Monthly Archives: February 2010

How Not to Fly From Manila to Kuala Lumpur

The short answer is on a budget airline. We booked flights to and from Manila on Tiger Airways, which is the cheapest of the cheap. Our flight to Manila was direct from Singapore, but our flight from Manila to KL involved a one-hour layover and a plane change in Singapore. The fact that we could not book this as one ticket and had to individually book the legs from Manila to Singapore and then Singapore to KL should have raised a warning flag.  It was, but it was not large or red enough as we ultimately decided that since the tickets were on the same airline, they should let us check-in for both flights in Manila and hopefully accommodate us if the first flight was late. Ha. You get what you pay for and this was not Singapore Airlines.

Spend six hours getting to/waiting at the airport

I suppose too much time is better than not enough, but our first adventure was actually getting to the airport. Flying a budget airline to/from Manila involves the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (formerly Clark Airforce Base), which is a good two-hour bus trip from the city.  The shuttle schedule meant a 6:30 am bus, which got us to the airport at 8:30am. The check-in desk for our flight didn’t open until 10:40am and the flight didn’t leave until 12:10pm. I was glad we had a deck of cards and a box of doughnuts.

Spend all of your currency before you get to the airport

We immediately noticed two interesting things about DMIA. The first was that only ticketed passengers were allowed into the airport. The second was that there were signs announcing a 600 Peso (US$12) departure fee. I had about 140 Pesos on me. I tried the airport ATM, but it wouldn’t give me any cash. This was not entirely surprising, as I’d had about a 50% success rate with ATMs in Manila. Thankfully, I still had some Singaporean dollars on me that I was able to exchange, or we might still be cleaning the bathrooms at DMIA.

Realize you have (maybe) 20 minutes to clear immigration/customs and check-in for your next flight.

At the check-in desk, we confirmed that we could not check into our second flight. We had asked in Singapore and the desk agent had seemed skeptical that we would make the second flight. While a one-hour layover is normally fine, having to check-in at Singapore changed the game, since the desk closed 45 minutes before departure. This gave us 20 minutes from the time our first plane was scheduled to land to disembark, clear through immigration and customs, and check-in for the second flight. The Filipino desk agent was more optimistic than the Singaporean that we would make our flight. I think this was because she had no idea what was involved.

Bring items that aren’t allowed on the plane

Normally in foreign countries, airport security is somewhat looser than in the U.S. You never have to remove articles of clothing and they don’t seem to really care what you bring in, although there are probably some signs saying weapons aren’t allowed . At DMIA, not only did we have to take off our shoes, but my bag was pulled over for a prohibited item. I figured it was my contact solution, because I had a normal-size bottle and Singaporean security had tried to take it away. (Apparently there is no exemption for medical liquids in Asia.) However, my contact solution was safe because the security guard was distracted by a larger threat – my umbrella.

I was told I could not bring the umbrella on board and could either surrender it or check my bag. This was problematic since we had no time to pick-up checked luggage in Singapore. We also couldn’t wrap our heads around this seemingly ludicrous rule.  In the U.S. TSA makes us take off our clothes, put our 3 oz bottles in plastic baggies, wait in hour-long lines, remove our laptops, and stand on our heads while singing the National Anthem, but they would never take away an umbrella!

I should point out that this is not any umbrella.  It’s a Brookstone wind-resistant umbrella that’s one of my prized possessions in Singapore – during a monsoon, instead of getting completely drenched, I merely get soaked.  Our conversations with security were frustratingly circular (you must check your bag; we can’t check a bag; repeat) and I was ready to relinquish the umbrella.  Somehow, though, they decided to let me check just the umbrella and we were on our way.

Run through an airport terminal like a wild animal is chasing you

Upon arriving in Singapore, our plane proceeded to take a scenic tour of Changi airport while taxiing. After a brief scare wherein we convinced ourselves that the plane was actually taking us to Terminal 1 to clear through immigration/customs, and that we had no chance of making it through and back to the budget terminal in time, we thankfully arrived at the budget terminal.

Before the plane technically stopped, I was out of my seat and was the first person in line to disembark.  (We were in row two, so I only cut about six people.)  I waited impatiently as the crew ever-so-slowly attached the exit staircase to the plane.  They finally opened the door and I ran down the stairs on shaky legs – I couldn’t tell if they were shaky from sitting for 3 hours, the sugar crash from the chocolate doughnuts six hours earlier, or the anxiety of the travel feat I was about to attempt.

I groaned as I entered the airport and had to run up a twisting ramp, but this was nothing compared to what I saw at the top of the ramp.  Our plane had literally parked at the gate farthest away from the immigration point, which wasn’t even visible.  There was simply a sign with an arrow that pointed towards an empty corridor that stretched as far as I could see.  As we ran down the never-ending corridor, we passed several clocks that ominously read 4:20pm.  We had five minutes.  I thought I was in shape, but I had to slow down.  In a high-stakes relay, I passed off our passports and the ticket info and gasped for breath.

I started running again and finally turned the corner towards immigration.  I would say that “Chariots of Fire” was in the background, but it’s much too slow for what was happening.  Unfortunately, all of the immigration lines were twenty-people deep – all except the one for Singaporean citizens and residents.  I don’t think I count as a Permanent Resident (an official category normally implied by resident), but I do have a green laminated visa/training pass and decided it was worth a shot.  I don’t know if it was the visa or the fact that I was panting and looked like I might collapse, but they let us through.

As we ran by customs, I thought we must look suspicious, but we weren’t stopped.  We ran through the doors and were immediately hit by the Singaporean heat and humidity.  I guess I’m used to the weather here, because it didn’t slow me down.  (Although my adrenaline level may have increased by this point and to be fair, the distance was much shorter than the corridor.)

I entered the departure area of the terminal and while I didn’t immediately see the check-in desk for KL, it was there.  We had made it.  We asked how much longer we had, and the desk agent said we were the last ones to check-in.  The clock read 4:25.

After making the flight, I felt like we were capable of anything.  I wish I had a tape to send to the people in charge of casting for the Amazing Race, because I’m pretty sure we’d leave the other contestants in our dirt.  (Well, maybe I should work on my long-distance running first.)

After all of that, the flight to KL and the train into the city was rather uneventful.  Once we got to our hotel, we spent a well-deserved evening relaxing by the gorgeous pool.And when we got back to Singapore, my umbrella was waiting for me.  Coincidentally, it’s monsooned the past two days.

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Live Long and Prosper with Raw Fish Salad

A certain holiday associated with the color red and sweet things is this Sunday.  I am not referring to that Hallmark-inspired celebration we like to call Valentine’s Day, but rather Chinese (Lunar) New Year. While there are a few advertisements and promotions for Valentine’s Day in Singapore, the majority of attention is focused on the New Year.  The streets of Chinatown (and all of the shopping malls) are filled with booths selling red hong bao (gift envelopes for money), cookies and pineapple tarts, mandarin oranges, bak kwa (a sort of jerky), and other auspicious foods.  The New Year is spent visiting one’s family and, it would seem, eating.   Those visiting take gifts (cookies seem to be the most popular judging from the sheer number for sale) and have reunion dinners with their relatives.

C is for Cookie... and Chinese New Year

I’ve sampled some of the New Year cookies and I find them too dry and crumbly.  However, there is one traditional New Year dish I think I could eat year-round: Yu Sheng, which literally means raw fish.  Interestingly, I was told this was a tradition only in Malaysia and Singapore and that you can’t find it in China.  Some preliminary internet research suggests that the dish may be related to a Cantonese raw fish salad, although modern credit is generally given to the famous “four Heavenly Culinary Kings” of Singapore: Sin Leong, Lau Yeak Pui, Hooi Kok Wai and Tham Mui Kai, who teamed up in the early 1960s to create the dish.

The salad is an eclectic, colorful mix of seemingly-random ingredients, but each one has a specific meaning.  It includes: raw fish (“fish” is a homophone for “abundance” in Chinese); pomelo (for luck); pepper (to attract valuables); oil (to symbolize money flowing in); grated carrots (for good luck); grated green radish (for youth); grated white radish (for prosperity in business); ground peanuts (for a house filled with gold and silver); sesame seeds (for a successful business); and deep-fried crackers (to represent gold).  I have also seen versions that include pickled ginger (white and red), pickled papaya, plum sauce, and cinnamon, among other ingredients, but I don’t know what these are supposed to represent.  The dish created by the Heavenly Kings supposedly had 27 ingredients, so I imagine there are a number of permutations in existence today.

The most exciting part of Yu Sheng is its preparation.  After all of the ingredients are put on a plate, everyone grabs a pair of chopsticks and begins to toss the salad.  The tossing is called lo hei, which means “to toss up luck.”  The higher you toss, the more luck and good fortune you will have in the New Year.  And the higher you toss the more chance you have of a making a mess, so it’s entertaining as well as auspicious.

It may not look it, but it's delicious

I didn’t have high expecations for yu sheng, because the ingredients looked too colorful and random (something was bright red; something was bright green; cinnamon and oil and plum sauce?)  However, it was delicious – sweet, salty and crunchy at the same time with a distinct gingery taste – a combination I apparently find mildly addictive.  I have since purchased a DIY kit at the grocery store, which is sitting on my kitchen table awaiting the New Year.  I’m not sure if it’ll last that long, since writing this post is making me want to toss and eat it now.

For more food posts, see WanderFood WednesdaysatWanderlust and Lipstick

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Dish of the Day: Foochow Oyster Cake

The Fuzhou (or Foochow) Oyster Cake is a sort of deep-fried oyster fritter that originally hails from Fuzhou, the capital of the Fujian province in Southern China.  As you can watch in the above video, rice flour batter is stuffed with cilantro, ground pork, and oysters.  A few peanuts are pressed onto the top of the cake to provide a contrast in texture, and then the whole thing is submerged in bubbling oil.

They remind me of eating fried oysters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with my family, although these have a lot more batter (and other ingredients).  So at first, I wasn’t such a fan – I wanted more oysters and less batter.  But given the fact that they only cost $1 Singaporean dollar (US$0.70), it’s amazing you get any oysters.

I enjoyed them more the second time for two reasons: 1) I had one fresh out of the fryer, as opposed to one that had been sitting for awhile; and 2) I had it after interviewing the stall owner, Madam Hoon.

While Madam Hoon was born in Singapore, her parents are from Fuzhou, and their stall is one of the few in Singapore where you can buy a Foochow Oyster Cake.  Madam Hoon used to work in cosmetics, but entered the hawker business about twenty years ago to help her elderly mother, who still occasionally makes appearances at the stall.  I didn’t think to ask what sort of hours Madam Hoon used to have in the cosmetics industry, but these days she’s at the stall at 5 am to prep her ingredients.  Thankfully,  you don’t have to get up that early to get a fresh one – just head to Maxwell Stall Number 5 around 9:30 or 10am.  And tell Madam Hoon the red-haired girl sent you.

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

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Death by Durian?

Durian is perhaps the most infamous of all fruits.  It is called the “king of fruits” by Southeast Asians and is prized for its unique taste.  It is called “the smelly gym sock of fruits” by Westerners and is avoided for its unique taste (and smell).  The smell is so… distinctive, that it is famously prohibited on the Singaporean subway and in many other public places in Southeast Asia.

The word durian comes from the Malay word duri, which means thorn, as the outside of the fruit is covered in spikes. It can grow up to a foot long and weigh up to seven pounds, so if you happen to be walking under a durian tree and one falls on your head, you’re pretty much going to die.

Durian is believed to be an aphrodisiac, leading to an Indonesian saying: durian jatuh sarung naik, meaning “the durians fall and the sarongs rise.”  It perhaps makes sense, then, that the supposed best place to find durians in Singapore is Geylang, the red-light district.

