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

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Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30

Penang bless car

Dear friends,

I will be appearing in two events at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, one of my favourite kampung-like cities in the world. It’s my first time at this festival, so quite thrilled. Friends, food and fun aside, I’m looking forward to meeting Rehman Rashid, whose classic book, A Malaysian Journey, partly inspired Sumana and my own bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004.

For general information about the festival, click here.

The two panels I’ll be speaking on are:

A Sense of Place

Saturday 29 November, 12.30pm, Lightbox @ The Whiteways Arcade

A sense of place is one of those qualities readers look for in a book, but what exactly does it mean? A poet, a travel writer, and a novelist discuss the varying effect that spaces and places have on their writing.

Panelists: Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Shivani Sivagurunathan (Malaysia), Marco Ferrarese (Malaysia)

Moderator: Bernice Chauly

(click here to visit page)

&

What Are You Hiding?

Saturday 29 November, 10.00am, Gallery 2 @ The Whiteways Arcade

1 in 6 writers have self-censored. In this age of sedition, in this era of surveillance and sousveillance, of big brother and little brother, many a scribe has chosen to not write on topics that might subject them to scrutiny – both by society and by the government. Join these authors as they explore the act of self-censorship and the effect it has on both the writer and the writing.

Panelists: Ooi Kee Beng (Singapore/Malaysia), Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Leila S. Chudori (Indonesia)

Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan

(click here to visit page)

I hope to see you there. My wife and I will be in Penang for four days, so if you can’t make the panels but still want to meet, do send me a note at: sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com

P.S. The picture above is of the Shree Muniswarar Kuil, or temple, in Penang. In a longstanding island tradition, Chinese, Malays, Indians and many others alike drive their new cars or motorbikes here to bless them. It is a quaint testament to the island’s cultural and religious heterogeneity.

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

IPA Slideshow Night Singapore April 30th 2014

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Fisherman, Kuala Kedah, Malaysia

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a presentation on Wednesday organised by the Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), bringing together two expert photographers, Bernice Wong and Samuel He, and one terrible one—I’ll be speaking about travelling in Malaya.

When: 730pm, Wed, Apr 30th

Where: Bellwethers Bistro Bar, 120 Desker Road Singapore

Of great interest to me is the location of the Little India bar, Bellwethers, which is on Desker Road, a street I remember visiting at night in the 90s, to observe illegal card games, “blue tape” sales, and all manner of Lady Boys.

My co-panellists profiles before. Click here for more info. Hope to see you there!

1) BERNICE WONG / Photographer
http://bernicewsf.com/
Bernice is one of Singapore’s most promising young photographers working on social documentaries. Bernice will share her projects and her journey as a young photographer diving deep into the world of documentary photography.

2) SAMUEL HE / Photographer
http://www.samuelhe.com/
Samuel is an independent photographer, formerly of The Straits Times Picture Desk, working with still and motion photography projects. Samuel will share his projects and transition from a full-time job as a Straits Times photojournalist to the hard-knocks world of independent photography.

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PLUG & PLAY is an informal night of curated slideshows, dialogue and exchange. Selected photographers, artists, writers and craftsmen are invited to share their work (in-progress or completed) with an intimate audience in a cosy, informal setting. If you’ve got an interesting story or project to share, there is an audience. Consider Plug & Play an informal ‘dry run’ showcase of your work to friends.

This PLUG & PLAY Session will be held at Bellwethers Bistro Bar, 120 Desker Road Singapore. Special discounts will be available for food and drinks on the night.

Who should attend? Fans, followers, practitioners and friends of Photography & Art in Asia.

Produced by Invisible Photographer Asia
http://invisiblephotographer.asia/

Venue sponsored by Bellwethers Bistro Bar.
http://www.bellwethers.com.sg/

FREE Limited Seating – First come, first serve.

On racism and xenophobia in Singapore

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“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).

The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.

These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.

As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.

Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.

1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes

In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.

Continue reading

Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

Continue reading

Talk on Malaya: Mar 15th 3pm

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a talk entitled “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” next week. It’s open to all—do come!

