Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Of Landscape and Cuisine - Dispatches from Singapore, # I

    When the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery announced the topic for its 2017 papers, Landscape and Cuisine, I bubbled with excitement. I could write about two passions at once: gardens and food. Years ago I had watched the Worcester, Massachusetts Horticultural develop a full fledged Botanical Garden in the ruins of an abandoned dairy farm. The history of gardens came to fascinate me, a former art history major.  I'd learned that there is a continuum between the natural landscape, the often unplanned landscape of cities and suburbs, and gardens, where aesthetics and culture consciously shape the natural. I'd always loved cooking and reading about food, and had begun to write about food history. I could compare the Cartesian geometry of Le Notre's gardens and Careme's piece montée for French nobility, using my training in European art history.  I could write about the aesthetic underpinnings of Zen gardens and washoku cuisine of Japan, relying on my more recent training at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
     And then we learned we'd be spending six months in Singapore. Long home of a large community of overseas Chinese, a former British colony, a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society, it is famed for its food. I packed my best book on the theory of landscape and gardening. I added a rolled up a copy of The World Garden that the Chinese Artist Qiu Shijie drew for the Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive. Qiu Shijie imagines the whole world of ideas as a landscaped garden. I wondered how he would map the island of Singapore, and if I could capture anything of it on a visit, as Crèvecœur did in his mid-19th Century visit to the United States.
     Arriving in Singapore in the summer of 2016, I was assailed by tropical humidity, eight-lane freeways  lined with unfamiliar trees, and skyscrapers. From the 24th floor of our apartment building, the island-city-state resembled Manhattan on the hottest of August days, dense with traffic, steamy but green along park fringes. It never cooled off.  Not at night, not as the months went by. People always say California has no seasons, but it does. Not as sharply defined as New England's but because of its location in the Northern temperate zone, seasons nonetheless, dictated by the changing angle of the sun. Dormant winter is followed by growth, and the harvests of summer and fall.  Singapore, almost on the equator, has no seasons. It is green because flowering plants need variation in sunshine to bloom.  Even the durian, the region's most famous fruit, has three or four seasons.

     July was marked by a momentous event for Singapore's food scene. The Michelin Guide evaluated Singapore for the first time.  17 hawker stalls were awarded Bib Gourmand rating, and Liao Fan Hong Kong Style Soy Sauce Chicken earned a Michelin star.  Everyone wanted to try these,  and wanted to know if I had.  Long queues followed.  But these would not be my first taste of Singapore's hawker center cuisine. That was rojak. Dr. Leslie Tay, one of the most knowledgeable consumers of hawker food, says westerners don't find it appealing, but I did. It was a mix of fruits, chopped fried dough fritter, fermented prawn paste and chopped peanuts. Just my style of sweet, sour, crunchy. There are many versions of rojak in Southeast Asia. The term itself has come to mean a "mixture" in Singaporean English and Malay. (I should note that peanuts are not native to Southeast Asia, but to Africa.)

     Dr. Leslie Tay had a hand in my next discovery. For the celebration of 50 years of Singaporean independence, he encouraged Guna, the proprietor of Springleaf Roti Prata to create a new murtabek, or stuffed prata.  Calling it Umami 50, the chef honors of 50 years of pleasant life in Singapore. It contains halal certified chicken luncheon meat, halal chicken floss, halal Mayonnaise, egg and cheese. What amazed me, besides the addictive tastes, which I traveled across the island to sample for a second time, was the effort made to produce a dish which can be enjoyed by Moslem and non-Moslem Singaporeans.
Springleaf's Umami 50
     The next dish was equally new and delicious. A friend took us to his favorite restaurant for Fish Head Curry. The friend is of Chinese extraction, and an expert on the Taoist temples of Singapore. The origins of this dish, which is best when eaten atop rice on a banana leaf, bring together the fish preference from the Chinese tradition, with a semi-stewed Kerala style curry. Similarly, the patrons of Karu's Indian Banana Leaf restaurant were a mix of Malays, Indians and Chinese.

