Saturday, September 29, 2007

Illy coffee

It's hard to find good coffee in Singapore. Recently I bought some illy coffee, attracted by the "individually wrapped sachets" promised on the shiny tin. I imagined using them in my filter coffee maker.

Imaging my surprise when these sachets turned out to be for an espresso machine. I can still use them, I just have to tear the packet and pour the coffee innards inside the machine. Kinda defeats the purpose, but oh well.

I like the idea of pre-packaged neat little capsules of ground coffee. I'd seriously considered getting a Nespresso expressly for this purpose. I'm glad to know that there is a cheaper and more ecological sound alternative to Nespresso.

Snowskin Mooncake

I made snowskin mooncake the other day.

I don't think I've got the skin texture right as it was a bit chewy. Next time I will add more shortening.

I like the translucency of the skin allowing the green of the pandan-flavoured lotus paste to come through. Here you can buy prepared lotus seed paste to flavour and add to your mooncake. There's even a pre-mix of the snowskin flour so all one needs to do is rub in the shortening and mix with a small amount of water to for the dough. Everything I bought from Phoon Huat bakery supplies in Holland Village.

The lotus seed paste is very thick and turns green once mixed with the pandan essence. I like how it looks like Hokusai's Wave when I mixed it.

My mooncake wrapping technique is a little shoddy. Mistakenly, I'd rolled out discs to envelope the paste and pinched it shut. I later found out that the correct technique is to form a small curved shell in one's hand, insert the filling then close it with the minimum of extra skin on the bottom.

I bought a mooncake press which makes forming and removing the mooncake so much easier, especially for hobbyists like me.

This is a far cry from the times my mother made mooncake. I remember her boiling the maltose syrup and vinegar (yuk), blanching lotus seeds, removing the inner shoot, then boiling until soft with sugar. She mashed the seeds into a paste, added oil, then let it rest for a few days to achieve the required texture.

I cut open a bag of lotus seed paste and squeezed it into a bowl to mix with the pandan essense.

My mum would oil and flour an intricately carved wooden mooncake mold, carefully press in the spherical pre-mooncake then pray as she inverted and tapped hard so that it would come out. My press makes peeling off the mooncake easy. I saw bright pink plastic mooncake molds for sale, presumably these are less prone to sticking.

Yi Bao Holland Village

This new eatery seeks to capitalise on the wave of nostalgia over childhood foods. I noticed this trend in London and I guess it's natural to start seeing this occur in Singapore, albeit slightly delayed. I think it's a byproduct of increasing affluence and a global focus on the past-as-better as the world becomes increasingly frightening.

Yi Bao serves specialities from Ipoh, Malaysia, a city known for its hor fun, bean sprouts and chicken. Something about the water there - perhaps no longer given its development.

It's an air-conditioned restaurant with table-service and a small outdoor area. The service is atrocious as I had to wave like a madman to attract the uniformed waitress. I asked for a glass of water to accompany my hor fun and chicken and was told it was 30c.

"What is that for," I asked.
"We charge 30c for water," she replied.
"What for?" I enquired, hoping to point out how cheapskate and ludicrous it was to charge for water when I was already buying food.
Like a robot, she replied, "We charge 30c for water."

All right then, I thought, I'll have the barley. I chose the barley without ice as ice costs an extra 80c for hot drinks.

"Barley no more, already," came her clipped reply. "You want fruit juice? Soursop?"

Fruit juice, a cold drink, costs 40c more without ice. So I pay for ice if I want a hot drink cold, and pay for no-ice if I want my juice undiluted . This is standard practice at hawker centres and local coffeeshops. I have no problem with that. But a place that has nicely printed menus, airconditioning and uniformed waitstaff are just impudent if they want to charge me for water in its various phases (ice and liquid).

It's a different set of priorities I guess, perhaps it's a Singaporean thing that paying for food and airconditioning is okay, but extras like ice they can do without. Perhaps it's a perception that ice is a luxury?

My horfun had good texture and was all right, but I was cranky from the experience and left after eating. I'd already been asked to pay the waiter when my food arrived - I guess I was a flight-risk.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


The durian has a similar love-hate relationship that Marmite has for its followers. Personally, I'm not a great fan although I will eat a few durian products like ice-cream and the puff. I quite like durian puffs which are like cream puffs with a whipped durian and cream filling.

Durian was on my sister's to-do (to-eat) list when she visited.

After our fabulous dinner at No Signboard restaurant, my sister and my dining friends Kin and Kenny went to Geylang to the durian stalls. I'd like to emphasise at this point that I had not eaten durian in about 10 years. I'd completely forgotten about the various cultivars; the sweet variety, the bitter one; D10, D4, etc. We selected our durians of choice after a quick discussion: sweet ones, not too bitter.

The restrictions on durian transportation (not allowed on public transport, frowned upon in taxis) mean that this delicacy is usually eaten on the roadside on makeshift plastic stools - no one really wants to stink up their car either. There's something appropriate about Geyland, Singapore's red-light district; the seedy side of things - bootleg cigarette peddlers, prostitutes and pimps openly going about their business; and the stinky waft of the aroma, that goes well with durian. The vendors kindly open the fruit for you with their thick padded gloves but extraction to reveal further seeds inside is a DIY affair. Immaculately dressed Kenny had no qualms about pressing the segments open with his bare hands looking for new fruit.

I must say that my first durian in 10 years wasn't all that bad. I think I've been de-sensitised to the smell since moving here. I'm not a convert, far from it, I could only manage three seeds or so. But everyone else enjoyed themselves. Here's a picture of my sister eating - she's wondering why this photo is public. It's because I wanted to post it on my blog!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Bangkok - Eating and Travel

A few months ago I went to Bangkok with Nicholson. A former ex, he tore my heart out and danced on it with his devil hooves - but, I forgive him. Not really, actually, I just like being dramatic. We had a great time in Bangkok teasing each other.

We stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel which he obtained at a discount rate of ~AU$200 a night. Quite a steal as usually it goes for US$200 a night. The tourism downturn has really hit Thailand badly. The junta govt, the uprisings in the south and the bomb explosions a few weeks earlier had cleared out the usually crowded streets.

Flying up on a Friday evening, we ate at Noodi an ostensibly 'westernised' global noodle bar (they do pasta too). I say ostensibly because Nicholson assured me that the usually fiery hot yum woon sern would be to the Western palate. Boy was he wrong - no compromises with the fresh chilli and chilli flakes here! My mouth was burning and I dreaded to think about what was going to happen to the other end of my gut.

We visited a gogo bar with boys on parade (interesting but no more details on this G-rated blog) then headed to DJ Station to see what the fuss was about.

Breakfast next morning we took at the Healthy Food bar at the Metropolitan - Glow. It's like spa-food, but very delicious; low on meat, oil, salt and other evil ingredients of the moment; high on vegetables, whole grains, minimal cooking, etc. Long rectangular trays of wheatgrass lined the room dividers. I guess one could ask for freshly squeezed wheatgrass if one wanted.

I had a Bircher muesli and tomato avocado bruschetta. Nicholson had a fruit salad and some berry pancakes...I think - can't remember. The muesli was creamy and as it should be: grainy but not excessively so, yoghurty and fruity. Great ingredients all round.

We walked the streets (no, not like that) to get a bit of local colour. Nicholson loves Bangkok and I enjoyed being in a city that wasn't anal-retentively clean. It reminded me a lot like the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I smelled the aroma of caramelised vanilla and baking wafting towards me and bought these madeleines from a street vendor. Of course I got confused with the currency and overpaid him 10x what they were worth but he gave me the correct change. He's probably inwardly cursing that he's got no more change for the rest of the day but Nicholson assures me that they're very Buddhist about this sort of thing.

These are made on a batter poured onto cast iron moulds heat with a gas burner. He sits on the corner turning the pan and dishing out the cakes as soon as they're made. Mine had some sort of fig or dried fruit jam in the middle; deliciously light and very slightly chewy.

We hailed a cab to get to Thewet to catch a river boat down the Chao Praya river. Nicholson's been here several times to do the tourist circuit so the Royal Palace, Reclining Buddha, etc. are not of interest to him. My proximity to Bangkok makes it easy for me to visit again soon, and I will. We bumped into some monks and marvelled at the teeming fish in the river. It's great that a river running through one of Asia's biggest cities is host to such wildlife.

Several of these boats powered by what looked like converted artillery guns roared past at great speed.

After a day shopping at Central World (we were disappointed as Nicholson's favourite Hong Kong brand has "turned to shit") we ate at the superb food court above. An elegant black stone surround on the highest public-accessible level of Central World offers cuisines of the world. You get a token and go around ordering. The cooks scan the bar code and it's all computed and paid for at the end of your visit. I ate this laksa with sour vegetables and a sambal. This dish is from the north of Thailand - very delicious chicken gravy with coconunt milk. There's a drink made from a local fruit behind (I can't remember now, ugh).

We walked through the park via Saladaeng to get back to our hotel for our second expedition that night (again, G-ratedness prevents me from revealing more; suffice to say that we visited the former kingdom of Hammurabi). We sampled Thai pineapple and freshly squeezed Thai mandarin juice from street vendors. Honestly, this country has the best pineapple and mandarins in the world. I once saw Thai pineapple for sale in Singapore and got all excited only to find that they had sold out. We passed a Buddhist offering place where one could pay money to have a troup of Thai girls in traditional dress dance - the more money, the longer they danced.

Afterwards we went to the Sky Bar at the Hilton where I felt like a moviestar. It's a beautiful rooftop bar on one of the higher buildings in Bangkok. There are several levels and descending to the corner bar there's a long buffet table to eat from. I felt like I was entering some rich person's party.

Our last meal in Bangkok we took at the airport. For some reason Nicholson ate nothing but pad thai for this entire journey. He's usually quite adventurous, but he just felt like fried rice noodles this time round. This time I also had the pad thai. We washed it down with some orange-coloured iced tea.

Aren't the condiment holders so cute?

Soba So-good!

I love corny puns for restaurant names. Singapore seems to be full of them. My sister has already talked about the bakery Bread Pitt and a perennial favourite of mine is Cake it Away in Australia. So, I'm delighted to present Soba So-good!

Handmade soba noodles and a variety of other standard Japanese dishes. This eatery in Paragon mall basement specialises in soba, although handmade udon are also available. In the background you can see salmon sashimi (Ralf's favourite) and a spicy salmon tartare with quail egg.

Faultless, I must say - insofar as my limited experience of Japanese can construe. A table of Japanese business men in weekend attire gave further support to my opinion. Round after round of Tiger beers, sake and shochu were ordered at our neighbouring table.

My perfectly poached egg quivered, waiting to be slurped. The duck was moist, tasty and not too greasy. These were cold noodles so the sauce reminded one of something zaru-soba style. Yummmmm.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Fat Duck - Heston Blumenthal

This post has long been waiting; I wanted to have proper time to digest (mentally) the consequence of this experience - well, and I moved to Singapore and would have been too wistful too finish writing this at that early stage of my settling in. Anyway, before I totally forget the tastes and textures of this landmark restaurant, I'd better write about it.

A drive to Bray north of London on a grey wet morning (what's new?) reminded me of the road trips that Leon and I used to take in Canberra. Well, in Australia the highways don't look so depressing and there's usually blue sky. I like travelling with Leon because he puts up with my Princess-petulism with regard to hungriness, thirstiness and the need to go to the toiletness.

We'd booked lunch a long time in advance for this special occassion. I looked forward to it - I did not see myself dining in such a world-renowned place for quite a few years after I moved to Singapore.

We celebrated with a champagne toast to welcome in 30; a nice sweet cava.

As was the current fashion, we had two types of butter: salted and unsalted. You can tell by the fleur de sel sprinkled on top which is which. Leon ate here previously when I was in Amsterdam, but still elected to partake of the Tasting Menu. He felt there was still more to explore in the flavours and textures.

Our amuse-bouches (note the plural) arrived. The waiter made the much-fêted nitro-green tea and lime mousse made from whipped egg white frozen with liquid nitrogen. [Diversion: Technically, the "nitro"-green tea should more correctly be "aza"-green tea as "nitro" implies NO2 whereas "aza" refers to the N-triple bond-N.] No pictures of this dish as it was formed and consumed so quickly.

Leon's favourite was the oyster, passionfruit jelly, lavender. I thought it very innovative to pair floral and fruity flavours with oyster. The tang of the passionfruit does well to cut the oyster liquor. We also had a two squares of orange and beetroot jelly. Can you guess which is which?*

We also had a Pommery grain mustard ice cream on a gazpacho of red cabbage. I love the presentation of this dish - what a HUGE plate and rim with a tiny depression in the middle. The concentric rings draw your eye right down to the quenelle of ice-cream. This was the first in a series of savoury ice-creams. This sort of thing is very easy due to the Pacojet. Anything that can be frozen can be made into a sorbet/ice-cream. This had a very subtle flavour. The cold numbed the mouth so that the mustard spiciness was very much subdued and only the nuttiness and hint of bitter came through.

Then a small plate of jelly of quail, langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras. The brown gel is made from quail broth and orange quenelle is the foie gras. The foam is made from langoustine broth and cream. I'm trying to remember the flavours but it's been over six months and there were too many dishes. All I can recall from this dish are the creamy and jelly textures contrasting with the savouriness of everything else.

With our amuses finished, on came the first course: Snail Porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel. We looked forward to this signature dish. Scottish oats cooked in a savoury broth - I've forgotten how the green was achieved - with diced snail pieces, shredded Joselito (I'm assuming a type of Spanish ham) on top with the aniseedy fennel counterpoint. The broth was a little rich and overpowering for me to make out the snail and ham distinctly.

