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.

Continue reading

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

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?

Continue reading

Oct 11th: A book table with Sonny Liew

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Dear friends, Sonny Liew and I will be sharing a book table at Mabuk Market, a “hybrid boozy flea art market” on October 11th at Keppel Bay.

Drop by to hang out, chat about graphic novels, literature, travel, politics, whatever. No program, no speeches, just a chill session. We’ll have a few copies of our books for sale.

For those who don’t know, Sonny has written/drawn arguably the best Singaporean book this year, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Come see what all the fuss is about.

The flea market will be held in a giant air-conditioned tent, haze-free, family-friendly (bouncy castle!). Check out the event’s Facebook page.

Romba thanks to the kind people at The Haywire Handymen, Dreamfields and Good Citizen for hosting us.

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When: Sunday, October 11, 11am-9pm

Where: Marina At Keppel Bay, 2 Keppel Bay Vista, Singapore 098382

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Mabuk Market

Full text from organiser:

Continue reading

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.

June 11 event at Books Actually, Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Books Actually

Dear friends,

I will be appearing at a Books Actually event on June 11th, where I will speak about both my books, Floating on a Malayan Breeze (see here) and Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (see here). Session will be moderated by Jen Wei Ting, good friend and fellow UC Berkeley alumna.

Books Actually is one of Singapore’s only independent bookstores. As you know they all are, unfortunately, buffeted by rising rents, shifts in consumer tastes (video games, aaargh!) and industry upheaval. So, do come out and support them, even if not on this day, then any other. (Fine. I like my games too.)

For those on Facebook, do visit the Event page (click here).

Otherwise, here are the details

11 June 2014, Wednesday
7.30 pm at BooksActually
(№ 9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168645)

Synopsis
Floating on a Malayan Breeze uncovered fresh insights about Singapore and Malaysia’s contrasting development, while Hard Choices brought together a selection of critical essays rethinking various aspects of Singapore’s fundamental policies, putting forward a more liberal vision of the city state.

Hear the author, Sudhir Vadaketh discuss the social and political changes occurring in Singapore today, from democratisation to immigration. He will also share thoughts on the writing craft; and the challenges and opportunities as a writer in Singapore.

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.