Ode to Mustafa

Forget the Hawker Centre. If you want to observe what some might call Singaporean integration—others inequality—visit Mustafa. Go at six on a Monday morning to see Mrs Nose Up-in-the-air, striding confidently to the daun kusum aka laksa leaves for her famous home-made laksa for her lunchtime group of tai tais who these days are called investors. If she returned at three on a Sunday afternoon, … Continue reading Ode to Mustafa

Two weeks with “Tony”

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Mawell Center Hawker Food Center, Singapore.

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 Tanya Angerer, a good mutual friend, for references. (Tanya and Melanie Chan, 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.

ah hoe mee pok

Continue reading “Two weeks with “Tony””

Singapore, Bali diaries

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View of Gunung Agung from Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gili islands, where I was lucky enough to spend a week

Response to my piece on Singapore’s presidential election

Usually when I write about SG politics, some pro-PAP people will criticise something about my argument, as well as my character and integrity. This time, they were quiet; in fact, some sent me personal messages thanking me, and saying that now, for the first time, they are losing hope in the party.

Of course, nobody expects a significant electoral impact in the short term. Ahead of the next general election, the PAP, just like incumbent parties everywhere, will probably drop money into the pockets of Singaporeans, and all will be forgotten—the subverting of democracy and meritocracy, the flooded train lines, all will be forgotten.

This time, with my piece, most of the critiques came from non-establishment folk. Quite refreshing! While they shared my disdain for the process, they disagreed with my conclusion that it is important to nonetheless vote—if we had had the chance—for the sake of racial harmony. They felt, for a variety of reasons, that it was more important not to endorse a flawed process. (The comments on Lynn Lee’s FB post are a good summary.)

Political messaging and jousting

The below is highlighted as a negative example. Those words are copied from the post; they are not mine, and I certainly don’t agree with any of this.


Halimah 9:11 Facebook

Given my worries about sectarianism, I was appalled to see an alternative-media journalist I respect posting the above image. Perhaps there is some base humour to be distilled from the 9/11 commonality, but to compare the impact of Halimah’s walkover in Singapore to the impact of Islamic terrorists in NYC is irresponsible.

Continue reading “Singapore, Bali diaries”

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. Separately, and sadly, Eng Su passed away in September 2019. I wrote a tribute to him here.]

***

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 “The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol”

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 4: Life and Food”

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 3: Conservation”

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 2: On race”

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-le-morne

Mauritius is a tropical island state Continue reading “Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people”

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 “An Australian farm stay”

Off to Mauritius

Dear friends, last July Li Ling and I decided that we’re going to leave Singapore for a bit. Well, we finally have a destination! Ling is starting a 6-month diploma programme in endangered species recovery at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Mauritius, part of her efforts to switch from medical work to animal conservation. Her programme begins at the end of March. I will be … Continue reading Off to Mauritius