Two months ago one of my closest friends and biggest fans/inspirations/all the rest of it passed. This is a bunch of random reflections, in the disjointed fashion in which we spoke (past tense…sigh). Some of it won’t make sense. Sorry. The only part that might approximate a traditional obituary, if you’re keen, is the last section, “A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism”, where I tell the story of the time Engsu hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, leaders of Singapore and The Philippines, at The Coconut Club
Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again
On Thursday night, September 12th, hours before I heard the news, I was watching HBO’s Big Little Lies, after a day of walking in rural Portugal, and I thought of Eng Su. Nicole Kidman and her husband were dancing to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and I remembered the way Eng Su used to sing Young’s Old Man.
Those were the days when Nengks used to sing regular songs, before he decided that he had an obligation to feed our ears with undiscovered gems, that he needed to excavate Motown with the same tenacity he did his own feelings and past.
Ok, fine. I lie. I had only an hour and a half with “Tony”. Enough to be charmed.
I say two weeks because I received the WhatsApp invite from a Singaporean producer two weeks before. We want to chat with you before we decide if you’re qualified to appear on screen across from Mr X who’s flying in from the US.
Who the heck is this? Somebody so famous that he must remain anonymous while he sends an advance troop, scouts to survey the terrain? Yet also somebody who wants to come to Singapore to meet not its property developers, not its politicians, not its hawkers…but its writers?
That overlap between fame and grit. Must be a very small demographic. VICE came to mind. Ok, I said, trying to hide my excitement.
Having apparently passed the telephone interview, the Singaporean producer tells me that Anthony Bourdain is filming his third season of Parts Unknown and the first episode will be about Singapore. I had watched the show a couple of times and really liked it. Food, so long the centrepiece of his work, had become an accomplice to culture, identity, roots. I also loved the cinematography—the dark, hypnotic, Blade-Runnerish palette for bits of Shanghai hinting at dystopia.
Don’t tell anybody about this, the producer says, all very hush hush.
Seriously? That’s a bit exaggerated, I thought.
But she was right. The name Bourdain really does stir the soul like no other. I mention it to a couple of close friends, demanding their secrecy. Soon a friend who owns a restaurant starts lobbying for inclusion. Others offer their congratulations, as if this opportunity alone vindicates my writing career path.
“But why did they ask you?” cracked the more sardonic—and maybe contemplative—of my friends. Well, like so much else in life, I think it’s just luck and networks. Friends of friends. The Singaporean producer asked T, a good mutual friend, for references. (T and M, another mutual friend, appeared alongside me on the show.)
The two New York producers, Bourdain’s long-time collaborators, had now started communicating with me directly over e-mail. Can you suggest an economist? Easy, Donald Low. Of course, I declared to them my overwhelming bias: Donald’s a good friend with whom I co-authored my second book. Donald, so overburdened by interview requests that he often dithers, this time responded instantly.
And that is half the interviewee selection story of Parts Unknown: Singapore. One of their prerequisites, I later realised, was ethnic comprehensiveness. Chinese (Donald), Malay (comedian Najip Ali), Indian (me), Others (Eurasian chef Damien D’Silva), adhering to Singapore’s well-known CMIO model that guides ethnic policies.
“So where would you like to take Tony?” By that point I had started mimicking them, and everybody else in his immediate orbit, in just saying “Tony”. The names “Bourdain” and the fuller “Anthony Bourdain”, hitherto so ingrained in my food-writer-adoring mind, quickly slipped from my vernacular. Friends still make fun of me. “Oh, you call him Tony, izzit?” Well that’s how he introduced himself! It seemed natural, understood, not some false humility or pretentious attempt to connect with the salivating masses of self-proclaimed foodies.
I suggested a 7am breakfast of my favourite Singaporean dish, bak chor mee, mushroom minced meat noodles, at Ah Hoe Mee Pok. It ticks so many boxes. Bak chor mee, or BCM—yes, we love our acronyms—is a dish whose quality has suffered immensely from economic and globalising forces. Ah Hoe is one of the few good ones left, with the most lovely, chewy egg noodles cooked al dente—think fresh pasta tossed in vinegar and chilli—paired with a deep, rich pork broth, in which float homemade fish dumplings, pork morsels, and bits of cabbage.
By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?
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. Separately, and sadly, Eng Su passed away in September 2019. I wrote a tribute to him here.]
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.
Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.
I go to Xi’an, that ancient crossroads of people and trade, expecting some of the best food on this trip; and it doesn’t disappoint. The Muslim quarter, in particular, is a veritable treasure trove of bites and eats. I do, however, recommend wandering off the main alley (pictured) and exploring some of the side lanes—more locals, greater variety, better prices.
“I love local hawker food. There are not many countries in the world like Singapore where one can easily find reasonably priced food with the same high level of hygiene and great variety.” – MP Baey Yam Keng, in the wake of his recent $2.50 nasi padang.
Many people in the middle- and upper-classes love to cheer Singapore’s delicious cheap food. When my foreign friends ask me what’s great about Singapore, I often cite this (among other things).
Unfortunately for us all, it is a boast loaded with classist undertones. The main reason a country as rich and expensive as Singapore has such cheap hawker food is that many labour inputs are underpriced. Everybody from the lorry driver to the dish washer to the hawker is being underpaid. Indeed, for a country with a negligible agricultural sector, one would expect (the imported) food to cost more than in many other countries. Continue reading “Loving Singapore’s “cheap” hawker food”
Bust of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s shifu, in Foshan, Guangdong
When we try to leave Sichuan for Guangdong (Canton), Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based Taiwanese-American friend, Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer, and I are faced with the contemporary traveller’s worst scheduling nightmare: the Chinese national holidays. Our journey comes near the end of the weeklong holiday around October 1st, the national day of the People’s Republic of China, when in 1949 Mao Tse-Tung declared that “The Chinese people have stood up!”
There is certainly a lot of standing to be done. We stand in Emei, as hordes of domestic tourists—some with walking stick and camera, others dressed to the nines—flood the usually peaceful Emei shan, mountain. When we reach Chengdu, we stand outside the quaint boutique hotel I booked through booking.com; they are overbooked, and don’t have a room for us, and so after two hours of calling around they find us another hotel thirty minutes away.
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.
Philosophy and spiritual teachings have crept into conversations throughout the last eight weeks in India. Perhaps I should have expected this. Almost all Indian martial arts are grounded in spirituality, if not necessarily religion. Boddhidharma (pictured), who many believe brought some form of martial arts from South India to Shaolin sometime in the 5th-6th century, was a Buddhist monk.
Although, as somebody different reminds me every few days, back then Buddhism and Hinduism were not “religions” in the contemporary sense, and there might have been a lot more overlap between them. Many Hindus might have subscribed to the teachings of the Buddha; moreover, they would probably not even have identified themselves as “Hindus”, distinct from “Buddhists”. Even today, the terms “Hindu” and “Buddhist” do not have widespread currency across India. “I prefer to say that I am a follower of Lord Buddha’s teaching,” Kirit’s uncle, the secretary of a Japanese Buddhist organisation in Jaipur, tells me.1
All this is important, because as we consider the ancient connections between Chinese and Indian martial arts— a microcosm, perhaps, of broader cultural exchange—it is worth noting that undergirding those flows was not “religion” or “proselytisation” as we know them today, but rather a more universal ethos about living a good, honourable, spiritual life.
As such, the shorthand that I’ve been using this past year to describe kung fu’s origins—“Martial arts probably spread from India to China in the 5th-6th C with Buddhism as its vehicle”—is simplistic. Continue reading “Letter from India: Philosophies”