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.


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.

chickenriceChicken rice is one of our commemorative SG50 icons.

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, 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?

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

Gastrogig Guest Stars

Gastrogig, Singapore’s new series of pop-up epicurean encounters, takes place appropriately on a rooftop, where there is nothing standing between the next generation of the world’s best chefs and the stars.

Call it an alignment of the culinary cosmos. Taking the elevator of a non-descript building up to the sixth floor, I wondered what awaited when the doors opened. The answer – which held true for the rest of the evening – was something beyond the usual garden of eatin’ dreamin’.

Ku De Who? Gastrogig’s lounge is the tops.

Stacks of construction planks served as backdrop for an intimate lounge affair, put together at varying heights and sizes so you could cosy up on bright red cushions or gather around a makeshift cocktail stand. Under a splay of tangled white lights that topped a woodsy gazebo, mismatched chairs and tables symbolized the multitude of sensory appreciations that make up the finest gourmet experiences, while immaculate table settings set the scene for serious eating.

We dined all night to a soul fado band.

Beyond the barricades, a white T-shirted Sá Pessoa orchestrated a most impressive makeshift kitchen in which Portuguese olive oil looked right at home. With passion bubbling under a calm demeanour, the chef embodied the pop-up spirit as he conducted stewing sauces and the occasional blazing grill – scrappy resourcefulness designed with flair and flavor that has brought him to the forefront of Lisbon’s culinary golden age. Forget the Michelin-laded Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa carnivals that only catch a whiff of their namesakes a few times a year – you want the real chef making your supper happen, including hand-carrying home-cured bacalhau from Portugal, you dine with Gastrogig.

Alma redux in Singapura.

Tapping on her experience as part of the Savour food festival team, Jasmine Cheah conceived Gastrogig to bring novel cuisine from emerging gastronomic destinations to Singapore, celebrated over just one weekend each month. I enjoyed best the caldeirada, a fisherman’s stew with lilts of lemongrass, cardamom and chills…

The caldeirada, featuring chef Sá Pessoa’s love of celebrating Mediterranean traditions with global influences.

… and the chef’s signature bacalhau paired with chickpea purée. All this under the glow of moonlight and kissed by star shine, which bestowed a magical zest to everything Sá Pessoa, Cheah, and their team had already accomplished. It was the first Portuguese fine dining presentation in Singapore, and we’ve only just begun.

A fish named bacalhau cures all ills.

I covered Gastrogig’s debut for SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Read the article here.

French New Wave

It soars through the streets of Strasbourg like Captain America blazing highways in Easy Rider. It pirouettes around the Cathédrale Notre Dame turrets before teasing the rooftop pigeons. When you run along the European capital’s canals in the morning or stroll quayside in the late afternoon, you think you’re enjoying an uplifting breeze, but you’re not.

An air of awesome in Strasbourg’s La Petite France.

What you’re savoring is the smell of onions – specifically, the aroma of sautéing onions – that permanently lingers in the Strasbourg stratosphere, permeating your pores, gratifying your gullet, electrifying your endorphins. The only way onions will make you weep in this town is if you’re not having any. Quiche à l’oignonTarte flambée. Choucroute. A restaurant called l’Oignon. It’s like bulbs of ingenuity flashing above every cook’s head in one of France’s gastronomic capitals, emanating the glow of homely comfort laced with urgent pungency, guaranteed to brighten every meal.

Let’s summon our first witness to the stand, the choucroute from Au Brasseur (22 rue des Veaux), one of the finest examples of a Strasbourg bierstub, better defined as a large beer hall where the only things heartier than the cuisine and ales are its patrons’ laughter. This is the kind of place where students crush into dark booths and smash as many slices of tarte flambée as they can within the 90-minute free-flow deal while old ladies on a girls’ night out happily shrug when it’s time to order another four pitchers of house microbrews. But no matter who you’re with or which table you’re at, all chattering, chuckling and conviviality stop – just long enough for the heart to reset its senses – when the first pile of  choucroute is dispensed.

Ma chou chou, the Alsatian choucroute.

The Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut – a given, since this French region is just three miles from the river Rhine that borders both countries – is more delicate, less tangy, and in the Au Brasseur rendition, steeped in onion oil that doesn’t necessarily broadcast its presence as much as sweet talk your palate. (The next morning, the top I’d been wearing at dinner continued to smell of this onion oil, and I prayed this tryst would last longer than a one night stand.)

