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Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

Our recent trip to Singapore was the first trip to Asia for The Child and me.  She had never dealt with more than a Pacific to Central Time adjustment.  Between the distance and the drastically different climate, I had no way to predict how her body would react to the sudden changes.

By the fourth day, I was pretty sure we were on track.  We had an important dinner that night with a colleague.  All we knew was he was taking us to dinner, and it would be a fancy night out.  I wasn’t ready to hire a sitter in a foreign country just yet, and my husband wanted us both to come, so we took a chance.  The Child was briefed on the well-behaved seriousness of the evening ahead of us… “no matter what.”  In hindsight, perhaps we should not have spent the afternoon teaching her to play poker instead of forced napping.

The restaurant was spectacular.  Chef Chan’s Restaurant is located in the National Museum of Singapore.  The building is a stunning edifice. The original neo-classical structure was built in 1887 and recently underwent a surprisingly appropriate modern expansion.  The restaurant itself consists of four private rooms bedecked with Chef Chan’s personal collection of antiques.  It makes quite an impression.

Our Table at Chef Chan's Restaurant

The Child was hanging in there well.  We sat down, dinner was ordered, and no complaints despite obviously being tired.  In fact, she didn’t say much of anything.  Even when folks tried to engage, she perked up a little to tell them about the Night Safari and her day in Chinatown, but then sunk back down without quite slouching rudely.  She tried the first few courses politely, but didn’t eat much, and it started to cast a shadow over the evening, at least for me.  By the time the Whole Deep-Fried Quail was set down in front of her she was downright weaving.  And she refused to dig in and try it.  I must admit the little bird was a bit daunting, being so very tiny and so very hot!  She politely asked for a restroom, and we made our way through the labyrinth to find it.  Three steps in the door, she turned around and burst into tears.  Not the pitching-a-fit-whining kind.  Nope.  The desperately-tired-and-trying-so-hard-not-to-be kind.  After the bathroom visit, and the hugs, and the bonding over the ‘Mommy’s going to teach you how to freshen up after tears in the bathroom,’ we made our way back to the table.

She made it through a bite of her next course.  Then I got the silent pleading eyes and invited her over to my lap.  She curled up against my shoulder and was instantly asleep.  Sixty pounds of solid, sweaty, snoring child on my lap.  I was relieved to stop focusing on her and instead enjoy our hosts, the meal, and some excellent wine.  And oh what a meal!

Everything was good.  Some things were remarkable.  The Famous Crispy Roast Chicken was akin to what people might call a religious experience.  The few times I have had excellent seven course meals, it is always the same…  I remember a few high points, and the rest starts to merge into the experience of the good company, the beautiful setting, the impeccable service, and the very full tummy.  There are whole courses I wish I could remember now, but that chicken was amazing.  It was pick-dropped-bits-off-sleeping-child good.  It was go-back-to-Singapore-again good.

Maybe the ‘we went to a restaurant too late and the kid fell asleep on my lap’ experience is old hat for most people.  But it has never happened to me.  The Child has not taken naps since her first 12 months.  I stopped trying to force it at 18 months.  And when she does sleep, it is only by putting her in a pitch black room and closing the door on my way out.  I rarely get to watch her fall asleep, and if I do it usually involves illness or a blow to the head.  There were a lot of special, one of a kind experiences on our trip.  Having my daughter fall asleep in my lap was near the top of the list.  Right below the chicken.

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Raffles Culinary Academy

The conference in Singapore had an outing for participants on the final day. Segway rides on Sentosa Island followed by a cooking class at the Raffles Culinary Academy.  The Child cleared the height requirement for the Segway by an inch or so.  We did a good job not letting our overprotective parenting take control, even dropping back in the line while the instructor took her to the front and kept an eye on her.  The instructors were good at communicating with her, and one even donated their own helmet to try and get a properly sized one.  She did a great job listening to the instructions and stepping to the side the one time she fell off hers.  Nice to know she was listening to the, “don’t step forward or you’ll fall on the accelerator and it will drag your broken ankle underneath for long while.”  With two adults crashing theirs and having near-miss serious injuries we were proud and relieved when she exited hers safely and high-fived everyone within reach.

The cooking lesson at the Raffles Culinary Academy was substantially safer, the ingredients were pre-chopped and blended where necessary.  Their policy is no knives or heating elements for kids that young, so while her dad had his own cooking station, The Child helped me read the recipe, locate ingredients, and find appropriate measuring implements.  We all learned to make Singaporean Laksa, and she decided how much chili to use.  We fell right into the same routine as at home, except this time she had a real apron, a chef’s hat, and a crowd of adults fawning over her.

First, Chef Christopher Lau demonstrated for everyone how he and his sous chefs had previously chopped and blended many of the ingredients together.  He demonstrated the order and timing to combine the paste with other ingredients in a saucepan to make the sauce.  Then we were turned loose on our own stations with a copy of the recipe in hand to take a crack at it ourselves.  We all started on the sauce while the instructors set up the teaching station to demonstrate how to prep the rice noodles, prawns and quail eggs.

I highly recommend the Raffles Culinary Academy lesson as an activity for a large group of people with disparate cooking skills.  Despite being introductory, it was fun and entertaining for everyone, regardless of varied prowess in the kitchen. Having eaten laksa the night before from The Fullerton Hotel, I never would have guessed how similar the basic preparation technique is to Indian cooking.  Chef Lau was very accessible for questions and was engaging beyond the scope of the simple recipe we were preparing.  There were four cooking stations to a table, which increased the community learning experience.  Everyone enjoyed peeking into surrounding bowls and gauging the relative heat by the varied colors.  (“You added how much chili paste?!?”)  The Child chose to add a near homeopathic amount of chili paste to our batch, which was fine by me.  Each batch made servings for four, so while I ate The Spouse’s, her child-friendly option was well appreciated by those shy of chili, as well as those looking to dilute their mistakes to an edible level of heat.  The Child especially liked the quail eggs and is excited to hunt for them at our grocery store.

As folks completed their dish, the attached dining room was a lovely setting in which to sit down, sample, and compare.  Be advised with some students partnering up, the kitchen accommodated more people than the dining room.  Our group was comfortable with overflow diners finding a spot at the long counter, but the dining area is sufficiently divided from the kitchen to prevent cross-pollination between groups.  After finishing our laksa, two more courses were served: Sweet & Sour Prawns and Chilled Sago Pomelo In Sweet Mango Soup.  My gorgeous, huge prawns were sadly overcooked, but I was so stuffed full of laksa I couldn’t eat much more anyway.  The fabulous mango soup seems to be a classic Singapore dessert as we had it at many different places during the week.  Recipes for all three dishes were printed for us to take home, as well as awesome Raffles Chef Aprons, certificates, and paper chef hats.  While printing completion certificates was really dorky for a room full of adults, The Child swelled with pride when it was her turn to go collect hers amidst applause.

We are excited to try making this now that we are home!  Time to see if my local nursery carries lemongrass so I can add it to our little garden.  Thank you to the conference organizers for sponsoring the event, and thank you Chef Lau!

The Child and Chef Christopher Lau

Singapore Laksa from The Raffles Culinary Academy

Ingredients

300 gm Fresh Noodle (“Laksa Noodles” are thick round rice noodles)

80 gm Bean Sprouts

Hard boiled quail eggs and pre-cooked prawns (~3 of each per person)

Coconut Gravy:

150 gm Chili Paste

80 gm Shallots

80 gm Garlic

10 gm Ginger

15 gm Lemongrass

1 Tbsp Turmeric Powder

½ Tbsp Coriander Powder

5 Tbsp Cooking Oil

600 ml Water

2 tsp Salt

2 tsp Sugar

500 ml Coconut Milk

300 ml Cream

8 gm Dried Shrimp

1) To make the coconut gravy, grind the shallots, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass to a smooth paste in a blender. Add a little water if necessary to keep the mixture turning.

2) Heat the oil in a pot, add chili paste and paste (shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass) and stir fry over medium heat until fragrant. Add turmeric powder, coriander powder, and dried shrimp. Stir fry for 3 minutes. Add water and seasoning. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and cream and bring just to a boil. Quickly remove from heat.

3) Portion noodles and bean sprouts into individual serving bowls. Fill each bowl with coconut gravy, prawns, and quail eggs. Serve immediately.

