Category Archives: Singapore

Thaipusam

People do some interesting things in the name of religion.  (As an anthropologist-in-training, I’m not allowed to call these things “crazy.”)

Thaipusam is a Tamil Hindu festival that is banned in India, but still practiced in Singapore and Malaysia.  Supposedly, the origins of Thaipusam relate to a myth in which the goddess Parvathi gave a lance to her son Murugan, who then vanquished three demons, thereby becoming the destroyer of all evil.  During Thaipusam, devotees give thanks/penance to Murugan by making offerings of milk or honey.  However, they may also pierce their cheeks or tongues with metal skewers several feet in length, which are said to represent Muruga’s lance. Still others bear a kavadi, a wooden or metal shrine that is attached to the body with hooks, chains, and needles. (This is a simplified version, as there are other rituals and prayers involved with these actions.)

What are you looking at?

In Singapore, participants gather at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to assemble their offerings and/or kavadis and then walk for four kilometers to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Siak Road.

 

You thought the cheek piercing was intense? Try walking 4 km with his kavadi. (The picture isn't clear, but he's pulling the wooden kavadi, which is somehow attached to him via piercings.)

Thaipusam is celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai, which coincides with January or February, on the day  the star Pusam appears.  For 2011, it will be this Thursday, January 20th.  So, if you’re in Singapore, go check it out!  And if you’re not, here’s a 30-second video of scenes from last year:

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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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Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

In Korea, you’ll have so much fun that two years will only feel like one!

(Apologies for the blurriness.)

Ad on the back of a bus in Singapore

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The Chewing Gum Myth

Whenever I told people I was going to move to Singapore, I usually got one of two responses: don’t chew gum and don’t get caned.  (The next most popular was, “are you going to have to learn the language?”)  It seems the only two things the average American (not you, my dear reader) knows about Singapore are that chewing gum is forbidden and caning is allowed.

As someone who suffers from what might be considered a chewing gum addiction (particularly when I am stressed, which happens frequently), some family members and friends expressed concern over my decision to move to the only country in the world where it is illegal.  And while there have been several occasions (usually when working on upcoming presentations) that I have craved gum, I’ve somehow managed to survive.

So what did I recently discover, 8 months into my 9 month grant? You CAN BUY CHEWING GUM in Singapore.  Early on, I had heard that you could buy chewing gum for medicinal purposes, but I didn’t pay much attention.  After all, I don’t smoke, so I have no need for (or interest in) Nicorette, and I couldn’t think of a plausible reason for a doctor to write me a prescription.  However, it turns out that you can actually buy it over the counter at a pharmacy.

I finally discovered this shocking little secret from my roommate last week.  I was working on my 9th speech for Toastmasters; it’s a persuasive speech and I was, of course, arguing that Singapore should legalize chewing gum.  In support of my argument, I was using the findings of some ridiculous studies (funded by Wrigley’s, a fact I neglected to mention) that have shown chewing gum helps prevent tooth decay AND can help improve test scores and increase weight loss.  Learning that you could actually buy chewing gum at a pharmacy seemed to kill a large part of my argument, so I decided to test it out.

I envisioned the gum in a little, nondescript blue packet, having been manufactured at some pharmaceutical plant.  I figured that the gum itself would be overly chewy (or stale) with not much taste.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you can buy several different flavors of Orbit.  (You do, however, have to write down your name and identity card number – I guess in case the chewing gum police need to talk to you.  That being said, the pharmacist didn’t verify what I wrote down.)  The gum is about the same price as normal (it was S$5 or US$3.60 for 40 pieces).  The only indication that I was buying something special (besides feeling like I was trying to buy Sudafed in the U.S.) was that there was some sort of dental hygiene approval seal on the bottle of gum.

I haven’t been back for another bottle (is it possible I’m overcoming my gum addiction?), but it’s nice to know the option is there.  Viva la chewing gum!

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It’s not cool to pick your nose.

I wrote too soon about good Singaporean PSAs – I saw this yesterday on the MRT.  I can’t decide which is my favorite – this one or the clam costumes.

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“You have a lucky forehead.”

I was sitting at my favorite frozen yogurt place yesterday, happily reunited with the internet (which isn’t working at my apartment),  when a gentleman approached me and declared, “you have a lucky forehead.”  He was an old Indian man, complete with a turban and a wiry, white beard.  Lest you think he was competing for best pick-up line with the guy who told me, “my mom said I’d be a chickensh*t if I didn’t come talk to you,” my new Indian friend continued, “I don’t know you.  I tell you everything about your future.”

I suspected this was not free and told him I didn’t have any money.  Apparently his fortune-telling services were only $20, and  immediately went down to $10, yet I still said I didn’t have any money.  He quickly got up and walked away, without a word.  I have since regretted my decision.  At first my regret was because given his opening, it could have been a highly amusing experience.

But now, the regret is also because I’ve been wondering what I’m doing next with my life. (I leave Singapore in two months.)  I’m curious what he would have said; at this point, listening to what an Indian guru has to say about my future couldn’t hurt.  Too bad I don’t know how to find him.  Maybe I can put up flyers? ( “Seeking: Old Indian guy, black turban, white beard.  Last seen at RedMango, June 17th 3:00pm.  Said I had a lucky forehead.”)

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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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