Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eating in... Singapore

This post should really be titled "Eating in... Maxwell Food Centre". Having been to Singapore several times before, and about to travel for three months with a 32L backpack, shopping on Orchard Road (a favourite past-time) was low on my priorities. All I wanted to do was eat.

Singapore is famous for it's open-air hawker-style food courts and has several throughout the city which are positively bustling at peak meal times, and fairly busy at any other hour. And despite the generally high living costs of this financial and business hub, this style of eating comes cheap. And so so delicious.

We stayed in Chinatown (at this awesome hostel) and as soon as we'd confirmed our accommodation, I immediately checked Google maps for the closest hawker centre. The slightly touristy Chinatown Food Street, on Spring Street, presents a pretty, sanitised version with all of Singapore's culinary specialities under one roof canopy. Lines are long at various stalls, and the food looks and smells great. We only had a brief char kuey teow (fried flat wide rice noodles) here, but I knew we could get it tastier and cheaper.

Chinatown Food Street on Spring Street, Chinatown
Hill Street Fried Kway Teow (char kuey teow) in Chinatown Complex

Chinatown is also home to a couple of other large internal food courts (including the Chinatown Food Court and Chinatown Complex), but the place we frequented most often was Maxwell Food Centre. At the corner of Maxwell Road and South Bridge Road, this felt as much like home as our hostel. Again, all of Singapore's classics can be found here, but I'm a sucker for my favourites: Hainanese chicken rice, char kuey teow (Singapore style with clams and chinese sausage), laksa, and fried 'carrot' cake (nothing to do with the sweet dessert cake, or carrots for that matter). We ticked these off the list fairly quickly, but I also found some other 'Singaporean' specialities I had to try. This included popiah (fresh Malaysian spring roll), banana fritters specifically from Lim Kee Banana Fritters, and the famous Fuzhou Oyster Cake which appealed to me on so many levels.

Maxwell Food Centre, corner of Maxwell and South Bridge Road, Chinatown

The taxi driver who brought us to Maxwell on our first visit let us in on the local secret: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is among the best of this Singaporean speciality in town. We found it quickly by its long line of locals, despite being 3pm. The line moved swiftly and I made our order.

(l) A hungry queue at Tian Tian, (r) perfectly poached Hainanese Chicken
Hainanese Chicken rice with the classic sides: cucumber, clear soup, chilli, dark soy sauce and greens

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pulled pork, take one

Yesterday I finally embarked on making pulled pork. Its tremendous popularity in the last five or so years has made it a frequent menu item everywhere, and it's fast becoming a feature of many establishments including the food trucks that stake their whole business on it. While this is definitely not a bad thing, it does make me want to conquer this ubiquitous object of our desires.

Really, pulled pork came from roasting a whole hog in a barbecue pit for hours and hours, tender- and lovingly basted and kept turning - including through the night - to ensure even, slow cooking. American barbecue culture can probably claim the phenomenon, but this method of creating juicy-fall-off-the-bone pork is also seen in the Central & South Americas, and Asia, for example in the Philippines with their famed lechon (perhaps an American legacy in the country) which I enjoyed late last year.

Lechon being sold on the street, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Obviously cooking an entire pig is a luxury of time and money that not all of us can afford. So, in the day when the pork shoulder, or "Boston butt" in America, was an economical piece of meat to buy, as it was a fatty, tough-skinned, hard-working piece of meat, folks made lemonade out of lemons. They understood that slow-and-low cooking could make this piece of meat tender, flavourful, pull-apart and juicy.

I don't know about you, but I am often allured by the '8 to 14-hour slow-roasted pulled pork' on the menus, yet recently, I've become skeptical. The last few times I've encountered it, the pork has been dry, a little stringy, not all that flavourful. I find vendors often relying on their accompaniments, e.g. sauce or slaw, to try and salvage the lack of moisture that one comes to expect from pulled pork. (One exception, however, was the pulled pork burger I tasted a month ago at Duke's Brew & Cue in Hackney, London. Amaze.)

However, last night, I felt empathy. Whether it was that my pork shoulder was boneless (most recipes recommend bone-in for maximum flavour, which I'd attest to usually, but my shoulder was on sale and at a good price); and/or, that I just didn't leave it in the oven for long enough (6 hours at 140degC/285degF) to let the muscular tissue to break down and dissolve. The result, in any case, was dry pork with a thick layer of fat still existent under the skin. Next time, I will undoubtedly go for bone-in shoulder and at least 8 hours cooking time, or however long it takes to allow the meat to become spoonable. (I admit, I was late putting it in, impatient... and hungry!)

After 6 hours and resting before trying to achieve crispy skin (which I burned half of due to being impatient, again) 

In terms of flavour however, the pork was delicious. A little dry, yes, but tasty. I simply seasoned it in ample salt and pepper before roasting (however I'm curious that in Felicity Cloake's experimentation, she barely mentions pepper and favours sugar for basic seasoning - another aspect to test). I also set it atop quartered onions, garlic cloves and sliced carrots, to keep it elevated and allowing fat to drain off (cooking the carrots and onions to a gluttonous level). I regretted not rubbing in a little smoked paprika ten minutes after it went in the oven, in the after-thought of wanting to impart a slight smokiness, but as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt encourages, I was happy enough to allow my pork to sing for itself, leaving the extra flavours for the accompaniments.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Humble Herring

When I first arrived in Amsterdam in April, I was told that I must try raw herring (haring), that this was Holland's food star, next to Stroopwafels and Gouda cheese. I looked and looked, but realised the timing wasn't right. I was too early. Fishmongers catch these special (minimum 16% fat) herring from mid-May to mid-July in the North Sea, and the first Hollandse Nieuwe ('Holland's new herring') only start to appear on the market at the beginning of June.

Instead of being raw, like sashimi, the herring is actually soused. This means that it's been marinated in a brine which enhances the herring's natural flavours, gives the fish a gorgeous melt-in-the-mouth texture, and preserves them for months of future enjoyment.

Rotterdam Blaak Market

Broodje Haring literally translates to 'herring sandwich' 

When I returned to Holland in June, this was one of my missions: find raw herring. And happily, I didn't have to look far. As a nation-awaited Dutch delicacy (also signalling the beginning of summer), the Hollandse Nieuwe was being celebrated at every fishmonger in sight. I eagerly ordered a broodje haring (herring sandwich) at the Rotterdam Blaak market and as soon as I bit into it, I was in heaven. The fresh, soft-as-goose-down-bread roll was a delightful backdrop to the raw herring and accompaniment of diced white onions, whose sweetness accentuated the herring's mellow yet rich flavour and texture.

Eating in... South East Asia

El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines

I decided early on during our travels through South East Asia (namely, Singapore, the Phillipines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam) that I'd rather be enjoying the sights and sounds of the places around me, even when there was little to be seen and done but relax, than worrying about updating this blog. These things take time and I preferred the notion of doing it retrospectively when our trip had concluded.  This way, I could enjoy reflecting on our food experiences again, and indulge through recalling all of the amazing flavour sensations we encountered.

Sunset on the Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos

We have been back in the West for a while now, enjoying the local delicacies of various European locations, but nonetheless I have been missing Asia. Maybe due to the affinity I have with the region, or more likely for the simple fact that, this part of Asia is home to some of the best food in the world.

And there's no doubt: we ate well. The novelty of needing to find something to eat every day for three months never wore thin and I cherished the opportunity to find something new, delicious, and even curious (chicken intestine, anyone?), to savour and enjoy. As you can expect, some meals were better than others, yet there were only two meals that I couldn't stomach (though I did choose not to eat balut, the Phillipines' delicacy of fertilised duck embryo...). But let's talk about the plethora of happy meals we did have.

Barbecue lunch of grilled whole fish and pork skewers, pork belly, salad and rice, followed by juicy pineapple, freshly prepared by our kayak tour guides in El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines
The most incredible baked BBQ pork buns from Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong

It's difficult to pinpoint the best dish, meal and/or dining experience, for they were so diverse and special for different reasons. Was it the barbecue lunch prepared for us by our guides on a secluded beach as part of a kayaking tour near El Nido in Palawan, Phillipines... or, the Michelin-rated yum cha in Hong Kong that was so breathtakingly good, I don't think I will be able to enjoy yum cha elsewhere, as much, ever again... Or was it the feast of fresh crabs and tiger prawns with extended family in Sabah, Malaysia?  Maybe the home-made Luang Prabang noodle soup we had in Laos, miles away from the throng of tourists... or, the eleven-course meal we prepared with a group of strangers in an excellent cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam?