were sick, I’m not sure why you would choose it over laksa, popiah, or chilli crab.  Then it dawned on me – I’ve read Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Clearly, Bourdain was smoking before filming, got the munchies, and consequently found the chicken rice amazing.  Another possibility (that doesn’t involve the potential for the death penalty) is that he meant “wow,” as in “wow, why does everyone rave about this? It’s just chicken and rice.”

Of course, the third possibility is that I’m being a snob.  I can sort of see how the beauty of the dish might lie in its simplicity.  That being said, I’ll still eat popiah over chicken rice any day and I know of at least one friend who also thinks chicken rice doesn’t live up to the hype.  But another friend really likes it, so I guess in the name of research I’ll have to try it again someplace different.

For more fun food posts, see WanderFood Wednesdays at Wanderlust and Lipstick.

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Dish of the Day: Popiah

What it is: Hokkien-style fresh spring rolls – a rice flour wrapper spread with chilli and a garlicky, but sweet soy sauce and stuffed with lettuce, bean sprouts, crumbled egg, crushed peanuts, and cooked daikon (or possibly jicama – the translation gets confused).  You can also add shrimp.

Where I had it: Qi Ji, 100 Beach Rd (Shaw Towers) #01-01

What I thought: It’s far more delicious and amazing than a spring roll.  The wrapper doesn’t taste like any rice flour wrapper I’ve had before – it’s thinner and somewhat spongy.  The sauce is reminiscent of hoisin sauce.  While those two ingredients are part of why I’ve developed a popiah addiction, the overall texture is also key – the lettuce, bean sprouts, and peanuts provide a nice crunch that contrasts nicely with the mushiness of the daikon and egg.

Qi Ji has the best popiah I’ve had so far, and I’ve had it at several places.  I even made the hour-long trek out to Old Long House Popiah in Toa Payoh, which Makansutra designated as a Street Food Master in 2007.  I don’t know how much has changed in three years, but even if Old Long House were as convenient as Qi Ji (it’s only two blocks from the National Library and I frequent it for lunch), I wouldn’t bother eating their popiah again.  (Well, maybe if Qi Ji were an hour away, I’d do so when popiah-withdrawal hit.)  The wrappers were dry, the daikon came with too much of its cooking liquid and seemed oily, and even though they used two popiah skins, it fell apart while I was eating it.  I’ve had similar issues with the popiah I tried at the Albert Food Center.  I’ve also had some at Maxwell that was better, but it’s still not as good as Qi Ji’s.

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Signs from Singapore: Eminent Frog Porridge

I haven’t had frog porridge yet, but some friends are planning to take me to a place they like.  I don’t think it’s this one, which is unfortunate – at least according to the sign.  Regardless, I’m looking forward to the experience.  

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Of Fish Heads and Chilli Crabs

I haven’t posted in awhile because I returned to the States for the holidays.  Now that I’m back in Singapore and have hopefully readjusted to the time difference, I’ll be updating at least twice a week…or so the plan goes.

Before I left for the holidays, I had the opportunity to try two iconic foods – fish head curry and chilli crabs.  These dishes are frequently promoted as “uniquely Singaporean” creations, but that may be up for debate.  Nevertheless, I’ll share the generally accepted Singaporean legends while acknowledging this bias.

Fish Head Curry

Fish head curry is a complete fish head cooked in a spicy, tangy tamarind curry with vegetables like okra and tomatoes.  The Singaporean story claims that it was invented in the 1950s by an Indian chef named Gomez, who decided to cook the fish heads, which were normally thrown away by cooks within the Indian community.  This is where the story stops.  I don’t know what Gomez’s last name is – I like to think that back in the day he was as famous as Madonna or Cher and didn’t need a last name.  Or maybe Gomez is his last name.  It’s unclear, as is information about where he worked.

