Flat & Fabulous: Singapore's classic Indian friedbreads

Let’s face it, when considering Singapore’s lineup of fantastic food, flat bread is not the first thing that comes to mind. But in truth, fried Indian flatbreads are among the most popular foods here, ranging from simple flour/water ingestibles to complex-flavored creations of eye-popping beauty. In Singapore and Malaysia they fall into the three general categories below. From there they go off into a gastronomic world of options. But it all begins with that simplest, most basic of all Indian flatbreads: the roti prata. 

Praise the prata

If you've walked more than a couple of blocks in Singapore you've seen it stretched like pizza dough, slapped on greasy metal counters and tossed like a Frisbee onto hot griddles. It’s the remarkable roti prata, falling under any number of names, such as paratha, roti canai or simply prata. This fried, flat miracle of bread originated in the Channai region of Southern India centuries ago and has since spread via Malaysia throughout the region; most notably to Singapore.

Roti prata is a simple food; just an insipid-looking disc of flour, water, salt and sugar. What makes it special is the dramatic stretching and snapping of the dough. With almost instinctive movement, a skilled prataman pulls, flips and manipulates the slick, oil-brushed lump into a thin veil before folding and frying it on a hot griddle until golden. The resulting round, fused layers of unleavened bread is then “clapped” between the hands to fracture its crispy outer surface and soften the chewy insides. It is round, simple and always served with a side of curry gravy for dipping. It's a thing of beauty.

Pratamen at work

There’s not much more to it than that – until you consider the delicate, flakey and almost-but-not-quite-burned hue and toasty flavor of the bread. Perhaps it’s the beauty of simplicity that makes this rustic bread so popular. Or maybe it’s the “comfort food” factor: warm golden bread dipped in rich, savory gravy, eaten slowly, deliberately, and washed down with a sweet morning teh tarek. It’s a reassuring meal to start the day, and for so many here it does more than merely nourish their bodies; it helps hold their lives together.

Coin prata - silver dollar-sized sensation

classic roti prata - breakfast of champions.

The mighty murtabak

A step beyond the simple prata is its flavor-crammed cousin, the murtabak. Best described as a “roti prata on steroids,” this distinctly Muslim Indian food is made from roti prata dough which is stretched and pulled into a tissue paper thin skin and reinforced with a pre-cooked prata placed in the middle. Sort of like a plate within the wrapper, the inside is coated with a raw egg and stuffed with chopped onion and a choice of filling. The skin is folded into an overlapped square, enveloping the tasty stuffing, and slid onto an oiled griddle to brown. The edges are crispy and flaky, but your teeth break through into soft, slightly chewy layers of cooked bread and well-seasoned fillings. A thin dal or a mutton curry with robust, spicy flavors rounds out the flavor experience.

Some murtabak are so large they fold them over to fit the plate.

Murtabaks are often found in the same establishments as roti prata, but oddly the reputations of those restaurants center only around the one dish or the other. Which suggests that perhaps it’s the flavor of the fillings that separate the prata professional from the murtabak master. Those fillings typically include minced mutton, chicken or sardines, but today’s young cooks are creating new variations of murtabak breakthroughs, including egg, exotic cheese, wild mushrooms, masala, fruit, chocolate, Nutella and even ice cream. Roti prata – so much lighter and delicate than its counterpart – is more fashionably a breakfast food, whereas the murtabak is a hungry-man meal in itself, usually reserved for later in the day

Making murtabaks

The Delicate Dosai

If roti prata is the strong, silent first-born and murtabak the boisterous little brother, then dosai is the attention-seeking baby sister with dreams of stardom and admiration by all. Large, flat and delicate as lace, the dosai (also called dosa or thosai) is both genteel and flamboyant at the same time. She’s the debutante that everyone notices; the dish for which all others are pushed aside to make room. She is, indeed, the Big Show.

Paper Dosai

But the dear dosai is not just a pretty face. Beneath her thin veneer of tanned, crispy skin is a crepe-like batter of ground lentils and rice flour, fermented just enough to impart a slight sourness and tingle to the mouth. A staple dish in much of South India and Sri Lanka, dosai is popular throughout the day and healthier than her flat bread brethren. The batter is protein rich, gluten-free and loaded with vitamins B and C. It’s also laden with carbohydrates while containing no salt, sugar or saturated fats.

Masala Dosai

But the real beauty of the dosai is in her seductive shape – a structural wonder worthy of applause, both for the creation itself and the cook who achieves it without breakage. The batter is ladled onto a hot griddle to form an enormous pancake. Flipping it demands one fluid motion, following which the chef bends, folds or rolls the massive, paper-thin crepe into its final form, which within seconds can harden to brittle permanence. The smoothness of the gentle folds reveals the expertise of the chef who makes it look so simple – just a relaxed turn of the wrist – tempting foolhardy wannabes into believing they can do it, too. But some things just need to be left to the pros.

Dosai come in many variations of batter, fillings and texture: crisp or soft, stuffed or hollow, fan-shaped, half moon or rolled like a scroll half a metre long. The pastry is both crispy and soft at the same time, and they’re always served overhanging the edges of a thali plate or banana leaf with 3 dipping sauces: chili, coconut chutney and sambar. But the fun only starts there, with constantly-evolving variations of new masterpieces – like chili crab dosai – or countless variations of dosai desserts, their fragile golden frames filled with fruit, sweets and ice cream. But when first discovering the dosai, be sure to meet the king and queen of the ball before all others: the ladylike paper dosai – so simple and refined, and the masculine masala dosai – rolled like a mysterious map leading you to a land of exotic savory goodness.

Delicate fan dosa with sweet exotic fruit and savory dip.

So right up there with Singapore's iconic foods, like Chili Crab and Chicken Rice, are Indian Flatbreads. Hey, no big surprise, right? They may, after all, be the most ubiquitous food on the planet – eaten by nearly every culture –  so why should Singapore be an exception. And if you haven’t tried one yet you should just close your browser and rush out to get one now!

Island Passages -- a peek through St. Croix's windows, walkways and doors.

A typical colonial 5-foot way in  christiansted, St. Croix.

Foodwalking around St. Croix in the beautiful US Virgin Islands is not just about food; it's like a walk back in time. One can almost hear the sounds of long-gone colonialism that wreaked this once sugar-producing center controlled by so many - - most notably the Danish. It's romantic in a Pirates Of The Caribbean sort of way, which of course defies the brutally harsh history of this and so many other slave states along the chain of islands that form this region. That history should never be forgotten as one of humanity's darkest periods. But today the infrastructure supporting the colonialist encroachment on local Crucians has been repurposed into gorgeous shops, restaurants, museums and public spaces that a visitor can admire and embrace. And what grabs you first are the passageways -- walkways, windows and doors -- all over the island. It is one of the most well-preserved places to see the lasting beauty of colonial architecture in these islands. So follow me on this visual tour of a few.

Arches

COUNTLESS Arches  support St. Croix's passages along many streets in Christiansted.

 

Walkways

The "5-Foot way" is a BREEZEWAY beneath the arched fronts of old colonial buildings, GIVING releif from sun and rain -- Usually about 5 feet wide.

 

Windows

for views, and breeze and light, the old windows of St. Croix offer a unique view of the world.

 

Doorways

many old doors and tunnels lead to reminders of St. Croix's tragic history

Passageway to the sky from inside a St. Croix sugar mill.

Eating St. Croix

St. Croix's north coast

The email popped up on my screen when I least expected it: “Would you like to explore and write about the inaugural Dine VI Restaurant Week celebrating the local food of St. Croix, US Virgin Islands?” Winter was fast approaching and I suddenly felt ravenous for island food. So my reply was concise: “Hells Yes!

A beach at The BUCCANEER

St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. The name alone evokes idyllic images of pristine beaches, swaying palms, cold cocktails with fancy umbrellas. But there is so much more to this triplet sister in the family of paradise islands that form the US Virgin Islands. It’s not just the turquoise blue of the Caribbean in front of stunning hotels; it’s the people – Crucians – who hold their society dear and work hard to at once both preserve and advance their uniqueness. And a proud part of what makes this place special? The food.

Danish archituecture prevails in Christiansted

Not long after checking into the iconic Buccaneer Resort I headed into St. Croix’s main event: Christiansted. Here the Caribbean laps against a quay at water’s edge beside the yellow glow of the town’s namesake fort. Old cobblestone streets lead to many small eateries beneath colored archways of stone and coral dating back to 19th century Danish colonialists. Wafting aromas of spice and curry pulled at me as I searched for pastel paintings of NBA star Tim Duncan on an outside wall. “Just ask anyone about the place with the basketball player,” I was told. And it’s true; everyone knows Harvey’s.

 At Harvey’s Restaurant the mismatched tablecloths and potpourri of pictures are unapologetically authentic. Equally local is the outstanding food, such as Stew Goat in coconut-curry broth, Pot Fish swimming in an earthy sour gravy, or the favored Old Wife – a fish stew replete with bones, sandpaper skin and remarkable flavor.  Sides of “provisions” including fungi – a cornmeal and okra mash – complete every plate. And for the fruity burn of scotch bonnet sauce, Mrs. Harvey will guide you to its ethereal meaning.

Stew goat

The magnificent Mrs Harvey

It doesn’t take long before you sense an energy – electric in the air – that is spinning around the food of St. Croix.  It’s a culinary renaissance that’s all about local cuisine. And Dine VI Restaurant Week is leading it, encompassing more than thirty dining options highlighting the best of street food, forever-old local cuisine and high-end “New Crucian” cooking. This gustatory explosion has already attracted the attention of the James Beard Foundation and chefs throughout the Americas. Now everybody wants to be part of what’s cooking in St. Croix.

Even the food trucks are pulling in, and at the first-ever Frederiksted Food Truck Festival more than a dozen lined the main drag of St. Croix’s second city between the colonial architecture and a grassy park slipping into the sea. From homemade mace and nutmeg ice cream to local fried fish, jerk chicken, goat roti and latino specialties, the food at this first-time festival surpassed all expectations. Local island musicians like Pressure raised the street party of more than a thousand people to a fever pitch as a common, excited whisper swept through the crowd: “Just wait until next year when this will be REALLY big.”

the first-ever Frederiksted Food Truck Festival

The thing about St. Croix that makes it stand apart from many Caribbean destinations is that the people here welcome the tourist dollar but do not live for it, so the exploding world of food is designed more for Crucians than for tourists. Which explains why the new Cast Iron Pot Restaurant is in a repurposed building along an inland artery of local businesses. One taste of Chef Burton Peterson’s curried goat, slow-roasted pork or marinated whole fish and I began to understand how talented chefs are doing new things with old recipes in order to carry them forward into the future without leaving their Crucian past behind.

Pot fish at Cast iron Pot by Chef Burton Peterson

Part of that past has Hispanic origins, and Villa Morales embraces those flavors. Open to the island’s deep interior, the food focuses on local ingredients and technique with a splash of robust Latino rhythm. Like the Conch Cooked 2 Ways – a battle of sublime Crucian and Latin tastes held at bay by the most tender of rice and yucca. Crazy.

To miss St. Croix’s local food in its local settings is to miss St. Croix’s soul. Still, tourists hungry for elegance are not ignored and at Zion Modern Kitchen the food is distinctly upscale and continental, with local ingredients adorning every gorgeous plate without any need for special effects of stacked towers and flavored foam. But it’s the bar here that really excites, where twenty-something master mixologist, Frank Robinson defies his youth by the drinks he concocts. The corners of his eyes narrow as he asks about your palate and you realize it’s time to get serious. You might answer with a conflicting “savory, spicy heat and warming Asian essence with cooling fruitiness that’s a little sweet, kind’a sour but not bitter or cloying.” “Cool,” he’ll say, glancing at his homemade fermented infusions. He’ll mix, taste, mix some more and then slide a tallboy across the thick wooden bar, “Give this a try.” And in one sip you’ll taste his magic: fire and ice, love and war, frivolity with a hint of longing nostalgia. And just as you name your drink “My life in a glass,” Frank might grin and ask, “ So what’s next?” And you’ll realize it’s gonn’a be a long night.

master mixologist frank robinson

Dine VI Restaurant Week was an odyssey of St. Croix’s flavor profiles, from Blue Water Terrace’s remarkable fried chicken and elevated view of Buck Island off the coast,

to healing gospel-singing seafood brunches by the beach.

From johnny cakes and salt fish for breakfast, sunset wine parties

and sticking my fingers in a gush of unfiltered Cruzan Rum straight from the distillery’s oak barrels.

But more than just showcasing some of St. Croix’s great restaurants with astonishingly inexpensive prix-fix menus, Dine VI revealed the magic of Crucian food and the people who cook it. The tastes offered at this inaugural event – sure to more than triple in size next year – reminded me that the excitement of today’s good-food explosion is not within the purview of just the world’s iconic cities, but also of smaller places like St. Croix, where culture rather than glitz is the guiding principle and the food is made by the people, for the people. And it will knock your socks off.

 

The US Virgin Islands are an international destination and offers more than the usual antiseptic hotels and predictable food found elsewhere. So plan your next visit during Dine VI Restaurant Week 2016, when it expands into a month-long event on all three of the US Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. Don’t miss this special place and its outstanding cuisine. For information click over to: www.dine.vi

Now That's Italian! A Foodwalk down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx

I recently took a foodwalk with a couple of my favorite fellow foodwalkers to explore what is known by many as New York's real Little Italy and referred to simply as "Arthur Avenue." North of Manhattan in New York's northernmost borough, the Belmont area of the Bronx is a mixed neighborhood that offers a gritty view of one of those parts of the city that supports all others. And buried in the center of it all, starting at 187th Street from Arthur Avenue across to Prospect Avenue, is an age-old enclave of tight-knit neighbors and crowded shops offering some of the best Italian eats in New York..

Here we found bakeries, old school butchers and fishmongers selling the freshest stuff in town the same way they have done for generations. Sausages hang from tin ceilings beside enormous balls and tubers of cheese coated in wax. Wheels of even more cheese, from pale white, to yellow, to ancient hues of orange are stacked high on stainless counters encasing rows of sliced meats, sausages rolled into pinwheels, cut steaks, lamb and pork chops, hunks of ruby-red beef and roasts rolled and tied with string. Tiny quail line up with shiny rabbits, glistening liver, kidneys and mounds of honeycombed tripe white as snow. Full carcasses hang in the windows, along with blanched cows feet, the occasional sheep's head and, or course, more sausages. 

Pasta shops intersperse the many merchants along both 187th and Arthur Ave, where we found nearly every fresh-made or imported pasta imaginable, as well as prepared dishes like lasagna, baked ziti and a variety of ravioli. In the middle of the block is the cavernous Arthur Avenue Retail Market, selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to pasta, meats, fish, olives, espressos and even cigars, hand-rolled on the spot by  a few Dominican guys. At Casa Dela Mozzarella I was quizzed on what made their signature cheese so special. Around the corner we gazed with wonder at Calandra Cheese Shop's ceiling of sausage. A block down, in front of Consenza's fish market, we savored a variety of oysters and clams, fresh-shucked and slurped loudly. Nearby I sampled sopressatta, pepperonis and other Italian sausages thrust upon me by Nino Madonna, who's been making customers happy at Vincent's Meat Market for more than 55 years. A visit to each shop on Arthur Avenue begins a new story for all who enter, leaving them with -- in addition to delicious Italian food -- great memories from New York's real Little Italy. 

To get a glimpse of what Arthur Avenue has to offer, see this Foodwalkers video on Youtube.

Dining on the path to Nirvana

Sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi

You can't go to Varanasi as your first stop in India; you have to work up to it.” My Indian traveling partner, Jatender, said as we boarded Jet Airway’s comfortable flight from Delhi. He wasn’t kidding. One of the principle cities of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh with over 3.6 million people, Varanasi -- also called Benares -- looks much like any other large urban area in India. It’s chaotic and crowded, with a high disparity of those who have and have not. But you quickly sense something different about this former home to Lord Shiva, considered by Hindus to be the oldest city in the world. There’s an energy – electric in the air – that seems to set its inhabitants on a common rhythm. At the bookends of every day that rhythm quickens and draws them together. And what drives that rhythm? Ganga.

One of the many ghats along the banks of the Ganges.

Holy Waters

Varanasi by Kevin F. Cox - 24.jpg

The River Ganges is the lifeblood of all things in this holiest city in India. Along her muddy shores can be seen the entire spectrum of human existence, from birth to death and everything in between. She is worshipped as the goddess Ganga, the most sacred river to Hindus who center their lives around her and make pilgrimages from afar to her shores. A dip in her waters is believed to wash away all sin, and most Hindus dream of standing in her tide at least one time in their lives. She has also been ranked among the top five most polluted rivers of the world; with contaminants more than a hundred times higher than official Indian limits. Yet all along her banks Hindus bathe in her waters. They pay homage to their ancestors and gods, offering flowers and rose petals and shallow bowls of burning ghee to her current. Often they will leave Ganga with small quantities of her water to keep her in their daily lives.

The contrasts of life along the Ganges is dizzying. At the more than sixty ghats in Varanasi people convene daily to pray, chant and perform ablutions in her brown water. They stand chest deep and cup water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall. They dip their heads below her surface to cleanse their souls. A few meters over, men wash laundry, spread-eagled in knee deep water, swinging and slapping fabrics on rocks to get them clean, then stretching them on the hard banks to dry. Just beyond, children swim, jumping from abandoned concrete abutments to shrill laughter and cheers.

A dream of many Hindus is to die on the banks of Ganga - the path to Nirvana.

A dream of many Hindus is to die on the banks of Ganga - the path to Nirvana.

Along the bank at Hanuman Ghat – one of the several cremation ghats – log pyres as tall as three meters burn, their flames dancing toward the sky through thick, acrid smoke. Further upstream a frail, sick man lies alone at the edge of the water, waiting to die. There is no place more longed for by Hindus at their time of death than the Ganges’ banks in Varanasi; the Shmashana, or great cremation ground. Their ashes – and even entire intact bodies wrapped in muslin – are released to Mother Ganga’s natural ebb and flow on their posthumous path to Nirvana, bypassing further reincarnation to instant salvation – the fast pass to Moksha. It’s so important that worshipers from elsewhere in India often transport the bodies of loved ones to Varanasi (often on the roof of a car) to send them off in the Ganges.

Feeding the soul

It was a blistering afternoon when Jatender and I visited Sarnath just outside of town, the most famous of the many temples here and the spot where thousands of years ago Lord Buddah delivered his first sermon extolling the virtues of Buddishm. From there we maneuvered through crippling traffic along narrow, dusty streets jammed with cars, scooters, ox-drawn wagons, diesel-belching busses and throngs of people on bicycle and foot. Our goal was to experience the Aarti Ceremony, a daily Hindu ritual to pray to deities during the setting sun. Jatender tried to prepare me for what was to come; to steel me for the onslaught of religious fervor the likes of which I had never before experienced. It was a futile effort.

At Dasaswamdh Ghat we join throngs of pilgrims for prayer at Ganga’s edge. The solemnity is electrifying, a spiritual current in the air linked to a river which leads closer to Nirvana than anywhere else in the Hindu world. Ganga’s surface is nearly obscured by countless boats bumping against each other under the tenuous list of overcapacity. Hundreds of diyas float by between vessels everywhere, their leaf bowls filled with burning ghee glowing yellow in the darkening drift. 

We’re squeezed on the ghat steps among thousands of believers chanting and praying to the lead of men on platforms at the edge of the water. As darkness descends the air is thick with the malodor of humanity at its lowest common denominator, pious pilgrims from across India crowding together in the evening heat. The drone of chanting mantras, thumping drums and jingling bells is continuous until the cacophony melds into one indiscernible din of sound which resonates deep within my body and leaves me lightheaded. Afterwards we are swept along with the sea of spiritually-sated followers to nearby galis – narrow streets and alleys – to satisfy more earthly cravings: for food.

Gorging in the Galis

Eating along the Ganges is not for the feint of heart or constitution. To the uninitiated the mixture of flavors and selection seems endless and largely unidentifiable. Except within the condensed Islamic sections set back from the river, where spicy mutton and minced meat on sticks can be found, most of the cuisine in Old Varanasi is vegetarian. Vegetables are fried, boiled, grilled or shredded alongside fried dough, panni purri, flat breads and desserts. If it’s a small, fried dish on the streets of Varanasi, it’s likely a kind of chaat, a loose definition of snacks made with various doughs and any number of other ingredients, spices and sauces.  Down the narrow, congested galis leading to the ghats there are hundreds of eateries that are little more than holes in the wall, benches or makeshift thelas (pushcarts) beside cauldrons of boiling oil in which kachoris are frying or round griddles filled with sizzling delights

We are pushed along by the masses, dragging ourselves out whenever we see something that looks tasty or strange. The choices are many; makeshift storefronts with men sitting cross-legged on tables cooking food amid an endless clot of hungry people clamoring for attention. We want to try as many Benarasi flavors as possible, including tasting the fragrant 'Benarasi paan' that often contains aromatics of rose and 'supari' (areca-nut). Chewing this 'paan,' then spitting seems to be a part of the cultural identity of the people of Varanasi.

In Vishwanath Gali we find tiny, unnamed joints selling aloo-palak pakoras with hot and sweet chutneys, and thandai. The shops are so small and narrow that no one can enter past the cook sitting beside his hot griddle and glowing coals. We stand and eat in the narrow alley as pilgrims and the occasional free-roaming cow brush blindly past us.

Along the streets we bark orders in unison with the crowd at vendors, elevated on their cooking platforms, for servings of potato tiki, spicy fried tomatoes, sautéed spinach leaves and numerous variations of kachori. In one place we invade a table cramped with a group of women who have pilgrimaged from Southern India. Despite our language limitations we share a vast selections of pani-puri – small crisp balls, hollow and filled with a scoop of greenish mint water from a bucket or stuffed with mashed vegetables then doused in thick yogurt and sour tamarind. At a windowfront with a freezer a man is selling kulfi falooda, an unchurned, eggless ice cream, topped with thin cellophane noodles of rose syrup and saffron, slippery and blazing yellow. Its texture is delicate and creamy, with a floroal, milky flavor.

Banarasis have a passion for milk or yogurt-based drinks, surprising given the lack of refrigeration on the street. Lassis are also common, served from flat bowls sitting on open counters in the 42 degree Celsius heat. The texture is a bit unsettling at first – thick, creamy and slightly sour. We drink them from little clay kulhads then shatter the fragile cups on the ground by the shop. Another specialty drink is thandai, made of water, sugar, watermelon, muskmellon, lotus seeds, almonds, cashew, cardamom, rose-flower, white pepper and saffron. We let the mixer add bhang to the thandai -- a leaf much like marijuana or opium that grows wild throughout the region -- to give it a pleasant, intoxicating kick.

 

Late into the night we gorge on paapri-chaat garnished with coriander, ghee, yoghurt and sugar syrup; spinach and gram flour pakora fritters; potato and pea samosas with chutney; and many other forms of chaat doused with the sweet and sour tang of ginger and tamarind chutneys and air-warmed yoghurts. We wash it all down with chai and rosewater and sweet/sour masala-flavoured kanji, thick like chowder. And then there are the sweets – Banarasis do like their deserts. We eat hot, crispy jelebis, day-glow orange and dripping syrup and so many other delights; honey-soaked bowls of sweet condensed barfi; rabri like dense cheesecakecoconut and pistachio chumchum made from homemade cheeseand chickpea and semolina laddus, like sweet round balls of dough. The list goes on and by the end of the night I am full beyond comfort and concerned with the possibility of digestive repercussions from such exotic, unfiltered eating. But thankfully they never appear.


Sunrise with Mother Ganga

In the early mornings before sunrise locals and pilgrims for miles crowd the steps of ghats to perform their morning ablutions and daily prayer rituals to start the day. We hire a young boatman to row us in a small skiff to witness the rituals: men and women communing together yet apart, spiritually independent as they absorb the purifying holy water rushing by. They come every day – first to pray, then wash, then dress and switch from the spiritual world to the working one. It’s a scene uncharacteristic of caste-oriented India; peasants and laborers alongside barristers and businessmen – all equal sentient beings in the surge of Mother Ganga

When the sun is high in the sky we leave the water’s edge in search of food. Outside the Golden Temple, deep within a maze of tiny alleys and walkways, we drink hot chai and eat deep fried katchori, a round flattened dough ball stuffed with a mixture of potato, dal, gram flour and spices. Sold in leaf bowls, they are usually accompanied by a dry, spiced chickpea ghugni or with a spicy potato curry. A dousing of tamarind sauce adds a bittersweet finish to the bite-sized breakfast. From there we work our way out of the maze – no easy task – and return to our hotel -- if that’s what one can really call the Taj.

Princely property

The Taj Nadesar Palace is a mind-spinning contrast to the street level existence along the banks of the Ganges. A10 guest room resort owned by Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh of Benares to host heads of state and dignitaries and now managed by the exclusive Taj Hotels & Resorts, it is truly a maharajah’s palace. The stately building is both intimate and grand; true luxury, old-school style. My room, with enormous pedestal bed, sumptuous furnishings, rich textiles and marble everything, gives an insider’s understanding of the upper echelon of Indian culture. After settling in as if I owned the place (which is how every guest is made to feel), I am led by horse-drawn carriage around the property and through the organic gardens by sous-chef Sumalya Sarkar before entering the kitchen to see the action and later sample the delectable food – so foreign from that on the streets. It is the best that an accommodation in an important place like Varanasi can offer.

To represent Taj’s commitment to local food and flavors and the thousands of years of culture behind it, Executive Chef Sanjeev Chopra serves me his specialty Satvik Thali – a selection of carefully prepared vegetarian recipes designed to establish calmness, purity and balance. The food was elegant and refined yet true to its local origin; each dish bursting with contrasting flavors of eggplant, dal, ochra and curry. Small, flavorful side items accented specific dishes, one cooling the heat, another lightening the heavy, each adding texture and balance. And with every bite came a sense of authenticity, a taste of India in its genteel, refined state – pure, local food dressed up for nobility and honor and prepared as well as food can be made. It was a feast that rounded out my culinary odyssey of Varanasi – from lowest-to-the-ground eating in the narrow galis along the Ganges, to the highest of Benearasi haute cuisine in a palace constructed for kings.

Contradiction of emotions

It is difficult to sum up Varanasi except to say it’s exotic and overwhelming to all senses. A dazzling montage of reality; some things that you can’t stop marveling at; others you wish you hadn’t seen. It’s a land of contradiction: of rich and poor; beauty and revulsion; miracle and tragedy – all inexplicably bound by a cultural cord dating back thousands of years. Mother Ganga is a living, moving, humanity-consuming goddess whose holy stature vastly exceeds the width of her banks or the depth of her waters. The spiritual fervor around Varanasi’s narrow streets and at Ganga’s filthy yet sacred shores is electrifying and confusing – and as a visitor it’s easy to encounter an internal battle between loving it and hating it. But it matters not which of those feelings win out, but simply that it makes you feel. And whatever mix of emotions you leave with there is one word all who go there will use to describe this place: Incredible.


Getting There

Jet Airways makes getting from Singapore to India quick and easy. In Delhi, you’ll easily connect to Jet’s quick flight to Varanasi. And because it’s India’s largest internal airline – going virtually everywhere in the subcontinent – you can check your bags all the way through. As an air-weary traveler I was pleasantly surprised by Jet’s excellent service, great entertainment and – believe it or not – exceptional food. For details see www.jetairways.com  Of course, to get the most out of your India experience you should rely on the experts. Luxe India, with their unique Le Concierge services, is the most respected high-end tour outfitter in India and will make all arrangements for an experience of a lifetime. For details go to www.luxeindia.in. And for a memorable stay at the Taj Nedesar Palace, see www.tajhotels.com.


Playing with his food – a day off with Chuck Hughes

Chuck Hughes showing some ink.

Chuck Hughes is a fun guy. Bright, smiling and a little bit loud, he’s one of those guys you don’t expect to look in person like he looks on TV. Maybe that’ because he looks too good on TV, where he hosts Chuck’s Day Off on the Asian Food Channel and across other food networks around the world. He has a boyish face, neatly trimmed hair and a wide, toothy smile. I expect that if one of Chuck’s long-lost childhood friends bumped into him unexpectedly, he would say Chuck hasn’t changed a bit. He’s that kind of guy, grown-up but still boyishly enthusiastic. And after just a few minutes in the kitchen with him I found myself feeling that way, too – seems he’s contagious.

Chuck’s recent visit to Singapore was hosted by the Asian Food Channel and American Express, as part of their Celebrity Chef Series, which aims to showcase extraordinary chefs from around the world to Singapore’s hungry enthusiasts.  In keeping with AFC’s outstanding reputation for airing not just high quality food programming but also limiting it to chefs with real passion, only the most fervent cooks are included in the series. So far this year Mark McEwan turned up the heat with European cuisine, and Adrian Richardson made perfect cuts to mouth watering meats. So it’s only natural that Chuck Hughes, with his youthful energy and effervescent sense of humor, be asked to show some skills. And did he ever.

From the moment he took to the range in the beautiful AFC Studio at Orchard Central, Chuck glowed with energy and enthusiasm. His demeanor was relaxed and casual and he make a few jokes before addressing the mis en place on the counter before him. Next to small dishes filled with chilies, onion and other herbs and veg sat two Atlantic Lobsters, flown in live from Canada. And so he started to cook, slicing, chopping, squeezing and pureeing to make a sauce for his first dish, Jerked Atlantic lobster; his own riff on North East shellfish cooking by adding Jamaican heat and spice.

He talked and laughed the whole time, and with each ingredient he took a moment to examine it, discuss it’s fine qualities, revere it. Simple items like limes which he squeezed then, after smelling its skin, decided to zest into the dish “because it just smells so good.” He extolled the often-disregarded wonder of celery leaves – not just to toss in a stock or throw away – before adding them to his puree. He inhaled the aroma of fresh rosemary and marveled at the beauty of a paper-thin slice of fresh ginger. That’s the kind of passion this guy has.

Suddenly the lobster – perfectly cooked to translucent – was done, plated and the fiery jerk sauce poured over it. The taste was a fine interplay of sweet shellfish and mild yet pronounced tropical spice; not an overpowering heat masking the tender meat, as I half-expected. But balanced and thought out. Gorgeous to all senses.

Watching Chuck cook is like watching a really big kid play with his food. He was as comfortable with a perfectly-marbled tenderloin – from which he made pan seared Carpaccio to go with his homemade potato chips – as he might have once been with Lego. His movements were second nature and precise. His Japanese knives were like extensions of his hands, his nose the barometer of what he would do with whatever he happened to be holding. He admired the smoke when he seared the beef. He sang and laughed as he whipped oil into aioli. This guy wasn’t working – he was playing.

He rolled dense chocolate ganache into soft pearl tapioca and formed them into tiny balls with all the excitement of a kid in a snowball fight. Dropping them in hot oil, he transformed them into delicate fried arancini for dessert. He plated his food with creative folly; a little of this, maybe some of that, “oh, and these look good; let’s toss some of them on, too!” And each dish delivered that casual, playful sensation in the mouth – borne from the hands of a talented man with the spirit of a kid and the happiness of someone doing what he loves to do most – cook.

Chuck grew up in Québec speaking mostly French and hanging out with the same childhood friends that he hangs out with today. He discovered the joy of cooking at a young age and eventually, at his mothers suggestion, attended culinary school at Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec and later worked his way through several of Montreal’s hottest restaurants. Eventually he and two of those best friends opened their own place, Garde Manager, a laid back eating joint with an open kitchen so he and his staff could join in on the fun out front all night long. Having so much fun – and success – they opened another, Le Bremner. In other words, this guy has made a life out of his favorite passion, and on his days off he has buddies come to the closed restaurant and cook to loud music.

The love of food is not just always on Chuck Hughes’ mind; it’s on his body, too. In line with modern kitchen culture, Chuck has some tattoos – okay, lots of tattoos. So I asked him for a tour. And like a kid he started running through them, each with a story. Like a lobster crawling on his forearm, arugula on his wrist (bacon on the other) and lemon meringue pie on a triceps (“some of my favorite foods!”).  These are intermixed with the occasional skull, words (including “mom”) and still more food: pineapple on his shoulder, oysters on am arm and a potpourri of produce wrapping around his bicep. My favorite was the universal cooking temperature – 275° – on his forearm (“so I won’t forget”). Then he surprised the room by showing his newest tat: the AFC logo. He laughed, admitting it was black marker as a joke (“But I’m was thinking of maybe making it permanent!”). I suggested an artichoke would be cool – he nodded with a broad, toothy smile and asked to steal the idea. But of course….

It’s always fun to watch an accomplished cook like Chuck Hughes make such tasty food look so easy. His joy is genuine; his passion authentic. And that transfers, almost by osmosis, into his serious cooking, styling and taste. Because despite his boyish charms, Chuck Hughes is no child in the kitchen, as Bobby Flay learned last year when Chuck beat him in Iron Chef America.  But as serious as his cooking is, at no time does this serious chef take himself too seriously. And that’s what the joy of cooking is all about.

Breaking Bad: late night gorging in Geylang Serai

Geylang Serai is the “bad boy” of Singapore – a gritty, rough-around-the-edges neighborhood by Singapore standards – which is to say it really isn’t.

A beer girl and her boys in late night Geylang..

If you’ve discussed Singapore’s collection of neighborhoods you’ve undoubtedly heard of Geylang Serai. Geylang (as it’s loosely called) isn’t as tidy and ordered as other parts of Singapore. It’s crowded and bustling with few tall trees shading the busy streets. In the 1840s the island’s Malay population was relocated from the mouth of the Singapore River to this area, transforming if from coconut plantations and lemongrass farms (‘serai’is Malay for ‘lemongrass’) to what is best described as a concreted, 1970s low-rise urbana. Today it’s a densely populated neighborhood of predominantly Malay and Chinese residents and – not least in notoriety – prostitutes.