When: 3pm, Saturday, March 15th 2014

Where:
NUS Museum,
NUS Centre For the Arts,
University Cultural Centre,
50 Kent Ridge Crescent,
National University of Singapore
(Click here for directions.)

Alongside me will be moderator Lai Chee Kien and fellow panellists Tay Kheng Soon, one of Malaya’s most famous architects and Syed Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor at NUS.

We will “reflect, weigh and provide contemporary perspectives on Malaya, using the Malayan Forum of 1949 as an entry point”.

The talk is being held in conjunction with a very interesting exhibition on “Malayan Art”.

“In 1963, Marco Hsu, art critic and regular columnist who contributed articles about the history of Art in Malaya, published a series of essays on the cultural history of the people of the Malayan Peninsula, which were compiled into a book published in Chinese in 1963, A Brief History of Malayan Art. The NUS Museum revisits the book on the 50th Anniversary of its publication with this exhibition. Using artists and artefacts referred to by Hsu, the exhibition highlights questions of cultural identity and nation building raised on the eve of the creation of a merged, independent nation.”

Malayan Forum

 

Speaking at the Singapore Biennale, Jan 25th

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Dear friends in Singapore, if you have nothing better to do on Jan 25th, do join Dr Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor, and me for a discussion on Malaysian and Singaporean history, as part of the Singapore Biennale.

I will be chatting about themes related to my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze. He will look at “History as Controversy:….in an increasingly digitised and globalised world, there is a need to confront – rather than sidestep – historical themes and topics that may be viewed as “controversial” or “sensitive” in the study of history…”

When: 2-430pm, Sat Jan 25th
Where: Visitors’ Briefing Room, Level 1, National Library Building
Cost: Free! But you must…
Sign up: Send an email to education@singaporeartmuseum.sg with Subject line: RSVP: SG Biennale Mapping Series (Sat 25 Jan 2014)

There are more details of the event here. Unfortunately, the online ticketing function there is faulty. Just ignore it. If you would like to attend, send an email as per above.

Hope to see you there!

Letter from India: Gatka

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in S Africa, where I am visiting my wife for a few days.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Philosophies

Buses

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By the time Kirit and I reach Punjab, buses have broken our backs. Unable to secure a seat on any northbound train, we board a series of overnight buses—Pondicherry to Hyderabad; Hyderabad to Nagpur; Nagpur to Indore; Indore to Jaipur; Jaipur to Chandigarh; and, finally, Chandigarh to Amritsar—collectively taking more than 50 hours over some 3000km, greater than the distance from Hong Kong to Singapore, or Houston to San Francisco.

In Indore we break our journey for a few days, visiting my Nani’s house every day for home cooking. Then, as if to compensate for those comforts, our karma delivers the bus from hell. We have two “upper sleepers” on a “Non-AC bus” to Jaipur. This doesn’t sound too shabby, but when we board we find a dirty, old interior. The faux leather plastic on my bed’s “headrest” is completely worn, exposing the spongy foam beneath. Every time I lift my head up, I find little bits of black foam clinging lovingly to my hair. The bed itself is sandy. That is partly its steady state, and partly my doing, as I keep my soiled slippers up there with me, rather than down below on the even filthier bus floor, where they might get trampled on by even filthier slippers.

Across the aisle, on a double-sleeper on the other side of the bus, are my travel companions: an elderly man and his white terrier, “Kutta”, literally dog in Hindi. Kutta is actually quite cute, but he annoys me by barking sporadically and also because I’m envious of his royal diet: burfi, which I look at longingly, every time the man places one delicately in Kutta’s mouth. Kutta’s bark isn’t the only aural pain. At every available opportunity our bus driver blares his irritating horn, which in India can range from the multi-layered melodious to the fart-like. The racket is worse than anything those post-South Africa 2010 Vuvuzuela nuts conjured. I regret booking a sleeper in the front of the bus.

Continue reading

kinitv: Interview about Malaysia and Singapore

Dear friends, Temily Tianmay of kinitv, part of the Malaysiakini group, interviewed me via Skype a few days ago. We spoke about Malaysia, Singapore, the recent Malaysian elections, ethnic relations, corruption and my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze.