Singapore’s Hawker Heritage: Chicken Rice

Last week, I attended STORM magazine’s Keep It Going conference that discussed, debated and divined how sustainability in Singapore might unfurl and be harnessed. (I am a frequent contributor to the quarterly literary journal captained by rock star veteran journalist Kannan Chandran.) Covering the “Feeding The Hunger Of The Masses” panel, I was struck by these words from chef/restaurant design consultant/World Gourmet Summit mastermind/thought provocateur Peter Knipp: “Singapore is a food nation… but do you know the history of your food? And who’s behind it?” I do, but I wanted to know more. Basing this little project on a recent list by CNN Travel on “40 Singapore Foods We Can’t Live Without,” I decided to satiate some curiosity pangs.

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here's Yeo Keng Nam's roasted varietal. © Desiree Koh

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here’s the roasted version at Yeo Keng Nam in Braddell – they’ve been winging it for more than 50 years. © Desiree Koh

To say my mother is Hainanese and a gifted cook is like saying Singaporeans love to eat. Growing up in Hougang’s Hainanese kampong (village) community on my great-grandmother’s chicken rice (fowl fattened for the grand sacrifice, rice steamed in its fat, its glistening skin the outlying ingredient of the chilli sauce), very few renditions pass my mom’s taste test.

Chicken rice is succulent chicken infused with ginger, then either poached or slung into a furnace and roasted. Expertly sliced with a flourish that’s Shaolin monk to the sushi master’s Samurai precision, the beautifully splayed meat is served atop rice first fried in chicken fat before being steamed in the poultry’s juices, pandan and ginger to fragrant heaven. Which means a visitor from China’s Hainan island would absolutely not recognize one of his or her native dishes.

There, a skinny fowl is accompanied by oily rice and ground green chilli, and a pork stock is used in the preparation. When chicken rice arrived from Hainan, fresh off the junk boat in the colonial 1850s, the Cantonese (oh, those mighty master chefs of Chinese cuisine!) introduced kalamansi into the chilli sauce. They also turned it red, effectively giving chicken rice its Singaporean citizenship with the immigration of these local Southeast Asian ingredients into the recipe. The dish took on a more curvaceous shape with tender young chickens, and started growing in popularity from the downtown Hainanese enclaves of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Sea Street in the early 1900s. Street peddlers shaped the rice by hand into softball-shaped balls before wrapping them in banana leaves for quicker and more seamless transactions.

At stalwarts such as Yet Con, Chin Chin and Yeo Keng Nam, dark soy sauce and an elixir of freshly ground ginger and garlic complete the condiment tray; Hainanese purists drizzle the dark soy sauce over their perfectly round mound of rice, and mix the ginger/garlic dip into the chilli. Like most Singaporean dishes, the spice makes or breaks its case for epicurean euphoria – weak sauce can render a chicken rice non-existent. Make your request for breast, wing or drumstick portions, topping off with add-ons of gizzard, liver and intestines (best to go with a group, so you can pick every damned part clean).

There are lots of big name chicken rice stalls, such as the Bour(roll eyes)dain-worshipped Tian Tian, Wee Nam Kee and Boon Tong Kee, but for chicken rice with soul, Delicious Boneless Chicken Rice at Katong Shopping Centre (865 Mountbatten Road), Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice (191 East Coast Road) and Yeo Keng Nam (8 Braddell Road) are where you’ll find my mom digging into her favorite thigh-and-gizzard combo.

Eathlete’s Feed

Fashionably late to reading Outside‘s March 2013 issue, which is devoted to food, but fascistically devouring every fantastic morsel. I love this magazine, one of 12 I receive a print subscription to, and I absolutely adored this edition with all my appetite, because it embraced these very important ingredients that energizes a life in motion – yes, a moveable feast.

Outside's March 2013 issue - the sport of eating.

Outside’s March 2013 issue – the sport of eating. © Desiree Koh

Premium Fuel - Contrary to popular belief, athletes eat the best and most enjoyable meals on earth. No, bird seed does not enhance speed and pittance does not support endurance. Olympic swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, who also runs AthleticFoodie.com, espouses this best: simply put, if you’re revving your body into prime shape, why would you compromise all that hard work with anything less than euphoric eating? (The by-effect is similar to runner’s high.) If you’re training for a marathon or a half-Ironman, a consistently insatiable appetite is a constant, and you want to make sure everything is a quality calorie – it’s not about counting calories, but making them count. This means fresh produce, clean ingredients, real food cooked slow (but can be prepared fast, and can enable you to go faster) whether at home or out. Double bonus: this chow philosophy serves up the best tasting food. Brownie points abound all around (oh lord, post-long workout brownies).