Two of the most famous restaurants for fish head curry today are Muthu’s Curry (138 Race Course Rd) and Samy’s Curry (Blk 25 Dempsey Rd or at the Civil Service Club).  The Muthu’s Curry website insists that their proprietor, Mr. Ayyakkannu invented the dish.  I don’t tend to believe such claims by commercial establishments, unless I can substantiate them with another source.  However, I read once that Gomez’s version was later modified by another Indian chef, with the implication that the modification is the dish commonly served today.  It’s possible this is where Muthu’s claim comes from.  (It’s also possible that Gomez/Mr. Ayyakkannu were the same person, but I’ve found no connections between the two.)  I suppose if I run out of other research to do, I can look more into this.

Another problem with the story is that fish head curry is also a dish served in Bengal.  Unless this dish appeared in Bengal after the 1950s, the use of fish heads in curry was clearly not “invented” in Singapore.  That being said, the Bengali version is described as “rich” and supposedly uses a river fish, whereas the Singaporean version is “tangy” and generally uses a red snapper.

My fish head curry experience was at Samy’s Curry Restaurant at the Civil Service Club with my friend Ted, who is a former Civil Servant.  I was excited about eating there because I thought I’d finally made a connection that was entitling me to exclusive dining opportunities.  (It’s admittedly unlikely that I’ll be invited to any chefs’ tables or impossible-to-get-a-reservation-at restaurants anytime soon.) As it turns out, anyone can eat at the restaurant, but I was still excited about the fish head curry.

However, when the curry arrived, I was disappointed.  I couldn’t see the fish head.  I had Ted dig it out, but it didn’t look as disgusting as I thought it should.  I couldn’t see its eyes – I thought part of the (lack of) appeal of the dish was the fact that your food stared at you as you ate it.  I took a spoon and started scraping curry off of the fish head, so I could see it more clearly (and vice versa), and took the picture below.

Thankfully, Ted took over serving the dish.  If I had been alone, I think I would have assumed you just started biting off pieces of the head.  Then again, my mother taught me never to pick something up with my fork that was larger than one bite.  So perhaps, when I started trying to dissect it into smaller pieces, I would’ve realized that you could just dig the meat out without biting into the fish skin.

At least I assumed Ted was just digging meat out, because all that wound up on my plate (which was actually a banana leaf) was a white substance, resembling (surprise!) cooked fish.  And here’s the secret to fish head curry – it also tasted like cooked fish.  Delicious, tender, amazing, kind of spicy, cooked fish.  The meat from the cheeks, which might sound odd, was actually the most tender and tastiest of all.

People who are slightly squeamish when it comes to adventurous eating may want to skip ahead, because we also ate the fish’s eyes.  This really wasn’t as bad as it might sound.  I think that the eyeball had been removed since nothing was protruding from the socket, and so I think we actually ate the connective tissue behind the eye.  (Or whatever’s behind the eyeball; it’s been a long time since my high school bio class.)

I’m not sure how Ted removed the eye socket from the head (carefully, I suppose), but a little round object about the size of my thumbnail appeared on my banana leaf.  It’s important to note you don’t eat the whole thing, nor do you bite down.  Basically, you just put the socket in your mouth, suck out what’s inside, and then remove the cartilage from your mouth.

What was it like?  Unfortunately, the experience was over in about a second, so my brain was processing “ohmygodiameatingafisheye” and didn’t have time to think much else.  The texture was a bit interesting – sort of gelatinous, sort of squishy.  The taste was better than I was expecting, although that might be because it was somewhat neutral, as opposed to having a strong flavor.  I’d eat it again – assuming I could figure out how to get it from the fish onto my plate.

