Tag Archives: travel

Snacking in Singapore

IMG_2488Afew weeks ago, I found out I would be making a very short trip to Singapore for work. Three days. 72 hours on the ground, and approximately  36 hours of air travel. After accepting the inevitably long flight time and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to tack a real Asian vacation onto the trip, I booked my flight to build in an extra afternoon of exploration time before meetings started, and started dreaming. About food.

In all honesty, food is the only reason I’ve ever wanted to come to Singapore, and it’s never been quite strong enough of a driver to propel me halfway around the earth just to eat. As a kid, I only knew Singapore as the place where you could get caned for spitting out your chewing gum (a thought that still haunted me a bit every time I popped a piece of gum during the trip). More recently, I knew of it as a somewhat mysterious, meticulously clean melting pot with a much higher price point than other nearby countries in Asia.

It wasn’t until my flight over here, armed with a few extremely outdated travel guides and a lot of spare time on the flight, that I made my first attempt to understand what Singapore is all about…and why it’s supposed to be so delicious.

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Singapore is a young country. A young city-state to be more exact. The country as we know it was founded not so long ago in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles when he signed a treaty with the Sultan of Johor to establish the Southern part of the island as a British trading post. Realizing its strategic significance, due to its location at the end of the Malay Peninsula, the British built the place up, eventually establishing rubber plantations that brought in lots of migrant workers from India, China, and other places.

Before Raffles’ arrival, there were only about 1,000 people living on the island, most of them indigenous Malays. So as the island became more and more developed, it also became more and more diverse in a pretty unique way, since there wasn’t a significant native population present. Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Eurasian people all mixed together to form  a state with many languages, religions, skin colors, and customs. Peranakans, Singapore-born descendants of Chinese settlers who came to Singapore in the 15th-17th centuries, I guess are the closest thing to a modern native population, and the bulk of them have a mixed heritage, largely Chinese and Malay.

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The point of all this is that this place is diverse. I’ve never really been anywhere like it, and riding the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is a pretty illuminating window into just how diverse Singapore is. Aside from the crazy range of language, race, and culture that you’ll see displayed in any station or train car, one only needs to go down any metro line and read the station names to realize that you are in the midst of a ethno-cultral hodge podge: Orchard, Kampong Bahru, Tai Seng, Little India, Joo Koon, Lavender, Khatib–you would never guess those stations were all in the same place.

Getting back to the topic at hand, you can only imagine the effect that this diversity has had on the local cuisine. A lot of Chinese food, a good amount of Indian, tons and tons of options from other parts of Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world, as well as a generous selection of options that bridge the gap between several of the above categories, creating something uniquely Singaporean and pretty darn delicious. Since I’ve been here I’ve had Haianese, Indian, Peranakan, Italian, British-influenced fare, and food from Hong Kong. I’ve been here for one day. Here are some highlights of the things I’ve Snacked on:

Haianese Chicken Rice

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A Singaporean staple, one of the city-state’s national dishes (there are multiple, naturally), and an affordable and easily-accessible example of down-home cooking. Chicken rice is exactly what it sounds like: chicken and rice. The chicken can be cooked in a variety of ways, but in Singapore, the “must try” variety is poached, then dunked in cold water to form a gelatinous layer right under the chicken’s skin. The chicken is served at room temperature over a bed of steamy rice that’s been prepared in the drippings from the birds. It is good. Really good. But super simple. The chicken is cool and tender, the rice is hot and super flavorful with a great texture from the added drippings, but that’s it. To me, this dish was just a great simple plate of food. I think you will enjoy it most if you think of it the same way…there is a lot of hype around it amongst travelers to Singapore, and I think that risks taking something away from the experience of eating it. But go. Find a place that looks good. Grab a plate, and just enjoy it.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice
Location: Stall 10, Maxwell Food Centre 
Link: http://www.tiantianchickenrice.com
Cost: $5

Kaya Toast

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I was obsessed with finding Kaya toast. But like Chicken Rice, it’s everywhere, and it’s simple! Just look at that picture. Not exactly a showpiece meal. I went to Ka Yun Kaya Toast and got a combo Kopi (local style coffee that is roasted with butter or margarine and served with condensed milk in a variety of different combos) and Kaya toast on my first afternoon when I just needed a break to sit down, and it was lovely in its simplicity. You will find Ya Kun outposts EVERYWHERE, especially in malls, but I couldn’t really go a few blocks without seeing a kopitiam or toast place. If I had more free mornings, I would definitely make an effort to indulge in a full Kopi and Kaya Toast breakfast. And I bought two mini jars to bring home!

Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Location: Throughout Singapore
Link: http://www.yakun.com.sg
Cost: $5

Bak Kwa

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I LOVE BAK KWA. I had only ever heard of this jerky-style dried pork product before because I know my friend’s mom loves it. She is from Hong Kong, but evidently Bak Kwa is a treat that is enjoyed throughout Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and the surrounding countries, and it is so delicious. It’s basically greasy dried meat, which sounds awful, but if you like jerky, especially the thick meaty variety, you just need to buy this. It’s not cheap, but you also can’t bring it back to the US, so just buy some and enjoy it while you can. I went to the above spot (no photo due to scarfing this down too fast), but if you are on New Bridge Road in Chinatown you will pass dozens of bak kwa outlets to pick from.

Bee Ching Hang
Location: 189 New Bridge Road, Chinatown
Link: http://www.beechenghiang.com.sg
Cost: $3 for one piece (which is plenty for a little greasy snack)

Tan’s Tutu Coconut Cake

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This was one of my least favorite things, though I still managed to eat most of it. They are weird little cakes made out of rice flower, stuffed with different fillings like peanuts, coconut, chocolate, or red bean, then steamed in a mold. I could also hardly manage a photo as they were so hot that they were steaming up my phone lens. They looked so nice and fluffy here that I was dying to try these, but they ended up being more dense than I expected and I just didn’t love them…one day I’ll give them another try.

Tan’s Tutu Coconut Cake
Location: Stall 25, Havelock Road Cooked Food Center (I went to one in an Orchard mall but can’t find the address)
Link: http://ieatishootipost.sg/tans-tutu-coconut-cakes-kueh-tutu-is-a-uniquely-singaporean-dish/
Cost: $2.50 for 3 of the same filling, or $3 for 3 if you mix the fillings

Tak Po Hong Kong Dim Sum

IMG_2506I felt like a massive fatty eating this breakfast, but it was damn tasty. I sat outside by myself at a nice sidewalk table and watched people queue up all morning to eat here. After the peanuts (they are not free, but I love peanuts, so ok), I used the pencil and check-list style menu they gave me to order a selection of yummy treats, mostly fried, to indulge in at 9am. The top left is yam cake, which was nice, then the furry thing is some kind of crispy yam dumpling (meh), then a steamed bao (always solid) and on the bottom a “homestyle puff” which was yummy. My only regret is that I wish I was there with other people so I could sample more! They also served a nice tall kopi with condensed milk over ice, which was an indulgent compliment to my fried plate.

Tak Po Dim Sum
Address: 42 Smith Street, Chinatown
Link: http://cuisineparadise-eatout.blogspot.sg/2013/01/tak-po-dim-sum-restaurant-chinatown.html
Cost: $0.80-$5 per dish
 

Roti Prata

IMG_2515Speaking of fried…..oh man this was an indulgence. Roti prata is a bready little thing, either stuffed with something delicious or dipped in something delicious. I feel like it was somewhere between a nice soft naan and a thin, delicate crepe. It is prepared from a ball of buttery dough that is stretched and pulled in front of you, then folded up–in my case, around a bunch of sliced bananas, granulated sugar, and ghee (clarified butter)–and then plopped on a hot griddle to get nice and crispy. This is not health food. Especially when you pair it with a sugar cane juice, like I did. But it is obviously super, super yummy. I haven’t yet had a chance to try the savory variety, which is often served stuffing-less, dipped in a nice curry sauce, but I really hope I get a chance to try some before I go! You can find these anywhere, my stop at Pearl’s Plaza was one of desperation in search of something sweet to end my day at a rather late hour, but I am sure there are tastier (and cleaner) options out there.

Pearl’s Center 
Location: 100 Eu Tong Sen St, Chinatown
Cost: $2
 

I am both embarrassed and proud to admit that that is only a small sampling of what I have eaten (snacked on, more accurately) during my short time in Singapore. I’ll spare you the mini cheesecakes from Mini One, the weird pastries and treats from the BreadTalk chain, and the insanely delicious Kouign Amann from Tiong Bahru bakery for another post. And I’ll see what else I can cram in before I leave!

 

 

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Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

This beautiful, 500 year-old monastery was a perfect sanctuary from the unexpected summer rain shower that started right as we reached Belém. Still, we tore ourselves away fairly quickly as coffee and hot Pastéis de Belém were waiting for us just down the street.

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Hanauma Bay, Oahu

IMG_0797, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

A quick car or moped ride from Honolulu, Hanauma is a beautiful little nature preserve where you can get really close to some pretty incredible sea life. I’ve definitely had more spectacular snorkeling/scuba diving experiences in my life, but it’s hard to beat the above-water scenery here when added to the accessibility from Honolulu. Be warned though; because it’s easy to get to, it’s pretty packed, though they do limit the number of people who can access the beach at one time.

Snorkle rentals were about $12 for everything (mask, snorkle, fins), and entrance to the park was $7.

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Porto

Porto, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

Porto was seriously so cool. It had such a unique, jumbled, old feel to it that I really haven’t experienced anywhere outside of Portugal. You can see from this picture the way that everything is laid out in a kind of messy yet totally beautiful manner, with all kinds of colors and textures and patterns all running together from one building to the next. It made exploring the town an absolute delight, like I was exploring a melancholy yet festive storybook town.

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Practical Souvenirs: Shopping for Peshtamals in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

My trip to Turkey was a quick one.

In planning our trip to Lisbon from New York, the only airline offering a fare that was even close to reasonably priced was Turkish Airlines, and, being a Turkish carrier, the majority of their international flights include a layover in Istanbul. Now, Istanbul is most definitely not on the way to Lisbon when you are coming from New York. In fact, it is almost laughably out of the way, but in the interest of saving about $400 on the airfare and getting in a short trip to Istanbul, we decided to take the plunge.

Our layover only gave us 21 hours in the city, so we just decided to see the best known sites and save the rest for another trip. After being there for less than a day I can now say that I will most definitely be back, because even the little taste that we got of the place was incredible.

After a ridiculously short night of sleep in a hot, smelly hostel, and a very early wake-up call facilitated by the azan of the Blue Mosque and some very noisy seagulls, we took off to make our rounds. Our first stop was a quick run-through of aforementioned Mosque, followed by a trip to Hagia Sophia, which was shockingly beautiful. Then we had an obligatory visit to the Spice Market, where we stuffed ourselves with free samples of Turkish delight and some fabulous, sweet apple tea before heading over to the main event. The Grand Bazaar.

I feel like I wanted to go to the Grand Bazaar before I ever really knew what it was. When I was little, the idea of a bazaar, any bazaar, was so exciting and so exotic that I always fantasized about the possibility of exploring one and picking up all kinds of wonderful things to bring home.

Unfortunately, after a week in Portugal where I eagerly snapped up all kinds of ham, canned fish, seasoned salt, and other goodies, I had very little room left in my one bag. In the end, that didn’t stop me, but the initial hope of finding the perfect compact souvenir from Turkey led me to a few stalls selling these:

After a bit of poking around, I learned that these are peshtamals (peştamal in Turkish), or hammam towels. They are basically vey soft, very thin towels that come in a variety of beautiful colors and shapes, and they can be used for just about anything, from actual towel to scarf to beach blanket to tablecloth. They are made to be portable, lightweight, absorbent, and fast drying, which makes them awesome for all kinds of things.

One of the most practical souvenirs I ever brought home was a picnic blanket that I bought on a whim in Paris and now use ALL THE TIME like six years later, so I thought this could be a very useful gift to myself. It also is overall a very practical travel item as it can be used for a million different things without taking up too much room in your suitcase. I’ve gotten used to traveling with some kind of lightweight cloth that can be used as a towel or blanket while traveling, starting first with a cheap sarong, then graduating to a more durable microfiber camp towel (quite possibly in one of the best purchases I’ve ever made), and it’s shocking how convenient it can be to have something like that with you on the road. I love my REI towel, but a peshtemal is a much more fashionable alternative, and almost as compact. If there is any possibility of having a beach visit or an impromptu picnic, either at home or while traveling, I love to have something like this in my bag.

I ended up buying a lovely, soft, white and light blue one and my friend picked up two more in other colors. They packed down into nothing and were the perfect soft blanket on the lonnnnng plane ride back to San Francisco. Even better, they were cheap! About $6 or $7 each, which, for the quality that we got, is a lot better than what you can find online in the states, though there seem to be some good deals available on Etsy.

My only regret is that I didn’t get more! I ended up buying a set of actual Turkish cotton bath towels that were not very practical for packing into a tiny suitcase, but I probably should have invested in a few more peshtemals instead. Right now I’m using mine as a throw in my bedroom, mainly because I don’t want to get the pretty little thing dirty, but I might have to bust it out and use it as an actual towel come summer.

Istanbul was absolutely overflowing with wonderful things that could be brought home as gifts, but if you’re looking for something easy and practical that’s not a food item, a peshtamal is the way to go! For more information on where to get them while at the Grand Bazaar, see here or here, or just look around for a while, you’re bound to see them all over the place.

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Mexico City Street Food: Empanada de Camarón

Empanada de camarones, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

We stopped at this stall near the Zócalo because there were tons of people buzzing around it so we knew it must be something good. My non-Spanish speaking friend ran across the street and pantomimed to the vendor that he wanted one of whatever he was selling. The man behind the cart pulled a little bready thing out from a basket and sliced it open around the edges to reveal a bunch of cooked shrimp and melted cheese inside. Unexpectedly it was then slathered in avocado (ok) and ketchup (what?!?!) and then handed over to us so we could add our own dose of hot sauce to complete the dish. The total was about $1.50USD. We took our little frisbee-like plate over to a nearby table and tentatively took a bit of the ketchupy, shrimpy mess. And it was so good! Honestly, one of the best things I ate in Mexico City, and I ate a lot. I went back to the vendor to ask what this delicious morsel was, and he told me it was an empanada! It was a lot different than the empanadas I had been used to in Spain and Portugal, but this was just as good, if not better than the flaky pastries I had learned to love across the Atlantic. And cheaper, too!

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Gastronomica San Juan and the Mercado San Juan

I’d be lying if I said that part of the excitement that I felt about visiting Mexico City didn’t stem from a secret hope that it would be like a new Spain that happened to be on the same continent that I inhabited. Obviously I was also excited for many things that were very much Mexican and not Spanish at all; tacos al pastor, Día de los Muertos, lucha libre, etc. etc. etc. But I had also heard about a lot of Mexico City features that I hoped would transport me back to Spain in some small way.

So, with this in mind, imagine my delight when I strolled into Mercado San Juan, Mexico City’s premier exotic foods market, and was greeted by a man who literally asked me “Would you like to try the best Jamón Serrano sandwich in all of Mexico?” Yes, man. Yes, I do want that.

My friend and I were escorted through the market by this very friendly man to a stall that looked like this, while he sang the praises of their hams, cheeses, and embuditos:

Gastronomica San Juan

I cannot emphasize how crowded this place was, so I instantly believed that we were about to actually get the best ham sandwich in all of Mexico. We were given a menu and a rundown of the offerings by a very nice young boy, and decided to order a ham sandwich between the two of us. When we were asked if we wanted a whole or a half, well, that is where we made our mistake. The only negative detail of this outing was our decision to go for a whole sandwich instead of a half. Little did we know that meant a whole baguette and about 1-meter of carefully layered, very expensive Jamón Serrano. Mexico City was so delightfully affordable for us coming from the States that paying $20 for a sandwich was an absolute shock, even though we got our money’s worth and more.

The sandwich was indeed delicious, but even as a devoted ham lover, it was way too much! So take my advice; definitely go here and get a sandwich, but make it a half! And split that half with someone else. So here is the sandwich; basic and delicious and dripping with ham and olive oil:

Gastronomica San Juan Sandwiches

Sorry for the blur and the bite marks, I guess I couldn’t control myself. The sandwiches were great, but for once it wasn’t the jamón that made this experience what it was. The service from the people at Gastronomica San Juan was literally so good that I just wanted to sit there and chat with them. They were a bit over the top with praise for their product, but it came off as genuine enthusiasm, and did I mention the free wine and dessert?! As soon as we ordered we were offered two tiny glasses of red wine to go with our sandwich which were promptly downed:

Gastronomica San Juan Wine

Again, no time for proper photographic evidence. Then the nice little boy who took our order asked us if we’d like to have a seat. The place was packed and there weren’t even chairs to be offered, but I said sure since he seemed to have a plan in mind. He then walked us to a completely different market stall and pulled out two stools for us to sit on right at the counter. There was such a nice, community environment in the market and even though I must have been driving these people crazy with my lousy Spanish, they were so patient and generous with us.

When we finished our sandwiches (we took half home in a bag…way too much ham!!) and our second little sipper of vino, the real treat came out. Dessert! We had no idea what this was at first, but it ended up being a slice of baguette covered in ice cold mascarpone (or a similar cheese), then topped with a walnut and drizzled with honey.

Gastronomica San Juan Dessert

Ok, I thought. Kinda lame dessert, but cool that it’s free. Then I took a bite. Never has something so simple been so damn good. We ate these two with such voracity that the man helping us came over and gave us six more pieces to go, for free. He even wrapped up our little doggy bag in wax paper. Two of the additional pieces only made it as far as a coffee bar just down the aisle in the same market, where we had another delightful experience. We ate the others that afternoon. I have yet to recreate this simple masterpiece, partially because the memory of eating this in Mercado San Juan was so perfect.

If you like Spanish foods (hams, cheeses, and sausages in particular), I cannot recommend a visit to Gastronomica San Juan enough. If you don’t know Spanish food, even if you hate it, I still recommend it, just for the wonderful service and awesome setting. It was a great way to kick off an even greater trip to the Mexican capital, and when I go back (which I definitely will), it will be one of the first places on my list to revisit. I’ll add another post soon with some pictures of the other market stalls, because they were just incredible.

If you’d like some more information, you can check out Gastronomica’s Facebook page here. It will be helpful to speak Spanish at this spot, but if you don’t I have no doubt you will survive with a smile and some finger pointing. Just watch out for those enormous $20 sandwiches!!!

Gastronomica San Juan

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