What's not to love about this Bircher muesli at Prahan Mission Cafe (they can tell you exactly where each local component comes from) after a 14K run in gusty 25mph winds? With all proceeds going to the neighborhood's disadvantaged residents? Fill me up! © Desiree Koh

What’s not to love about this Bircher muesli at Prahan Mission Cafe (they can tell you exactly where each local component comes from) after a 14K run in gusty 25mph Melbourne winds? With all proceeds going to the neighborhood’s disadvantaged residents? Fill me up! © Desiree Koh

Eating Is Part Of Adventure - In the Nepali Himalayas’ Jhinu Danda, our first stop en route to Annapurna Base Camp, expedition leader Bob Bowness paid US$100 for a goat to be slaughtered for dinner. I’m Buddhist, and I never ask for a life to be taken on my account, but it was an annual practice for Bob – that money would sustain the entire village  all winter, and then some. They would also share the dinner with us and our crew, have lots of of leftovers, and use uneaten parts of the goat for other purposes. Eating goat curry by a campfire under the clearest sky and the brightest stars remain a once-in-a-lifetime deal. I don’t expect that to change.

Goat to the slaughter in Jhinu Danda, Nepal. © Desiree Koh

Goat to the slaughter in Jhinu Danda, Nepal. © Desiree Koh

Adventure En Route To Eating - Me and Caroline in a local bus trundling through rural fjord country in western Norway, getting off at a farmhouse in a setting that can only be justifiably described by Jo Nesbø. The killing equipment proudly displayed all over the barn Smalahovetunet proprietor/rancher/cook Ivar Løne and his wife showed us into further confirmed my fears that we were soon to be the stars of the next Scandinavian murder mystery bestseller. Of course, the Lønes turned out to be the sweetest Nordic grandparents two silly kiddos could have wished for, if only for one sommar evening of digging into a traditional smalahove multi-course feast, literally trying to make conversation out of English transpositions. Ivar drove us back to our hotel in his pick-up – Cat Stevens was on the radio singing “Wild World”.

Smalahove, a traditional Western Norwegian sheep's head dish. © Desiree Koh

Smalahove, a traditional western Norwegian sheep’s head dish. © Desiree Koh

Eating A Peace Of Earth - I was in an altitude-induced haze at the peak of Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain on earth at almost 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). But nothing in the universe could mediate the awe, appreciation and adulation of the majesty and beauty of my surroundings. If you watch superhero or James Cameron movies (I don’t, but I get the idea), you’ll see these fictional (maybe) visions are pretty much reality at the top of Kili, the “Roof of Africa”. Soaring glaciers make you feel like a domitable and insignificant speck of humanity (we are), and is thoroughly other-worldly. Then you realize all these massifs, cliffs, plateaus and ice fields that nature has sculpted with insurmountable effort – with all due respect, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel work has nothing on this – is slated to disappear by 2060. We’ve fucked the planet enough for a giant hole to rift through the peak’s northern face, and shafts of snow have already melted enough for pictures of the summit from 20 years ago and now to look like a weight loss center’s before and after poster. This understanding was a come-down worse than the sinking feeling associated with the end of an adventure at descent. That was July 2010 and since then, I’ve been committed to doing my best to keep it clean and green, which includes eating consciously, and supporting producers who take care of our land, as far as possible.

The glaciers at the Roof of Africa, 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) above ground. This shit has unapologetically not been Instagrammed. © Desiree Koh

The glaciers at the Roof of Africa, 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) above ground. This shit has unapologetically not been Instagrammed. © Desiree Koh

What’s good for the earth is good for the body which is good for… well, that just brings us back to my first point in this post. Which is how a perfect food cycle should function, right?

Squaring Off

In 2011, I traveled to Turkey on assignment and was fortunate enough to spend five days in Istanbul. I love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, and I’m a history nerd – I was excited as hummus hopped up with poppy seeds. When I was planning my feeding (both oral and Ottoman education) strategy, I figured to spend most of my time in Sultanahmet, the old district – why would I bother crossing the Golden Horn to the modern half of the city? Wouldn’t it be just like any other contemporary urban center?

