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

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

 

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.

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.

Continue reading

Nov 5th: Speaking in Cambridge, MA

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Dear friends, I’ll be speaking at this event. Join us!

When: 5pm-7pm, Nov 5th 2015

Where: Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) Harvard, 1730 Cambridge St, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Description:

Singapore is a small city-state often lauded for its economic transformation over the last 50 years. Less attention has been paid to the social integration policies that brought a racially divided nation together, and the unique approaches and principles that produced them. Today, as Singapore celebrates her golden jubilee, new cracks in the social fabric are starting to emerge: class, immigration and race relations. This panel discussion series focuses on how Singapore has confronted social integration challenges in the past, and the challenges and solutions to social faultlines on the horizon.

Speakers:

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GE2015 panel discussion this Sat, Sep 19th

UPDATE! Venue and (slight) time change due to demand. New details:

Date:   19 Sep 2015 [Sat]
Time:   3pm – 7pm
Venue: 9 Penang Road, #13-03 Park Mall

Please remember to sign up here.

Original post:

MARUAH

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a dialogue at Bras Basah Complex this Saturday at 230pm alongside Alex Au, Braema Mathi, Derek Da Cunha, Jack Lee and Rafiz Hapipi, organised by MARUAH, a Singapore Human Rights NGO (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

Please sign up here. For those interested, my two books, Floating on a Malayan Breeze and Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, will be available there.

Hope to see you!

More details from organiser:

Post-elections forum – What’s at Stake?

On 11 September 2015, Continue reading

GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

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We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.

Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.

This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.

They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.

Diversity of ideas

First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.

Continue reading

SDP’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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Dear friends, following up on my first post dissecting the WP’s manifesto, here is my take on the Singapore Democratic Party’s (the manifesto available here). This time, I have added an extra section at the bottom: Undecided.

Again, please treat this as first impressions. Many of these suggestions merit closer study, which can happen if the opposition has more resources or if the government and its media starts listening to alternative suggestions. Most importantly, what is needed is better data and information from the government. For instance, how big are Singapore’s reserves?

I love the easy, lazy dichotomy that the PAP and its fans have been trotting out these past few days: Either Singapore or Greece.

Please lah. There are many ways Singapore can increase social spending without surrendering itself to fiscal recklessness. As Yeoh Lam Keong has emphasised here, these proposed social spending packages may not be as onerous to Singapore as the PAP makes out.

What I like

Healthcare Continue reading

GE2015: Positivity versus negativity; young and the old

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Random stream of consciousness before I return to more serious work:

Many have suggested that the establishment’s gutter politics and mud-slinging (see Lianhe Zaobao; see Lawrence Wong; see Vivian Balakrishnan etc. etc.) is in bad taste and will ultimately backfire. Friends and I have written about how we’d like to see more constructive debate and dialogue.

But I guess we may be all missing the point. The PAP has probably figured that its best strategy is a platform of fear, negativity and backward-looking glory basking. Against the opposition’s hope, positivity and forward-looking ideals. Which the establishment paints out to be irresponsible, naive, reckless.

There is surely an age factor at play. When compared to other developed countries, it is striking how powerful notions of gerontocracy are in Singapore. The youth are meant to be chided, corralled, cornered. Every other day I hear some asinine comment or anecdote about an elderly person lambasting “young Singaporeans” for even contemplating the opposition.

Apparently the young will ruin Singapore; I wonder if these older Singaporeans remember when they were young in the 1950s, and, flush with their own fervour and ideals, were cheering on LKY in the opposition. Perhaps today’s young will forget in fifty years too.

What I found fascinating about the Amos Yee saga, aside from everything else that we know about, are the cultured and sophisticated views to emerge from young people. I met a bunch of young teenagers at a school in July. They all had fiercely independent but varying views on Amos. Many disagreed with what he had said about LKY. Or at least, the manner in which it was delivered. But nobody thought the punishment fit the “crime”. And they certainly didn’t need Big Brothers telling them how to think about it.

Singapore continues to chug along with this pervasive ageism. One of the WP’s policies I like is lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Why not? If they can drive, drink and defend our country with arms, why shouldn’t they vote?

Unlikely to happen though, because the youth are unpredictable. Or so the PAP probably thinks.

And so it is banking on the older vote. I smile when I see the PAP and its fans moralising about fiscal prudence. For heaven’s sake, when the PAP announces any goodie bag, package or handout, it is considered smart and considerate spending. When the opposition suggests any form of new spending, it is reckless.

How do you know? We don’t know how big our reserves are. We don’t know the implications of tax increases. If the government made information easily accessible, we could have an honest debate.

And even if we needed to “raid the reserves”, why not? What the heck are the reserves there for? To help Singapore in a time of crisis, right?

Well, wealth inequality is one of the highest in the world, and xenophobia is on the rise. Every revolution in history has involved those two elements. If this doesn’t qualify as a crisis, what does? An attack by Malaysia? Our obsession with supposed external threats has blinded us to the problems brewing internally.

So, yes, the opposition is reckless, but the PAP’s Pioneer Generation package is simply fair help for those who built the country. Even the billionaire on Nassim Road. Without means testing, the Pioneer Generation package essentially means that a young, middle-income family in Singapore is subsidising the healthcare of rich, old people.

Prudent? Perhaps. But also an old-fashioned vote buy.

Of course these easy dichotomies of positive and negative; young and old have limited use. These are all spectrums, and the lines do cross.

But in some ways this Friday could be the first time Singapore’s youth sends a powerful message to the ageists. Or maybe it’ll just be business as usual…

Image credit: Today Online