Singapore Diary #5: Food

Saving the best for last.

With 3 weeks in Singapore, I was determined to be a little more adventurous with my eating and try more local fares. Even though I cooked most days (we stayed in an apartment complex, so there is a kitchen), I did manage to get a taste of Singapore. During our excursions into the city, we often ate at hawker centers – they’re open buildings with tables in the middle and stalls along the sides selling all kinds of food. These are sometimes combined with a market, but often they just serve as food courts. The food is cheap (well, compared to a restaurant meal) and authentic, and there are a lot of choices.

Maxwell Food Center near Chinatown

There are so many dishes that I didn’t get to try them all. Others I didn’t try because they’re too expensive (chilli crab, hello) or sound weird (like carrot cake, which is not a cake and doesn’t contain carrot). But below are some of my favorite:

A literal ice-cream sandwich – yeah, it pretty much tastes like ice cream and bread, but the bread helps to soak up the drips, which are unavoidable in the Singaporean heat

Roti prata – think an Indian crepe dipped in curry sauce. They can be plain or stuffed with egg, mushrooms, cheese, etc. There is also a sweet version

Laksa – noodle soup with prawns and spicy coconut-milk broth


Chendol – shaved ice smothered in palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, sweetened red beans, and green “worms” (rice flour jelly)

Waffle with kaya (coconut jam) – locals have it on their toast, but I took it one step further

The one dish I had but never enjoyed was chicken rice. I don’t understand how it can be considered the national dish of Singapore – it’s just steamed or roasted chicken on top of rice cooked in chicken broth. That’s it! Sure, it’s cheap, but I’d like something with a little more taste (not to mention vegetables), thank you very much.

Finally, this is unrelated to food, but I think it would be appropriate to close out my Singapore posts with a mention of the Merlion. If you’ve read my account of my previous trip to Singapore, then you’ll remember that I didn’t see the Merlion last time. This time, during our city tour at the beginning of our trip, we did go to the Merlion but it was all covered up because, according to the sign, the Merlion was taking a shower! Luckily he was done before we left, so I came back on the last day and finally got a super touristy photo.

And that was it for my Singapore trip! Until next time…

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Happy Year of the Goat!

You know how I often complain that Vietnam doesn’t have enough food-based holidays? I think I know why now. It’s because the Lunar New Year is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. I’m currently stuffing my face and have been for the last three days or so. We had kind of a pre-New Year feast last weekend (when we made the rice cakes), we had one last night (for New Year’s Eve), we had one today (for New Year), and we’re going to have another one the day after tomorrow (for the end of the Lunar New Year holiday). So please, enjoy the photos of the feasts, the spring flowers in our garden, and the firework display, while I go sleep this off.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

kalanchoe flower by 14 shades of grey

camelia by 14 shades of grey

chrysanthemum by 14 shades of grey

camelias by 14 shades of greychrysanthemums by 14 shades of grey

camelia and bees by 14 shades of greypeach blossoms by 14 shades of grey

barbeque by 14 shades of greysticky rice by 14 shades of grey

barbequed meat by 14 shades of greyBarbequed pork and sticky rice cooked in bamboo stalks

new year feast by 14 shades of greynew year feast by 14 shades of grey
Bamboo shoot soup and sticky rice

new year feast by 14 shades of greyGlass noodle salad

new year feast by 14 shades of greynew year feast by 14 shades of grey
Slow-cooked pork and spring rolls

new year feast by 14 shades of greyBeef and vegetable stir-fry

new year feast by 14 shades of greyBraised chicken

firework by 14 shades of grey

firework by 14 shades of greyfirework by 14 shades of grey
Yeah, that’s a smiley face/Joker firework

firework by 14 shades of grey


Lunar New Year: Rice Cakes

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

It’s Lunar New Year this weekend, my first Lunar New Year at home in seven years. Back in LA, I did have some sort of celebration every year, but it could never compare to actually being at home for it – the bustling streets filled with peach blossoms and kumquat trees, the nippy cold (it’s been annoyingly warm these last two weeks, but as luck would have it, it’s going to cool down tomorrow), the smell of incense in the air, the excitement of preparing food and decorating the house… It’s better than Christmas, because with Christmas even when you’re not with your family you can still feel the atmosphere, but with Lunar New Year, you pretty much have to be in the country where it’s widely celebrated (Chinatown doesn’t count) to get the truest sense of the holiday.

Anyway, one of my favorite traditions of the Lunar New Year is the making of rice cakes (bánh chưng). It’s a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean paste, and pork, wrapped in arrowroot leaves and boiled. It may sound simple, but there are a lot of little details involved, from the quality of the ingredients to how you wrap and boil the cakes, to get the perfect rice cakes – everything tender but not mushy, the rice green from the arrowroot leaves, the bean paste bright yellow, the pork cooked through but still pink. Here is how my family makes our rice cakes (it’s not an actual recipe because everything is eyeballed, but I thought it’d be fun to share with you guys):

arrowroot leaves by 14 shades of greyarrowroot leaves by 14 shades of grey

sticky rice by 14 shades of grey

pork by 14 shades of grey

What You Need:
– Three parts sticky rice, one part mung beans, one part fatty pork (we usually do 6 kg of rice; 3 cups of rice per cake)
– Fish sauce, salt, pepper, onions or shallot
– Arrowroot leaves (you need at least four per cake), bamboo strings

Instructions:
1. Soak the rice and the beans up to 12 hours. Let dry, salt them well. Cut the pork into two-inch pieces. Marinate the pork in fish sauce, pepper, and onions.

2. Steam the beans, mash them into a paste (it looks a lot like mash potatoes actually.)

3. Now you’re ready to wrap the cake! There are a lot of ways to wrap a rice cake, but since the cakes have to be a perfect square, most people like to most a mold. My dad usually cuts the arrowroot leaves (carefully washed and dried) and folds them into a box. It’s a little more complicated than using a mold, but it’s easier to wrap once you get the box shape down. Put in a cup of rice, then a layer of bean paste, a couple of pieces of pork, followed by another layer of bean paste and another layer of rice. Make sure that the leaves are touching the rice on the right side, or the cake won’t be green enough. Fold the tops of your “box” down and secure it with bamboo strings.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyIt’s much more difficult to wrap it like this, without a mold or shaping the leaves into a box first

4. You can also wrap the cakes the Southern way – simply lay down the leaves, put the ingredients on top, and roll it all up into a cylinder. But then it’s called bánh tét instead of bánh chưng.

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey

5. Put your cakes into a cauldron that’s been lined with more arrowroot leaves, put in enough water to cover them, and boil them. The boiling time depends on how many cakes you have, of course, but with 20 cakes, we always have to boil them for at least 12 hours. The cauldron is important too – cauldrons made out of zinc are best because they keep the leaves green (as you can see below); aluminum will turn them an unappetizing brownish yellow.

rice cakes cauldron by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey
No, that’s not some witch’s cauldron

And that’s about it. We’ve only cut one of the mini cakes my dad made for my niece from leftovers, saving the big ones for the Lunar New Year feast on Monday, but as far as we can tell, they all turned out perfectly. OK, I’m off to finish cleaning up, so have a great weekend everybody! I know I will.


Random Street Adventure

Here are some snapshots of the Old Quarter, when Debbi and I went to find some presents for her family and friends. We mostly window-shopped though, the real shopping will have to wait until Debbi is getting ready to leave (*sniffles*).


Adorable teddy bears and floral tops… way over our budget though


Debbi’s radio active soda, and a common sight in Hanoi – motorbikes parked on the sidewalk


A popular snack (especially with school kids) – pickled and candied dried fruits


St. Joseph Cathedral, map to a nearby coffee shop, and the epic chocolate chip cookie we got from there


Yup, the “Call Me Maybe” meme has found its way here as well…


Fresh crabs outside a seafood restaurant


We do like our creepy masks


Stormy Weather

Between the nearly incessant raining and the on-off power during the last 3 days due to a storm, I haven’t got a chance to get my outfit documentation back on track. So here are just some random pictures of life around here.


What the backyard looks like when the storm hits


Some food stuff – taro soup with pork and a purple sweet potato


My niece’s school get-up, on a day she goes on the bike vs. the car (the face mask is to shield you from the dust and sun. Mostly the dust)


Mama cat chilling out, and kitty’s meerkat impersonation


14 Shades Of Mint

Well, more like two – peppermint candy on top and minty fresh on the bottom. Totally unintentional. And this is also an unintentionally preppy outfit. I mean, stripes, oxfords, Bermuda shorts, and a boater hat. You don’t get much more preppy than that.

Today I took Debbi to the tailor’s to get a dress and a pair of shorts made for her, and a lightweight jersey dress for me. Then we got some delicious donuts from a street vendor, whom I regret not taking a picture of because she has such a nice smile.

Debbi pointed out that all of her pictures on the blog seem to be of her eating something. To be fair, it’s a good 60% of what we do when we go out.

Shirt: thrifted, Shorts: Express (thrifted and dyed)
Oxfords: thrifted via Buffalo Exchange, Hat: Vietnamese shop


Hanoi Old Quarter, part II: Snapshots

Here are the rest of the photos from our trip to Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Debbi and I did a lot of window shopping (and some real shopping too), ate a pizza (I know it’s not local, but the juxtaposition of having a pizza in the Old Quarter amused us, besides the restaurant is air-conditioned), then made up for it by eating some mung bean ice cream from this shop that has been in business since 1950’s (when I was little, no trip to “the city” would be complete without an ice cream from there. The mung bean is lovely, but may be an acquired taste; the coconut and green rice are good too.) And of course, being us, we hung out at all the bookstores.


The exterior and interior of a traditional 19th century house


Debbi wanted the flats but one shop didn’t have anything that fit, and we ran out of money at the one that did


A common sight in the old quarter: a jumble of phone and power lines. Yeah, that’s not dangerous or anything


The pizza of shame, and the Popsicle of redemption (also, check out Debbi’s awesome “Batman in Vietnam” T-shirt)


Practicing my street style photography skill


Hanoi Opera House

It’s been miserably rainy here for the past two days because a storm just passed us, so I might not have anything worth posting for the rest of the week. I’m loving the cooler weather, but after a while the monotony of the rain gets to me. Oh well, might as well enjoy it while I can. I’ll take depressing rain over blazing sunshine any day.