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Chinatown Excursion

An afternoon exploring Chinatown on our own would have been fun. But we learned so much more about Singapore by wandering with a friend as a local guide. We walked through market stalls preparing for the Chinese New Year, visited a Hindu temple, and went to the Chinatown Heritage Centre.

The Chinatown Heritage Centre was by far The Child’s favorite destination of the entire trip. By guiding visitors through historic shophouses, the Centre aims to tell of the early settlers of Singapore through stories and vignettes. Like moving within a large diorama, it reconstructs an historical tailor’s shop and chronicles history by telling personal stories of people who had once rented cubicles as living space above the shophouse. Reading the stories while standing amidst the full scale scene made the information remarkably accessible for a 6-year old, especially in the context of our friend sharing both her knowledge and full attention with The Child.

Our friends chose a restaurant for lunch and did all the ordering for us. Taste Paradise was fabulous! Amongst the many courses was a plate of three small bites – a dressed scallop, a wasabi mayo prawn on watermelon, and a slice of roast duck. The child heard the word wasabi and dug her heels in. No way, no how, was she even going to try the damn prawn. I can’t really hold that against her… she has been burned by wasabi before. No amount of “trust me, it’s just for color” made a difference. So she gobbled her scallop and duck with all accoutrements, and I ate two prawns. Worked out well if you ask me! Besides, with so many courses, there was no chance of going hungry. We had our first taste of Carrot Cake, a traditional breakfast dish in Singapore. The baked cod with cheese was perfectly prepared and surprisingly flowed with the other courses despite the very non-Asian preparation. The Child nommed on most courses with relish, and enjoyed every last bite of the rice dish. She typically goes out of her way to avoid any and all rice-based dishes, but this was finished down to the last grain. I wish I had paid more attention to what seemed to be a basic seafood and rice mixture, but I think the addition of tobiko (or perhaps masago) mixed throughout gave the dish an appealing popping texture. She switched from chopsticks to a spoon to ensure consuming every last grain. The final presentation of the mango dessert was show stopping for The Child. A martini shaped bowl nested in a larger glass of dry ice such that billowing steam surrounded the display. The dessert itself, a mango soup with bits of citrus, lived up to the over the top presentation.

After a fabulous meal, we wandered in search of the store where my husband had tried local pork jerky on a previous trip. More accurately, bak kwa are thin slices of sweet and salty pork, barbecued on-site on a flaming charcoal grill after being pre-marinated. At Lim Chee Guan we bought some large rectangular pieces which pulled apart easily along the grain, and some smaller disc-shaped pieces which were pre-formed and sliced.

On the way back to the car we spied a bakery with tables of pastries on display, and The Child immediately recognized mooncakes. She had fallen in love with them in the fall when her school’s Mandarin teacher celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival with her students. Simple mooncakes are a compact and solid pastry typically wrapped around a lotus seed paste or sweet bean paste. Back in September, The Child and her dad had rushed out to the new Ranch 99 Market near us and snagged one of the last boxes on display for her school assignment. She was thrilled to now be standing in the Tai Thong Cake Shop surrounded by them, while bakers kneaded dough in the back of the shop. We purchased some small cakes with what appeared to be a sweet bean paste of some kind. There were also some larger house-specialty cakes of a simpler style with an amazing filling which had more of a lotus seed paste flavor. These were the clear favorite.

Our remarkable afternoon in Singapore’s Chinatown made an enormous impression on the rest of our trip. It was the one day The Child asked to repeat over and over again. Days later, while my husband was busy at the conference which had brought us here, The Child and I sat poolside in the heat munching on bak kwa and mooncakes, appreciative of the friends who had shared a part of their amazing city with us.

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The food in Singapore is nothing short of amazing.  So many different cultures coming together elevates even basic hotel food to another level.  Fusion seems an inadequate description.  Often our trip served as a reminder that some of the best cuisine in the world is readily available in San Francisco, but the tropical produce was a consistently striking contrast.  I had never traveled so close to the equator before, and had never been to Asia.  Discovering new produce was a common thread to our family adventure.

The flight from Hong Kong exposed us to a new ingredient before we even arrived.  Too sleep deprived to ask what it was called, the white hydrating fruit was refreshing and crunchy, but bordering on tasteless.  The pink skin was thin, edible, and pretty on the plate.  I looked over and saw The Child had left hers, probably daunted that a butter knife did not cut it easily like the melon.  Later investigation indicated it’s called jumbu locally, although there appear to be many common names for the fruit of the Syzygium samarangense tree.    Local friends said it is also very good sauteed or chopped into savory salads with chili, providing a lightness and crunch similar to jicama with a water content closer to watermelon.  At the suggestion of our hotel staff, we sprinkled it with course sugar, and it was much improved as a refreshing snack.

At the hotel club for a post-flight snack, The Child helped herself to papaya, even though she’d hated it when tried in the past.  There is something compellingly beautiful about slices of bright orange papaya on the plate, so I understand the compulsion to want to try again.  Unless it is buzzed up in a blender to make POG juice in Hawaii, it is not my first choice either, so I was not surprised when she didn’t care for it.  But to her credit, she cheerfully tried it despite my unmitigated and vocal doubt.  Later in the trip when a fruit plate I ordered contained a long row of gorgeous papaya, I remembered her enthusiasm and tried it again myself.  I had to confess to The Child that her example in the hotel club was the only reason I was trying it again, learning that for at least this particular plate, I liked it.  She smiled smugly and still declined my offer to share.

The hotel provided a bowl of fruit in our room, and upon arrival the grapes were decimated.  The mango was deemed too messy for right then.  The pear was as hard as a rock.  The remaining exotic items waited for a time when I had the patience and energy to figure out what they were and how to crack into them.  A few days into the trip I located a stray butter knife and a wifi connection so we could have a little in-room picnic.

The starfruit had such a waxy skin, from the outside it did not feel like something edible, but it was surprisingly thin and barely noticeable.  A quick web search indicated how to prep it…  Slice the edges off the ribs and discard along with the end bits.  Then slice and enjoy raw or cooked after popping out the seeds with the tip of your knife.  The butter knife managed better than expected and The Child liked it more than I imagined, since it was very tart and acidic.  Later she claimed she didn’t like it at all, but there was something compelling about arranging the gorgeous star shaped slices on the plate because she ate several slices amidst the compulsive arranging.

The purple mystery fruit did not have an edible skin.  That much was obvious.  Lacrosse-ball shell was more like it.  I had no idea what it was at the time, but had seen another guest at the hotel hacking her way into one for a kid, so I had a clue of where to start.  Once the butter knife made progress in one spot, it was straightforward, albeit messy, to score around the circumference of the tough outer casing and crack it open to see the beautiful and delicate white fruit.  At first I thought it was a variety of longan, but instead of a large round fruit with a single seed, this was segmented on the inside, with each bright white segment having it’s own little black seed.  Inquiries with local friends revealed this was a purple mangosteen.    It was a fabulously sweet fruit which we all enjoyed despite the slimy texture.

Finally I rolled up my sleeves and sliced into the mango.  I had not been relishing the mess of opening a mango in an hotel room with a butter knife.  It was in fact one of the juiciest mangos I have ever eaten.  Smaller and more yellow than the ones we get at home, this varietal was tastier as well.  I have eaten many mangos, and the technique of slicing to both sides of the pit, scoring the flesh, and inverting the skin was easy.  But of course with the butter knife I missed the seed by a long shot – leaving a ton of mango attached to the pit while juice ran down my elbow, precariously balanced over a coffee saucer on an end table.  The obvious choice was to give the lions share on the pit to The Child.  And amidst the stickiness there was really only one option.  The tub.  So she climbed into the tub eating the juiciest mango ever, with a view out the bathroom window of The Singapore Flyer, the largest Ferris wheel in the world.  She finished covered in mango from head to toe, and then I ran her a bath.

Many of the things we tried have import restrictions, and even those allowed cannot possibly be as good when packed and shipped halfway around the world.  While we hope to locate many new ingredients at our local Asian market, the best tasting produce is locally grown.  The Child made mango memories we can never replicate again.  Our hotel picnic left us with happy smiles and one lonely unripe pear sitting in the fruit bowl.  Hard as a rock.  I’m guessing it wasn’t local.

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