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An epicurean retrospective

Written by Emmy on 10 July 2011

I’ve been back in New York for over a week, and I have finally adjusted to the time difference and to the fact that everything I eat is not nose-running eyes-tearing mouth-numbing spicy. I’ve been catching up with all my family and friends and the first-ish question I am asked is, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” It’s a question I’m having a difficult time answering and when my grandmother saw me pause, she rephrased the question to something more in line with the bulk of my blog posts. “What was your favorite thing that you ate on the trip?”

Well, I still can’t entirely figure out how to answer that either. (I have often been accused of being indecisive.) But that question provides a much better launch point for my reflections of our voyage.

We ate a lot of food. I think that much is clear from the blog, not to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I think there were probably a few wagers going as to what size we would return as, and I am happy to say that our eating adventure did not take a lasting toll. (We did a lot of walking and Asian portions are small.) But all the food was intended for more than just gustatory pleasure. There is no better way to understand a culture than through the way people cook, shop for, obsess over and eat their food.

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Two years ago, I spent a semester living in Barcelona. While I was there, I was swept up in the romance of the three-hour lunch and the afternoon tapa. A couple weeks in, I had forsaken all cooking implements other than a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil. In Spain, food is inherently linked to family. The lengthy afternoon meal is meant to be enjoyed at home, and all business stops for it to happen. Coffee to-go is hard to find because you should linger over your morning cup and conversation. We don’t do “fast coffee,” I was once told by a native.

From these culinary traditions, it was possible to learn so much about the people and their values. Granted, I had four months to figure it out. But the way the Spaniards eat — and especially the Catalan people of Barcelona — speaks tremendous volumes about their temperament and lifestyle.

Though I did not have the luxury of four months of discovering Southeast Asian food, I think I got a pretty good taste (literally) in our four weeks there. Keeping this blog and focusing on food really kept us on task. At every meal, I felt compelled to analyze all aspects of my dish, whereas normally I might have just gobbled it up. Likewise, the blog kept us from straying too far away from the native cuisines. I can count on one hand the number of times we ate something non-local: chopped salads and tuna sandwiches in Hong Kong, Middle Eastern fare at Jerusalem Falafel in Chiang Mai, German-themed cuisine in Singapore and some Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies leftover from the plane.

Even without the blog we would have eaten quite a bit of Asian food, but there was a sense of imposed focus and a heightened eye for detail. (Often as we were typing away, we would comment out loud, “Who died and made me a food critic?”)

IMG_0936We really did not try to disguise the fact that we were tourists.

All of the cuisines we enjoyed shared ingredients and seasonings, but the results were so different. And it was not just the foods that struck me in each country, but also the ways in which they were served and enjoyed.

In Hong Kong, where evidence of British colonialism is still so clear, traditional Chinese restaurants where no English is spoken are found on the same blocks as settings for the imported tradition of high tea. Both are frequented, but I suspect overlap in clientele is limited. Dining out is a experience to be had by all on the little island. Property is expensive in Hong Kong, and so people rarely entertain in their homes, we learned. Instead, families and friends gather for rituals like the Sunday dim sum, where they fight for their food with the best of them.

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Just miles away in Macau, the evidence of another western colonizer is still strong. Though Hong Kong and Macau are both now technically part of China, they have maintained their individuality. For Hong Kong, a strong and highly developed economy sets it apart from its motherland. Macau has casinos and historic Catholic churches, but they also have a cuisine unlike anything else in Asia. Where else can you find Portuguese egg tarts and pulled piglet jerky side by side? Though there are very few Portuguese speakers left in Macau, those who speak only Cantonese still know what vinho verde is.

In Thailand, tradition reigns strong too, but here, it is the traditions cultivated internally. Thailand prides itself on having been the only nation in the region to never have been colonized. As a result, the food lacks the European influence that we saw elsewhere. Thai food gets its strength from its ingredients because the recipes that have developed over time are based solely upon ingredients that can be grown and raised in the country itself. As we reflected while there, this gives the cuisine a beautiful consistency and simplicity. The same dish that can be found in the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok can also be found on a street corner in a back alley market.

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Betel leaf wraps at Cabbages and Condoms, and the do-it-yourself version at a street market (for $1)

Overall, food in Thailand was my favorite of the cuisines we sampled on our trip. It’s not really a fair fight; Thai food came into the ring with a strong preexisting bias. Of the foods we ate on our trip, I had the most previous experience eating Thai food. The way in which the Thai people cook also aligns with my preferences. All Thai dishes work to achieve a balance between four things: spicy, sour, sweet and salty. The inherent inclination toward citrus, chili and nuts fits exactly with how I like my food. Plus, the Thai build many of their dishes around chicken, shrimp or tofu (or all three) as opposed to the mystery meats found in Chinese cuisine.

