Friday, August 23, 2013

The Old Seafood Stretch along East Coast Road

A neighboring family at Yarrow Gardens was credited with introducing chili crab in Singapore.  The patriarch had been a police inspector and the recipe was apparently his wife's.  Eventually, their little business grew and became synonymous with Singapore's famous seafood scene.  Late each night, their only son would drive speedily past the corner where we lived, followed closely by a Cisco security car behind him.  The son came home with loads of cash from their restaurant, this during the 1970s when credit cards hardly existed.

Perhaps because of where we lived, out east, venturing to the nearby seafood restaurants was a regular family outing come birthdays and weekends.  Before the advent of the sterile East Coast seafood center fronting the reclaimed beach, the old seafood establishments lined Upper East Coast Road.  These included Kheng Luck (a majestic white bungalow on concrete stilts), Palm Beach (zinc-roof shack, open air), Long Beach (cozily tucked away at Bedok Corner).  These were relocated and the land sold to private developers who built condominiums and towering houses.  In the case of Long Beach, it became part of a country club.  Only one restaurant still remains along that old stretch, Hua Yu Wee.  On my last visit there almost a decade ago, the managing family continued to live in the main house.  The dinner tables set behind the house faced a military practice area where tall casuarina trees grew peacefully.  That scene alone captured a different era, back when that old stretch actually faced the real sea before reclamation set in and produced the East Coast Parkway expressway.   

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Nasi Padang Escapade

Last week, I made an overnight trip to Jakarta.  It had been thirteen years since my last visit there and much had changed on both ends - mine and the city's.  Jakarta was not recognizable to me.  There were tall, modern buildings and gleaming malls lined with the best of European brands.  I, on the other end, came with a husband and was no longer addressed by chauffeurs as 'Nonya' ('Miss') but 'Ibu' ('Madame'). Yes, I must have seemed middle-aged and matronly and all I needed was the back-combed pouf hairdo.

As we landed, I described to my travel companions my Nasi Padang experience in 1990.  Back then, my sister's friends and I were taken to an old coffee shop where we sat down at a long table.  A pile of small dishes was set at the table, featuring meat, fish, vegetable, assortment.  Some were deep-fried or grilled, others in gravy which was called gulai.  We were expected to partake of whatever we fancied and not to worry about waste.  The leftover food was returned and poured back into the relevant serving pots.   The store only charged us for what we ate.

I gathered that after two decades that had witnessed the bird flu and SARS, those practices were no longer accepted.  I soon yearned for my Nasi Padang once again and found my way to nearby Plaza Indonesia, one of those glitzy malls.  The food basement beckoned and there stood Sari Ratu Restaurant, which the hotel concierge gave a thumbs up approval for.  Definitely more modern and sanitary, I sat down to a table for one - me.  A bit concerned that I was too lonely to consume a wide repertoire of dishes, I was nonetheless assured that I could order whatever interested me.  Yes, the same concept continues.  I could not tell if the leftovers were thrown back in, I did not try to look.  Three gigantic grilled shrimp came on a platter and the waiter mentioned that I would only be charged for what I ate.  At a cost of one king prawn for $6.50, I couldn't control myself and ate two.  How smart of the restaurant to tempt me when I only asked for one.  I was a buffet table all unto my own and I felt like I had sent my appetite to a pampering Indonesian spa, spoilt for choice and indulged with a wide selection.  The waiter charged me for the dishes I tried and never questioned why I rejected the rest.

The lunch was the most relaxing and enjoyable part of my day, and reminded me of why I loved my Nasi Padang since all those years back.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A salute to a Singaporean shop

Today is National Day in Singapore.  I am thinking of one beloved institution in our Katong community.  The bicycle shop 'Song Seng Chan' in Joo Chiat closed its doors at the end of June, after 81 years of selling bicycles to several generations.  It had witnessed the Japanese Occupation, the riots in the 1950s and 1960s, the new Independence in 1965, and finally today, Singapore in all its modern, high-tech glory.

My father was my son's age when the shop first opened.  His father was a customer.  I'm only relieved that my daughter and I had recently purchased our Raleigh bikes from there, when we last visited Singapore in March.

I had promised my children that I would purchase them bikes if they learnt to ride.  With the help of Uncle Donald, they learnt to pedal on two wheels within 10 minutes.

If only shops like Song Seng Chan stood around for many more years.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hari Raya (Eid)

As a child, I used to tag along with my mother on the first day of Hari Raya.  We would have at least three lontong lunches at the various homes of her Muslim friends.  Because they all lived close to one another in Telok Kurau, we travelled from one house to another on a bek chia (trishaw). 

page 208, 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'

Sultan Mosque 
Every year, my sisters and I would fancy eating lontong on Hari Raya. We would hope to be invited to an open house for a meal, and would surely show up with the whole old Jim band.  Recently, I got to know Ros, a compassionate taxi driver who owns one of the few London cabs here in Singapore.  She's become an integral person in my life because she ferries my wheelchair-bound father.  He need only slide in and out of her vehicle.  I would sit in the front of the cab and chat with her.

A contemporary way of cooking lontong rice
Yesterday, she described her busy schedule and how her family will be celebrating Hari Raya which takes place tomorrow.  It signifies the end of the month-long period when all Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset.

During this Ramadan fasting period, Bussorah Street in Singapore becomes abuzz with hawker stalls which sell food and drinks to break the fast, as we ll as baked goods to offer visitors to the home.  Here are the snapshots.