Roast Foie Gras. Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile This was one of my favourite dishes. I LOVE roasted/pan-fried foie gras. The cherry (stripes) and floral chamomile (white curl) cut the richness of the foie gras. The tiny cubes of almond gel were so cute; each one dissolving in my mouth to release packet of flavour.

I'm always on edge with the almond flavour/smell. The smell is due to non-toxic cyanide compounds in the almond itself. The skins of almonds need to be cooked to eliminate the toxic ones. We've frequently been told that hydrogen cyanide smells like almonds, i.e. the last thing one smells before dying of HCN poisoning is almonds.

Sardine on Toast Sorbet: Ballotine of mackerel invertebrate, marinated daikon, sea salad. I didn't really like this dish but admired the innovation and audacity. I also liked the cute little anchovies. Of course presentation is faultless. The daikon are the beige rectangles on the bottom of the plate. I found the dish a little fishy for me, thankfully this was cold so volatile flavours were subdued; very clever how the mackerel was 'invertebrated', i.e. the bones taken out and the flesh re-rolled to fit the original shape. Perhaps one day they might breed such a fish: just a long tubular piece of flesh wriggling in the ocean.

Salmon poached with licorice: Artichokes, pink grapfruit, 'Manni' olive oil I liked this dish a lot. The artichokes are echoed twice here. Here the artichokes are served roasted and as a cream (beige blob off in the distance).

All the mains seemed to have the accents presented twice in two textures. Now that I think of it, I'm sure the broth for the snail porridge was made from (Joselito?) ham bones. We had almond cream and almond fluid gel, cherry sauce and cherry.

"But where's the salmon?", you may ask. It's in the black square: a resilient lightly liquoriced casing made from some sort of agar/gel. Break it open and perfectly poached salmon emerges, delicately perfumed with liquorice. Who would have thought it works, but it does. Personally, I love eating black food. It seems so unnatural and perhaps slightly poisonous; like taking drugs.

Poached breast of Anjou pigeon pancetta. Pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre épices. This was probably the most 'traditional' of all the foods served today. I've forgotten what the pastilla looked like, but I think it was some sort of round patty underneath the pigeon breast. Nothing too unusual to mention here, I mean after sardine ice-cream the use of cocoa to season poultry seems positively ordinary. I think the quatre épices may have been a play on Chinese five-spice but minus one. The cocoa may have substituted for one, but my nose and mind were a bit overwhelmed at this point and I could not deconvolute.

The last of the mains finished, we had an in-between course refresher of Hot and Cold Tea (2005). Obviously a perennial favourite, it was just a ordinary looking cup of amber liquid served in a squat glass. The waiter turned the glass 'just-so' and asked us to sip from an exact point on the rim. Simultaneously, two streams of hot and cold tea entered my mouth - both slightly gelled, what an experience!

This must have been prepared at the last minute with the partition removed just before serving. The viscosity of both fluids would have retarded mixing and heat transfer from hot to cold.

We also had Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet. Apparently it was she who invented the first ice-cream making machine. Blumenthal is trying to revive old recipes and this is supposed to be the very first ice-cream recipe.

Pink sherbet fountain. A bit of a gimmick, but I gathered that woody flavours were in at that time; so Douglas fir sherbert came in a little packet. The interesting thing is that the flavour comes not from the sherbert but from the woody thingo that's used to retrieve it.

I love having a bit of white powder at the tail end of dinner. Brightens the senses and wakes the mind, I say.

Mango and Douglas Fir puree. Bavarois of luchee and mango, blackcurrent sorbet. Desserts naturally lend themselves to fanciful flights of imagination. This is probably the cutest dessert I've ever had. In the foreground you can see the bavarois with the mango layer on top. The squares of blackcurrent cube, tuile and blackcurrent sorbet repeat the single-flavour multiple-texture motif of this meal. The green garnish had piney overtones again. The pinkish squares, I think, are lychee flavoured. There's a streak of mango puree to the left.

Carrot and orange tuile, beetroot jelly. Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream. Pain perdu and tea jelly. Whisky wine gum, violet tartelet. These after-dinner treats came to bring us down from the heady experience. Almost as if one couldn't partake of such dizzying culinary heights without a parachute to bring one down. The waiter 'fried' our bacon and egg ice-cream in liquid nitrogen at our table. He cracked open eggs pre-filled with a bacon-infused savoury custard and stir-fried the mixture till set in a copper-lined plate. I didn't really like the flavour of bacon ice-cream. The cream AND smokiness were a little overpowering for me, innovative concept though.

We liked the squishy whisky wine gum; very whimsical. We got complimentary menus to take home, each sealed with wax.

~£90 a head without wine for the 12-course degustation menu.

*The orange square is jelly made from golden beetroot. The red square is jelly made from blood oranges.