I haven’t had Thai food since being back in the states, and I’m almost nervous to. With all the emphasis we’ve put on ingredients, how can a papaya salad on Long Island even begin to compare to one built from the markets of Thailand?

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On our first day in Bangkok, as we walked and tried to navigate the traffic, we came upon a series of picnic tables obstructing about 80 percent of the sidewalk. Each of the tables had condiments, a bowl of chili peppers, a bowl of greens and other typical toppings. As we continued, we saw more of the same tables, crowded with locals who were being served from a makeshift kitchen in what appeared to be the breakdown lane of the major road we were walking next to. “Wait,” we turned to each other. “This is a restaurant?”

IMG_2271It became a running joke, as we weaved our way through crowded streets and sidewalks, to point out a satay stand and its seated customers and remark, “Look! A restaurant.” But they really were all restaurants, and that is how the locals live. In the U.S., we view eating out as a treat — it often involves formality and you wind up taking more time and spending more money than if you had just eaten at home. But when the pad thai is less than a dollar, is fresh and piping hot, and you can catch up with a few neighbors while you eat it, isn’t that better than trying to gather the ingredients yourself?

When I told friends and family back home that we were eating tons of street food, I think they pictured Manhattan’s hot dog carts. We think of street food as something to be inhaled on the go, probably filled with chemicals and God-knows-what-else, and likely to be kind of dirty. I’m not going to suggest that Bangkok’s street stalls are about to earn full points for atmosphere and cleanliness, but it wasn’t a grungy experience. We couldn’t round a corner without finding an impromptu cafe or two, and the system functioned pretty flawlessly. And while, yes, we may not have been the most cautious traveler-eaters (though I promise we only drank bottled water), we never had a problem. These Thai women, who each specialize in a particular dish or two, know exactly what they are doing.

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My allegiances are still to the Thai people and their delicious cooking, but I will be the first to admit that I had never given Vietnamese food a fair try before. I’ve only eaten Vietnamese a handful of times, and I’ve never really known what to order. I either copied the people I was with or ordered something that sounded vaguely familiar. The former strategy sometimes works; the latter was always a failure, because if I recognized a dish, that probably meant it came from Thai food and had made it onto the menu because restaurants in the states tend more toward Asian fusion than authenticity, and as a result, these dishes are usually the weakest.

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But I went into Vietnam eager to try and experiment. The many noodle and soup dishes we had were good, but after the spicy noodles of Thailand, I found the experience almost bland sometimes. (I just don’t get pho, I’m sorry.) But while in Vietnam I discovered a reason to love the local food: do-it-yourself rice paper wraps.

I often gravitate toward composed dishes, where the spices and the flavors are already mixed together. But on our first day in Hanoi, I ordered a lunch deconstructed and instantly found a new favorite. We’ve waxed poetic on and on about the importance of ingredients, but it is so true. Put fresh fish, pineapple, mint, chili sauce and peanuts together and — voila — delicious. There’s more to Vietnamese food than I gave it credit pho. (Haha.)

Singapore is a country I would never have thought to visit if I didn’t know someone who lives there, and we would never have experienced it in the way that we did were it not for the Chia family.

IMG_0887Throughout our trip, we relied heavily on the advice of guidebooks to tell us where to eat. We were meticulous and obsessive, combing through our library of trusty resources — Lonely Planet, the country specific editions and “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”; Let’s Go, which previously helped me eat my way around Europe; Nancy Chandler while in Thailand; the New York Times’ 36 Hours feature and whatever other sources we happened to come across on days when our Internet was functioning particularly well. We had some truly stellar meals entirely thanks to the guidebooks. But we also had some mediocre meals at restaurants chosen solely because they had appeared in a guidebook. I don’t blame the guidebooks, because in countries where we could barely communicate, I don’t think we could have done a whole lot better on our own. But the difference between our dining experiences as tourists and our dining experiences traveling alongside a native were like night and day.

For the bulk of our trip, we alternated between street eating and fine dining. In the former category we found ourselves among locals, but in the latter, we were often in a room entirely composed of white people. With Vernie, we ate at establishments of all different kinds, but the consistent trend was that we were surrounded by Singaporeans. We ate in restaurants that did not appear in a single guidebook and that we could never have found on our own, even with the best of maps. I admittedly did not love every single item we tried, but the whole time we were traipsing around, I felt like we were doing Singapore right. I learned an extraordinary amount about the food and the customs, far more than in the other countries, because we heard it from the mouths of those who know it and ate it from their tables.

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The second-most informative experience, in terms of food and culture, was at cooking school. This brings me — finally — to the long-winded conclusion of my thoughts and the long-awaited answer to the question that started this all.

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What was my favorite moment of the trip? Cooking school.

It wasn’t until we attended cooking school that I really started to understand why exactly I liked the food in Thailand so much. There was something almost magical about visiting a market filled with Thai women doing their morning shopping, taking our ingredients back to a stove and learning to create a dish that every single one of those Thai women could have made. Being a part of the process, and not just on the receiving end at a restaurant, provided more of an inside lens into the food, how it developed and how it all came together.

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It’s one thing to order your food three-star spicy. It’s another thing entirely to see learn what that actually means, that if you add the red curry paste it will only get a little bit spicier, but that if you put a whole red birds-eye chili in the mix, the whole dish will come close to exploding. It made me appreciate it all more. When I started comparing my eighth papaya salad in Thailand to my third, I could begin to understand why one was straight-up fiery and one was spicy, disguised as sweet.

I do not mean to suggest I suddenly became a Thai cooking master. (I apologize to my roommates, who I think were hoping for mastery by now.) But what I’m trying to get at is that while eating is a terrific way to understand the role of food in a local culture, partaking in the culinary process from step one teaches you so much more. After all, my obsession with the Spanish diet really only blossomed once I got to work in my own Spanish kitchen.

My trip to Southeast Asia was only the tip of the food-discovery iceberg in that part of the world. So, I think we all know what that means. I now need to go on a cooking vacation.

Reflections on historical memory: Singapore

Written by Chaz on 6 July 2011

Of the places we visited, Singapore struck me as having perhaps both the least and the most sense of historical memory. On the one hand, the tiny city-state pays the past no mind, forging ahead as a free agent economically and politically. On the other hand, this drive to succeed is fueled by a keen awareness that all of Singapore’s growth is thanks to the nation’s own deliberate action.

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Singapore is a little island with few natural resources and a whole lot of people. As a result, it’s relied on human capital to grow its economy. Since the second world war, the country has built itself into a economic powerhouse. And this hasn’t been an accident. Singaporeans are very aware that they have the careful planning of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to thank. Though it’s hard for me to ever get behind a truly one-party system, Singapore is the best argument for it. If it weren’t for creative ideas strictly applied by the central government to make exactly the society they envisioned, Singapore wouldn’t have come as far as it has. This isn’t a secret, or even particularly insightful. It’s a fact of life in Singapore.

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It’s so widely accepted, in fact, especially among the generation that remembers a different, poorer Singapore, that it’s particularly impressive that opposition parties managed to garner 40 percent in this year’s national election. Because of the structure of national representation, the opposition only got 8 out of 89 seats in parliament. But if I were the PAP, I would be quaking in my boots. The older generation won’t be around forever, and it’s the younger generation currently paying the highest tax of all: two years of their life, for mandatory military service.

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The pragmatism of the discourse in Singapore reminded me of Sweden, actually, even though their political systems couldn’t be more difficult. Perhaps I give the two countries too much credit, but the two countries seem to take the same approach to national problems: identify the best solution and implement it. Just like Singapore, Sweden was relatively poor until the second half of the 20th century, and its economy today is built entirely on an educated, competitive workforce.

There are differences, of course, in their means. Singapore, for example, bans most public discussion of racial issues, an effective solution to a certain variety of problems but a clear encroachment on free speech. (I hope it doesn’t apply to commentary on the ethnic origin of delicious food, because we might be in trouble.) Meanwhile, Sweden remains effective despite a liberal democracy standing in the way of getting things done. The PAP should take heart: If Singaporean elections stop reelecting them, all hope is not lost for the country’s future. It’s also a distinct possibility that the PAP is quite safe as long as they keep producing results.

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Singapore also evoked some of the same feeling of Hong Kong, of course: an oasis of developed Westernness in a third-world desert. But the fact that it is its own nation, and one that has been independent for a relatively long time, changes everything, giving it the added feeling of a nimble, dynamic free spirit that has a clear idea of what it wants. Much more so than any of the other places we visited, I’ll be fascinated to see where Singapore is in ten or fifty years.

Home sweet home

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

We arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport, bleary eyed, at just after 4 a.m. on Thursday. With no flight other than ours set to take off for hours, we moved through the deserted airport quickly. In an attempt to send some love back home (and use up our extra Singapore dollars), we bought postcards, which turned into a mini-adventure as Chaz then ran around the airport looking for stamps. Finally, with postcards stamped and mailed, we boarded our flight to Tokyo. I think I slept for the entire seven hours.

We landed in Tokyo and waited on a long security line with all of the other passengers (read: Americans) transferring onto flights to New York, Atlanta, Salt Lake City and several other stateside destinations. Vernie’s final food recommendation had been to eat ramen in Tokyo’s Narita airport, but our 45-minute layover made that impossible. We even tried to get takeout, but as it turns out, small Japanese airport stalls do not have a mechanism for allowing you to carry soup onto the plane.

Flying from the U.S. to Asia (and vice versa) is long and disorienting. Things like movies and snacks and Ambien are very helpful for passing the 12 hours, but there is just no way around the longevity of traveling such a distance. On the way over, we lost a full day, which was kind of confusing, but on the way back, the whole business of time zones was even more complicated. We left Tokyo just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and landed in New York just before 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Despite the fact that we seemed to travel backwards in time, we did live out a very full day on board our massive plane. In our final act of Asian food photography, behold, Delta’s Japanese breakfast noodles.

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We landed at JFK on time, but could not deplane for a while because there was so many people stuck in customs that we could not have fit in the building. (Knowing JFK, I thought this could have been due to ongoing back up from the turtle incident the day before.) The problem was one of building capacity. Too many planes had landed at the Delta terminal for the customs agents to handle them, and so we waited. It was almost ironic that after enduring immigrations inefficiencies in Thailand and Vietnam, the slowest process was to get back into our own country. By the time we finally cleared an hour later, all of the bags from our flight had been dumped off the conveyor belt and onto the floor.

With my rice patty hat on, we left the airport and parted ways for our respective homes (with a few days to spare before celebrating America’s birthday!).

In the coming days, we’ll be doing a bit more reflecting on our trip as a whole. We’ve also posted hundreds of photos and videos that never made it onto the blog. We just want to take a moment first to thank you for keeping up with us on our journey. We hope you enjoyed reading about our travels as much as we enjoyed recounting them to you.

The final countdown

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

And so it arrived: our last full day in Asia. Faced with the prospect of a 5:50 a.m. flight the next morning, we had planned to stay out all night and then head to the airport, so we allowed ourselves to sleep in on Wednesday to enable late-night fun.

After our relaxed wake-up, we went with Vernie’s dad to a coffee shop (remember that this means basically a food court in Singapore) for their favorite noodle dish, bak chor mee, or minced pork noodles. We had originally planned to go on Sunday, but our rescheduling meant that we could go to the original outlet of this noodle shop, which is closed Sunday. The recipe has been passed down through several generations of a Singaporean family. The sons of the proprietor of this stall have opened their own branches around the city, but Vernie insisted that the original is best.

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The noodles were served “dry,” meaning in sauce rather than in soup, and the soup came on the side. They were spicy without being hot, and the subtlety of the dish was in the quality of the ingredients. Vernie and her family visit the stall every week, and it was great to have one of our last meals at a place they love so much.

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After lunch, Vernie’s dad dropped us off in the middle of the Southern Ridges Walk, which I had discovered on Wikitravel. It’s very new, so Vernie wasn’t even aware of it, but it ended up being quite a nice walk. Most of the path was on an elevated walkway over lush forest, allowing for dramatic views of the skyline, port and ocean. One of the highlights of the well-architected path was the Henderson Waves, a gently curved wooden bridge over a major highway. We also spotted the cable car that we had taken to Sentosa.

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Despite ominous clouds, there was only a brief moment of spotty rain, and we were able to take shelter under a pavilion. Conveniently, the trail ended at the MRT, and we headed back to Vernie’s for a very relaxing afternoon swim followed by some reading in the sun.

After cleaning ourselves up, we set out for the center of the city again to visit Raffles Hotel, the home of the original Singapore sling. It was a tourist trap, to be sure, especially in the drink’s pricing, but it was unmissable. The hotel, allegedly a six-star property, has a distinct colonial appearance, right down to its tradition of serving you a bowl of whole peanuts. You’re supposed to open them and throw the shells right onto the floor.

Our drinks tasted like bubble gum — which, coincidentally, is illegal in Singapore.

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We migrated next door to watch the sunset from the Swissotel’s New Asia Bar, which is perched above the city on the 71st floor. We enjoyed a couple more beverages and some sweet but spicy chips while we watched night envelop the island.

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We left New Asia Bar and had an amazing dinner of chicken rice. We returned to Vernie’s again to put on our dancing shoes before heading out to Zouk, Singapore’s oldest and most well-known nightclub. In Singapore, Wednesday is ladies’ night at the clubs, so girls get in free. At Zouk, it’s also mambo night, which apparently means that old Western music is played while Singaporeans dance and do memorized hand gestures along with the lyrics of each song.

We left Zouk around 2:15 and cabbed it back to Vernie’s neighborhood, where we sat down yet again for supper, which in Singapore refers to a late-night meal. We revisited roti prata, one of our favorites, which definitely gave Providence’s drunk food selection a run for its money.

We walked back to Vernie’s, threw our stuff into our suitcases, took quick showers, put on our traveling clothes, and headed down to the curb to hail a taxi to the airport. Vernie gave the driver instructions in Chinese, confirming that he would accept a credit card as payment since we had run out of all of the various Asian currencies we had been handling.

We exchanged a near-tearful goodbye with Vernie on the side of the road in the middle of the night on the other side of the world. And our trip thus drew to a close.