Istanbul is full of interesting characters - many of them can be found on Galata Bridge. A fisherman tosses fish in the air for the sport of seagulls. © Desiree Koh

Istanbul is full of interesting personalities – many of them can be found on Galata Bridge. A fisherman tosses bait in the air for the sport of seagulls. © Desiree Koh

But Turkish-American friends like Leyla and Turkey aficionado Robyn Eckhardt urged me not to miss soulful neighborhoods such as Cihangir and Istiklal, and after getting suffocated by cruise shiploads of pasty tourists with umbrellas, unwieldy camera-clad hands and high crew socks stuffed into sandals, I finally escaped across the Galata Bridge. And like everyone else who live, work and play in that part of town, I never looked back.

The game of Turkish life, in Galatasaray, the epitome of Istanbul cool. © Desiree Koh

The game of Turkish life, in Galatasaray, the epitome of Istanbul cool. © Desiree Koh

I took the steepest route up Galata hill so I had an excuse to stop for cookies at Konat Patisserie. Around Galatasaray, which would be like Greenwich Village when it was spelled C-B-G-B, it became clear to me what the hordes in Sultanahmet obscured – Turkish life is about congregating wherever there’s a platform (backgammon board balanced on a wooden crate, rickety cafe table that the rumble of an oncoming tram might tip over, gentleman in a natty three-piece suit leaning over to tell you his life story – uninvited, but enchanting) and whenever (all the time). The Swedes fika over coffee, the Irish craic over Guinness, and the Turks chat over çay. For hours. And hours. And hours. In Cihangir, I wrote postcards and tea’d off while eavesdropping on all the conversations around me (diabolical planning of an underground rave, a heated James Joyce debate, and something in Turkish filled with so much aggro I could only surmise it concerned local soccer rivalries). I strode up Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping/eating/demonstration/everyone-just-come-out-here stretch, where hanging out is taken to the next level – people filled second, third, fourth floor balconies overlooking the avenue chain-smoking and drinking more çay. This must be how molecules feel – there’s always something or someone propelling you in some direction, whether a force of human nature or life sciences. Here, you’re always on your toes to avoid getting run over by trolleys trundling people up and down the three-kilometer stretch or protesters marching through.

Constant motion on Istiklal Caddesi, three kilometers of buzzy Istanbul energy. © Desiree Koh

Constant motion on Istiklal Caddesi, three kilometers of buzzy Istanbul energy. © Desiree Koh

One just can’t be still on Istiklal. In addition to ebbing along with the constant flow of locals, tourists less obnoxious than the cruise ship trippers and expats, the vibrant clatter of activity, electric and eclectic joie de vivre, and surge of progressive hustle culminate in an ideal of no fuddy duddy left behind. And if you’re headed up Istiklal with the old city behind you, each step takes you closer to Taksim Square, the literal intersection of Independence Avenue and the Avenue of the Republic. Symbolically, Taksim Square is no stranger to riots and rallies, congregation central of a society centered on congregation. I had taken an afternoon-long stroll from Sultanahmet to Taksim Square – it could have been about an hour if I hadn’t stopped a million times for balık-ekmek (fish sandwiches), baklava and muhallebi (milk pudding) – and when I glanced over my shoulder, the historical skyline of minarets sprawled over the Seven Hills seemed hazy, a distant memory. In this part of Istanbul, you’re closer to Europe and a New World order. I spent the rest of my days in town in all of these neighborhoods; each time I walked down a street I might have gone down the day before, I see, hear, eat, smell, sense, and learn something new.

Characteristically Istiklal Caddesi. © Desiree Koh

Characteristically Istiklal Caddesi. © Desiree Koh

I’m so glad I crossed that bridge. And I hope the people of Taksim Square defend theirs. Cesur.

At Açik Mutfak, chef-owner Esra Senra faithfully slow cooks her grandmother's recipes in one of Istanbul's more progressive neighborhoods. "Open kitchen" - what the name of her little place literally translates to - indeed. © Desiree Koh

At Açik Mutfak, chef-owner Esra Senra faithfully slow cooks her grandmother’s recipes in one of Istanbul’s more progressive neighborhoods. “Open kitchen” – what the name of her little place literally translates to – indeed. © Desiree Koh

Having A Ball With The Wall Of Sound

Last Thursday, I started drum lessons with two old friends. We were instigated by a Groupon and inspired to bang out landmark beats like the intro to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man” and “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)” (maybe I could even learn how to thunder road into “Born To Run”?). But when our slightly bemused, probably exasperated teacher tried to instill a basic three-thump rhythm into our limbs (we’re all athletes, but never have our arms and legs been tasked with coordination that felt so hapless), Zoe and I could only think of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.

Sitting in a soundproofed room no bigger than three by three meters, taking turns at two drum kits that took up most of the space and trying to find that three-thump via no particular logical methodology, brash clashes, thuds going awry and errant pounds bounced like spaceballs off the confines. Whenever I felt like I was on the cusp of getting it, my train of concentration would be broken by an assail of hits from either Zoe or Alvina. And I’d be back to just one hand forlornly producing a single staccato on the snare.

Conceptually, this is how Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound works – multi-layers of overdubbed disconnected musical ideas pulling in instruments and other vessels of sound that should not go together like rama lama lama ka-dinky dinky dong – that do. (Realistically, even the rattiest trash metal band would have rejected our nonsensical and noisy output.) In pop confection terms, Spector’s production technique is Vosges en vogue, conscientiously sourced instrumentation executed so skillfully that in his rich, lavish sonicphonies, which rarely last for more than three minutes, not a single moment is wasted on a tone, groove or flourish that doesn’t enhance the overall audio ecstasy. Which means Katy Perry is a faux Godiva diluted by Autotune so thin you can see through, more vanilla than the blandest white chocolate.

Beyond opening “Dirty Dancing” so fabulously that it’s created a sub-iconic culture of its own vis-à-vis the movie, the thumps that blow open “Be My Baby” aptly capture what the Wall Of Sound is all about within five heartbeats. Ronnie Spector née Bennett’s vocal arches trajects over ringing rattlers and several blaring saxophone lines, and on the break, a violin goes soaringly solo, backed by Darlene Love and Sonny and Cher woah-oh-ohing out.

Out of the sandbox - Brian Wilson and the 'Boys on an ill-advised world reunion tour in 2012. © Desiree Koh

Out of the sandbox – Brian Wilson and the ‘Boys on an ill-advised world reunion tour in 2012. © Desiree Koh

I’ve idolized Brian Wilson since I was 12, and of course, there’s no bigger Spector fan than him, and his greatest tribute to the maestro was to re-create the girl group renditions of  of Wagnerian rock & roll as America’s pre-Summer Of Love summertime band, the Beach Boys. After the first two faddish albums, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, Wilson got down to serious business with “Surfer Girl” – as soon as the first vocal bars of the title track crescendoes into an angelic chorale is the moment you can tell the genius has emerged frmo the boy. It was the turning point of Wilson’s career, and personally, no matter how often I listen to the track (a lot), I can’t help but coo over how lush it is, like the foam on top of a wave. One year later on “Shut Down Vol. 2″, Wilson’s response to “Be My Baby” unfolded in “Don’t Worry Baby”, which also features the same legendary Hal Blaine leading in with a characteristically masterful tempo. Multi-tracking wasn’t confined to just the music production – this plea of insecurity and fear before a drag race took the literacy of teen pop to a new decibel of poignancy, particularly in those days when Wilson’s falsetto preened like a peacock.

I discovered Bruce Springsteen when I was 20, resulting from an animal magnetism to “Born To Run”; in particular, its opening. If you’ve ever wondered why that rhythmic drum boom roaring in never sounds quite as robust live (not due in any way to Max Weinberg’s all-or-nothing syncopation abilities), it’s because that track and its same-titled album were created with – yes, Wall Of Sound techniques. You can’t put a studio and its production gadgets onstage, but you can take a band out of the Jersey Shore bar, send them playing on some of the greatest albums ever made and around the world countless times over for 40 years, and still have them deliver night after night in a way the postman in the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and Elvis’ “Return To Sender” can never do.

The best little house band in the world. © Desiree Koh

The best little house band in the world. © Desiree Koh

One of the greatest pleasures of E Street is their ability to play any song you throw at them at a show (Springsteen “humbly” attributes this to the fact that they remain a house band that has to take requests to fill a tip jar). They might need a minute to figure it out, but you can’t stump ‘em. Two weeks after the death of the spiritual leader of every girl group that ever existed, songwriter Ellie Greenwich, the E Street Band tore through a cover of one of her everlasting compositions for the Crystals. Because, ya know, bands like them, baby, they were born to Da Doo Run Run!

Pie Pie Love

You take a beautiful ingredient like pumpkin, richly ocher, luxuriant in texture, and coyly sweet the way Zooey Deschanel is winkingly demure, and you don’t sully it. For gourd’s sakes, you don’t need to disrupt this yielding, unassuming, amiable Charlie Brown of a charming chomp, as welcoming and heartwarming as waking up to Blossom Dearie on a Sunday morning (and just as easy), with unnecessary sugar or any other kind of artificial insurgent. Maybe a little clove, a little cinnamon, some anise if you’re feeling randy – the way Julie Christie might put on a pair of earrings.

Then you don’t want the crust to be too much of a burden – it’s an endorsement, not just an encasement – and man, eggy overtones would really suit that punkin perfection like Tom Ford on 007 v. 2012. Light, deft touches, like Fred Astaire’s wingtips across the polished oak of the Ritz dance floor, is how I like my pumpkin pie crust – floating like a butterfly, because you know the filling will effect a digestive swoon.

Pies & Coffee's pumpkin pie crust borrows a line from shortbread and flirts with butter, and its filling beckons from beneath.

Pies & Coffee’s pumpkin pie crust borrows a line from shortbread and flirts with butter, and its filling beckons from beneath. © Desiree Koh

In Holland, I learned the true meaning of a Dutch apple pie. What’s known as the Dutch apple pie in America is the strewn-method-to-the-streusel-madness topping, instead of a second crust (although the provenance is French), which became one of my favorite masticulatical formulae for round things. But now I know it’s not always about chunks of Granny Smiths in goopy starch, jailed by doorstopper crust. It’s thinly sliced Goudrenets (tart for appeltaart) stewed in cinnamon and lemon juice, raisins sprinkled in, layered between slivers of light pastry. The crust is more cake and less crumble, and I am convinced the Dutch apple pie is a national religion because in the Middle Ages, you counted how long before the dish was baked in the oven by saying a certain number of prayers. I didn’t know how extravagantly well the Dutch do desserts until I discovered for myself last October. I figure my revelation was akin to Howard Carter digging into King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In the Netherlands, apple pies are their own royal gala, and the queen of tarts is at Het Paleis cafe. Cinnamonally crispy apple slices, and a crust that must have been created by the same fingers that craft bone china teacups. © Desiree Koh

In the Netherlands, apple pies are their own royal gala, and the queen of tarts resides at Het Paleis cafe. Cinnamonally crispy apple slices, and a crust that must have been created by the same fingers that craft bone china teacups. © Desiree Koh

Upon returning from Holland and contemplating the advent of autumn in tropical Singapore, I missed pie in the same tone that Elvis sings “Blue Christmas”. I am an equal opportunity pie-thagoras; to me, pie is the country mouse to its town mouse cousin, pizza, which so minimalist and avant garde in appearance, strides the mean streets of Naples and Istanbul to Chicago and New York. Pie, more homely and comely, is happy to spend its days on a windowsill counting blackbirds.

For a while, I’d heard accolades about the legendary Windowsill Pies making their rounds,  which doesn’t officially have a shop, but can be found in good coffee shops, or ordered. At Penny University, a new cafe in my East Coast neighborhood, they preened prettily from an old-fashioned cake case, so I stuck my fork into one.

Windowsill's cherry bomb - that lattice is just as pretty in taste - if it were lace, you'd put it on your newborn at his christening. © Desiree Koh

Windowsill’s cherry pie is fraught with the freshness of its fruit, and that lattice is just as pretty in taste – if it were lace, you’d put it on your newborn at his christening. © Desiree Koh

The versatility of a universal pie-maker is the ability to crank out both the indulgent cream and chocolate varieties and the tangy fruity genre equally well. As it turns out, Windowsill aces this as diabolically as Roald Dahl with munchkin and macabre fiction. Yes, so I am pretty nutty about Windowsill Pies, and use java jiving at Penny University as an excuse to have a slab of fab once a week, just like the doctor ordered.

Southern comfort, licks, and fixes - mo' molasses for momma pickin' at pecan pie. © Desiree Koh

Southern comfort, licks, and fixes – mo’ molasses for momma pickin’ at pecan pie. © Desiree Koh

Grateful for Windowsill, it seemed natural and necessary for me to bring its legendary S’more pie to Thanksgiving at my friend Amy’s. This circle of life completed a well-rounded dinner. Infinitely.

Please, sir, can I have S'more? Windowsill wins with this stacked dark chocolate number. If that filling was Gene Kelly, then the crust is most certainly Donald O'Connor. Make 'em stuff. © Desiree Koh

Please, sir, can I have S’more? Windowsill wins with this stacked dark chocolate number. If that filling was Gene Kelly, then the crust is most certainly Donald O’Connor. Make ‘em stuff. © Desiree Koh

Please, Sir, Can I Have Some Moor?

One afternoon last month, I was walking across the 3rd arrondissement of Paris (sidewalks of cigarette butts, trampled autumn leaves, pigeons pecking at someone’s lost piece of challah) on my way to Breizh Café, declared the best crêpes in town, when I was sidetracked by mounds of mubarak magnificence off rue de Bretagne (it’s not a pun).

The hunger pang stops here. © Desiree Koh

The sight of Parisians tucked into benches, their faces obfuscated by steam Old Faithful’ing from large colorful ceramic plates made me take an abrupt 90-degree right turn into an alley, the light at the end provided by florescent tubes whose sole purpose of being was to illuminate mosques of melt-in-your-mouth jannah, turning markets into meccas of masticulation.

Never trust a food stall without gravy spillage. © Desiree Koh

The marché des Enfants Rouges is the oldest covered market in Paris, built in the 1600s, and is where Marais comes for breakfast, lunch, and wine, delicatessen, cheese, fruit, and vegetable shopping. What a difference 400 years make – there’s an Italian stand serving fresh handmade pastas, a sushi stall, a pan-Asian one – seaweed-dusted poulet rôti, anyone? I stood in front of Traiteur Marocain, enthralled by walnuts and almonds caramelized and tossed with root vegetables in harissa sauces and meats clinging on to their bones only by slivers of tendon – oases amid dunes of fluffy cous cous. If we’ve played the “If You Could Only Eat Five Cuisines For the Rest of Your Life” game, you’d know that French is one of mine. I was in Paris and damn it, I was only going to eat French, even if it was baguette with Camembert forever.

But tenir à tes chameaux! Isn’t Moroccan cuisine as integral to French eating as Chinese-made souvenirs are to the city’s tourist spots? Hadn’t I learned anything from my traipse through Belleville, where shisha aromas instead of cigarette smoke now waft out of corner cafés?

Moving ahead: the new face of Paris in Belleville. © Desiree Koh

I stepped into line for what turned out to be an institution in Moroccan chow that wasn’t in the 20e, and immediately held it up when it came to my turn, because I wanted it all and couldn’t decide, not to mention my halting French. I settled for this:

Tajine d’agneau at le Marché des Enfants Rouges. A hunk of slow-stewed lamb shoulder surrounded by a supporting cast of zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, peanuts, onions, cabbage, figs, and sultanas, each one infused with the taste of the other. © Desiree Koh

Then I settled on a bench and waited for my own heap of when lamb shoulder met apricots. And chopped tomatoes. And paprika. And sultanas. And honey. And cinnamon. And cumin. And turmeric. And saffron. And garlic. And mint leaves. And coriander. And onion. And lemon. That stock all of the above came together in like the Comic Con of stews should be publicly traded. Next to me, an older woman shared a beef pastilla with her poodle. Across from me, two 3e hipsters with perfect knots in their scarves and tatteredly natty newsboy hats shared pita with hummus and a plate of olives over red wine and cigarettes. We’ll always have lunch in Paris.

Epilogue: I continued on to Rue Vieille du Temple for a buckwheat crêpe with caramel and buckwheat ice cream. I asked if it was sea salt caramel, and the response was, “We only have sea salt caramel.” I could have been in Saint-Malo, Bretagne.

A moveable feast, digesting from north Africa to the Brittany coast. © Desiree Koh

No Eater Is An Island

Last night, on a lawn – nay, a grass patch – in Singapore’s Chinatown along Kreta Ayer Road, a wooden stage was erected on stilts under a sprawling canvas tent. Almost all the plastic chairs were filled by gleeful, chuckling elderly aunties and uncles, two tourists, and one younger woman with a large camera, alternating between that and Instagramming the Chinese opera performance everyone was enthralling in. The cloying soprano arias and melodies of wayang (a local Malay term for live plays) drifted from speakers on stage left and right, sucked from a solo microphone hanging from the rafters, as incense smoke wisped its way from the makeshift Taoist altars on the other end of the tent; all these molecules met in the middle over the heads and produced a metaphysical reaction best described as star-kissed moonshine, that state of being in the right moment, the sweet spot, the sensation of knowing there was nowhere else to be.