Shortly after I arrived in Singapore, a few friends and I set off (during the day) for Geylang.  We wound up at a stall called “Wonderful Durian” and let our friend from Indonesia select a fruit, since she had the most expertise.  We sat down on wooden benches and watched as a man with a machete whacked open the durian and placed it on our table.  I couldn’t smell anything as I reached for the fruit, but the word that came to mind after tasting it was, “turpentine.”  I don’t know why, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten turpentine, but that was what it tasted like.

I was disappointed and surprised that I was experiencing a stereotypical Western reaction of disgust, since I’d actually had durian – and liked it – several times in DC.  Upon reflection, I decided that my DC experiences weren’t that legitimate: the first time the durian was mixed with sweet sticky rice and coconut milk, thereby potentially masking the true taste; the second time the durian had been frozen, which probably masked the true smell.

Someone said it takes 4 times to acquire the taste for durian, so I resolved to try again.  In the meantime, I ate durian chips, durian candy, freeze-dried durian, durian ice cream, and durian ah boling, all of which I enjoyed.

My second Singaporean durian experience was at a Durian Degustation organized by Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.  There were three types of durian on the agenda in increasing order of reputation – Green Bamboo, D24, and Cat Mountain.  Before the tasting began, Leslie came over and explained to me that I couldn’t think about durian as a fruit because my brain couldn’t understand it in that context.  Instead, he told me that this was a creme caramel mixed with blue cheese.  He repeated that about 4 times and then I tried the Green Bamboo.  I wasn’t sure if it was Leslie’s explanation, all the durian-flavored things I’d been eating, or both, but I actually liked it.

I was happy – here I was, ahead of the curve, enjoying durian on only my second legitimate tasting.  I felt like any Singaporean Foodie points I may have lost for not liking chicken rice, I now more than made up for by liking durian, especially since some Singaporeans don’t even like it.  So I was proudly looking at my adjustment to life in Singapore through durian-colored glasses…until we got to the D24.

I approached the D24 voraciously; after all, it was supposedly a step above the Green Bamboo.  But as soon as the fruit hit my taste buds, the taste of turpentine was back.  Just to make sure it wasn’t the individual fruit, I tried a piece of the 2nd D24 on our table, but it tasted the same.

I was still optimistic about the arrival of the Cat Mountain, supposedly the best durian variety of all.  Sadly, it also tasted like turpentine, although the taste was milder than that of the D24.  At the end of the tasting, my new friend Shan told Leslie that one of our Cat Mountains wasn’t as good as the other.  This somehow resulted in someone bringing us a third Cat Mountain; supposedly a “creamy, buttery” one, as opposed to the others, which had been “sweet” and “bitter,” respectively.  After my experiences with the others, I don’t know why I decided to try this one, too.  (Isn’t the definition of stupidity repeating the same action and expecting different results?)  But I’m glad I did, because this was the durian to end all durians.  Unfortunately, I was too full from the others to have more than one piece.

So, if you’re looking for good durian, ask for a “creamy, buttery” Cat Mountain.  I don’t know that those are actually technical terms, though, so the vendor might just look at you like you’re crazy.  In which case, let me know.  I know a guy who can hook you up with the good stuff.

After the tasting, I headed to a friend’s birthday party, conscious of the fact that I probably had really bad durian-breath.  We had eaten at least 8 durians for a table of 5.  I passed on a celebratory birthday beer, not only because the thought of mixing beer with the still-present taste of durian in my mouth was revolting, but because I didn’t want to die.  While such stories of people dying after consuming durian and alcohol are probably the fault of the alcohol, scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan discovered last year that durian makes it up to 70% more difficult for the body to break down alcohol.  So kids, be careful when you drink and durian.

And just to make sure there are some “creamy, buttery” Cat Mountains left for me, here are some other general descriptions of what durian tastes like:

“A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes” – Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (1856)

“On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.” – Naturalist Henri Mouhot

“Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” – Chef/TV Personality Anthony Bourdain

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