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

Nepal, Singapore, Gurkhas

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It seems like Nepal has faded quickly from our thoughts.

More than 5,000 have died and one million children are in urgent need of help following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. That was followed by dozens of aftershocks and tremors registering more than 4 on the Richter Scale.

The earthquake’s epicentre was in Gorkha, the district from where Gurkhas historically come.

Many people from many countries have contributed to Singapore’s success over the years. Perhaps the most colourful, charismatic community—albeit publicly stoic and reserved—is the Gurkhas.

I was lucky enough as a boy to hang out with them in Mount Vernon. I remember eating devilishly hot onion chilli “salsas”, sometimes with sukuti, tough buffalo meat, then marvelling at them cooking goat curry in a giant wok, using spade as spatula, above a wooden fire sitting in a freshly dug cavity.

But why does Singapore need Gurkhas for our highest-security tasks?

According to our first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“When I returned to Oxley Road [Lee’s residence], Gurkha policemen (recruited by the British from Nepal) were posted as sentries. To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty.”

Two other anecdotes, told to me on Mount Vernon, possibly exaggerations, went something like this.

First, the difference between Gurkhas and the local police is that the Gurkhas, if faced with that cruel choice, will shoot down their family, even wife and kids, in defence of their master. Locals won’t.

Second, like great martial artists, Gurkhas exercise incredible control over their strength and skills, preferring to defuse situations in non-violent ways. Apparently Singapore informed the Gurkhas that if they ever got into a brawl in public, our judicial system would regard their hands as “deadly weapons”.

Of course, the Gurkhas represent just some of the many Nepalis in Singapore. And of course, we should help the Nepalis like we would any other human in their position—simply because we can.

Still, it is a good time to reflect on the Gurkhas in Singapore and elsewhere. Singaporeans who want to help can give to the Singapore Red Cross or one of the many other organisations doing work there.

For those who prefer to support smaller organisations, please click here for one that is vouched for by Zakaria Zainal, Singaporean photographer who has spent much time there.

Note: This post was first published on Mothership.sg

Top photo via

Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

“But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism — from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa — seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

Continue reading

Culinary post from China: Sichuan

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Mapo doufu

This post is meant to accompany my First letter from China: Sichuan. Since digestive difficulties have prevented me from tasting Chengdu’s wonderful food on this Kerala to Shaolin trip, I will instead narrate a story from April 2012, when I visited for the first time with my wife Li Ling.

Barely 15 minutes after reaching Buddha Zen, our hotel, we are on our way out. Ling has gotten directions to a local restaurant and we are walking briskly, after pulling on a thin extra layer for the crisp Spring evening. Unfortunately, we cover only about 300 metres before I get distracted by skewers of raw meat lying next to a charcoal grill. Perhaps more importantly, there is a wide tray of chilli flakes sitting next to it.

A few minutes later, the eager, young Chinese BBQ master is brushing the chilli onto sizzling meat cubes, using a giant paint brush, the kind one uses to paint walls. The meat is good enough, but we are to have much better.

I am ecstatic, though, that my mouth is finally on fire. I had spent months dreaming of this moment—my first chilli high in Sichuan. It is, I imagine, much like one’s first scotch in Scotland; or joint in Jamaica.

Continue reading

Chinese/Malay/Indian

‘Malaysia: Death of a Democracy’, John Slimming

I’m only just getting into this book about the May 1969 racial riots, apparently it’s banned in Malaysia…written, in 1969, by this Englishman …anyways, there are lots of fascinating little passages, here’s one:

In 1950, during the Korean war, the demand for natural rubber caused a boom on the world markets; rubber prices soared. They rose to more than two dollars a pound; the highest figure that year was M$2.38. The attitudes of the three racial groups to this considerable increase were very different and highlight the differences in racial temperament.

The Chinese rubber tappers went out every day in family strength and they tapped every tree as often as they could; they collected every drop of latex they found and many of them quickly made a small fortune. They banked their money or they bought gold which they hid in their houses.

The Indians behaved in the same way, tapping as much and as frequently as possible but few of them made any attempt to save their earnings. With unexpected wealth they bought new clothes, saris for their wives, expensive brands of cigarettes; they bought refrigerators for houses where there was no electricity and then used them as cupboards; some of them bought second-hand cars to drive to the rubber fields.

In contrast to all this activity and business, the Malay villager calculated that if, when the price of rubber was one dollar a pound, he had to work twenty days in the month to make a living, then, when the price rose to two dollars it was necessary for him to work only ten days for the same money. So, while the Chinese and the Indians tapped more and worked harder, the Malays worked less and passed their time in a more leisurely manner. The Malay has an infinite capacity for enjoying the simple pleasures of his kampong life. The rubber boom was nineteen years ago. Now he is being forced to become more conscious of his country’s economy but there is still no indication that he is becoming more industrious.

The Chinese are far more numerous than the Indians and their control of industry and commerce is greater; for this reason the Malays fear the Chinese more. The Chinese have economic power which the Malays resent.