Fish-head Curry at Karu's
    My next adventure was carrot cake at the Dunham Road Hawker Center, again across the island, this time by bus.  Carrot cake is not what you think. According to Dr. Tay it originated in Chaoshan, China, and was brought to Singapore by Teochew immigrants. Rice flour and radish are steamed solid, then cubed and fried with garlic, eggs and preserved radish. The red-haired second generation hawker was kind enough to make me a plate of half-white and half-black so that I could decide on a favorite.
Black and White Carrot Cake

     Singapore's Central Business District is no more than 40 minutes from any of its suburbs by a network of subways and elevated trains.  Each has a range of food options, including wet market, hawker center or cooked food center, multi-story mall with restaurants

      In California suburbs, farmer's markets are weekly events which take place in parking lots. Regional farms send small trucks of local, organic and seasonal produce to these on a rotating basis. Singapore provides roofed and plumbed stalls for both meat, fish and produce vendors. The goods arrive by boat, truck and plane.
     The hawker center is nearby and open early for commuters to eat porridge or toast with soft boiled eggs before their train.  Returning they'll snack or have dinner:

Dinner Preparations

Local Favorites

Chef Prepares My Carrot Cake


     The multi-story malls, owned by the train enterprises do not open until 10 or 11 in the morning. The sit-down restaurants within them are replicated at the 100+ station malls all across the island, and are most full at dinner time and on weekends. No mall or food court that I've visited in the United States matches the range of cuisines on offer, as they are below:

French Roast Chicken


Coffee and Pastry

4 Fingers Crispy Chicken

8 Flavors of Shanghai Soup Dumplings



My favorite Tonkatsu

Korean Ice Cream

      My voyages of food discovery took me all over the island, past high rises and 10 story apartment buildings, past schools and playgrounds, shopping centers, industrial parks, universities, the Central Business District, the port, the cable car to a nearby island. Most everything was new and freshly cleaned.  Never in all my train rides or stops did I see a piece of trash. In fact, I had to search to find a garbage bin in which to deposit the Straits Times, the newspaper of Singapore, which I read daily.
     I had visited Singapore before, briefly, in 2008.  Now I could see that the skyline and the reach of the suburbs had changed. One thing that hadn't changed was the strange boutique called British India, located in the shiny shopping center across the street from the Raffles Hotel.

     One welcome change in the Central Business District was the conversion of the former City Hall and Supreme Court Buildings into National Gallery Singapore. Both these pre-World War II buildings bore the stamp of British imperial ideas in their architecture, referencing Rome in every column.  They resemble the older wings of the National Gallery of the United States.  Unlike that collection, initially focused on art from Europe, Singapore's National Gallery focuses on art produced in Singapore.  Together with the Asian Civilization Museum, the Singapore History Museum, and the Heritage Centers for the Peranakan, the Malay and Indians, a constellation of different histories opened up to me.
     I became a member of the National Gallery, so I could visit often and for free. I saw a painting of the island as it appeared in the mid-19th Century from the harbor.  It seems to me that this could be some seacoast town in Connecticut or Rhode Island.
Robert Wilson Wiber. Panoramic View of Singapore from the Harbor. 1849.
     I encountered the map Sir Stamford Raffles had drawn up of the colony he had acquired for the British East India Company. Ever since exploring old cities in Europe, I've loved using early maps to find the old bones of a city.  It seemed to me that a place still clearly defined in contemporary maps of Singapore was the Sultan's residence and mosque.  Among the inhabitants of Singapore when Raffles arrived were Malay, of the Islamic faith.  

Singapore, 1825
      The sultan's residence or Istana is now a heritage museum dedicated to the Malay presence in Singapore.  It is restored to its original appearance 19th Century appearance. The building was designed by an Irish architect, but the surrounding vegetation was typical of the Malay taste in landscape. The mosque was designed by an English firm, drawing on the Saracenic or Moorish buildings of Spain.

Masjid Mosque
Istana of Sultan

     There was so much to learn in the museum portion of the Heritage Center. Singapore had a key role in the Islamic world of Southeast Asia. It was point of embarkation for pilgrims beginning their Haj to Mecca, and it was a center for printing of written Malay. The museum also featured an exhibit about Indonesian in Singapore especially the Javanese, and I met another landscape and another cuisine.  I met Nasi Tumpeng, considered one of the culinary icons of Indonesia.
Nasi Tumpeng

  According to the label, the rice is traditionally served cone-shaped, referencing mountains sacred in Javanese cosmology.  The accompanying savory dishes of meat, seafood, poultry and vegetables, symbolize harmony and balance. Just as in washoku, the landscape was referenced in the cuisine.

    One night we went to the Malay Heritage Musuem for a shadow puppet performance of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. It was performed by a Javanese troupe. The Ramayana is such an epic tale, with love, fidelity and fighting; it is appreciated by those of many faiths. The Javanese troupe features lots of interruptions for commentary, political, personal, always humorous.

     Like everyone else in the audience, I knew the story, so I could laugh at the right moments, even though I didn't understand a single word.  Sitting next to us a woman and her daughter laughed along with me.  

     The Peranakan Heritage Museum prominently features both the dining room and kitchen of traditional Peranakan homes. I first met the Peranakans when I read Fred Ferretti's articles about Singapore for the late, great Gourmet Magazine.  He interviewed the doyenne of Peranakan cooking, Violet Oon, and the patriarch of Peranakan history, Peter Wee. Ferretti was fascinated by this 
group, who count Singapore's former and current Prime Ministers Lee among them.  Peter still guards the family home, now a museum at age 70. Violet presides over The National Table, one of the restaurants at Singapore's National Gallery.  Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, culture is a fusion of Chinese and Malay, and is a community that was established when voyaging merchants married Malay women. The kitchen reflects both cuisines:

Chinese Woks on Stove
For grinding Malay rempeh

     The elaborate dinner table of 19th and early 20th Century Peranakan reflected their wealth and tastes.  The porcelain is decorated with the brightest of Qing colors: turquoise, yellow, pink, green and rich with the visual emblems of good fortune and long life.

     The porcelain was imported from China, but the cooking was certainly based on local ingredients.
     My next peregrination took me to the  Eurasian Association, which has heritage a museum on its second floor, and is located next to Quentin's Eurasian Restaurant. By now I am grateful for the museum's chart explaining the origin of more complex populations:
Eurasians in Singapore and Malaysia
     I was reminded that the British East India Company was in competition with the Portuguese and the Dutch, not to mention the Indians, the Chinese and Southeast Asians in establishing settlements in the critical Straits of Malacca. Such a long history of mingling. This mingling produced more marvelous dishes:

Beef Semore
Feng Curry
Sugee Cake

Devil Curry
     An additional display at the Eurasian Heritage Center showed the foods substituted during the lean times of World War II.  I wondered if the memory of that deprivation explains some of the Singaporean love of food.
Food Substitutions in World War II

         Still another Heritage Center is located in the Nagore Durgah temple on Telok Ayer Street.  Nagore Durgah was built by Indian Muslim pioneers from Tamil Nadu in India. Among other accomplishments, they contributed my beloved roti prata, a staple enjoyed by Singaporeans of many races.  Telok Ayer Street, once the point of disembarkation for immigrants Street is home to multiple Taoist temples as well.

      By September, my mouth and I understood that successive waves of settlers had brought an astonishing range of food and cookery to Singapore and mixed it up in delicious rojak fashion.  Could I experience how these settlers had transformed the natural landscape of the island?  Would these follow the landscaping or gardening inclinations of mainland European, South Asian or Chinese sources?

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