Chilli Crabs

Despite a recent claim by the Malaysian Tourism Minister that Chilli Crabs are Malaysian, Singaporeans seem to accept that Madam Cher Yam Tian invented the dish in the 1950s.  According to the story, her husband used to catch crabs and bring them home, where she steamed them.  One day, he asked her to do something different and she cooked them in a tomato sauce.  He found the sauce a little sweet and suggested she add some chilli.  Family and friends who tried the dish recommended she start selling it and she began operating a pushcart along East Coast Road.  By 1956, the pushcart had grown into a small restaurant called Palm Beach Seafood.  In the 1960s, Hooi Kok Wai, the owner of the Dragon Phoenix restaurant, modified the recipe; instead of using bottled chilli and tomato sauce, he used lemon juice, vinegar, sambal, tomato paste, and eggs, thereby making the dish richer and less sweet.  This version spread throughout the island, but you can still try the original recipe at Roland’s Restaurant, which is operated by Madam Cher Yam Tian’s son, Roland.

I tried the chilli crabs at Roland’s as part of a dinner organized by Leslie Tay, a Singaporean food blogger who writes ieatishootipost.  This dinner turned out to be a great experience, and not just because the chilli crabs were amazing.  To begin with, as I approached the registration desk, the woman behind it announced my first and last name before I said anything.  I was immediately impressed and suspicious – how did she know who I was?  Is a Singaporean Big Brother watching me?  It later occurred to me that not only was I one of the last people to arrive, I was also the only non-Asian female in a room of 150 people.  (But just in case, I’m sorry about those times I jaywalked – there was no crosswalk and/or everyone else was doing it.  And I definitely didn’t bring back any gum from my trip to the States.)

The seat I was shown to was next to an empty seat; a few minutes later someone sat in it and I recognized the occupant as Leslie, the blogger.  His blog received 8 million hits last year and won a regional award for having the best food blog, so (at least in my opinion) he’s Kind of a Big Deal.  He was very friendly and started asking me questions, including how I’d found my way to that seat.  He then told me I was in his wife’s seat, but he would straighten out the mistake.  Ultimately they decided I should just stay at the table and they pulled up an extra chair.  I met a great couple who are planning to introduce me to more amazing Singaporean food spots and I may also get included on some smaller food expeditions organized by Leslie and his friends.

So I was having a good time before we even got to the chilli crabs.  There were eight  banquet-style dishes on our menu and after sitting through five, the chilli crabs finally arrived.  They served our table first, but no one reached for the dish.  I decided we were being polite and waiting for the other tables to get theirs before starting.  Then, the other tables got theirs and started digging in, but we were still just staring longingly at the platter in the middle of the table.  Or at least I was; I’m not sure where everyone else was looking as my eyes were  focused solely on the crabs covered in a red, gooey, delicious-looking sauce.  As I was wondering how much more restraint I had to keep me from grabbing the platter, someone made an announcement that we would be receiving mantou (a type of bun) to eat with the crabs.  I hoped that was what we had been waiting for and that they came quickly.  Finally someone suggested that we at least start serving the crab to everyone.  I noticed that most people started eating immediately once they got some, despite the lack of mantou.  I was apparently not the only one who was ready to start eating.

Eating the crab was a bit tricky as I had no silverware.  Everyone else seemed fairly adept at using their chopsticks to seperate the crab meat from its shell.  I’m normally decent with chopsticks, but apparently not when it comes to opening a crab claw and getting the meat out.  I was a mess and thankful for the wet napkin next to my plate.  Ultimately, though, my manners lost an internal battle and I licked my fingers.  My napkin had no clean space on it, my fingers were messy, the sauce was delicious – it seemed like the only practical solution.  It was clearly a better alternative to wiping my hands on the tablecloth, or so I rationalize.

Obviously, I enjoyed the chilli crabs.  The sauce was sweet and not spicy at all.  I’m not sure I could have told you there was chilli in it; it just tasted like crab in a delicious tomato sauce.  The mantou, when it arrived, was warm and tasty and perfect for mopping up extra sauce.  I predict more chilli crab in my near future, especially as my first visitor arrives in about a month and chilli crab is on the itinerary.  I feel obligated to go try the newer version in the meantime, so I can decide which is best in case we don’t have time to try both.  And after trying the other version, I’ll probably have to go back to Roland’s to refresh my memory…maybe I should get to work on this now.

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