Cantonese opera in Singapore’s Chinatown. © Desiree Koh

About one hundred meters away in Kreta Ayer Square was another tent, this one of nylon, a projected image of Scottish chef Will Meyrick on one end. The soundtrack was not the cacophony of Chinese instruments and gong strikes, but ambient electronica percussioned by the frequent maracas of cocktails and ice being shaken. Old men peered in, and wondered why their usual chess spots had morphed into a luminescent bar counter. Not even Usain Bolt could have covered this distance and not wonder if he’d false started into a different dimension. But it’s not as extreme as you’d think.

Chef Will Meyrick beating the heat. © Desiree Koh

Chatting with Chinatown boss James Ong, he reiterated that the area has always ushered progress without closing one eye on the rear-view mirror of celebrating traditions. It’s this peripheral vision that’s driven the heritage district to what it is today, with some of Singapore’s best restaurants, bars and creative juice harmonizing with generations-old shophouses, businesses built by immigrants, and local street food where it all started. But for the next two weeks, we’ll forget the cheesy contrivances of Club Street, be comforted even though stalwart hawker ground zero Maxwell Road Food Center is closed, because Gastrogig will be unfurling the cuisines of Meyrick and chef Peeter Piehl of Estonia in their now-legendary pop-up presentations.

Setting up a mobile kitchen on a Chinatown street, then laying out tables and chairs to enjoy some of the best food that can be found in Southeast Asia? That’s as Singaporean eating as you can get, and that’s the current rendition of Gastrogig over the upcoming fortnight. Thirty years ago, my grandfather held my hand as we wove through crowded Smith Street to share a table with strangers at pre-air-conditioning Tak Po, dim sum splayed in front of us. This weekend, I’ll shake hands with people I’ll meet for the first time, pull seats up to our mutual table, and chow in union. Last night’s canapés gave a taste of what the Chef Meyrick mettle was all about:

A version of Indonesian corn fritters, a light encasement instead of a heavier batter. © Desiree Koh

Ask Chef Meyrick how he got from the Scottish isles to Balinese archipelago (with a stop in that continent masquerading as island, Australia), and he’ll say, “By plane.” The truth lies in the tome that is Inspirations of Sarong, the cookbook Meyrick spent two years working on to capture everything native Asians – particularly of the Southeast variety – already know: our street food kicks your food trucks’ asses. (I love a great taco al pastor, empanada, Chicago-style hot dog, kofta, kebab, &c. as much as another eater with 10 stomachs but come on, what’s taken the world so long to realize braised pig’s intestines and banh mi will put you on the rocketship to galactic gastronomy?) Oh, the stories he’ll tell – the 45-year-old Phnom Penh woman who had never been on a plane before, whom he flew back to Bali so she could teach him how to cook Cambodian. The 60-year-old Beijing dumpling mistress who only spoke in Chinese proverbs, that also returned with him to Denpasar to impart her skills. She now wants to travel every year.

Tuna betel – stuff all and all into your mouth, addictive not just because of the leaf. © Desiree Koh

“That’s what food is about for me,” says Meyrick. “It’s communication, an old language that depicts religion, history, culture. As long as you’re cooking the food of a culture, you’ve got to know the history of the people first, and then you can start to understand how they live.”

Washington oysters in red namh jihm, beautiful bivalves coming out of their shells only to be plunged into flaming Thai spice. © Desiree Koh

The chef recalls going into the homes of strangers to tune his craft, and will soon be traversing “the four corners of Thailand cooking with old ladies” for his next project.

“I hope you guys will also get the inspiration to believe in street food and where food comes from. With Asian food, we’re not re-creating anything – what we’re trying to do is keep it alive.”

Alaskan scallops with crispy shredded duck – go west, Peking duck! © Desiree Koh

After I left the Gastrogig tent, I went over to the wayang tent to watch the rest of the Cantonese opera, wishing my grandmother (signature dishes: braised pig’s trotters in sweet vinegar, Hakka taro abacus beads, lotus root and pork soup) was with me.

End of Act I, intermission. © Desiree Koh