Pie baked in flames, the Forestière afired.

Next, we’ll call upon the tarte flambée, Alsace’s most famous dish and quite frankly, the reason I’m in Strasbourg. This thinnest of ‘zas has its dough rolled out to its finest (in every aspect of the word), before bacon, cheese, cream, and onions are splayed across in a Pollockian hand, and everything is blazed between one to two minutes in a wood-fired oven. That gives the crust a crisp that’s sharper than a newly minted hundred euro bill, little bubbles that confirm the yeast has properly risen, and a slight char for that smoky zest. More importantly, the caramelization of the onions sweetens the deal, whether smoothly cutting through the gruyère, adding color to the crème fraîche, or doing a diabolical tango with the lardon pieces.

Aunts were put on earth to be kindly ladies always more likely to give you too much of a good thing than your moms will. At Tante Liesel (44 rue des Dentelles), where local gentlemen dig into the house platter of terrine and foie gras with checked napkins tucked into their collars, onions are nuanced into the anatomy of the quiche, lusciously imbibed into a silky flow of egg, milk and cheese. In Alsace, a quiche is not just a quiche – it’s an onion quiche, although if that’s something you hadn’t noticed, you might need a facial for your tongue.

If this quiche is Michael Phelps, the onions in its DNA are its 10-pack.

And instead of backhanding you some change for candy, Tante Liesel does even better by surreptitiously slipping lots of onion bits into her pan-fried potatoes. Little is more pleasant that discovering the crunch of a sweet onion as your mouth works its way through powdery fluff – the devil’s in the details.

You say po-tah-toe, I say onion.

With onion, that aphrodisiac of appetite, constantly on your mind, hair and clothes in Strasbourg, you might find yourself appreciating the fowl floating about the city’s canals as confit canned for six months, ready for the skillet. Except, others can have the leg of duck or goose – you’ll settle for more onions, sautéd in fat.

The duck side of Strasbourg.

Distinctive, Distinguished and Disgruntled

Eating at The Disgruntled Chef generally leaves me bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

See, I have a problem with small plates. It works for tapas (bar food – free pass) and dim sum (tradition – no fight), and I get the concept of variety and conviviality and intimacy, but seriously, it’s lame. If you want to chow, you go all the way. I hate having to mask my sincerity when I say, “You have the last bite” of a really tasty something wonderful. I hate having to carve something out of a nothing foamy swirl. I hate getting the plate when almost all of a much-needed dab of 24-hour reduction has been sopped up. Most times, I want a huge slab of apple pie with all my buttered crumbs intact and vanilla bean ice cream not yet deconstructed by not Grant Achatz.

But the first time we sidled past not having reservations at Saturday prime brunch time and slid up to the marble-slabbed bar at Daniel Sia’s place, I was reminded that there is a reason for everything. First, a sprawling counter to fit all the small plates you want (there will be many); also front row seats to one of the best shows in the house, the showy flows of cocktails (gentleman’s pours – just right for mischievous madams.). Like Sia’s cuisine, the drinks don’t mess with tradition – they keep the provenance intact, then make things even better. It’s like the serif flourish of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

On the crabcakes, I really liked the tomato chili jam – remou-who? – for cutting through the fine crumb crust.

Which makes sense, when you think about how Sia left The White Rabbit as executive chef two years ago to open his own shop, having worked his way up the line from a junior chef at Les Amis. And that’s a cause for celebration, so two weekends ago, we were gathered in the restaurant’s corner of Dempsey Hill by the very kind invitation of The Disgruntled Chef, to do what we do best there – eat, drink, convive.

The baked bone marrow was not on the birthday menu, but buttery and slippery, it begins at the tip of your tongue and slides nonchalantly down as seamlessly as an ice cube, except with nothing but warmth and love.

If the dinner was a greatest hits of regular favorites and a preview of a new record, then it’s not too different from Bruce Springsteen’s current “Wrecking Ball” tour. I came to a truce with the restaurant’s small plates concept when I saw how they took pride in serving your order in courses, thoughtfully shepherding the flow of a meal with your tasting pleasure in consideration – as carefully crafted as the Boss’s set lists and yes, that Sunday evening was also a marathonal mastication.


However, I’m going to eat my words and jump straight to what has always been the marquee dish for me at The Disgruntled Chef – the crayfish mac & cheese. Do you know what it’s like to miss New Orleans? I do, because it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and Sia has dragged crawdaddies, one of its best things, from the muck and made it even more illicit. It’s like macaroni eloped with creamy white cheese during Mardi Gras in Treme. It makes lobsters roll in their graves and wish they could ditch Nantucket for Nawlins. You want to toss your silverware aside and claw into this. Let the cheese streak through the air, you slurping up gravity-defying strands, like tugging at heartstrings.

The best of the rest:

And so, the small plates once again proved me wrong, happily, and while nothing else could fit into my gastro-intestinal tract, there was plenty of room on my happy cloud for the splendid service by manager Shireen Sheikh and the delightful service team, on top of marketer Bethany Chuah’s enthusiastic hospitality. Clue: they all know their food and drink extremely well.

Walking out and thanking Chef Sia, I don’t think he looked disgruntled at all.

Mamak Knows Best

Good evening, night owls – this is Desiree Koh keeping you company on the late shift, where we take the gears down a notch and cruise across the causeway to Johor Bahru, just across the Malaysian border north of Singapore. Don’t touch that dial, let’s park it right here…

…where an open asphalt lot holds both cars and tin-topped tables on tottering legs for supping under the moon. The midnight mamak stall is the Malaysian greasy spoon – an open-air diner that’ll serve as late as you can eat, powered by griddles, goreng (fried dishes) and ghee. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the mamak stall is the country’s most culturally significant gastronomic icon, where gossip trades lips, soccer bets are laid, debts are collected, illicit affairs are commenced, marriages are ended, politics are analyzed, and Ramadan fasts are broken. Everyone comes to the mamak stall. If there was a mamak stall in Boston, Cheers would not be about a bar where everybody knows your name.

Flipping for roti canai – not a pancake because it is not made from batter, but a fried flatbread dipped in curry.

The Tamil Muslim-owned mamak stalls are completely versatile enterprises, and can cook anything to order that pleases your dark night fancies and fantasies, as long as you know how to say it right. What’s the mamak equivalent of “double bacon cheeseburger with onions and pickles, no tomato, no lettuce, extra fries?” It’s “Maggi goreng tambal ayam dan telor mata dan banyak sambal belacan masin tambahan.” That would be Maggi instant noodles (the most popular brand in Southeast Asia) cooked, then fried with a cornucopia of your choice of meat, token vegetables, topped with a sunny-side-up egg, seasoning from the packet (extra, in this request), topped with a sliced lime, and more sambal belacan, please! This is the quintessential post-drinking mamak stall staple.

Water is boiled in the open air kitchen – the cockpit of the mamak stall – to cook the Maggi noodles for goreng.

And instead of coffee as murky and soulful as the night, you’re ordering teh tarik alia, a milk tea infused with ginger, because you’re going to need all the digestive aid you can get after putting away a gut bomb supper this close to bedtime.

Currying flavors.

It is a requirement that you deliver your order concisely and know exactly what you want, because impatience is a virtue at the mamak stall. Woks are clanged and deep fryers fired up, dishes are tossed in front of you, you vacuum everything on the plates up like the last bus home might turn into a pumpkin anytime, the scrap piece of white paper with your order is slapped down by the greasy entrails of your utensils, you pay, and you go. You’re likely happy, and who cares how you might feel tomorrow? The night is still young.

Meat, meet stick.

Until you get up the next morning moaning in agony, because that roti canai has wrapped itself around your intestines like a blanket in knots. That won’t stop you from doing it all over again, though. Because a gourmet’s best friend is his mamak.

Ramly burgers, the infamous Malaysian rendition where thin patties are wrapped in fried eggs before insertion into heavily buttered buns, but not before mayo is squirted in to seal the deal.

We’ve got a few more minutes before the morning crew comes in, just enough time for one final dedication. It’s from “Grub Girl,” going out to all her friends – “you know who you are,” she says. She also says, “See you at the mamak stall.” Thanks for staying with me through your waking hours – this is your night line host, signing off.

More mamak: