The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol

By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?

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Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia


Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.

The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).

Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”  by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.

Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.

Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).

In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.

But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?

[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers.]

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Eng Su’s interest in coconuts was sparked off in late 2014 at I Eat Nasi Lemak, an annual convention in Kuala Lumpur that showcases Malaysia’s best nasi lemak vendors. Continue reading

Mauritius diary 4: Life and Food

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Chicken seller, Port Louis

A continuation of Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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Perceptions of Mauritius among people I know tend to swing between two extremes. Some mistake it for the Maldives, imagining $1,000 per night villas overlooking crystal waters. Others think it is an African backwater without proper electricity.

While there are chichi all-inclusive resorts in Mauritius, the vast majority of the country feels like any other coastal, middle-income place, with shades of Goa, Pondicherry and Sri Lanka. Long-term rentals for two-bedroom apartments range from about US$300-US$1,200 per month, depending on the area. A street side chicken biryani—or biryani de poulet—runs about US$3-4.

Within two days of landing here, I knew I could stay. Continue reading

Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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The ornate day gecko, found only in Mauritius (Ling: “Even their geckos are beautiful.”)

A continuation of Mauritius diary 2: On race

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When Ling first told me she was enrolling in a conservation course in Mauritius, I was half expecting to meet older hippies, perennially high, with puzzling attitudes towards personal hygiene. Most of her classmates, it turns out, are barely out of college, immensely driven, and with a millennial’s social-media consciousness—the guys have hair-straighteners, the girls occasional gowns.

There are eight Brits, three Australians, two Malagasies, two Mauritians, a Canadian and a Dutch (Ling is the only Asian). It’s been a lot of fun hanging out with them. I’ve learned about everything from bat behaviour and Newfoundland to Black Stone Cherry, an American rock band I’ve started listening to.

This is the generation for whom conservation is an actual, mainstream career choice, not something esoteric pursued by uniquely talented animal-lovers and jaded mid-career professionals. Yet the industry is still very immature and many of the students’ daily concerns revolve around the scarcity of paid jobs and project funding.

People who work in conservation, it seems to me, need to be comfortable oscillating between two mood extremes—on the one hand, the hope from rehabilitating a species, and other local victories; and on the other, the despair that whatever they do is never enough, amid global challenges, such as deforestation, that are immense, complex and relentless.

I know that many people consider a “conservation course in Mauritius” to be a holiday. Yet Ling’s six-month diploma in endangered species recovery seems to alternate between the pressures of academia—with frequent essays, exams and journal papers—and the stresses of the wild.

Ling spent nine days on Round Island, Continue reading

Mauritius diary 2: On race

A continuation of Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

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Though the Arabs and others had visited before, in 1638 the Dutch became the first inhabitants of Mauritius, which they had earlier named after Prince Maurice van Nassau.

Ecologically, one can only wonder what it must have been like. Without humans or other big predators, unique flora and fauna thrived, most notably the dodo. They were severely affected by habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species such as pigs and macaques. The last sighting of the dodo was in the late 17th C.

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A dodo, a one-horned sheep, and a red rail (all extinct), 1624 Dutch painting

In 1715, five years after the Dutch abandoned their colony, the French established one, renaming the island Isle de France. It became a key strategic outpost as well as a trade port for ships travelling between Asia and Europe. Amid the Napoleonic wars, the British won control of Isle de France in 1810, and revived its former name, Mauritius. They would rule till independence in 1968.

Importantly, a compromise was struck between the incoming British rulers and the French settlers, who were permitted to keep their land, the French language and French law.

Hence Mauritius today has a schizophrenic colonial heritage, with English as the official medium, including in parliament and school, and French Creole as the popular one—in a country named after a Dutchman.

During the recent Euro 2016 football tournament, “Franco-Mauritians” supported France while most Hindu-Mauritians supported England. When England seemed on the verge of playing France, I was told to ready myself for the sporting occasion of the year, a night when the whole country would shut down.

But then the plucky Icelanders ruined the party by beating the English to set up their own meeting with France. Football fans in Mauritius groaned.

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Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

The Air Mauritius inflight safety video is your first sign that Mauritians are different.

I generally dislike these videos because I miss what they replaced—inflight crew members acting out routines, some with the clarity of synchronised swimmers, others the coordination of a blind macaque. This little fandango was always the best indication of the kind of inflight service to expect.

The Air Mauritius video implores you to watch. It opens with three crew members standing, rather incongruously, in full uniform on a gorgeous beach as the sun sets.

A later scene shows a husband and wife on deck chairs by another beach as their son builds castles in the sand. Suddenly, two yellow oxygen masks drop from the palm trees above, and they nonchalantly strap them over their unimpeachable holiday grins.

Another scene shows them inflating yellow life jackets, except they are not about to evacuate an airplane, but jump twenty feet over an idyllic Mauritian waterfall into its wading pool. The actors look like they are being paid to have fun.

Even the tutorial for adopting the emergency brace position before a crash has been turned into an eco-tourist fantasy, set by a gentle creek in the rainforest.

The message throughout is clear: even when the world around is collapsing, Mauritians can maintain their relaxed, carefree, smiling disposition. It is all in the mind.

By the end of the video, I’ve been introduced to several Mauritian attractions, but am still clueless about the plane’s emergency exits.

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Mauritius is a tropical island state Continue reading

Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

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For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here.

A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded haze, so I’ve decided to publish it here.

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All of Singapore’s glories, successes, tensions and contradictions are played out in the green.

Surely Lee Kuan Yew deserves credit for nurturing the Garden City, but there were many other green thumbs plucking and planting. What of them? In the green, as in much else, we deify one to the exclusion of many.

We are lucky to have been born into a Garden City rather than a choking, clogged one. But how is it possible that we grew a Garden City while felling almost all of our primary forest? When we call Singapore a Garden City, it does not mean that we’ve nourished a garden out of nothingness; rather, that compared to the Bangkoks, Beijings and Delhis of the world, we’ve destroyed less.

Even as the urban jungle has grown, relentlessly, irrepressibly, we’ve kept a bit of the tropical: cow grass on which black mynahs hop and couples canoodle; bougainvilleas whose stalks droop lazily over green fences, flowers fluttering in the wind, gaily watching the morning rush; durian trees under which tycoons in Beemers slouch, bucket in hand; frangipanis that wink at you, stain the tarmac and herald the pontianak; the untamed splendour of MacRitchie, our wellspring, which sparks memories of group runs and puppy loves; and rain trees, expansive, dependable, unmistakable, a guard of honour from Changi, ushering in guests, welcoming home peripatetic residents.

There is romance in scarcity yet it is unclear if we’ve struck the right balance. Do we need so many refineries on our islands? Must we build a footpath everywhere there is none? Why do we flatten Bukit Brown while spending a billion dollars for an artificial garden on an artificial bay?

Even in our crowning green glory, the Botanic Gardens, Singaporean exceptionalism is evident. World Heritage Sites are typically celebrations of ancient, traditional culture. Singapore’s is an homage to a colonial legacy. We are arguably the only post-colonial state that is comfortable with, even glorifies, our colonial past. While other countries bicker about reparations, we worry about our English.

If Raffles hadn’t chosen Singapore in 1819, what would this island be like today? Smaller, poorer, and probably greener. A Garden City this might be, but by being among the world’s leaders in food wastage, energy consumption and carbon emissions (in per capita terms), it is clear that we are not very responsible stewards of the earth.

We squeal about smoggy air and barricade ourselves against rising sea levels, blissfully unaware of our own complicity. The irony is that if every person in the world lived like a Singaporean—like a “Garden City” inhabitant—humanity would need more than four planets to subsist (says the WWF).

While the edifice of a Garden City exists, its soul needs cultivating.

For long Singaporeans have had an uneasy relationship with nature—flora and fauna are to be manicured and managed like everything else in life. The experience of the natural world here is a distant one, mediated by buffer zones, safety signs and the closest toilet.

Yet there seems to be a growing appreciation of the oneness of life on earth. We have started muddying our feet, growing edible gardens on sky-high balconies and paying attention to our meat’s provenance. Slowly, Singaporeans seem to be realising that humanity’s fate is intertwined with every other living thing’s.

And that death, when it comes, will be a return of our ashes, eventually, to the earth, to a planet more than four billion years old.

We do not know what will be of Singapore in a hundred years, never mind a billion. Yet the insignificance of our lifespans need not dampen the significance of our lives. And even as we touch strangers far away, we love, intensely, those closest to us.

Those, perhaps, are Mr Lee’s greatest life lessons. Even in death, his heart flickered: “I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

 

Image credit: Jodarl collections

 

An Australian farm stay

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Below is a travel essay I published in The Straits Times on May 22nd. This is the original, unabridged version.

Humans have evolved to suck on nipples, not fondle them. That is my sobering conclusion after a morning spent pulling vainly at the sausage-like extractions on Zynya, a nine-year-old, off-white cow at the Cedar Glen Farmstay, ninety minutes from Brisbane, Australia.

The day had begun with relative success. Ten of us from the two families on the ranch had strolled around its undulating grass-gravel grounds, feeding a succession of hungry animals. First a clutch of chickens including the unidentified miscreants who had woken us two hours prior. Then a herd of salivating sheep which rushes towards us, causing Amaia, my two-year-old niece, to take cover behind her father’s calf. Aren’t sheep supposed to be sheepish?

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May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew

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Dear friends,

on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.”

We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through graphic novels, and much else.

Join us!

Spaces are limited, so please do register here. Event is co-hosted by the Berkeley Club of Singapore and the Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS).

Tickets are available for alumni and non-alumni (“friends of”).

Hope to see you then.

Off to Mauritius

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Dear friends, last July Li Ling and I decided that we’re going to leave Singapore for a bit. Well, we finally have a destination!

Ling is starting a 6-month diploma programme in endangered species recovery at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Mauritius, part of her efforts to switch from medical work to animal conservation. Her programme begins at the end of March. I will be in and out of Singapore before joining her properly in June.

As you can tell by the photo, it’s going to be tough…we realise we are very lucky and blessed to have these opportunities.

I plan to continue my writing there: finishing up current book on China and India; completing freelance projects; honing my drone and VR camera skills; and finally, possibly beginning work on a Mauritius book.

The place sounds fascinating not only because of its wildlife—or what’s left of it (see Dodo)—but also its human tapestry. Indians, Africans, Whites, Chinese, mostly Francophone, some Anglophone. I’ve heard their rainbow model of multiculturalism leads to much more segregation than we have here in Singapore, one of the many things I hope to learn about. Aside from the Octopus Curry.

I was going to say “Moving” to Mauritius but then I realise I may be spending only five months there, so “Off” seems more appropriate. Moreover, while last year it seemed likely that I may not return to Singapore much, it now seems, because of varied engagements, as if I will always have one foot professionally stuck here. Which is nice.

So, we may be back before long. But till then…stay in touch!

If you have any tips, or know anybody in Mauritius who can help an ignorant writer, let me know. Or if you have any ideas for a Mauritius book, do share. There seems to be precious little written on the country.

And finally, in a very happy coincidence, Air Mauritius is just about to start a direct flight. So for those looking for a holiday, it’s now a mere seven hours from Changi.

photocredit: beachcomber-hotels.com

The King’s reign ends in twelve days: squid ink curry aka black sotong curry

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Singapore is soon to lose one of its great chefs and personalities when Rajah’s Curry closes—its last day of operations is Dec 13th 2015. Mr Rajah is planning on retiring and moving his business to Perth.

Mr Rajah is the man who revolutionised South Indian cooking in Singapore in 1972 by declaring “No MSG, No Coconut Milk and No Yogurt in any of his cooking”.

Though he has a broad repertoire, and his fish head curry is justifiably popular, I want to focus on my favourite dish.

There are many expressions of squid ink around the world—in paella, pasta, risotto, and more—but for me it reaches its apogee in squid ink curry. I am partial, however, to the intense South Indian variety, not the much milder Malay sotong masak hitam.1

It delivers a roundhouse kick to your senses, as sharp acid notes and fiery spice, from the various chillies and the black pepper, enliven the earthiness of squid ink. Depending on your palette’s sensitivities, it can cause you to scrunch up your face or gasp for air. Often, both.

This is not a dish easily found. Though I first tried it in Malaysia, I actually don’t even know of any other Indian shops in Singapore which make it.2  When I first tried Rajah’s version in 2006, I wanted to cry.

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