The mystery, the wonder: Chicken rice

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

Since our arrival in Singapore — actually, since even before that — Vernie had been promoting this mythical Singaporean food item: chicken rice. Is it chicken? Is it rice? Neither? Both? What is it?

On our last evening in Singapore, we went with Vernie and her friend Ivan to one of their favorite chicken rice places to sample the dish. We had previously discussed chicken rice with Vernie and her dad. Check out the video.

At dinner, we were ready to evaluate the chicken rice on each of Tony’s criteria: the flavor of the rice, the tenderness of the chicken and the quality of the chili. We were each given our own plate of rice, which tasted delicious from moment one (check); the chicken was so moist it was falling out of its skin (check); and the chili sauce was delicious, especially with the garlic sauce that accompanied it (check).

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Vernie and Ivan also ordered us a spicy vegetable side dish and sweet and sour pork. I asked Vernie before the pork arrived how it compared to the same item in Chinese restaurants in America, and though she said it was pretty different, it seemed very similar to me. It had the same gooey sweet sauce and slightly radioactive orange tint to it.

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I thought it was very interesting that chicken rice (more generally known as Hainanese chicken rice) had become so ubiquitous in Singaporean culture. After all, delicious though it is, it’s just chicken and rice (and sauce) — significantly simpler than so many of the other dishes that are popular in Singapore, like chili crab and katong laksa. Perhaps it’s exactly this simplicity that makes it such a source of pride in Singapore. It’s about taking a few ingredients and combining them in just the right way.

Durian, a true eating adventure

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

When you walk through fruit markets in Asia, something smells. The first few times, it’s a scent that’s hard to identify. It always smells the same, but the particular odor is difficult to pin down. After a few trips, you begin to realize that the distinct smell is emanating from a massive prickly monstrosity. Somewhere between rotten vegetables and paint thinner is a smell that can only belong to one thing. Durian.

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Durian is a fruit native to Southeast Asia and the fascination with it is quite peculiar. Though it is sold in markets throughout the region — we saw it in all the countries we visited — the potent smell is legendary. In airports and train stations we saw frequent signs kindly requesting that people refrain from bringing their durian on board. We saw large signs in the Hanoi airport near our gate explaining that passengers should kindly refrain from eating durian on the plane. We could have sworn we smelt it anyway.

On my birthday, we ordered a durian cheesecake, expecting a plain cake with some fruit on the side. What we got instead was a yellow-ish green cheesecake that smelled kind of like the markets we had been visiting. What was most remarkable though was when I took a bite of the cake. It was as if someone had bottled the scent of a durian in the marketplace, concentrated the scent into durian extract and then infused the cake with it. My immediate comment upon sampling the cake was, “It tastes like it smells.” That was a bit more than I could handle in my birthday cheesecake.

One day while we were waiting for the MRT in Singapore, Chaz and I suddenly smelled something familiar. It was getting stronger and stronger. The unique smell could be only one thing: durian. Durian is not allowed on the subway system — for a very good reason — and we were shocked at the rule breaking. In the land of fines and authoritarian leaders, we were surprised someone would have smuggled the prickly fruit into the station. “WHERE IS THE DURIAN?” we kept exclaiming to each other. “WHO HAS THE DURIAN? STOP HIDING AND ADMIT IT.” Truly, there’s no way to hide a durian.

IMG_3470Durian on Singapore’s MRT: Price upon request

We kept saying that we needed to try durian for real, just so we could say we had done it. But between the scent and the prickles, we couldn’t pull it off. Our commitment began to waiver.

When we arrived in Singapore, we learned that it was durian season. We also learned that Vernie and her parents love durian. They were very excited about having us try one — how could we have visited and never partook in Singapore’s national fruit? And so after our delicious dinner at Lagoon, Vernie’s dad went to the durian stall at the nearby fruit market, picked out a good fruit and brought it back for us to try.

The giant fruit had already been sliced open at the fruit market and was being held together by rubber bands. We took the bands off and Vernie’s dad pulled the segments of the fruit apart. What lay inside was even stranger looking than the whole fruit.

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The giant yellow chunks are actually three or four separate pieces of durian in a line. Each piece of the fruit feels mushy, with a hard seed in the center. The outside is glossy and smooth, but the inside oozes in the way that really only pudding can. Somewhat skeptical of what we might find inside — and with full permission to take one taste and then spit it out — we each took a bite.

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There is really nothing I can compare the taste of durian to. It was almost hard to observe the taste at first because I was so taken aback by the structural and textural elements. The outside required biting, like a plum, but then the inside just sort of fell into your mouth. Chaz thought that if there was a fruit durian could resemble, tastewise, the closest match was banana. I don’t know that I totally agree, but I also just don’t know what to compare it to.

