Category Archives: food

KF Seetoh is a Hypocrite

I’ve actually been meaning to write (rant?) about this for awhile, but was finally prompted by an article in today’s New York Times.  In the article, Julia Moskin outlines a stingray crawl around New York City, for which she relies on the help of an expert.  Of course, whenever anyone needs an expert on Singaporean food, they call KF Seetoh.  For those who don’t watch Top Chef, Seetoh was recently featured on the season finale of Top Chef DC, which took place in Singapore. (He was also on th Singaporean episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and has been consulted for other NYT articles that relate to Singaporean cuisine.)

Seetoh’s reputation as an expert on Singaporean food is not unfounded.  He started a guidebook to hawker centres, called Makansutra, which I found incredibly helpful for its description of each dish.  His company has expanded since then and now includes two food courts designed to look like hawker centres – one in Singapore and one in Manila.  While I think these recreations of hawker centres have similarities to EPCOT’s versions of other countries (commercialized, sterilized, and a tad-bit touristy), I support the idea of the preservation of hawker centres and hawker fare. To that end, in coordination with the Singapore Food Festival in 2005, Seetoh designated as “Hawker Food Legends,” 12 of the “best and most popular hawkers who have been dutifully dishing out their cult signature flavours for decades.”  These awards appeared to be annual, although they were renamed “Street Food Masters” and  sometimes included  newer hawkers.  However, as far as I know, no such awards were announced in 2010.  (The Singapore Food Festival, when the awards are generally announced, is held in July.)

Thus, Seetoh is generally credited as being not only an expert on Singaporean hawker food, but also as the leading figure in a crusade to save it.  According to the NYT, “One of Mr. Seetoh’s primary goals is to preserve such dishes, which he sees as a product of diverse, resourceful and often desperate communities. The hawker food will be lost, he fears, as the population becomes affluent and aspiring cooks can afford Western education — culinary or otherwise. Asian cooks are opening French and Italian restaurants in the cities now, he said, and the traditional hawkers are aging. ‘They are old, and their sons are old, and their grandsons go to Harvard,’ he said.”

I agree that hawker food may be a dying tradition – and have the research to prove it.  Consequently, I respect the work KF Seetoh has done to promote hawker food.  However, one day in Singapore I discovered that my hawker-food hero had let me down.  And here is why:

KF Seetoh Preserving Local Food?

HOW CAN YOU CLAIM TO WANT TO PRESERVE LOCAL HAWKER DISHES AND THEN PROMOTE A FAST-FOOD CHAIN – AND AN AMERICAN ONE AT THAT??

<end rant.>

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KitKat Hunting

As previously noted in my post on crazy Pringles, I love finding unusual flavors of familiar products.  At some point several years ago, I learned that Japan is home to numerous flavors of KitKats, none of which make an appearance in the U.S.  I found some for sale on ebay, but was unwilling to pay $13 for one candy bar ($3 for the bar and $10 for shipping, or something absurd like that) in order to actually try them.

So my tasting experience with unusual KitKats didn’t happen until I flew through Tokyo on my way home for Christmas.  I had completely forgotten about their existence until I wandered through an airport store during my layover.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, which I pretty much was.  I think I spotted the Wasabi KitKats first, followed by a variety pack combining Apple, Cheesecake, Soybean Flour, and Soy Sauce bars.  A trip through another aisle of the store revealed a Green Tea flavor, as well.  I bought them all.

Wasabi KitKat

Hold on a second, you’re saying.  Wasabi?  Soy Sauce?  In a KitKat?  That sounds disgusting!  Yes, I agree.  But it was too bizarre to ignore.  The tastiness (or lack thereof) of these flavors is at least aided by the fact that they don’t involve chocolate.  Rather, the coating over the wafers is wasabi or soy-sauce flavored. (The green tea is similar in that it does not have chocolate.  The Apple, Cheesecake, and Soybean Flour flavors, on the other hand, were incorporated into the chocolate.)

Green Tea KitKats

So what did they taste like?  Much like the lemon-sesame and blueberry-hazelnut Pringles, I would not have known what I was supposed to be eating if it had not been pictured on the package.  The wasabi coating was light green and I suppose had a bit of a zing to it, but not much.  The soy sauce coating was white and slightly sweet  instead of salty, like I was expecting.  It tasted more like medicine than soy sauce, although that’s probably a good thing.  (The Apple, Cheesecake, and Soybean flour flavors were much tastier.  I’m not sure if it was the chocolate, or the fact that they are more traditional Western dessert flavors.  Probably both.)

