To he who made food exploration easier and cooler -- a Tribute to Steve Jobs.


Today I type this with gentle, quiet fingers, instead of with my usual fury of flying phalanges.

There are few people in this day and age whom I can say were so influential, visionary and simply brilliant that, not only did they positively change the world as we know it, but also changed my own daily life for the better. Steve Jobs was one such person. When I think about his contributions to modern aspects of communication and computing -- making difficult technology easy, even fun, to use -- I am astonished. In history we've all learned about many such people -- inventors and technology innovators like DaVinci, Edison, Franklin, Einstein and so many others -- whose work utterly changed the world. And we tend to think that all the really great inventions have already been made, because we can't imagine more. 

Well, Steve Jobs did imagine more. And he brought those crazy, impossible ideas to reality. He manipulated a machine that was so indescribably complicated and difficult to use into something that is simple for nearly anyone -- wysiwyg on a computer, drag and drop, a mouse?? Welcome the Lisa and Macintosh. He created the ability to easily carry all your music in your pocket and listen to it wherever you are, whenever you want -- iPod. He enabled us to carry a telephone that does almost all of the things which that Macintosh and that ipod, and email and camera and movies and writing and access to any information anywhere in the world at any time and so much more, in one cool, sleek little Hershey's chocolate bar-sized package -- iPhone. He took a super-charged, easy to use Apple computer and squeezed it down into a thin, small, light and very sexy device that you can take anywhere as if you had your entire office in a slim envelope -- iPad. He even made it appropriate to spell proper nouns with a lower case "i" instead of a capital letter, thereby instantly identifying it to everyone as something technologically advanced merely by virtue of that little lower case letter. I could go on and on... but it's easier to say simply that Steve Jobs didn't just change the way we work, play, communicate and even speak; Steve Jobs changed our culture and directed our future.

As a Foodwalker, I use Steve Jobs' brilliant ideas constantly. Whether identifying where to go and eat, to finding it's gps location as I wander lost around unknown neighborhoods, or calling people to come join me because the food is so good, or taking impromptu pics of the food or stalls, or even sitting here now and writing this -- it's all made easier because of Steve Jobs and the global, user-freindly technology industry that he was so critically involved in shaping. Without his imagination, innovation, persistence and unyielding demand for excellence combined with aesthetics -- even to the point of trashing his own creations and starting over again -- many of us foodies would be working a lot harder today for no additional gain. And we wouldn't look nearly as cool, either....


So I take this sad moment of Steve Job's passing to set down the chopsticks, push away the noodles and marvel at the incredible man that was Steve Jobs. Apple will continue -- Steve himself even said that he believed its best days were still ahead of it -- and I have no reason to not believe him. I just can't imagine it, that's all. But imagination and bringing crazy ideas to reality was his forte, not mine, so he must have known what he was talking about when he said it. And that's good enough for me. 

So rest in peace Mr. Jobs, and thanks for making all of our lives better, easier and a whole lot cooler. Our children's children's children will one day study you in school and think to themselves that all the great inventions have already been made....

Secret BBQ chicken wings that aren’t so secret….


In Singapore it’s not advisable to proclaim one hawker center food stall as the “best” for any particular dish. With sky-high food standards virtually wound into the DNA of most Singaporeans, it’s just too controversial an issue. Still, every now and then one stumbles upon a stall which operates on a different level than its competitors and merits bold commentary. Such places are often little-known to the uninitiated, but if you keep your food radar on when waiting in queues or sitting in crowded restaurants, you will inevitably pick up names of secret places in the furtive whispers of locals talking about great food. These are the places to find; the secret food that everyone knows about, but no one thinks anyone else does. In Singapore, however, food secrets don’t stay secret for long.

Singapore Wings
Before I go further, I should say a word about barbecued chicken wings here. They are very popular and found all across the island. But don’t expect the dripping, red bar food favorite of the US, because whether you call it the Queen City, the Nickel City, or even the City of Lights, Buffalo is still over 9000 miles away and its culinary claim to fame is nearly as distant as Singapore’s hawker centers. Here, wings are cooked in one piece – complete from soft tip to meaty shoulder. They are neither deep-fried nor tossed in cayenne sauce, and they are not served with blue cheese or celery. Instead, wrap your culinary imagination around a flame-roasted, slightly charred wing, stretched, tanned until golden and glistening with a thin, soy-based marinade cooked deep into the skin. They are moist inside, crisp outside and barbecued over an open fire. You smell them on wisps of charcoal smoke before you even reach the stall. The wafting aroma summons a primal response, causing you to stretch your neck and strain your eyes in search of the roasting delicacy you suddenly must have. That’s what wings are in Singapore. And they’re usually about three bucks for an order of three – that’s, like, nine wing sections for the US equivalent of the small latte at Starbucks. Need I say more?

The Secret Place
Barbequed chicken is all they do at Sheng Pin Xiang and they do it well. Really well. The stall is tiny, with no menu posted and not a single rating or newspaper review plastered on the wall. The inside is as austere as the outside: neat, clean and oddly uncluttered, almost as if unoccupied. But on this day the sumptuous smoke trailing from the fire said otherwise, and it pulled me like a cartoon character toward the small, open counter, behind which stood a sole cook calmly tending to a row of plump chicken wings on the steel skewer.

The wings looked sexy roasting over that perfect bit of gray and red glowing charcoal – and not those little briquettes, but earthy, blackened twigs and branches of carbonized wood. Flames danced rhythmically to the fizzing and popping of chicken fat dripping from just inches away. The meat shimmered in the heated haze as if alive and teasing my taste buds with slow-cooking aloofness; its smoky aroma broadcasting the wonders of things to come. Minutes stretched like hours as I stood, transfixed, while the meat cooked, slowly, slowly. Until at last the cook lifted them from the fire and in one smooth move slid them from the skewer to a thick wood carving board, cleaved them into sections and eased them onto my waiting plate.

The Wings
I took my order to a nearby table and examined it like a scientist. Each wing was roasted to a deep, golden gloss with just a tinge of crispy carbon along the edges. Steam bubbled through the skin in miniscule puffs of heavenly perfume like a prelude to the first bite. A slight, sweet/tart essence from the soy mystery brew that the cook had brushed on during cooking elevated the juicy, free-range flavor to heights which, in its live state, that bird could not have flown. The citrus sparkle of the tiny calamansi lime
I squirted on, combined with a drizzle of fire-orange chili/garlic/ginger sauce for just the right touch of heat, sent me into a tailspin of gastronomic delirium.

Maybe it was the exceptional quality of chicken that made these tender wings so profoundly delicious. Or perhaps it was the charcoal, or the soy BBQ, or the fresh lime, or the chili sauce. Probably it was all of these combined. But whatever it was, I now daringly stick my neck out and proclaim the barbecued wings from this obscure little stall in the middle of a Toa Payoh hawker center as the best I have ever had. Anywhere.

So far, that is, because I will keep my ear low to the ground in hopes of catching yet more whispers of secret places to eat. But in the meantime, remember – this is my own whisper about my own secret place. So mums the word….

Packaged Laksa?!?



I’ve been spending a lot of my time over the least few weeks eating laksa. As a foodwalker I would be remiss if I didn’t – it’s one of Singapore’s premiere foods, even if loyal Malaysians argue that it’s not actually ours. But like so many things splashing over the rim of Singapore’s melting pot, the initial origin of a food does not bestow proprietary rights. Even before the early days when the legendary Mr. Janggut pedaled his short-noodle version in Katong, laksa has been one of Singapore’s most popular dishes. Today it’s found in nearly every hawker center in every heartland neighborhood. It’s in food courts, restaurants, hotels – even the airport and the Botanic Gardens. And it’s found at home, too. One stroll through a grocery store will reveal many brands of instant laksa, each extolling superior quality and taste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Prepackaged laksa on the shelves of your friendly neighborhood grocer? That’s treading dangerously close to that other ubiquitous meal-in-a-minute: Ramen. And comparing real ramen – a culinary discipline taking a lifetime to perfect – to those cellophane squares of stale noodles and foil packs, 10 for a buck, is much like comparing Sean Connery and George Lanzenby as James Bond: the name, pistol and cocktail are the same, but that’s as far as it goes.

Taking issue with my dour view of pre-packaged versions of any soup that normally takes all day to make, however, was a comrade in my world of food exploration. We were sitting in a hawker center eating kway chap (stewed pig organs) and beef laksa, having just talked to the guy in the stall who for the last forty years has been coming to work at 1:00 am to start his soup for the afternoon crowd. "Well, there is one instant brand that’s pretty good," my friend murmured under his breath, avoiding eye contact and the risk of physical reprisal. What’s that?" I clamored, shocked at such a statement. But he stood his ground, cleared his throat and almost looked me in the eye.  "Prima Taste," he said.

I wanted to disagree with him as a matter of principle. No way a small package from the deep shelves of Fairprice can spawn anything remotely similar to the rich, coconut, fish, spices and chili elixir that takes so long to make. But I let logic supersede my welling desire to ridicule. He is, after all, a committed eater both respected and knowledgeable about local food. Plus he’s Singaporean Chinese, so I figure he might know a thing or two. Prima Taste?

Just hours later I found myself scanning the rows of instant soups. I counted 9 brands of laksa, each claiming to be authentic. Some were better packaged than others – even going beyond cellophane and opting instead for a box (with essentially the same ingredients). I found the Prima Taste laksa and – purely in the name of food science – grabbed four, hid them beneath the toilet paper in my shopping cart and absconded as quickly as I could.

In the kitchen I examined the package more closely. The instructions were clear and simple and the level of fat suggested that this did, indeed, have some real laksa ingredients (read: this stuff is really bad for the waistline).
As this was an impromptu and somewhat dubious experiment, I did not have additions which are de rigueur in any decent laksa: fishcake, tofu, prawn and laksa leaves. So I decided to first taste the laksa as it was presented in the package, then add other ingredients from the fridge; a little cooked chicken, some sliced porkballs and fresh coriander.

The package consisted of packed Laksa premix powder, laksa spice paste smelling of balachan and a round block of nicely formed noodles. Still doubtful, I gently cooked the paste before adding the premix and water.

The noodles plumped and thickened in minutes as the broth roiled. And in just seven minutes I had before me a surprisingly fragrant pot of soup.















In the bowl, the laksa was both visually tantalizing and tasty. The noodles had a firm bite but then softened in the mouth, delivering a well incorporated noodle-to-broth balance.  The curry itself had a rich coconut background against which the pronounced seafood and spice tastes might almost fool one into thinking it had been made with the real thing. The spice level was also well defined; lighter than most authentic versions (presumably toned down for a mass market) but piquant enough to satisfy your average chili craving.

When I slurped my last noodle and drained the bowl of any remaining drops of the bright orange broth I realized that somewhere in the midst of my meal I had forgotten my predisposition against packaged soup. The laksa was, indeed, delicious, in a last minute, whip-it-up-at-home sort of way. And while it may not displace the toiling of laksa masters who have for generations been carefully blending fresh ingredients into the masterpiece that is well-made laksa, it will also not make the great Janggut roll in his grave. 

In other words – much as it pains me to say – Prima Taste Laksa is worthy of a spot in my quick-cook kitchen cupboard.


On the food trail of Singapore restaurants


From the Boathouse's rooftop bar, Prelude
Despite that so much information about Singapore’s food and dining scene is on the net, it’s sometimes hard to decide on new sit-down places to eat which are both exciting and fit the budget. The result for many is a restaurant rut. “That’s just missing out on opportunities,” says Desi Wentink, Director of DiningCity.com. “People need to pull themselves out of that rut and try something completely different.” Which pretty much sums up DiningCity.com’s mission of defining a broader middle and upper-level go-to restaurant market throughout Singapore. 

DiningCity.com is one of Singapore’s premier on-line restaurant reservation services, with up to 90 fine dining establishments currently on their roster and more being added weekly. “We carefully select restaurants who meet our quality and service standards,” explains Wentink. "If they don't make our grade, they don't make the list." The on-line site includes photographs and menus to give diners a clear idea of where they are going before they get there. “It eliminates the uncertainty,” says the business’ thirty-something Dutch Director.

A fleet of BMW's took us to great food
But DiningCity.com doesn’t stop there. “To help people discover new restaurants we started  Singapore Restaurant Week, where twice a year diners can try out unfamiliar restaurants for a minimal investment.” Restaurant Week participants – including some of Singapore’s newest and best eateries – offer premium three course menus for a fixed price ($35 for dinner; $25 for lunch). Bookings are made through a designated site (www.restaurantweek.sg) which offers real-time reservations with a minimum of ease. It’s been done in Europe and the United States, and even here in Singapore when, last March, more than 24,000 bookings were made in the one-week period. This year is expected to be even greater.

To give an idea of just how terrific discovering new restaurants during Singapore Restaurant Week is, DiningCity.com recently took a few of us on a food tasting trail of three often overlooked establishments. “Restaurant week is a time for exciting discovery of great food and service.” Wentink explained in the back seat of one of the several BMW 745’s which whisked us between venues.

Desi Wentink & Garibaldi Chef Roberto Galetti
We started at Garibaldi Italian Restaurant and Bar (36 Purvis Street) where chef/owner Roberto Galetti indulged us with sea scallops in a pool of cauliflower purée topped with a dollop of smoked caviar, and accompanied by a gentle truffle/pumpkin soup. The smooth and balanced flavor of the sweet pumpkin, earthy truffle and tickling cream paved the path for perfectly cooked scallops, sweetened by its cauliflower bath and sharpened with the delicate pop of caviar. Combined with a Torres Fransola Sauvignon Blanc 2008 provided by Culina, the starter was a masterful flavor experience and a teaser to just how good the restaurant is.

Novus chef Stephan Zois
Next was our unknown destination for the main course. We pulled through the gates of Singapore’s magnificent National Museum and to the doors of NoVus Restaurant and Bar, where European cuisine is honed to a modern edge (93 Stamford Road in the National Museum). Tempting as it was, I by-passed the smoked duck confit with potato gratin and wild mushrooms, and the celeriac of wild mushroom and cannelloni fondant, opting instead for Berkshire pork belly. It rested luxuriously on a fluffy bed of saffron risotto, perfectly ocher in color and with a perfect balance of texture and wetness. The pork was moist and rich and melted luxuriously in my mouth with almost no chew. Accompanying it was a careful mélange of tiny seasonal veg and a kerchief of Joselito ham adding depth with its subtle saltiness. And as if reading my mind, Chef Stephan Zoisl rested a wafer of pork crackling atop the masterpiece to add that porky crunch that I so deeply craved. Culina’s recommended 2007 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano by Ruffino Lodola Nuova was a perfect partner.

We ended the evening overlooking Marina Bay and the spectacular downtown skyline from Prelude rooftop bar at the Boathouse (Waterboat House, 3 Fullerton Rd.). A savarin of  caramelized apples with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti 2006, made for a sweet close to a sweet night of dining discovery.

I asked Wentink if she had experienced any disappointments with restaurants participating in prior Restaurant Weeks. ““Diners in Singapore know the difference between good food and a scam so the restaurants roll out the red carpet for them,” she replied. “But there was one place that skimped on the discounted menu in our first Restaurant Week. They quickly realized their mistake and begged us to be included in the next one, at which time they blew everybody away!”

Singapore Restaurant Week will run from 9 to 16 October 2011 with nearly 100 participating eateries. Bookings can be made online from 21 September 2011 at www.restaurantweek.sg. In the meantime, click over to DiningCity.com to get a head start on some of the great restaurants you've never been to.

Cuy in Pisaq, Valle Sagrado Peru

Cuy al horno and potatoes -- the way it's been cooked for a thousand years

People recoiled at the notion, their faces contorted with expressions of revulsion. I couldn’t understand why. “It’s just a guinea pig!” I explained. “No different than eating a squirrel or rat.” More pained faces at the comparison.

But in Peru – especially in the high altitude Andes region – there is no such reaction. Instead you see smiles and licking of lips. Because in Peru guinea pig – known as Cuy (pronounced “coo-yi”)  is not just a staple of mountain dining but a delicacy respected by all who appreciate the wonders of this country’s culinary offerings – which is to say, some of the best food on the planet.

Pre-cooked cuy in its cute little living form.
Cuy is not a shock value food in Peru. It’s an age-old part of the everyday diet in the mountain regions including such famous places as Cuzco. It’s even popular at lower elevations like in Lima, where it can be found in local neighborhood joints to high-end gourmet establishments. Well-heeled Limeños may at first say they don’t eat cuy, but will subsequently admit that they love it once the meat is removed and served fancy-like. That’s loco, I say – one should understand the origins of their culinary desire. And with cuy, that means having it the way it’s been eaten for centuries – whole.

A wood oven dreams are made of.

 So when in the Andean village of Pisaq in the Valle Sagrado we heard there was a guy down a narrow alley who roasts cuy al horno all day long, I was off like a shot to find him. I almost walked past the old wooden gate that opened into a cobblestone courtyard until, at the far end, I spotted an adobe barn housing a large stone and mud oven. The orange glow of wood burning inside lured me closer. It was an oven Mario Batali would kill for. The mud and straw bricks were made by hand, the oven’s perfect dome was stacked and set individually a hundred years ago by Indians who learned the skill from their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors before them. The outside was charred black from decades of smoke and near constant cooking. A trail of soot curled out of the opening and upward into the barn. This was the real deal, where the food cooks to perfection almost by itself, as if tended by spirits of the Inca who figured it all out centuries before.

Bread fresh from the oven.
This courtyard behind some local storefronts was not a restaurant but rather just a place where they cook simple food for locals to buy. But the industrious owner did have the good sense to set a couple of beat up tables off to one side, so we were all set. He was busy maneuvering his long wooden paddle deep inside the oven. With the smoothness of a gondolier he moved the paddle in and out until finally removing a dented steel sheet pan of freshly baked bread. The loaves were small, oval and golden brown. Tapping the thin crust returned a deep, resonating sound, indicating soft, steaming bread inside. Only a great oven can produce such things of beauty.

Roasted Cuy stuffed with simple herbs and some potatoes alongside.
Working the wood oven.
He set the bread aside, slipped the paddle back in and pulled out another sheet pan, this one lined with six fresh roasted cuy and a pile of locally-grown potatoes. He slid the pan down onto the ground by his feet as steam trialed upwards carrying a rich porky/charred/meaty aroma. The cuy were stretched out, giving them a surprising length. Their feet curled into clawed fists and their mouths, wide open, revealed long sharp teeth. If you taste your food first with your eyes but go no further, these were not especially delectable.

Fresh roasted Guinea Pig -- it's what's for lunch!
Until my gaze drifted downward to the skin below the shoulders – where the visual “taste” began to change. The gorgeous golden sheen of the skin, still bubbling beneath it’s crispy surface was enough to bring the most ardent roast pork lover to his knees. It exuded taste and texture, making my mouth water like Pavlov’s pet beside a ringing bell. The creature was small, but to my hungry eyes it looked like a feast of flavor.

Raising cuy requires little effort, space or special food.
Cuy is a more logical alternative to other meat for the residents of the high hills of Peru’s Andes. Raised for food as far back as 5000BC, the nutrition-to-weight value of a cuy is very high and they happily survive on local grasses and vegetable scraps from the houshold. More importantly, farming cuy requires little space or special care – they are often raised indoors –  and reproduce, well, like rodents. So growing cuy for food makes good sense for local farmers and, of course, tastes great.

The man offered to cut it up for me, his old iron knife at the ready. Quartering the beast revealed inside the body cavity a thin lining of local green herbs and garlic that he had stuffed in before cooking. He handed the pan of cuy to me with a few potatoes and an aji amarillo (spicy chilli pepper) stuffed with smashed potatoes, corn and peas.

Crispy skin like roasted pork, followed by succulent meat.
The first bite of cuy started with a profoundly satisfying crunch of skin, combined with a subtle sensation of eucalyptus from the wood in the oven. Immediately following was a moist penetration into succulent meat which appeared exactly like pork. The flavor was rich and deep, much like suckling pig, only lighter and even more delicate. The herbal infusion added a hint of vegetation suggestive of what the animal ate in life. From head to toe the cuy was luscious, not at all gamey and delivered a full-on meaty experience -- with virtually no fat yet with the rich flavor as if there was. One bite and my kids jumped in, followed by my wife. And when we were done there was little left but claw and bone.

From skin to bone (except the head), cuy resembles fantastic pork.
There is a lot of mystery around the name for this tasty food source, as it is neither related to a pig nor comes from Guinea. But before I finished chewing I realized – perhaps – why the guinea pig is called what it is. Looking past its cute little furry appearance, its semblance is very much porcine. From the color and texture of its flesh to the crispness of its skin and the flavor of its meat, cuy is like miniature pork. But not just any pork; like prized tukusen toriniku pork, so tender and juicy and filled with flavor. So perhaps its name was coined in a little village like Pisaq – a plate-sized personal pig waiting to be devoured just as they have been forever. 

Good vibrations on Pagoda Street – Chuan Garden Sichuan Restaurant


To many, Singapore’s Chinatown consists primarily of Pagoda Street and a few cross streets with knickknack stores and mediocre eateries bulging onto the sidewalk. Except when showing out-of-towners around, locals tend to avoid these eateries along the trinket trail – we see them as tourist traps, overpriced or just plain “un-cool” to be caught dining at.

But some restaurants in this part of Chinatown get a bad rap just because of their location. Take for example Chuan Garden Restaurant, a glass fronted, air conditioned Sichuan restaurant immediately at the top of the MRT escalator on Pagoda Street. It’s hard to find a more touristy location this side of Marina Bay. There’s even a pedestal with a menu outside. But my mother always said “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and so applying that principle here, I gave it a try.

Inside, Chuan Garden is pleasant: simple tables, tasteful décor and not much clutter. Our plan was to focus on a couple of fundamentals to gauge the kitchen’s Sichuan skill.  Contradicting our minority ang moh status in the restaurant, we told the waitress to give us authentic Sichuan heat; not some tamed-down tourist version.

We started with a classic Mapo Doufu which to me is a Sichuan basic which forecasts the quality of my pending meal. The tofu was cubed larger than typical, giving ample surface area to hold the spicy chili oil and finely minced beef. The initial taste attack was complex and savory, if not a bit salty even for this dish. The chili heat unwound slowly, starting as a warm sensation accompanied with a hearty meat and scallion flavor. From there it elevated to a medium burn as the oil coated the back of my palate and worked its way down. Perhaps hot by the tourist standards, we found it to be pleasantly piquant but not overwhelming (was our heat level mandate lost in translation?). Then the third layer of taste – Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao) – revealed itself with its hallmark vibrato of quivering inside my mouth, and I started to relax about the food. The heat level stalled just below medium-high but delivered enough other flavor and silky tofu texture to make up for its spicy shortcomings.

La Zhi Ji
We moved on to another basic Sichuan requirement:  La Zhi Ji. To me a plate of these crispy chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies is one of the most exciting Sichuan dishes I know, because eating it is both a challenge and a dare. The challenge: to dig through the pile of fiercely hot chilies and find the golden chunks hidden within; the dare: to resist devouring chopsticksful of the maliciously titillating chilies themselves.


The all-dark-meat chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, delivering excellent texture and chew factor. The red chilies imparted a satisfying, but utterly bearable fire. A scattering of sesame seeds, scallions and a few hua jiao added freshness and a little numbness to each bite. But as good as it tasted, something was missing. And it took a few minutes before I realized just what that was: the thrill of the hunt.

A platter of La Zhi Ji should bring out the child in those of us who like to play with their food. Finishing this dish should spark an emotional  rollercoaster of disappointment and triumph: the dejected sense of failure when desperately digging for a final, elusive scrap of chicken, and the heroic exuberance of actually finding one. It makes the dish exactly what Sichuan food should be: exciting and fun! But without enough chilies to lose the chicken in, Chuan Garden’s La Zhi Ji left me feeling somehow shortchanged; like being handed a free prize at the carnival rather than winning it myself. I wanted to work for my pain!

Mala Frog Legs
But if the volume of chilies amongst the chicken fell short, the hua jiao peppercorns in the Mala frog legs made amends. The dish was presented in a raised bowl, heated beneath and sizzling deep in the bottom. Silky frogs legs were nestled between a bite sized medley of green and red capsicum, cubes of chayote, fiery red chilis and a very generous handful of whole garlic cloves. They were cooked to perfection and just so Ma! The richness of the frog legs permeated the glistening peppers and firm garlic with not a hint of swampy tang. Best of all, a fistful of hua jiao was tossed in and – like sirens temping wayward seafarers to steer toward the rocky shores and their certain demise – their flowery redolence lured our craving lips closer to repeated helpings despite the searing pain. The dish steamed beneath our noses, the spice level skyrocketed as our sweat pores loosened, and the numbing vibrations in the tissue of our lips accelerated to staccato pounding on the roof of our mouths. Finally we had reached the pinnacle of the Chengdo mountain and suffered the full-on heatfest of our cravings. And it hurt so good!

Indeed, straying further from Chinatown’s touristy center leads to excellent food from the motherland and beyond. But while Chuan Garden may not fill the (sadly empty) shoes of such Sichuan stalwarts as say, Ba Yu Ren Jia, it’s good to know that even amidst the tourist fervor of Pagoda Street, there is good food to be found.

Chuan Garden Restaurant, 79 Pagoda Street, Singapore

Noodling around: KL Style Hokkien Mee at Kong Kee.


On invitation of an esteemed foodie friend I recently foodwalked to Kong Kee Seafood, a corner kopitiam in Geylang. It’s not hard to spot this place – just look for the large, colorful food photos above the two-sided entry, which trail into the outdoor, covered area. Our focus this day was KL style Hokkien Mee; so different from the usual Singapore style, with thicker noodles and a deeper flavor.  The lineup included two variations: the normal KL style hokkien mee and one with freshwater prawns.

The most distinguishing visible aspect of Kong Kee's KL hokkien mee compared to what is normally found in Singapore are the noodles themselves. Instead of the local yellow egg noodles used here, these are tai loke noodles, a thicker noodle, smooth and nearly a quarter-centimeter in diameter, with a luscious, dense texture, slick and slippery on the palate and with a very satisfying bite factor. These are noodles you can really sink you teeth into. They are brought directly from KL – it’s sad to think that no one is making this style of thicker, heavier noodle in Singapore. 

The richness of the dark sauce adorning the mee is borne from a stock melange of pork, chicken and flatfish, simmered slowly over an open flame for more than five hours. The noodles are then cooked in the savory elixir, adding a depth to their own opulent, plumpness. The sauce, so black and rich, is sticky like honey clinging to the noodles and imparting a rich, deep soy and spice flavor – savory but not bitter; naturally dulcet but not sweet. Balanced.


The difference between the 2 variations was significant. Prawns sat majestically on top of a mound of noodles, hues of red and orange glistening on the large, split shells with fat tails and head. But despite its beauty, nowhere in the sauce did we taste the essence of prawn; no delicate sweetness of roe; no briny notes of the sea. This was because the shellfish had been steamed separately and merely set on top of the noodles. To the chef’s defense, it did make for a more appealing appearance, but we chanted in unison Wah, cook the prawn together to make the dish special! Proprietor Jasmine Gan graciously accepted our comments for future versions.

Also missing in the prawn version was a trademark hokkien mee ingredient -- that singular requirement which, above all others, makes a good dish great and a great dish over the top -- lard. A quick rush in the kitchen overcame this crippling deficit with a generous bowl of hot-off-the-wok lardon bits which, like junkies slapping their arms for a quick fix, we quickly sprinkled on top and sighed a chorus of satisfaction as the hot fat crunched gently amidst the noodles then melted in our mouths.  No one can argue that limiting the lard is heart healthy; especially for those who are especially cholesterol conscious. But for me, the lardon bits saved the dish from a harsher commentary.



The plain hokkien mee faced no such risk of reprisal from our table. The same fat noodles graced the plate, the dark sauce coating each length like savory molasses. The slippery noodles snaked their way between my lips, resisted ever so slightly against my teeth, then relinquished into a perfect mee texture. Each bite delivered that priceless breath of almost-burnt-but-not-quite flavor from the searing wok. And the plunging depth of that je ne sais quoi flavor of, yes, lard infused within the sauce was both comforting and exciting at the same time. And with a generous sprinkle of the lardon on top, the dish transported me to previously undiscovered hokkien mee heights.

Of course man does not live on hokkien mee alone, and in addition to the noodles we tried the chef’s own crispy fried grouper chunks. A floss of greenery crowned the mound of golden fried fish sitting in a delicate rice nest flecked with minced red chilies. The texture of the fish was firm like little poppers, if not mildly dry, and was coated in a fine granular powder of herbs, sesame and other flavorful ingredients which were so tasty we wished they clung more tenaciously to the fish.


We also had 2 variations of sang har bee hoon and an order of sang har hor fun with prawns. Each was very nicely done but it was the sang har hokkien crispy mee that captured my attention most; light layers of noodles fried together to form delicious little tiles which oozed with rich sauce. We finished the meal with a serving of peanut paste and a chocolate paste, each with glutinous rice balls. Each was delicate and thin -- not overly sweet or cloying -- and the glutinous rice balls, filled with red bean paste, were like tender cotton balls of flavor and texture.


So whether the black KL style hokkien mee at Kong Kee is as good as that available in KL, I really can’t say. But the noodles are the same and with their richness of taste and the obvious good cooking technique displayed by our chef, I suspect it’s a pretty close contest. Combine them with the other offerings and Kong Kee is a great option among so many in Geylang.



Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant -- 611 Lorong 31, Geylang, Singapore

Tian Tian - a shrine to Singapore's (unofficial) national dish.



National symbols. Every country has at least one. In the US it’s the bald eagle; in Singapore the Merlion. But national icons aren’t just symbols, they can also be foods. In the United States—especially in the Summer—it’s hamburgers and hot dogs. The whole world attempts to replicate the good old American burger or frank, trying to capture that elusive, special something that backyard grills produce every weekend from sea to shining sea. But for reasons which most Americans abroad can’t describe, few places outside the States do it as well as at home. It’s just one of those things, where the flavor of the dish somehow exceeds the mere combination of its ingredients. And when it does, it’s magic. 


It’s no different in Singapore. Talk to anyone about Singapore’s unofficial national food and the conversation will quickly turn to one iconic dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s perhaps the most controversial issue in Singapore’s food world and everyone has their own opinion of how to eat it and who makes it best. But within this sea of discourse arises one place that most agree is a benchmark against which all others are measured: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre.  It’s world renowned, thanks to the praise by celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, New York Times food critics and food experts the world over. Anyone who knows Singapore's favorite dish knows Tian Tian. 


 Just what is it that makes Tian Tian's chicken rice one of the best in Singapore? “It all starts with the chickens,” explains the master himself, Mr. Loi Chi Sam who, with his wife Madam Soo Kui Lian, turned the small stall started by her brother into the Singaporean eating institution it is today. The birds – specially raised in Malaysia – are boiled in an elixir of pandan leaves, ginger, garlic and stock made from birds which preceded them. They are then plunged into ice water for 45 minutes. Meanwhile fragrant Thai rice is cooked with the same stock that the birds bathed in, imparting a delicately-infused flavor that makes the dish truly unique.

Arriving at the eight by eight foot stalls – now two which are connected -- you inevitably encounter a sizable queue. Best not to fight it; just jump in and watch the action behind the counter. One guy cuts chicken; another preps the plates with a mound of rice and a few strips of cucumber; a third takes the orders and collects the money; while behind them is at least one other guy, cooking rice, boiling the chickens, or plunging them into the ice bath to seize the thin layer of fat into luscious, subcutaneous goodness. All under the watchful eye of the Mr. Loi.

Meanwhile, hungry diners scoop the three most critical accoutrements into bowls: Tian Tian’s chili sauce – a secret mixture of blazing orange chilies, ginger and garlic – thick black soy syrup and fresh grated ginger. Every bite should include these ingredients to bring out dish’s full splendor, but everyone does it differently. Some dip the meat into the sauces before eating, then chase it with a spoonful of rice. Others combine the rice and chicken, having first scooped sauces into the spoon. Still others pour them directly on the mound of chicken and rice, stir it all together and shovel it into their mouths as quickly as possible.

The manner of eating it determines the taste,” several people advise me as I sit in the hawker center with my own precious plate. But for me, any way you eat the tender rice with silky meat and glistening skin is the right way. And as I take that first bite I realize that maybe the reason everyone has such strong opinions about chicken rice is because the delicate yet distinct flavor touches the soul personally. Exclusively. The magic of Tian Tian’s chicken rice lies somewhere beyond it’s mere recipe; there's something more going on to make this seemingly simple dish better than so many other chicken rice stalls across Singapore. No one in Maxwell, other than the soft-spoken Mr. Loi himself, knows quite what that is. But one look at this quiet hawker legend and you know he’s not giving it up anytime soon.

Sushi Appreciation

It started out as a casual invitation to get together with a few people and eat some sushi -- presented by Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost. But to my pleasant surprise, it was not so casual after all. Instead, Chef Thomas Kok of Hokkaido Sushi in Singapore’s M Hotel moved to the front of the room with a cooler full of nothing less than the best sushi in Singapore.
Armed with little more than a thick cutting board and an exceedingly sharp knife, Chef Kok explained the art of sushi, the different qualities of fish and the proper way to kill, cut and, of course, eat his wonders of the sea. He sliced to our hearts' and stomachs' delight. His cuts were flawless, the fish so fresh it had a near-crunchy texture to it, delivering clean, by-the-sea flavors with every chew. The amount of fish that Chef Kok had was staggering; whole fish, cut at the tail, but not severed, white fish, red fish, shellfish and even $500 slabs of tuna glistened on his cutting board. In all he prepared twenty-eight dishes, carefully explaining the subtle yet significant differences between such tastes as Hamachi and Kampachi, and Hon Chu Toro versus Hon O Toro. The list went on and on and each bite -- starting with sashimi, through sushi and into lightly cooked items -- got better and better.


The depth of sushi knowledge shared was expansive; not just how to cut fish precisely and make perfectly sticky yet surprisingly light rice, but even the flavor and texture variations between specific parts of the anatomy. And not just of Chef Kok but also of Leslie, who was fully conversant on the topic.



And at the end of the session, as if to acknowledge the evolution of ancient fish dragging themselves from the wet, primordial ooze, Chef Kok strayed from the sea onto dry land with remarkable Japanese Wagyu beef. Licked for mere seconds by the flames of a blowtorch and dashed with crushed black pepper, the meat was so comprehensively marbled and rich that it radiated with shiny flavor. But keeping to his genesis, Chef Kok served it as sushi -- cut perfectly and laid atop his own magical rice.


And thus ended a memorable day of sushi that would have sated even the gustatory cravings of Poseidon.

What is a Foodwalker?


You just may not be the triathlete type like many of your trailing-male brethren here,” my wife pointed out as delicately as she could one morning as I stepped out of the shower. A lugubrious look in the mirror confirmed her theory. When I first came to Singapore I expected to lose weight. I thought those errant, unbidden pounds would simply melt off me in the hot tropical sun. That was before I discovered the food. Truth is my passions are more closely tied to food than to triathlons; my interests more about what is in the cups they thrust at the passing racers than the race itself. Not a wining formula in the world of weight loss and fitness. So, what to do?
Do what you love; love what you do,” read the slogan on one of my tee shirts, and it struck a chord that day. And so was born the concept of foodwalking; where you walk to your food, get good exercise and eat guilt-free. Now I spend my time combing the streets, seeing the sights and enjoying the flavors that make Singapore famous. My wife was right: I am not a triathlete; I am a Foodwalker.
It’s about food; it’s about walking. It’s the activity that is both good for you and tastes good. The tools of the trade: comfortable shoes, a bottle of water and a sweat rag. Maybe bring a food guide. Beyond that it’s up to you; walk where you want, eat what you want, see what you want to see. You can chart your course, follow an itinerary or just freestyle it, starting anywhere and just seeing where your feet—and your stomach—take you. Either way you’ll walk briskly in the hot, Singaporean sun while the sweat pours and your heart pounds. Make it as easy or challenging as you want because foodwalking is not about getting from point A to B, but rather the journey in getting there. It is geographic and gastronomic travel on a local level; exploration on a well-worn path. And it’s good for anyone old enough to strap on their own shoes and carry a water bottle. 
There are those of us, of course, who take foodwalking to a professional level. We head out in the morning and finish after dinner. We walk far, sweat liters, and eat lots. Recently a fellow foodwalker and I started the day tasting kaya toast in Tiong Bahru, had five lunches between Chinatown and Arab Street, and finished with a pre-dinner comparison of thosai in Little India. Along the way we witnessed life in HDB housing estates, wandered solemnly around temples and took shelter from a malevolent storm in an historic landmark. We explored hawker centers and eating houses, cut through malls and strolled down narrow streets and small parks which we never knew existed. We sat with strangers—colorful personalities who spoke of old Singapore—and drank warm kopi and cold beer. It was a day of discovery and culture in the place we call home. It was a foodwalking day.

Best of all—and here’s the real secret—is that in addition to the obvious physical benefits, foodwalking sneaks in some psychological perks. A strange thing happens when you wander down unfamiliar streets or into buildings that you have passed so many times but never ventured into: you discover riches all around you. You smirk with wonderment and scratch your head in surprise at the fascinating places and people who live all around you. You fall in love with Singapore all over again. 

So if you are feeling a little too deep in that rut of everyday existence, do yourself a favor and take a foodwalk. Go somewhere different; eat something new. Get lost for a while. And rediscover the magic of this special place where you live.