The British explorers who first came to Southeast Asia reported that they had found a fruit containing a rich custard highly flavored with almonds. The durian stuck to the roof of my mouth and definitely had a strong flavor, but there is no other food I have ever had that tastes quite the same. And I eat a ton of almonds.

IMG_3573Interestingly, though we had been smelling durian for weeks, once we started eating, we couldn’t smell anything abnormal really. Afterward, my fingers reeked. But while we were eating the fruit, it was nearly odorless.

One of the most fascinating things about durian is the whole host of health issues Singaporeans blame on the fruit. On our first night in Singapore, Vernie and Dhiviya had explained the principles of “heaty” and “cooling” foods. In Singapore, it is believed that certain foods cause your body temperature to rise, while others cool you down. It is difficult to keep track of which foods are which (young coconuts have a different classification than old coconuts, for example), but there is no messing around with durian. Durian is the heatiest of foods, known to cause excessive sweating and rumored to have even more severe ramifications. However, these negative side effects can be combated if you pour cold water into the empty durian shell and drink it after having eaten the durian.

It might have been the anticipation or maybe just the 90 degree weather, but I was definitely feeling warm by the end. I made it through one whole piece of durian. Chaz managed to troop through a second. Vernie, her dad and George happily took a few each. Durian must be an acquired taste, because they were all in fruit euphoria. It wasn’t a huge struggle to finish, but I can’t say I ever need to eat durian again. However, after all the smelling and all the hype, I am very glad we did try the durian.

But remember: no durians allowed on board the plane, please.

Seafood by the seashore

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

Food plays a very large role in Singaporean culture. (What, have you not been able to tell thus far?) When locals want to do quality eating, they head to hawker centers. A hawker center (pronounced “hawka centah” in Singlish) is an open-air complex, filled with stalls and stalls, each peddling a different food product. The hawker center we visited on Tuesday night is called Lagoon and is right on the water. As a result, Lagoon is best known for its seafood dishes, which I was extremely excited to try.

We were joined again by Ivan, as well as his girlfriend Cindy, and George, another friend of Vernie’s from secondary school. Vernie had a couple food items that were non-negotiable for us to try, and so we ran around collecting them from different stalls. Her friends got really into our whole food quest and started to pick out items as well. Suddenly we had a very full table, filled with a whole array of delicious items.

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Since our primary mission was to eat seafood, we ordered a whole slew of items from the seafood stall Vernie’s dad had recommended. The first item, which turned out to be one of our favorites, was sambal stingray. The stingray, which tasted like a flaky white fish, was coated in a red curry and complimented by a light citrus sauce. It was spicy, but tangy, and almost a little reminiscent of some of the flavors of Thailand.

Next up was oyster eggs. This was probably my least favorite item on the table, but there was more than enough to eat on our heaping picnic table.

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The main event — and my favorite dish we ate while in Singapore — was chili crab, one of Singapore’s best-known entrees. Two crabs were served in a large bowl of chili sauce and we went at it. Though I have experience taking apart crustaceans, there is nothing like opening up a crab with chopsticks. Thankfully we also had crackers for opening the shell. The crab was served with soft rolls, which were meant to be dipped in the chili sauce once all the crab meat was gone.

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Other items included beef and chicken satay, served with a peanut sauce not entirely dissimilar from that in Thailand. (The Singaporean version was a bit thicker.) We also had a noodle dish called hokkien mee, thin noodles with egg and vegetables.

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We tried a few other items, but it quickly became too dark for a food photoshoot. One of them, popiah, was described to us as an uncooked spring roll. The outside tasted like a whole wheat wrap and the inside contained crab and several vegetables. There was also porridge, which I did not try.

Dinner at Lagoon had been pretty hyped beforehand, and it did not disappoint. The crab was just so good.

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The locals also suggested we try two pretty typical drinks: sugar cane juice and coconut juice. Neither was quite my style, but I can see how they would provide a good contrast to spicy food.

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Once we had finished stuffing our faces, we all got to know each other a little better. It was interesting to compare our educational systems and experiences and the different political systems we grew up under. What was most fascinating to me was the boys’ military experience. Singapore has a mandatory military service for all males, and so after junior college, Ivan and George both trained, were sorted into particular units and served for two years. They are both now in university, and as a result of their service, the boys are all two years older than the girls. (Vernie told us that this male-female age gap is meant to encourage marriage and breeding, a topic for another conversation.)

In a picture-perfect moment, as we were beginning to discuss the merits of mandatory military service, the Singaporean infantry marched past Lagoon along the water, chanting a tune that all the men present recognized.

The conversation began as one of whether or not the Singaporeans (and particularly those at our dinner table) think there should still be mandatory service. The short answer? Yes. While the boys may not personally love the experience — and many do not — it is still needed from a policy perspective.

Singapore is tiny. (The entire country can be circled in two hours, provided there’s not too much traffic.) And the countries that are just a stone throw’s distance away? Not the greatest of friends. Singapore, a small Chinese state, is surrounded by Indonesia and Malaysia, two large Muslim nations, and the political relationship between them has not always been friendly. Singapore has allies in high places, including the U.S., Australia, and England. Singaporean generals train in Israel. But Singapore is a tiny island, surrounded by potentially volatile enemies, and they need to be prepared.

It was an eye-opening conversation and the perfect end to a stomach-filling meal.

IMG_3570From left, Cindy, Ivan, Chaz, me, Vernie and George

A day of eating

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

We began Tuesday, our third day in Singapore, with one of my favorite foods we had on our trip: mee siam, a spicy noodle dish. Vernie explained that, unlike in the United States, any food can be eaten at any meal. Back home, I might have cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a more prepared meal for dinner, but in Singapore, I could eat those in any order. Except they would probably all be something spicy.

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We bought the mee siam at a “coffee shop,” which in Singapore is nothing like a Starbucks. In fact, it’s more like what an American might call a food court (though, in Singapore, a food court is yet another thing). A coffee shop is made up of a bunch of different stalls, each selling one or two dishes, and only one stall sells drinks. The drinks stall is usually the most lucrative and is thus usually run by the owner of the whole place, who rents the rest of the stalls to other food sellers.

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Though plenty spicy, especially because of the chili we mixed in, the mee siam was also a little sweet, which I thought made it an especially palatable breakfast meal, among the various spicy noodle dishes we had. Though the name, which means Siamese noodle, suggests a connection to Thailand, it’s yet another of the only-in-Singapore dishes that are so plentiful.

After we gobbled up the mee siam, Vernie got us a dish of tau hway, a sweet soy dish that reminded me of the banana in coconut milk that we made in cooking school. Though simple in its sweetness, the texture of the soy made it almost like ice cream.

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Never ones to miss a market-going opportunity, we took a lap through the adjoining market and hawker center, another uniquely Singaporean term that refers to basically a large coffee shop (which is basically a food court).

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After breakfast, we lounged around Vernie’s apartment for a little bit to catch up on blogging and build up our hunger for lunch. Her friend Ivan joined us for lunch, and generously agreed to drive us since our lunch place wasn’t very convenient to public transportation. Yes, even in Singapore, such a place exists.

Our lunch dish, katong laksa, was another noodle dish, but it was totally different from the mee siam. It was much soupier, and like a Thai curry, it was based on coconut milk. Also more or less unique to Singapore, katong laksa comes from the Peranakan cuisine that results from a mixture of Chinese and Malay food. It’s found especially in the eastern part of the island where Vernie lives, from which it takes the Katong part of its name. Some even call it Singapore’s national dish.

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The laksa was much less spicy than the mee siam, and of the many noodle dishes we’ve tried, it was one of the most flavorful but least spicy. It came with an otak-otak, a fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf, that could be eaten with the laksa. We also had a plate of rojak, fried dough and fresh fruit in a sweet brown sauce. The rojak made a great side to a noodle soup.

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Our experience at the laksa place underscored the value of having a local guide for our food tour. The food was delicious, but there’s no way we ever would have found it on our own, and we probably wouldn’t have known what to order even if we had.

After lunch, we stopped by Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, a well-known bakery. I had told Vernie that I wanted to bring some kaya, the Singaporean coconut jam, back to the U.S., and she said Chin Mee Chin was the best place to get it — it’s where her family gets it. So I got two little plastic containers of freshly made kaya to pack into my suitcase.

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Ivan dropped us off at the MRT, and we headed downtown to visit two of Singapore’s distinct ethnic neighborhoods, Chinatown and Little India. We made loops through the heart of each, exploring the various trades and shops that have become particular to the two neighborhoods.

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Eating can be exhausting, so we headed back to Vernie’s for a swim and a nap before our dinner plans.

From India to the African plains

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

After our wonderful day at the beach, we alighted from the cable car at the Harbourfront station of the MRT and took the train to Vernie and Dhiviya’s favorite place to get roti prata. Though Vernie had hyped quite a few of the foods she planned for us to try in Singapore, few got the same praise as roti prata, an Indian bread. Much like nan, it’s flat, slightly risen dough than you can stuff with any food you like, either for flavoring or for actual heft.

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We ordered four kinds: plain, egg, egg and onion, and chicken. The dough of the roti prata was salty but still flavorful, and even the plain could hold its own. My personal preference, though, was the chicken — I thought the texture of the egg didn’t fit well. Each was accompanied by a bowl of curry sauce.

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Roti prata is a perfect example of a dish that started out as Indian, and is in fact still served there, but has taken on a life of its own in Singapore. It goes by a different name, parantha, in its native region in southern India, and even carries a third name when served in Malaysia. Singapore has truly made this dish part of its own national culinary identity, regardless of where it may have come from.

