Monday, March 17, 2014

Singapore: Food

Hawker Centres
During my preparation for the trip, I read and heard about hawker centres and food courts, but they really weren't what I imagined, which was a concentration of tents and mobile vendor stalls. But they are actually permanent structures, even multi-storey ones. Anyway, the first morning, I made my way to Chinatown, and the hawker centre located thereabouts, for breakfast. I spied this:

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...which was soon converted into this, with the exchange of about S$3.00:

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So a hawker centre is filled with a variety of food and beverage stalls:

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Those first two pictures are from Chinatown, the bottom two from Little India. While in Little India, I had a lovely mutton masala with a piece of naan bread so light you had to keep the bowl on top so it wouldn't float away. I got it from this stall:

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The procedure is to claim your seat at a table, almost certainly shared, by placing a little packet of napkins, which little old ladies sell three for a dollar. Then go to the appropriate stall and place your order and go sit down. Soon enough, someone will bring it to you. I had no sooner sat down than a little old man came along and took my order for a freshly-squeezed lemonade with ice for S$1.20.

A food court is similar to a hawker centre, but typically is more enclosed and is air conditiond, and therefore a bit more pricey. Additionally, food courts often have only one stall in each category, where a hawker centre may have five or even more. A few even have more international fare:

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And here is one of the quintessential Singaporean foods, the peppered crab, fantastic!

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One more note: almost anytime you get a fresh fruit drink, they use a machine whereby you watch the fruit going in--so you know it's genuine. When it comes out, it has a plastic seal over it, and you're given a sharpened straw. I'm not sure whether this is for spillage control, or hygiene or what, but it's a bit irritating to get to your ice at the end.

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10 @ Claymore
Sunday brunch is "must" in Singapore, and I scanned TripAdvisor carefully before making my reservation. This restaurant is in the lobby area of the Pan pacific Hotel--Orchard, and at about S$85.00, I wanted my money's worth, so I worked up quite an appetite that morning roaming the Tiger Balm Gardens. I ate so much I had to rearrange my schedule and go to the Botanic Gardens the next day, and sleep it off a bit in my hotel room.

They have a great selection of meats (my first plate has roast beef, picnic ham and prosciutto, next there is some amazing spicy crab. The cheese board is most unusual, and awesome as well.

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Still, the best thing may be the desserts--lots of quality chocolate. There's a chef making me a durian and nutella crepe:

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NOX, Dining in the Dark
Literally no point in showing photos of this culinary experience, though it is one I will long remember. You begin in the light with an amuse-bouche and an aperitif. I was joined by two young couples as we were led to the upstairs dining room (there are I think five of them, for a capacity of about fifty diners at a seating), hands on the shoulder of the person in front, the server leading us. The servers are all visually-impaired. As you go up the stairs, it gets darker and darker, until you turn a corner and it's pitch black. I was seated, oriented to my flatware, the glasses and the water bottle. The food comes in three courses, appetizers, mains, and desserts. Each course consists of four small dishes. The dishes are arranged on the cardinal points, and you are instructed to begin at S and go clockwise to E.

See, the thing is, you don't know what you are being served. Not just because it's pitch black, but because they have a set menu for the month--you tell them dietary restrictions, and they make substitutions--but the menu is a "secret". The idea is that devoid of visual clues, your senses of taste and smell and touch/texture are enhanced. At the end of the dinner, there is a debrief where a hostess talks to the group and tells you what you've just eaten.

I'm just going to copy directly from my travel journal: "It was quite remarkable, though with add-ones bringing the total to S$150, I can't swear it was worth it. The food was outstanding, though I had only an approximate idea on half of them: I knew the linguini was with mushrooms (only it was some kind of clam that is often mistaken for mushroom), I knew the wagyu beef, even though I spilled half of it, and the bacon; I knew that I had chick peas and lentils (even if the lentils were left out), and I thought the deep-fried pig's ears were chicken. I did do well on guessing the desserts, but by then I had given up the guessing game and was just enjoying the flavors and textures--and trying not to spill anything else. There was a small red light, but it illuminated nothing, and the room was completely dark. It is impossible to imagine what it must be like to exist like that all the time--all the dining room staff are "visually impaired". Amazing! I would definitely do this again, but please take one-third off the tab!"

Food Playground
I do love taking a cooking class, especially a top-notch one like this. Again, I'm just going to quote my travel notes, and sprinkle in some photos. "Had a great time at the Food Playground class this morning: staff members Lesley and Helen were great, and my partner Helen, a British expat housewife, was adventurous enough; the other pair came together, Jermaine and Jiho, Koreans, though Germaine is UK-raised, and they were fun too (and are staying at the Fragrance Hotel Ruby, as I am). After an acclimation session, we started with dessert, since it was a custard that needed chilling: we made pandan-leaf boxes, heated coconut milk, dissolved sugar in it, then added mung-bean flour and a touch of salt. The mung bean flour was tinted green with pandan leaf extract. Then we filled the boxes.

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"The main course was Singapore-style chicken rice. The trick here is flavoring the rice. You rinse, soak 10 min and drain long-grain rice, then boil in equal amount of chicken stock for about 6 min, until it craters, then turn down to for another five to simmer. To go with the chicken and rice, we made sweet chili sauce, pounding in a mortar and pestle a clove of garlic, a slice of ginger, one red pepper, some sugar, a pinch of salt and a bit of oil.

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"We also made wontons stuffed with minced prawns, chicken and veg, for soup. (The photo shows the stuffing mix, and also raw water chestnuts, which I had never seen before.)

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"It was delicious and a lot of fun. This guy Daniel started the operation about 1 1/2 years ago, but instead of using professional chefs, he uses moms who've been out of the job market for a while and appreciate the flexibility of the schedule. And if L and H are anything to go by, he's done an outstanding job of staffing! At $S99.00, it is pricey, but it's comparable to the other one-shot courses I found, and is kind of special, besides."

The completed meal, me and my pard Helen, and the whole group just before we dig in:

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For comparison, I simply had to try this ubiquitous dish in the wild, to see how ours compared. Here is the chicken rice from the stall at the Victoria Food Court, near my hotel in Geylang. Oh, it was very good! But ours was better ...

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Finally, here is a shot of the "Turtle House", empty during the day, but doing a fair amount of business at night. I had the crocodile tail claypot here, at a hefty S$28.00. Tasted a lot like chicken.

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