Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cooked And Shared A Pot Of Curry

I ran to the Lower Peirce reservoir last Sunday. Nothing unusual of course, except that I’ve not been running in this direction since the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival. My friend, a runner and triathlete, had advised me to avoid this route; the winding Old Upper Thomson Road, to be specific, because it’s dark and quiet. Yes, the perfect setting for a ghostly encounter. He’s an experienced sportsman, so I’d decided to take his advice. But it’s also for its tranquility, coupled with the green, natural surrounding and the company of unobtrusive monkeys (and the occasional wildboar) that make this my favourite running route in Singapore so far. At night, especially.

My run began at 8 am (ahah, so this is not a ghost story!) that Sunday, so I completed 14 km around 9.30 am. Brunch at Paradise Pavilion was to start at 1 pm, so I had ample time to shop for ingredients for my curry dish at the neighbourhood wet market. I decided to stop by a tiny shop manned by a middle-aged lady. To be honest, I was rather disappointed with the garam masala that she offered as it came pre-packed. But the cost was only a micro fraction of the Masterfoods version on the supermarket shelf, so it was a compromise.

The lady looked at me curiously as I handed over the plastic basket of mostly spices to be checked out. Boy, what do you want to cook? she asked. I told her of my plan to cook a pot of vegetable curry with yoghurt. She gave me a few cooking tips and seemed pleased that I’m taking on an Indian-style curry. She just didn’t know that that’s the only style that I know of.

Why vegetable curry? I thought a mélange of colourful vegetables would make the dish more photogenic and this post more attractive. This plan of mine was laid out a few days earlier, after reading about the unofficial Cook And Share A Pot Of Curry campaign and receiving an invitation from Keropokman on Facebook.

There were five types of vegetables in my curry – brinjal, cauliflower, long bean, carrot, corn. There were pureed tomatoes too, for a creamy texture; a tip I’d picked up from the lovely Anjum Anand. I’d initially thought of including tamarind paste for a bit of tang and savouriness but replaced that with yoghurt and a light touch of cider vinegar instead. A handful of chopped coriander was mixed into the curry as I left the curry to cool. It’s obviously a simple dish to prepare but the combination of spices like cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, pepper and coriander was really aromatic and appetizing. Soon, version 2.0 will include more fried spices, tamarind paste, curry leaves, chilli paste and definitely more of the full fat yoghurt from the same stall. The yoghurt was so smooth and rich that I’d selfishly saved some to top my own serving.

Coincidentally, I had lunch with a colleague from Bangalore the next day and shared some of my vegetable curry with him. I almost burst into laughter when he said it was very tasty. I’m sure he was just being courteous. He then shared his lunch of more vegetarian curries cooked by his maid (what a lucky man) that made mine tasted like an elementary school science project. Over lunch, we discussed many issues including the curry campaign (of course) and the presidential election. It was an enjoyable lunch, one that I’ll gladly have regularly.

So that’s my Cook And Share A Pot Of Curry story. I had fun that Sunday.

It’s amazing how a Facebook page of such triviality can spice up our lives. As I welcome Cook A Bowl Of Bak Chor Mee Saturday or Fry A Plate Of Hokkien Mee Friday in the future, I should still exercise good judgement before clicking “ATTENDING”, so to not be misinformed and subsequently, misinterpreting and tarnishing the campaign.

Anyway, I don’t see such socio-culinary events taking place in this week. Everyone’s busy choosing their next President. So, happy voting, my Singaporean friends!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mostly about Chinese fastfood restaurants...

Unlike the previous business trips to China, there were no lavish banquets to occupy the nights. It didn’t matter. Alone, I had a good time roaming about central Chang’an and Shenzhen on foot and tasted some, by corporate standard, cheap food along the way. Rechecking my trip's reimbursement claim, I realize that I am potentially the most (willingly) spendthrift employee of the year.

Chang’an may be just a small town but is well-known for being populous within the industrial city of Dongguan. That’s according to my Chinese colleague. I must explore Chang’an, I promised myself. During the day, I worked mostly from the hotel room and in the evening, I would hit the streets. No hotel food for dinner, thank you.