Since Singapore isn’t that far away from Japan, relatively speaking, and we get crazy Pringles flavors, I’ve been keeping an eye out for special KitKat flavors.  A few weeks ago, my friend Juliana saw an article in the paper about Raspberry-Passionfruit and Matcha-Sakura (Green Tea-Cherry Blossom) KitKats for sale in a small Japanese food store.

That weekend we decided to go KitKat hunting.  Sadly, we discovered that other hunters had exhausted the supply before our arrival.  We even saw proof that the KitKats had been there – cardboard boxes in the trash, but there were none left for us, and the sales clerk didn’t know if/when they would be getting anymore in.  They did have bags of Maple-flavored and Flan-flavored KitKats, but I didn’t feel like spending $9 on a bag.

Maple and Flan KitKats

I also found an online reference to sweet potato-flavored KitKats available in Bishan.  My love of sweet potato is akin to my love of pumpkin, but I unfortunately haven’t had time yet to trek out there and check it out. Given our failed attempt to procure other exotic flavors in Singapore, my hopes for finding the sweet potato ones aren’t high, but I will nevertheless venture out there soon.  If they exist, I will definitely post a review.

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Pretty Much the Best Menu Ever

Sadly, I had already eaten lunch when I spotted this sign.  Otherwise, I would have had a difficult time deciding…

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Sup Tulang – Bone Soup

Awhile ago I went to the Golden Mile Hawker Centre to try the infamous sup tulang – mutton bone marrow soup.  Mutton bones are cooked in a bright reddish-pink chili sauce, which does not taste at all spicy and does not look at all natural.

Needless to say, this is quite the messy dish.  Thankfully, unlike the time I attempted to politely eat chilli crab, I had a fork (and spoon) instead of chopsticks.  (While I can use chopsticks, my fingers aren’t strong enough to hold onto a heavy bone.)  So I daintily attempted to get the meat off the bone with my fork and spoon.

Even though I was sitting a bit away from the sup tulang stall, I was apparently being watched, because one of the guys came over and told me it wasn’t going to work – I needed to use my hands.  I was simultaneously curious about how closely I had been watched (and how many Westerners come to their stall) and amused by the permission to eat with my hands.

I really enjoyed the meat on the bones, but there wasn’t a whole lot, as I think the crowning aspect of the dish is supposed to be the marrow inside.  You can watch Anthony Bourdain using a straw to suck out the marrow when he ate sup tulang, but I was not given a straw and I did not feel like asking for one.  So I developed my own method – I discovered that inverting your spoon/fork and using the narrow end to dig out the marrow works quite well.

While I don’t think sup tulang makes my favorite Singaporean foods lists, it is on my list of places to take visitors if they’re up for it/there’s time because of the novelty of the dish and the “Anthony Bourdain ate here” factor.  Conveniently, the stall is also next to a famous Roti John stall, which I’ll explain in my next food post.

There are several sup tulang stalls at Golden Mile (505 Beach Rd).  I had it at Haji Kadir & M. Baharudeen Soup Tulang, Stall #B1-14.

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The Craziest Pringles Flavor

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to explore the local grocery store.  While this is usually more interesting when traveling abroad, I’ve sometimes been equally amused by wandering around domestic stores, especially independent ones.  Possibly the best part of this activity is finding interesting flavors of familiar brands.  For example, I spent $25 at the Tokyo airport on KitKats because of the crazy flavors – green tea, apple, cheesecake, soy flour, wasabi, and soy sauce.  (The latter two were not actually as disgusting as they sound – there was no chocolate involved – it was a wasabi-flavor coating or a soy sauce-flavor coating over some wafers.  And the soy sauce one didn’t taste anything like soy sauce. It was a unique experience, but one I don’t need to repeat.)

Anyway, it took me a day or two to locate an actual grocery store when I first moved to Singapore, as I was living downtown and my roommate only knew about the nearby expat grocery store.  So when I trekked out to the Clementi Fairprice (a good 20-minute train ride from where I was staying at the time, but I had other business in Clementi…namely trying barbequed stingray), I took my time walking slowly up and down every aisle looking at every item.  But I didn’t really find anything worth writing home about.  (Except perhaps canned pumpkin, although a more recent trip revealed they no longer have any.)