Selling baked goods and kueh

Special meals for the underprivileged.  Breaking fast at the mosque.

Nasi Briyani


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nuns and Priests

I had breakfast with an old secondary school friend this morning.  She told me that the last of our school nuns had died last week.  Sister Aloysius (who preferred to be called A-lui-shus)  taught me sewing in Secondary 2 (or 7th grade).  As she lectured us on stitching or unpicking, I often stared out the window to gaze at the next door compound which had a romantic swimming pool and a pavilion.  One day, she smacked me on the head with an exercise book to shock me out of my stupor.

Nuns are what make a convent education special.  They convey Christ's love and teachings by example and instill a love for learning and kindness towards others.  My mother enrolled in Katong Convent in the 1930s.  It was a new satellite school established out of the bungalow where the 'Town Convent' nuns holidayed on the East Coast.  Katong had become a popular residential area for Peranakan and Eurasian girls and parents preferred to keep them closer to home than to send them to school in town.  Years later, my sisters followed suit and attended the same school, taught by Irish nuns in stern habits with names such as Sister Finnbar.  I went there many years later at a time when the nuns on faculty whittled down to just three, including Sister Aloysius.  There was another nun, Sister Josephine, who expounded on humility and cautioned us to be wary of becoming an 'intellectual snob'. The term was not easily understood then but over time, I have come to see what she meant.  Oftentimes, it is pseudo-intellect at best.

I decided to send my daughter to a convent school to gain the same kind of moral values I appreciated from my education.  Recently, a well-loved nun in her eighties stepped down from the school to spend her twilight years in a retirement home for their religious order.  She exuded love and spoke with a genuine care for each one of her little students. My daughter was privileged to have been in the last class she taught.

Priests do the same at the Catholic boys' schools.  I've often been somewhat scared of a priest's black cassock.  Perhaps I've watched too many snippets of scary exorcist movies.  Nonetheless, as a non-Catholic, I was rather dazzled by the fashion style set by Pope Benedict, particularly the red Gucci shoes and the lace tops.  I've since befriended a Jesuit priest who was too thrilled that the new Pope is the first from his order.   This priest I know is cosmopolitan, fun-loving, gentle and best of all, a fabulous Cordon Bleu -trained chef.  Earlier this spring, he whipped up a fancy meal for my husband and me.  Oh I wish I knew more priests like him!

He scripted the menu as such:

Champagne and Gougeres

Pan-fried Lump Crab Cake with Aioli
Wild Arugula & Cherry Tomato Salad
Classic Shallot Vinaigrette

Grilled Porterhouse Steak
Porcini Mushroom Glace de Viande
Oven-Roasted Baby Dutch Potatoes & Zucchini
Grilled Asparagus with Prosciutto

Chocolate Roulade with Raspberry Preserves
Creme Grand Marnier 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Supermarkets in Singapore

I've been stocking up my fridge in Singapore, not so much out of need but more out of a compulsion to fill an empty space.  So I have popped into more supermarkets than Charles and Keith shoe stores or Zara, loading my basket with 'stuff'....stuff that I most likely won't use up and will panic about consuming before I leave.  Ever since my husband can remember of his leisure trips to Singapore, it has always been about me making my daily excursions to NTUC or Parkway Parade (to shop at Giant and Cold Storage).  He would shake his head in wonder.  Supermarkets have always fascinated me and this 'activity' intensified when I began my first job at M&M/Mars.  I spent the first few years making 'market visits' to twenty-odd outlets each day, be it in Hong Kong, Sydney or Shanghai, literally pounding the pavements to inspect who was buying our chocolates and food products.

Now as before, the quintessential housewife like my sister would actually prefer to buy her fresh ingredients from a wet market.  I was once told that the shoppers who could splurge made it a point to be there the earliest in the morning to get first dibs on the fish, meat and vegetables. Then it would trickle down to the rest of us who either woke up too late or settled for the cheaper cuts and discounts.  The supermarket was often a stopping point later on to pick up dry goods.  

My first recollections of a supermarket was Tay Buan Guan.  It was situated behind the Red House Bakery in Katong and accessible by car through the narrow lanes of Joo Chiat, or by walking through a dark alleyway that cut through to the main East Coast Road.   As I'd written in my cookbook, I would associate Easter bunny chocolates and fresh strawberries bought there with what was 'best and fresh about living overseas'.  (Apologies for sounding pompous.)

There was also a Fitzpatrick's supermarket along Orchard Road, possibly where Paragon is now situated.  It was a sizable one-storey building and as I recall, a popular expat destination.  Supermarkets  like Fitzpatrick's and later, Jason's, were the places to purchase important Christmas staples such as honey baked ham.  At least, that is what I remember as a child.  Paragon now houses 'Marketplace' which offers up an international selection.  Perhaps, to obtain Waitrose sauces, Duchy Originals biscuits or Hediard tea.

These days, we find the ubiquitous Cold Storage or NTUC proliferating every few miles.  In a way, thank goodness for that.  I'm rather relieved that I can finally walk to a nice, new Cold Storage without having to take a bus or cab to Parkway Parade once again.  And pity about the demise of Carrefour which expat friends lament about missing their cheese and wine selection.  Carrefour brought much joy to my parents who would 'destination-shop' there for hours.  

And so, I end with a peek into my fridge at midnight, wondering what to stock up next when I pass by Cold Storage tomorrow.


Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...