I would walk about 2 kilometers to central Chang’an. Into the first 500 meters, my shirt would soak in sweat. July in the Guangdong province is hot and humid, so don’t be alarmed to see shirtless local men everywhere, be it on the streets, in restaurants and even in shopping malls. I would have gladly taken off my shirt too, had this not been an official visit. Another observation is the group of line dancers that I passed by daily. Despite the heat, they seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously.

In general, I am all for streetfood but here, I was mostly disinterested because they were all provincial cuisines that are readily available back in Chinatown. Also, hygiene was of a concern. I had to constantly remind myself that this was an official visit, so I had to stay healthy. I decided on something less adventurous but still fun – tackling as many Chinese fastfood chains as I could, starting with 真功夫. Its trademark, a Bruce Lee-like figure, can be found all across China. The food is, as they claim, steamed to retain the nutrients. I think some dishes, like soups, are boiled, then steamed. Anyway, the staff recommended the herbal chicken soup set meal, which included some broccoli and steamed rice topped with minced pork. There’s nothing extraordinary about the soup that came perfumed with the usual Chinese angelica but it was a filling set.

The types of food that these fastfood restaurants offer do not differ much from each other, as I’d learnt in a week. All the menus have a similar listing of soups and steamed rice served with a variety of ingredients including braised pork ribs, stir-fried vegetables, beef slices and chicken cubes. However, I did find some rather noteworthy dishes like the Vitamin C noodle (with a reddish broth loaded with lots of tomatoes and pickled cabbage) at 永和大王 in Shenzhen and lean pork balls with 石解 (Radix Aristolochiae Fangchi, a rope-like herb) soup at 添添聚源味 in Chang’an.

I’d dined mostly at 活力旺, a local fastfood chain in Chang’an. It’s slightly cheaper than the competition and unlike its more glitzy rivals, 活力旺 does not thrive on a formula of modern (and clean) interior, bright displays and creative marketing but simply serves hearty dishes on worn plates and bowls. I really enjoyed the sour and spicy pork ribs soup noodle, served with peanuts, lettuce and dried daylilies. What an explosion of flavours in the mouth! Not numbingly spicy, but it made me sweat a bucket. The rice sets come with a good selection of toppings including bittergourd, yellow chive and some undetermined exotic vegetables. All walks of life dine here; elders, students, couples in factory uniforms, small families, etc. They made my dinners more interesting as I observed their eating habits and overheard conversations that were not too heavily accented.

Being in southern Guangdong, Hong Kong seems like just a few steps away. At Shenzhen, I found some Hong Kong bakeries and cafés, including Maxim’s and Café de Coral. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, after hours of frenzy shopping at 华强北, Shenzhen’s mega electronics market, I replenished at Café de Coral with some generously herbed, tender roast duck and pork belly. It was a random but good choice.

Since we’re on the topic of Hong Kong, I did, after trying so much oriental fastfood in China, plan to lunch differently at the Landmark’s l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, before catching my evening flight back to Singapore. A check on the airline’s schedule later, I’d decided to forgo Robuchon to catch an earlier flight on the A380. It was my virginal boarding this aviation wonder, so I was quite excited. With some time to spare at the Hong Kong airport, I headed to the reputable (and rather expensive) Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant for their signature roast goose and some dim sum before started shopping for confectionaries and mooncakes at Kee Wah and Wing Wah.

Back to Guangdong. If I were to choose the most memorable food-related experience during this trip, I think it has to be enjoying the pack of mini wife’s biscuits from a local supermarket that cost only RMB5. Considering the price, the biscuits were good. Perhaps freshly baked, the skin was crispy and the filling of glutinous rice flour paste was soft and just nicely sweet. Oh, there were bits of winter melon too! Best deal of the trip, definitely.

Besides exploring Chang’an and Shenzhen, I spent the rest of my free time watching the cable news channels. It was during that week that we were horrified and saddened by the Norway twin attacks, Wenzhou trains collision and Amy Winehouse’s death. Reports on the devastating Horn of Africa famine didn’t making the week any easier. But instead of ending this rather lengthy post with obvious, neutral comments or even suggesting unintelligent remedies to these issues, I just want to be thankful for this safe trip. And a healthy and peaceful life so far. Once too often, I do take these blessings for granted.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ippudo (and Ippudo X Tao)

We arrived late in Osaka from the Tottori prefecture, exhausted, but our Japanese colleague insisted that we still head to this shop for a taste of Hakata-style ramen. This colleague of mine is a foodie and so far, his recommendations had not been disappointing. In fact, they were excellent. Despite the late hour, the restaurant was still packed to the brim, a contrast to the quiet, dark street where it’s located. We were fortunate to have found seats at the communal dining table that resembled an old, big tree trunk. There were jars of condiments on that table – preserved vegetables, pickled ginger, soy sauce and chilli powder. On that cold, early autumn night, I waited eagerly and hungrily for my bowl of ramen, unknowing and uninformed of the ingredients and taste.