No, I did not find that item until today.  And ironically, I don’t think it’s Singaporean – or even Asian – I think it’s American.

Pringles, is after all, owned by Procter and Gamble, an American company.  That being said, you find flavors overseas that we don’t get in the States.  In Malawi, I discovered Pringles “Rice Infusion Sweet BBQ Sparerib Flavour” and Pringles “Gourmet Flame Grilled Steak and Caramelized Onion Flavour”  I am currently wondering why I did not buy these to try them…

On that first trip to a Singaporean grocery store, I did notice three such flavors: grilled shrimp, soft-shelled crab, and seaweed.  I was amused, but they didn’t strike me as that strange.  Shrimp-flavoured chips/crackers, while seemingly bizarre when I first encountered them at Epcot at a young age, are quite common in Asia, and a “Prawn Cocktail” Pringles flavor is even available in the UK.  Soft-shelled crab seemed to be an extension of that theme.  And dried seaweed is a popular snack, so why not make it into a chip flavor?  The most unusual thing was their color: the shrimp ones are pink and the seaweed ones are green.

I never got around to actually trying the flavors, until I took some home with me over Christmas to share with other people.  Today, however, I found a flavor that was so bizarre, I bought it immediately and opened it as soon as I had paid.  I give you:

The other new flavor is Lemon and Sesame, which I find about as bizarre (and consequently intriguing) – I may have to go back tomorrow to buy them.  But, really?  Who came up with these?

When I got home, I googled them.  The only thing that came up was someone from DC who had recently proclaimed on Twitter his surprise about these flavors, which leads me to believe they may be in your local grocery store as well.  That would make some sense, as blueberries are not exactly a Southeast Asian fruit.

I’m still not over the combination.  I can think of several tasty ways to mix fruits and nuts  – dried cherries/cranberries and almonds in a trail mix, grape jelly and peanut butter in a sandwich – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen blueberry and hazelnut paired together, least of all in a potato chip.  What’s next, watermelon and macadamia? Strawberry and brazil nut?  Lychee and cashew?

So, what are they like? I can taste the blueberry, and if I concentrate intently I get a hint of hazelnut, followed by a blueberry finish.  But as I walked home munching, I decided that I was probably only recognizing these flavors because of the container, and in a blind taste-test I’d have no idea what Pringle flavor I was eating.  I decided to test this hypothesis on my roommate – she said it tasted like confetti cake.

I have now consumed half the can in the name of research (once you pop, the fun don’t stop!), so I’m hoping they’re not subject to the Pringles recall that was just issued…thankfully it appears to be just the cheeseburger and taco flavors.

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Rojak

While it may sound like a type of cleaning product, rojak (Malay for “mixture”) is another tasty dish found in Singapore.  (Other versions of the dish are also found in Malaysia and Indonesia.)  The Singaporean version consists of pieces of pineapple, cucumber, green apple, fried dough, fried tofu, and bean sprouts in an addictive, sweet yet savoury sauce – made from lime juice, chili, shrimp paste, sugar, and water – and covered in ground peanuts.

The term “rojak” is also used to describe the multi-racial culture of both Singapore and Malaysia.  To me this is similar to referring to America as a”melting pot.”  But while both imply a mixing of ingredients, the ingredients in rojak remain distinct whereas those in the melting pot theoretically melt together and become indistinguishable.  On a related note, I find it curious that the government makes a big deal out of classifying everyone as “Chinese,” “Indian,” “Malay,” or “Other.”  Why not just call everyone “Singaporean?”

Despite appearances, I promise it tastes good.

(Speaking of classifications, there is also a dish in Singapore called Indian Rojak.  It’s basically a plate of fried dough, fried shrimp, fried potatoes, fried squid, fried tofu, fried coconut dough, and fried prawn cakes.  For the sake of my cholesterol, I haven’t tried it yet.  It comes with a sweet potato-chili dip that will probably be the reason I do try it.)

The best regular rojak I’ve had was from Clementi Brothers Rojak at Block 449 Clementi Ave 3 #01-211.  There’s a related stall run by the brothers’ uncle at Zion Rd Stall 21 – I’m assuming it tastes similar, but I haven’t actually tried it there.

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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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