Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

Yup, I know that is a mouthful. And to top it, we had to wait for more than 20 mins to get a table for 2. But boy, was it worth it!

The first time I had Xia Long Bao was on the last day of a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. And the taste lingers. Xia Long Bao are steamed dumplings that have warm broth inside along with the more usual shrimp/meat mixture. The sheer mix of flavours and textures that this gives your mouth is crazy. I love it.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mecca of Xia Long Bao. And since they make it so well, they have now spread everywhere in Asia including to Singapore. On Saturday I went to their outlet at the Paragon Mall in Orchard.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting this place and accompanying me for an awesome meal.

For a useful lesson on how to eat Xia Long Bao, click on the above photo.

Roast Duck in Suntec City

(Baby Kai Lan – photo source : Gluttonqueen)

Another satisfying meal in Singapore, this time it was Roast Duck and Roast Pork at Crystal Jade Kitchen in Suntec City. The Roast Duck with a lemon dip and the pork with a more pungent one. Along with Baby Kailan with Garlic. And of course rice.  Yum.

Geylang Serai Market & Arab Street, Singapore

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Over the last few visits to Singapore I trained my sights on  ‘alternative’ food destinations away from Orchard Road, Chinatown and the such. And found Geylang Serai Market and Arab Street.

The Geylang Serai area is culturally Malay. Arab Street is , as the name suggests, Muslim and so intersects with Malay culture in addition to Middle Eastern & North African.

Hogged on the briyanis, kebabs, hummus et al. Next time in Singapore, you must absolutely check out these places.

‘Heaty’ food

It was while having a great seafood meal with Carolynn & Wallace at the  ‘No Signboard Seafood Restaurant‘ in the Vivo City Mall in Singapore, that I first heard the word ‘heaty’. Here is the story.

The Chinese overlay the concept of yin & yang on a lot of things and Food is one of them. So all foods are divided into ‘heaty’ foods and ‘cooling’ foods. Fried Food, for example,  is considered ‘heaty’ which means it gets your body all excited and sweaty. According to Chinese grandmothers (who like all other grandmothers have a direct line to secret-stuff), to make things stable, you have to have some ‘cooling’ food along with the ‘heaty’ ones.

Interestingly, this concept is not particularly alien to me since it appears in many local Indian cultures too. The Konkan coast (ie. most of India’s western coast) for example uses Sol Kadi, a drink made from Kokum, to cool down the body after ingesting huge amounts of ‘heaty’ seafood, particularly shrimp (to experience what I am talking about, try one of the famous seafood restaurants of Mumbai such as Mahesh or Saiba). Ayurveda too makes a lot of this concept and recommends eating both hot & cold foods to balance one’s ‘kapha dosha’.

The most interesting aspect of all of this is, how two of Asia’s earliest cultures (and two of the world’s most ancient systems of health-care) both recognise the primacy of ‘balance’ in well-being.

Read all my Singapore posts here & Food Posts here.

Travelocity India

Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.

So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.

Taxi musings

Talking to taxi drivers is often illuminating & almost always very interesting. And Singapore this week was no exception.

It started with Piara Singh who dropped me downtown from the budget terminal at Changi. His take on the economics of Tiger Airways (to which I have recently defected casting aside all moral and other compunctions I had about low-cost flying – a chance to get Singapore return at Rs 7.5k is no time to be queasy) flights to India was better than any commissioned Market Research I could have done.  He explained to me why the Load factors on Singapore bound flights were very high on Mondays & Tuesdays (incidentally, it was 100% on Monday last) and why the India bound flights are full on Thursdays and Fridays. Piara Singh’s ancestry was in Amritsar and he talked of how Indians from Amritsar are spending a lot of money in Singapore.  Most of all, he seemed calm & at peace with himself.

And then I got a succession of Mr Tan and Mr Tang, these names being common I understand because of the overwhelming presence of the Hokkien people in Singapore. One was particularly noteworthy. He hated Ikea – you know, the Swedish, clean-look, low-cost furniture company. He hated them with a vengeance reserved by Spanish terriers for large & woolly bears. In short, a passionate hatred that is unlikely to significantly affect the hatee. His hypothesis went so. The mastermind boss ( the way he hissed it, I was almost reminded of the evil Shaakaal in the early 80s Hindi movie Shaan – my teenage touchstone for villainy) of Ikea makes poor quality things that he very cleverly gets the stupid Singapore customer to buy by employing a combination of black-magic and European smoke & mirrors. And Since Singaporeans flock to Ikea in ever increasing numbers, Mr Tan/Tang has his view’s validated everyday!  When he found that I too had fallen into Master Ikea’s seductive trap and ended up buying a table-lamp, the bottom fell out of his respect for Indians too.

The next chap told me about Asian people. He started with the Thais since he was engaged to a Thai girl and due to get married the next year. This is what he told me about the Thais.  Be very careful around the Thais, he said – they never show their anger.  Now, this is true. I have always found the Thais to be fairly pleasant and never angry, which I had always taken to be a sign of their essential good nature. Not so, he said. Remember, if they get angry with you, they will smile at you and bam, before you know it, you will be knocked out cold from behind. I started wondering  about the likely longevity of his upcoming marriage. So, I asked him who are best & the worst people in Asia. The Japanese he said are the best. And the Malays the worst. And before he could tell me why, we reached my destination.

And then I stumbled upon Singapore’s most interesting citizen, who for the rest of this post will be called No-name. This guy had eyes that verily twinkled with villainy – late twenties, aquiline jaw, a small beard and a unique complexion that teetered between south-east asian brown and south Indian dusky.  Seems his grandfather ran away from Kerala as a boy of 10 around the first world war.  He then married a Chinese woman in Singapore and they begat a son that was no-name’s father. His father then married a Malay woman and brought No-name to the world, as the quintessential Singaporean with all 3 races well blended in. We started with the obligatory chat about how I had my beginnings in Kerala too and why he should visit it just once. But he quickly put that behind and got down to brass tacks and on to his favorite subject – Hookers. I got the most comprehensive run down on the seamy side of Singapore – incidentally, Singapore has legalised prostitution, which no-name assured me thrives in a corner of this otherwise squeaky clean city/country.  He told me all about the difference between races & the sophisticated economic calculations that went into the buying process. Although he got mildly irritated when I passed up on his offer to help me get acquainted with the situation, he was too good a sport to let that get in the way of bonhomie and we parted friends.

Is Singapore really Yokel-town, Asia?

This question has been disturbing me for some time now. And since Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai et al have, in their inimitable breathlessness told us that Obama has won & created history, I thought I too must seize the moment and address another one of the burning questions of our times.

The answer, as so often it is, is – yes & no.

Most of Singapore is tarted up to attract the group tourist from across Asia. So, as I wandered across Sentosa, the Zoo and the such, I came across wandering groups of Filipinos, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Chinese and of course, desis. Filipinos, gay and musical. Indonesians mostly led by young mothers with babies. Vietnamese with carefully controlled countenances of less than full comprehension. Indians loud and jumping the queue.

But, surprisingly enough there is another side to this city. Try the Singapore Botanical Gardens for starters. It is 52 hectares of supreme indulgence in the midst of true, tropical gardens. And most certainly check out the Orchid Garden inside it. And for a real Singapore moment, bend down to sniff a rare set of fragrant orchids.

Or of course, try the chilli crab, which I continue to rate as among the top 3 dishes for me & which is really made this well only in Singapore. A new restaurant I discovered this time was ‘Jumbo’ within the 20 kilometers of the massive East Coast Park. incidentally, the East Coast Park is a great place to hire roller-blades or cycles and really get about (or even do a bit of water sports). Which we did, like a lot of the locals over one weekend.

Or just stick your head out of the window for that unique experience you can never get in India – a lungful of clean, city air.

Next time you have a long weekend, try Singapore. Just avoid Sentosa like the plague.

Using chopsticks

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I must have been about 4 or 5 years old, when I sat with my father in a darkened movie hall watching a grainy-white documentary that showed strange men using sticks to pull up strings off the table to stuff it in their mouths. And I loved it right away. By the time I got to my teens, I could not think of anything more sophisticated than insouciantly picking up my roast pork with chop sticks while holding a conversation with an extraordinarily gorgeous Japanese lady. Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way (the Japanese lady part that is) – but I still think it is way cool to eat with chop sticks. So, a few years ago, I decided to learn how to do it.

It is pretty simple really. Here is how you do it.

You grasp the chopsticks within the fingers of your right hand (ie. if you are genetically left-handed; otherwise, hold it in your left hand). Then push them into a bowl of noodles (always a bowl, never a plate). The chopsticks will immediately come off your fingers. Next, you hold them a bit more steady and try to dig out the noodles harder. The whole caboodle will come out of the bowl and fall on the table. Keep repeating this till your companions at the table (in my case, a wife and two incredulous little boys who could’nt understand why they were not allowed this kind of fun) ask you to go away. Do this for about a month. You will crack it. I did – so I know you can too.

Yup, now I can hear the question. Is there a simpler way of learning to use chopsticks? Unfortunately, No. But, the good part is, this will seem really simple when you realise you need to use chopsticks and the chinese soup spoon simultaneously to get the sang-froid look. That, my friend, is another story.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food>>

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(Both photos in the post, courtesy: http://www.chinatownconnection.com/how-to-use-chopsticks.htm)

Singapore vs Hong Kong

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(Chinchalok egg, a Peranakan/Nyonya dish – photo from Singapuradailyphoto)

The raging question of our times is obviously : Is Singapore or Hong Kong better for street food? Standing on various corners of Causeway Bay in Hong Kong earlier today, I can see the battle to be pretty close. On the whole, my guess is Singapore is a length ahead for two reasons. The first is the fact that Singapore street food offers 4 distinct cuisines (Chinese, Malay, Indian & Peranakan/Nyonya) whereas Hong Kong has mostly chinese (although Cantonese + all other great chinese cuisines are on offer). The other is the wide range of food courts that Singapore offers for hungry travellers. These food courts combine the visual variety of many different cuisines with the legendary squeaky-clean environs of that city state. Yup, one length ahead.

Incidentally, there is a rumour that Michelin Guide is on its way to Asia.

Peking Duck in Dixon Street

Dixon Street is the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. And with Carolynn, a Singaporean-Chinese as a guide, I landed up at a family-restaurant for a meal. We shuddered at the start – literally. Apparently, right under the floorboards of the restaurant was this massive exhaust fan which boomed & rattled a portion of the floor. So we shifted.

The Peking duck was fine (incidentally, click here to see an earlier post with an interesting Peking Duck video). The first course was the crispy skin, served with just the right amount of meat underneath. The second course was a bit different from the usual – the rest of the duck was served up in an interesting concoction of bean sprouts.

And I was told that, “for an Indian, you are ok with chopsticks” – which was a bit of a relief, considering the number of man-hours spent on training.

Sydney is among the 10-odd china towns I have been to – it is one of the cornier lists I keep. Carolynn who travels a hell of a lot on business, tells me that San Fransisco is probably the best Chinatown in the world. So that is one more objective for me.

Here is another Chinese food video I found on Youtube – this time of Fried Squid Balls being made in Sydney’s Chinatown.