When I had my first taste of the tonkotsu broth there, at 一風堂 in 2003, I knew my life would be changed forever. The broth was white, but it was not from evaporated milk that we so conveniently pour into our fish soup noodle to enrich the flavour. Instead, the tonkotsu, in general, is the result of long simmering of pork bones and fatty cuts of meat. Served hot, the aroma from a combination of lard in the broth and garlic oil was heavenly. Topping the ramen were some crunchy slices of wood ear and melting soft pork belly. I said this exceptional noodle dish changed my life forever because until today, the aroma and taste still linger in my mind and I’ve never stopped craving for it. For me, the choice of broth is quite obvious whenever I drop by a ramen shop.

Perhaps too indulged in my first bowl of tonkotsu ramen, I’d forgotten to inquire how the kanji words of 一風堂 are pronounced. It has, for a long time, remained as the nameless, excellent ramen chain that I’ve been proselytizing recommending to my friends and family back home.

一風堂 is pronounced as Ippudo, as I’d discovered recently when I visited their first shop at the Mandarin Gallery. By now, I’d tried more than a dozen tonkotsu broths in town; some better, mostly not. I was interested to compare the tastes; between now and my first experience in Osaka, eight years ago. The condiments offered in Osaka back then were not found here. And instead of the rustic, rather unkempt interior, this branch seemed to have been jazzed up with a touch of contemporary zen. I prefer the rustic design, actually. One thing remained – the required snaking queue.

I’ve been revisiting the Ippudo branches in Singapore rather frequently, not because of my now tamed addiction to their tonkotsu, but of requests from visiting friends from abroad. The perpetual queue at Mandarin Gallery is repulsive and at times, almost drove me to turn to Ootoya at Orchard Central, which could possibly guarantee a crowd as well. I’ve been enlightened by some websites to visit the UE Square branch. And since then, snaking queues were never again a problem for me.

Ippudo Shiro, which means white in Japanese, refers to the tonkotsu broth. Despite the difference in presentation (the bowls look strange but ergonomic now), essentially, the flavours and aroma were very much similar to what I had years ago. It was a good taste down memory lane. The strands of ramen were cooked to my desired texture - springy, but on the soft side. I guess in Ippudo, that kind of texture is termed medium.

What's new to me was the incorporation of Tao in the UE Square branch's name. Previously, I thought Tao was the name of another famous Japanese ramen joint and that this branch serves both ramen from Ippudo and Tao. And I've been telling my dining companions (all of them!) of this too, partially to impress them with my ramen knowledge.

Actually, Tao refers to a famous Japanese drum group! According to the website, IPPUDO TAO is a synergy of two Japanese traditions: ramen and drum performance and At IPPUDO TAO, one can enjoy TAO’s live performances via a huge screen while having ramen that have been created exclusively in the spirit of TAO. I'm still digesting the concept while burying my embarrassment in misinterpreting the restaurant's name.

I tried the Tao Aka (red in Japanese), which consisted of curlier egg noodles in a tonkotsu broth with the addition of spicy miso paste. Previous dining experiences had taught me to take spicy lightly (and sweetly) in Japanese restaurants but this particular paste was, though far from a habanero chilli, rather spicy. Although I still prefer the shiro, this serves as an interesting alternative, especially on a cold, rainy night, like now.

For me, it's hard to explain how good is a tonkotsu broth. It's a measure of density, richness, lightness, aroma, flavours, patience and skills. Although the last few years have seen ramen shops sprouting across the island, I've not had one version of tonkotsu that embodies all the said characteristics. I won't be surprised if some shops use powdered tonkotsu flavouring too.

I can't and won't say that Ippudo serves the best tonkotsu or Hakata-style ramen in town but this is definitely one of the very few outstanding ones.

Ippudo Singapore's website