Street food in Singapore offers spicy, pungent seafood

Jb Ah Meng

Customers wait at tables 30 minutes before JB Ah Meng Kitchen opens.

SINGAPORE — Fish, meats, and even fruits are drenched in a riot of flavors wherever you eat in Singapore. Spicy, sour, and pungent tastes, like sisters, may fight with one another, but they can also be so perfect together.

This island city-state of more than 5 million people, with an economy driven mainly by financial services, has a tiny aquaculture industry but a great variety of affordable crustaceans imported from Indonesia, Thailand, even Norway. Serving raw or simply boiled-and-chilled seafood, as many restaurants in the United States do, demands pricier catches and particularly stringent handling practices. So food hawkers…

Continue reading my Boston Globe story here…

Out with the Old, In with the New-Old


Rebel With A Course reads like an ah chek regaling with colourful tales of the good old days prior to the hawker centres and HDBs. Except, Queen’s English rolls off the author’s, Damian D’Silva’s tongue, and the slightest details that usually escape one’s mind embellish his stories — “The wet market had two rows of food stalls at the front, selling a host of dishes from the different Chinese dialect groups. There was you char kway, lor mee, yong tau foo, chwee kueh, and our favourite, mee pok tah.”  I am captivated and almost convinced that the past was better than the present. Perhaps, heritage dishes, like he says, should be preserved the way it was.

But I’m afraid D’Silva and the many else of his generation are the only ones who truly appreciate heritage dishes. They have had their fair share from the street peddlers, or have been forced to help cooking some at home. Pleasant or not, these experiences in their formative years shaped their preferences. Today, where the flavours of the past are no more, they yearn for the old and lambast the new.

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Not the Usual Food Magazines

These magazines show that recipes need not come from famous chefs to command interest, or that an invitation to think about food doesn’t necessarily mean to think about eating it. It was magazines like these that piqued my interest in food writing — how boring to describe tastes, and what a challenge to illuminate cultures with the food people eat! Some of the topics are so niche that you wonder how the magazines survive. A few have indeed closed shop, but I hope the others will beat the odds, for they expand our imaginations of what food can mean. It can be a weapon to protest against status quo, it can be an entry point to discuss inequalities, or it can be just food, ordinary in taste but rich in memories.

Put An Egg On It

Image from Put An Egg On It

Image from Put An Egg On It

Now in it’s ninth issue, this booklet-magazine contains short pieces of food memoirs. These are stories of people whom the conventional food magazines consider as the nobodies — the ordinary men on the street — but the emotions in each piece are so raw and so riverting. While there may be a couple of heart-wrenching read, be prepared for a good laugh at some of the hilarious food memories.

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Experimental Eating

Image taken from

Image taken from

A meal can simultaneously be good to eat and good to think (words borrowed from Levi Strauss), as I learnt from the recently published Experimental Eating. It is a book that compiles more than 60 food-based creative projects across the globe, most of which intersect with art, design, and science. They push boundaries on how we understand, relate, and experience food, and also call attention to neglected topics, either related or tangential to food. To induce salivation and considerations at the same dinner table is no small feat, given that few will voluntarily ponder over climate change and slavery when presented with a plate of tantalising fish steak. As the book’s authors, The Center of Genomic Gastronomy, writes: “Contemporary art is an essential domain of experimentation and research, because art still makes room for unpopular views, freedom of expression and non-instrumental research.” Let’s digest some of these projects…

Smog Tasting by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy

An egg-whipping performance that made smog visible and tastable. During the performances, egg whites were whipped at traffic junctions and on rooftops to harvest air pollution. As egg foams are up to 90 percent air, smog from different locations could be tasted and compared in the form of polluted meringues. This project urges us to think about the relationship between food, the environment, and our body.

Image from The Center for Genomic Gastronomy

Image from The Center for Genomic Gastronomy

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Good Fruits and How to Buy Them

Good Fruits and How to Buy Them

“Good Fruits and how to buy them” is not only a point-blank title for a book but also its authors’ blunt statement about people’s level of ignorance of an everyday know-how. Many consumers have a clearer set of logic for clothes shopping than for fruit picking, even though the latter would have greater impact on their lives. It doesn’t help that fruits these days are uniformly looking by design, giving shoppers the impression that there is no meaningful difference from one orange to the next. But according to the authors, who published the book in 1967, there are telltale signs of a sweet, ripen fruit even amongst the uniformity. The book teaches about more than 20 fruits available in the U.S., but remembering the characteristics of just seven that are common in Singapore would be a good start.


Avocado skins may be smooth or leathery or rough, depending on the variety. The authors found no relationship between skin texture and quality of the flesh. “Select heavy, medium-sized avocados with bright fresh appearance and which are rather firm or which are just beginning to soften.” Softening may be hastened by placing the fruit in a warm humid place. Inversely, softening may be delayed by keeping the fruit in cool dry place. But not below 5.5 degrees C, as low temperatures will turn the flesh black and ruin the flavour. Therefore, don’t buy avocado which the grocer had refrigerated. Continue reading

The Search for General Tso and the Chinese American Belonging

Image from The Search for General Tso

Image from The Search for General Tso

Why is Chinese food in America so different from what we see in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? The film, The Search of General Tso, provides an insight to this phenomenon as it traces the history of a dish particularly popular with the Americans — General Tso Chicken. The film brings its audience to Hunan, China where the namesake is from, and to Taiwan to locate the creator of those sweet-spicy deep fried chicken. What at first looks like a superficial quest to ascertain the ownership of a dish turns out to be a bigger story about Chinese American history.

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Milton Glaser’s Chinese Grocery Poster

(image from School of Visual Art's Container List)

(image from School of Visual Art’s Container List)

The items found in New York City’s Chinese groceries today, I can imagine, are baffling to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. What is one to do with a whole packet of duck tongues, black fungus, and dried bean curd sticks? (Answer: braise it, stir-fry it, and stew it, respectively) The very same items in the 1970s, a time when Chinese and all things about them were very much considered exotic, would have been deemed mysterious, or even dangerous, and required a caption to go along for the uninitiated. Perhaps seeing a need there, Milton Glaser, the man behind the overly adapted I love New York logo, created a chart-like poster to guide one through a Chinatown grocery. It explained items like preserved celery cabbage, thousand-year eggs, and even provided instructions for calculating with an abacus.

Commissioned by the International Design Conference, the poster was created in 1972—the same year Nixon went to China after decades of hostility and distrust between the two nations. Then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai hosted a meal in Nixon’s honour and the live broadcast sparked off an explosion of interest in Chinese food. Prior to that, during the Cold War, communist and Chinese were synonymous to the Americans and so was their hatred towards them. Therefore, only in 1972 and the subsequent years would Glaser’s poster be of use to the mainstream Americans.

Learning from Cookbooks Written for the Non-locals

The next time you go to Europe or the Americas for holidays, perhaps look out for old Singaporean or Asian cookbooks in secondhand bookstores. If these books were distributed in those continents, where the dominant populations were unfamiliar with the cuisines, even better. This is because the authors would make an extra effort to explain the methods, ingredients, and utensils—things that other authors writing for the local cooks would leave out because they assumed their readers already knew. But those of you who are only staring to learn cooking will know this assumption cannot be more wrong. People who are born into the culture but do not practice it are as much a stranger to its traditions and wisdoms as those who didn’t belong by birth. Cookbooks written for the non-natives might be the answer to your own cultural cuisine. I bought a few in the US and they had become my treasure troves. Here are some things I learned:

old asian cookbooks

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Recipes vs Reviews: Performing the Singaporean Identity through Blogging

Singaporean food bloggers living overseas share mostly recipes of what Singaporeans eat. There are FEAST to the world and Mummy, I can cook!.

Feast to the world's popiah entry in June 2012

Feast to the world’s popiah entry in June 2012

Mummy, I can cook's satay entry in July 2011

Mummy, I can cook’s satay entry in July 2011

Singaporean food bloggers at home, such as ieatishootipost and camemberu, in contrast, rarely bestow culinary wisdom. They review restaurants, hawker stalls, and sometimes businesses remotely relevant to F&B, like airlines. Overseas and domestic Singaporeans cover different aspects of food because the further one drifts away from home, the hazier the idea of “Singaporean” becomes. Continue reading

Havana restaurants thrive on available local food

HAVANA — You run a restaurant famous for its pork chop. But there’s none in the fridge. You check the pantry only to find that salt is also running low. You call your local store and they inform you that the entire city is out of these items. The replenishments will arrive two days later.

This scenario is reality for restaurateurs in Havana. To invigorate the struggling economy, the government loosened the regulations on private restaurants in 2010, but food shortages and rationing persist in the country. “It is still hard to find ingredients we need,” says Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida, one of the longest established and most reputable private restaurants here. “This has nothing to do with the restrictions. You simply cannot find them in Cuba.”

Continue reading my Boston Globe story here