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Vernie also ordered us a plate of mee goreng, a sweet red noodle dish, and two special drinks: a milo dinosaur, which was a cold, more full-bodied version of hot chocolate, and a teh tahrik, a local variety of tea.

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From there, we took a taxi to one of Singapore’s most vaunted tourist attractions: the night safari. Though one of Vernie’s friends had strongly recommended we go, I was very skeptical going in, fearful that it was just going to be a huge tourist trap. The high price of admission didn’t reassure me, either. But it ended up being one of the coolest things we experienced during our entire time in Asia.

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The night safari is essentially a nocturnal zoo. At most zoos, nocturnal animals are shown indoors, in basically dark cages that are artificially lit at night to switch the animals’ body clocks. As a result, they’re awake during the day for visitors. The night safari, on the other hand, shows nocturnal animals in a replica of their natural habit.

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The experience began with an animal show in which keepers brought out different animals, including a snake of the longest kind in the world, a few small cats, a raccoon, and one animal I’d never heard of that walked out on a rope suspended over the audience. After the show, we filed onto a tram that took us through the different parts of the safari grounds, from rhinoceroses to lions and deer to pigs. Our tram had a phenomenal tour guide, which really helped, but the surroundings stood for themselves. There were huge animals within feet of our seats as we drove slowly and quietly among the creatures of the night.

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After the tram ride, we set out on our own through the walking trails that loop through the safari. We got to see the animals from a new perspective, and we also saw some creatures that they have to keep in enclosures, like bats and flying squirrels. I’ve never been so close to a sleeping bat in my life. They were enormous!

By the time we left the night safari, it was a few minutes before eleven, and we hadn’t been home all day. We managed to get our sleepy selves onto the last MRT train to Vernie’s house, and we were asleep shortly after we got home.

Life’s a beach

Written by Emmy on 4 July 2011

We started Tuesday with yet another Singaporean meal. Breakfast consisted of soft-boiled eggs, sweet coffee and toast with kaya. We poured black pepper sauce over the eggs, but they were still a consistency foreign to my tastes. Kaya is a sweet jam made from coconut, native to Singapore and widely enjoyed by locals.

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After breakfast we headed for the Singapore cable car. Just south of the main island of Singapore is Sentosa, a beach-filled island self-advertised as “Asia’s favorite playground.” Once we had gained an extra day in Singapore, we decided one could easily be allocated for lounging on the beach. Dhiviya met up with the three of us and we boarded the cable car for Sentosa. You can just as easily take a bus or walk across a bridge, but we decided that when in Rome… do as the tourists do.

The views from the cable car were incredible, allowing us to see the entire port of Singapore, the new developments on the island’s shore and many of the sights we had seen on the ground the day before.

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The weather could not have been more perfect for a day at the beach. We landed on Sentosa and began walking toward the shore, stopping of course for a few photo ops along the way.

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IMG_3264If I had thought Clarke Quay looked like Disney World, then Sentosa was like Disney on steroids. The island has indoor skydiving, a Universal Studios and several beach clubs. A replica of the Merlion sits atop the island’s tallest hill, and the walk down to the water is punctuated by a fountain reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gaudi buildings. Brightly colored trams run along the coastline, and they are free to board at any stop. (The automated announcer was the one who so enthusiastically told us that Sentosa was Asia’s favorite playground.)

The island has three main beaches. Each of the beaches has at least one club, and for the price of a drink or two, you get to use the lounge chairs and umbrellas and swim in their pool. We first headed for what is regarded as the quieter, nicer beach. But the pool club we attempted visit, we discovered after our long walk and tram ride, is closed on Mondays. However, the closed beach club had left their lounge chairs out — albeit with covers on them. We decided this was a finder’s keeper’s moment and happily lounged in the sun. (We were told by the maintenance crew that swimming in the closed pool was not so kosher, but only after we had had a chance to jump in.)

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When it came time for a lunch break, we hopped back on the tram and made our way to the beachside food court. In American food courts, there’s always one token Asian restaurant. In Singapore, all the stalls are Asian. Obviously this makes sense, but it continued to amuse me — especially since we were back to English signage. (English is the main language used in Singapore, and one of four nationally recognized languages.)

Our lunch itself was pretty unremarkable, but after we finished, Vernie and Dhiviya insisted that we had to try one of the favorite local desserts. Ice kacang looks like a massive snow cone upon first glance, but once you break the surface and dig into the middle, it’s filled with jelly, beans, corn and other bizarre treats.

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After lunch, we checked out another of the beaches, where there was an open and bumping beach club. We claimed two shady canopy beds, hopped into the pool — which had a bar inside — and rocked out to music more appropriate for a nightclub than for a beach.

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Once we had finally had our full share of spectacular sunlight, we boarded the tram, connected to a free and equally bright colored bus, and got back on the cable car to return to “mainland” Singapore.