Geylang Road

Geylang Road

One of Geylang's many Chinese Clan Associations

One of Geylang's many Chinese Clan Associations

Intermixed between shops, bars and eateries are numerous Chinese and Buddhist clan associations and small ornate temples on nearly every block, making for an experience of both food and culture. Configured like the skeleton of a fish, the spine is Geylang Road and “ribs” the side streets (“lorongs”), numbered from lowest (at Sims Way) to highest (Paya Labar Road). It’s a busy business area by day, catering to the needs of local merchants of every industry. But like a chameleon, the neighborhood changes complexion at night when the dusk sets, the restaurants and countless pubs open up and the neon lights come on.

Homemade Geylang dumplings and pau all night long

Homemade Geylang dumplings and pau all night long

Many locals argue that Geylang is the best after-hours neighborhood on the island, with excellent, hole-in-the-wall eating houses serving savory dumplings, stir-fry, vegetarian and seafood dishes at almost any hour. The main drag and most side streets are abuzz with people of all ages and ethnicity – though a noticeable dearth of ang moh (read: "gringo" in the US). Corner eateries are crowded; people eat and drink while watching the activity along the street; old guys sip coffee and stare at Chinese soap operas playing on a TV mounted near the ceiling, the blaring volume spilling over the curb and blending with everything into cacophony of noise; the sound of Geylang after hours.

XXX in Geylang

Some of Geylang's more infamous residents

One can’t talk for long about Geylang without mentioning it’s most infamous virtue: prostitution. It’s here that prostitution in Singapore is a legal activity, not only tolerated but regulated by the government. Even health facilities have been established for the many girls who come from all over Asia to make a living from the world’s oldest profession. While it’s not the only spot on the little red dot where this occurs, it is notoriously known as Singapore’s main red light district. There’s no denying that it’s a clear and obvious trademark of this area, but not so obvious that it’s in your face or threatening. Still, with such a profession comes an underbelly that not’s attractive, and if you want to find trouble on the streets of Singapore, this is a choice place to come. But you have to almost seek it out – it won’t come to you uninvited. And for titillating street-watching over drinks or dinner this is as low-to-the-ground as you can get on the island without having to actually shower when you get home.

Evening Eats

Penang Seafood's Assam Laksa

Penang Seafood's Assam Laksa

An easy way to get in and out of Geylang is from the Aljunied MRT. If you exit toward Sims Avenue just a few steps along Lorong Avenue 25A is Mufiz Restaurant (#80 Lor 25A) offering murtabak or roti prata and a curry gravy that’s robust and delicious. For a classic, if not lesser-known, Malaysian style (assam) laksa until 1:00am, there’s Penang Seafood Restaurant (#76 Lor 25A). Completely different from the more common nonya laksa found everywhere, assam laksa is fish based, with sweet and sour flavors and chunks of pineapple mixing with the noodles.

A block across from the MRT is the neighborhood’s heart, Geylang Road, where there are many corner coffeeshops offering a variety of excellent local cuisines. Like frog legs - a signature snack here - served all night long in forms ranging from stewed, stir-fried, grilled or cooked into thick porridge. And as you walk the streets don’t miss

The Eastern Restaurant

(487 Geylang Rd) or the many other duck houses, which serve up a head-to-web selection of cooked duck parts – another de rigger delicacy here. Order your choice of “parts” with rice or noodles or even better, try them “neat” with a cold beer and discover the tasty wonders of Geylang’s fowl food trademark. 

Roasted duck parts, a popular late night snack in Geylang

Roasted duck parts, a popular late night snack in Geylang

Late night in Geylang dining often focuses on noodles and Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant (611/13 Lor 31) is a great spot that’s open until 2:00am. Here you’ll find the most authentic Kuala Lumpur-style Hokkien Mee this side of the Woodlands/Johor Bahru checkpoint. Unlike local versions, the KL style has thicker, firmer noodles that you can really sink your teeth into. And when one of the tiny cubes of lardon explodes in your teeth it will send you to Flavor Heaven. If you’re pretty hungry, add an order ofsang har hokkien crispy mee.  The crispy little tiles of shredded wanton noodles fried together and oozing with thick, rich sauce will compel you to lick the plate. If you like noodles – or even if you think you don’t – Kong Kee should not be missed.

Fat & fabulous KL-Style noodles at Kong Kee

Fat & fabulous KL-Style noodles at Kong Kee

To really experience the late night energy of Geylang dining that will take you back to Old Singapore, head to JB Ah Meng (2 Lor 23) for some of the best on-the-street eats until 3:00am. It’s done the old school way here, with such sensational dishes as white pepper crab, fried fish skins with sweet mango and spicy sauce, seafood bee hoon and crispy-fried snake beans with dried prawns. 

Outdoor seating, Geylang style at JB Ah Meng

Outdoor seating, Geylang style at JB Ah Meng

At night tables are pulled outdoors, blocking the entire dank alley along the side of this small corner dive. Awnings connected with tarps tied to plastic sheets keep out, well, most of the rain. The rest drips down the encroaching walls of the narrow passage, making it hard for the resident feral cats to stay dry. It’s the closes thing you’ll find to Bangkok street eating, where the food is actually served on the street.

Midnight snack: salted egg prawns at JB Ah Meng

Midnight snack: salted egg prawns at JB Ah Meng

The alley-turned-dining-area beside JB Ah Meng

The alley-turned-dining-area beside JB Ah Meng

Lorong lounging - a popular activity in Geylang

Lorong lounging - a popular activity in Geylang

If you pass nearly any nighttime corner of Geylang Road and its side lorongs you’ll find men sitting at tables along the uneven sidewalks, laden with plates of noodles, pork, assorted duck parts and buckets of cold beer. An alluring “Beer Girl” in her shiny faux leather miniskirt or shorty shorts will be plying them with more beer – usually of the label employing her – and hanging with feigned interest on their every word until it’s time to, y’know, bring more beer. What group of older men don’t love a young woman doting over them with cold beer and an engaging smile? The conversation at the tables is raucous and loud, and despite that you might not understand the language, you’ll feel as if you “get it” as the guys make a quip – perhaps about you – and the whole table bursts into brew-lubed laughter. Laugh with them and you’ll probably get a chair and cold bottle slid in your direction.

Want to go “high end” Geylang style? If you’re with a group and really want to blow the budget then check out Sin Huat Eating House (659 Gaylang Rd at Lor 35), where infamous rude-boy Chef Danny cooks his trademark seafood dishes that are so fresh there’s not even a fridge on site. Wait times may be long and prices are shockingly high for such a run down, open air joint as this, but it’s well worth it and you can eat until midnight. Even Anthony Bourdain lost his mind over the legendary Crab Bee Hoon, in-shell scallops with black bean sauce and a host of classic Singaporean dishes that are as good or better than any you’ll find anywhere.

Sin Huat's legendary live scallops - as fresh as can be

Sin Huat's legendary live scallops - as fresh as can be

One of Geylang's many fresh durian stalls

One of Geylang's many fresh durian stalls

Back on Sims Avenue follow your nose to the ticklish fragrance of a Geylang trademark – durian – sold at many fruit stands along the street throughout the area, including Metro Trading Fruit Company (183 Sims Ave). You can find different varieties of the king of fruits like D15 and the most beloved quality: D24. Try it on the spot – it’s a good finisher to a night of dining and will guarantee ample open space around you on the MRT ride home.

Geylang has long been thought of as a place not easily accessible to the uninitiated, but few beliefs could be more wrong. It offers a vastly different feel and rhythm than the rest of the island, perhaps best described as "sleazy with Singaporean characteristics." Which is to say that one can still safely walk the streets day or night, observing the underbelly verve without actually being a part of it. Despite its “red-light” reputation, it’s revered by most Singaporeans as one of the go-to places for the best local food. So dive into the heart of this most colorful area with it’s festive, grown-up scene and get a taste of the place that so many speak of but so few go.

Black Is Beautiful - the secret behind Singapore's great kaya toast

There's something about the toast in Singapore. With every steaming sweet kopi one can get thin-sliced bread toasted over open heat to a brittle crispness on the outside and a warm tenderness in the middle. A smear of kaya and butter and it's a thing of breakfast beauty. But what makes it so good? I mean, it's just baked bread, right? Wrong -- if it's from Sing Hon Loong.

Blackhead+Bread+(1+of+1).jpg

At Sing Hon Loong Bakery in Singapore's colorful Balestier neighborhood they still bake bread the old school way. Large ovens line the rear of the store behind long tables laden with lumps of hand made dough. At the other end of the table, hot loaves are delivered with tops charred black as if having been forgotten in the oven during a phone call from a long lost lover.

But upon closer examination the loaf tops are charred uniformly and a certain, sumptuous smokiness fills the air as they cool. It’s Blackhead bread, an old Singaporean tradition that they’ve been baking for decades.

The charred cap gives it extra flavor," said the baker. "Try it." He cut a freshly-trimmed slice from a warm loaf and pushed it across the enormous, antique baking counter toward me. He was right, it did have the slightest hint of smoky, almost-caramelized essence, distinct without coming on too strong. That mere suggestion of intense heat on top transformed a common loaf into something exotic, alluring and evocative of an earlier, simpler time.

Though they use some modern equipment today, y'know, like baking ovens that have regulated gas flame instead of a charcoal fire and even a 1960's electric bread slicer to cut the countless finished loaves, the primary equipment used for baking bread here is more organic: human hands. Strong hands that crank out thousands of loaves weekly, and not all the same kind; sweet loaves, raisin, wholemeal, white, and so much more are created here.

But Blackhead loaves are reserved just for kopi, being picked up daily by some of Singapore's most respected kopi institutions across the island including Ya Kun at their famous flagship kopitiam in Chinatown's Far East Plaza

At any given time the one-roomed bakery and store is filled with ancient rolling carts holding trays of cooling or already-cut loaves, or soon to be baked dough. It's rolled, pounded, kneaded and slapped into delectable creations that are as intoxicating to the eye as they are to the tongue.

And the nose. The warm, fresh-baked smells from this fifty year old bakery reach you on the busy street before you even get there. Like a cartoon image, you almost float along the curling trail of delicious, doughy aroma: freshly milled flour, the sweet pinch of live yeast on your nose, the smoky, charred tops. If you like bread then this place will draw you in and keep you coming back.

After the bread has cooled the guy in the back stands barefoot with a long, razor sharp knife and slices the tops off in clean, smooth motions. The black crusts drop to the floor, leaving the line of trimmed loaves resembling new army recruits after getting their high-and-tights. Sliced and toasted, you'd never know the tops were scorched like a forest after a fire -- until you take a bite and get that whisper of smoke that makes you feel warm and safe in the memory of your childhood.

I smiled and nodded slowly while chewing the bread the baker gave me, savoring the deep, earthy flavor and pillowy texture. Then he pushed the entire loaf in my direction. "For your kids," he smiled. See, that's just what chefs and bakers are like throughout this island nation of foodies; if you share a passion for the food they make -- which is the food that their parents made, and the food their parents' parents made -- then you're an instant friend. The international language of food is spoken well in Singapore.

And if you're really friendly you might even get a scoop of sweet butter or kaya from the vat on the counter to spread on a fresh, still-hot slice. By the time you're done you won't be able to leave without at least a couple of baguettes or loaves under your arm.

Sing Hon Loon Bakery

4 Wampoa Drive

Balestier, Singapore