True Story

Singapore, Wednesday the 13th, the last days of disco. Desiree Koh was born and raised where the endless summer makes it possible to dine al fresco on the best street food in the world and play softball (and tennis, and run, and beach volleyball, and…) all year round. She graduated with a B.Sc. in Journalism from Northwestern University, with a concentration in magazine writing and editing, emerging unscathed from and decorated by the Medill School boot camp.

The write stuff. Desiree scribes for a variety of international travel magazines such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine), Sawasdee (Thai Airways’ in-flight) and enVoyage (Eva Air’s in-flight), covering everything from dining and drinking to pop culture and serious business (seriously). Like the strike zone of a baseball umpire who needs new glasses, Desiree’s beat extends as much as is fit to publish. Her chapters on nightlife, fashion, wellness and walking tours in Singapore will soon be seen in the upcoming Louis Vuitton – City Guide for her hometown. She also contributes features to whitebook (ultra-luxe lifestyle quarterly – serves as editor as well), STORM (a supremely well-crafted literary narrative journal in Singapore), SO/HO (an urban living magazine), among many others. A recent favorite assignment was covering Bruce Springsteen shows in Melbourne and Helsinki for Backstreets, and Desiree is also particularly proud of serving as managing editor of PhotoYou (a Reader’s Digest photography magazine). She has also contributed chapters to books on business personalities and food cultures. From CNBC Closing Bell reporter Maria Bartiromo, CNN renegade Richard Quest and wine guru Robert Parker to Icelandic putrefied shark, an eating road trip across northern Thailand and the best 48 hours one can spend in Amsterdam, Desiree has covered them all.

Doing copy right. Crafting copy for the best hotels in the world, Desiree works with Starwood Hotels’ W Hotels, The St. Regis Hotels and Sheraton in launching new properties or fine-tuning their texts into brand context. She has also worked with Turkey’s Hillside Hotels, the coolest resorts on the Mediterranean coast, bringing their personalities to life. Coast to coast from South Beach to Scottsdale and longitude to latitude from Istanbul to Goa, the best part of the job is collaborating with international teams of hotel marketers, web content producers and brand managers. Time zones? That’s so Lost finale.

In former P.R. agency life, Desiree worked with The Harbinger Group, a collective of former Ketchum brain trust. For her work with ethics consultancy LRN, she led a team to a Gold SABRE nomination for excellence in corporate media relations. At Ogilvy, Desiree serviced accounts ranging from Bausch & Lomb and Lipton Tea to Playmobil and LG Electronics. As part of the Arthur Andersen team at Ketchum (ask her about that P.R. story), Desiree won accolades such as the Publicity Club of Chicago’s Silver Trumpet, the Public Relations Society of America’s Skyline Award and the Women in Public Relations’ Obelisk Award – recognition for the execution of robust media relations programs.

Desiree’s earliest travel memory is building sandcastles on a Balinese beach at age four, and most recently scaled to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and cycled up Brittany’s Emerald Coast in search of Cancale oysters. She has peaked Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, one of the world’s seven highest summits, and has trekked across the Annapurna range in the Himalayas. She saw her 40th Bruce Springsteen show in Melbourne this spring and witnessed the E Street Band’s longest show in history in Helsinki, 2012. While not playing as much softball and tennis as she can, Desiree has completed eight marathons (recently a 3:54 Amsterdam finish in 2012 and the Great Wall Marathon in 2011, considered one of the world’s five toughest races) and two half-Ironman events. She has represented the Singapore Recreational Club in international softball tournaments from Thailand to China, competed in the same Major League Eating contest as Kobayashi, has set the high score in several Pac-Man machines in pizza parlors, and aspires to qualify for the National Scrabble Tournament in the near future.

Recent Posts

Singapore’s Hawker Heritage: Ice Kachang

Everest, highest mountain in the world: 8,848 meters.

Ice kachang, sweetest mound in the world: 20 centimeters.

It’s like a rainbow collided into a berg of ice crystals, and decided to stay for good. And to find its pot of gold, all you have to do is chip away at the mass of finely hewn frozen bits, endowed with syrups of various hues, until you get to that treasure chest of red beans, pandan jellies, chin chow (grass jelly) and attap (palm) seeds – and that’s just scratching the surface of what could lie beneath. (If there’s slices of jackfruit, you’ve hit the jackpot.)

It's like Jackson Pollock working on ice.

It’s like Jackson Pollock working on ice. (At Old Airport Food Centre. © Desiree Koh)

We like to be dramatic about our tropical humidity here in Singapore. Instead of just a cold beer, we dunk ice cubes into our mugs of lager. Instead of just a boring sno-cone, we fill it with Southeast Asian treats then crown it with everything from sweet creamed corn, soursop or honeyed sea coconut to durian, aloe vera or ice cream. This is way more than just a cherry on top. These hedonistic heaps are our signature year-round cooler, a comestible AC for the soul.

It did not require brain surgery to dream up these psychedelic trips, just necessity being the mother of ice machination. In the 1950s and 1960s, pushcart drink peddlers hand-chipped ice balls drizzled with gula melaka (brown palm sugar) or rose syrup as an income supplement. The more adroit street sculptors were able to get the ice down to featherweight texture so each bit dissolved upon the tongue after just the slightest fluttering dance on the tastebuds. The advent of manually operated ice machines meant that vendors had to develop a sleight of hand skill in steadying a block of ice while cranking the shaving mechanism with the other, kind of like a master barber on crack. Now that the machines are automated, the challenge lies in forming a perfect cone each go. And many ice kachang (Malay for “nut;” within the context of the dessert it refers to the red beans) hawkers are all about outdoing each other with outrageous ingredient and topping combinations. The pièce de résistance at Tiong Bahru Market’s Liang Liang Garden Dessert stall is the Milo Dinosaur ice kachang, a riff on the popular local drink that smothers the summit with its namesake chocolate malt powder.

Treats in TechniColor.

Treats in TechniColor. (At Old Airport Food Centre. © Desiree Koh)

Me, I customize. I keep it simple, so from the outside, it looks as basic as ice kachang can be – just gula melaka and evaporated milk snaking down from the peak. Inside, instead of kachang, it’s ingredients from cheng teng, another local treat to beat the heat with. I go up to my favorite dessert stall at East Coast Lagoon Village and say, “My usual, please.” And it’s all cool.

P/S: The tallest ice kachang ever built in Singapore happened on July 22, 2006 in Chinatown – it’s in the Guinness Book Of World Records.

Ice kachangicekacang is one of our commemorative SG50 icons.


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