There is a resolute unaffectedness about Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

A wet market pops up every morning in the alleyways off Sisavangvong Road, the city’s high street. Unlike most South-east Asian markets, there is an absence of cacophony here – no haggling or touting. I experience a different sensory overload from the sight and smell of freshly gutted perch straight out of the Mekong, pungently fermenting salted fish, and stringy river weeds (kai pen) that will be eaten with sticky rice.

Glistening fruit, vegetables and meats are displayed on mats as mothers braid their daughters’ hair. The stalls are mostly run by women who speak in quickfire Lao. One is drawing her eyebrows. It is 7am and the market will stay open for another three hours.

The laidback energy of the remote city of 55,000 and its frangipani tree-lined streets somehow combine like a hypnotising potion for travellers. The unaffectedness is one of many things this city-slicker Singaporean loves about the city, just a 40-minute plane ride from the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

While most South-east Asian cities are buzzing metropolises, filled with people, cars, capitalism and vice, Luang Prabang is the antithesis of frenetic Bangkok, Hanoi and Manila.

Vientiane, with its dusty roads and gilded monuments, may be the gateway city to Laos, but it does not have the languid charm of Luang Prabang.


The view of the Mekong river from the Pak Ou caves. PHOTOS: ANJALI RAGURAMAN, MELISSA KOH, SILKAIR

Located on a lush peninsula bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang was once a seat of kings. When the country achieved independence in 1954, the king of Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vong, became the head of state of the Kingdom of Laos.

In Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage Site with quiet, winding roads and a whiff of royal past, colonial architecture stands alongside temples.

  • Getting there

  • SilkAir flies to the Laotian capital of Vientiane and the northern city of Luang Prabang on Monday, Thursday and Saturday as part of a codeshare deal with Lao Airlines.

    The service operates in a circular route, departing from Singapore for Vientiane, followed by Luang Prabang, before returning to Singapore.

    Tips

    Cover up
    Take along a sarong when entering temples and places such as the National Museum, which have a strict dress code. Some temples will have shawls and sarongs for the unprepared, to cover knees and shoulders.

    It also gets chilly in the early morning and at night, so pack a light jacket.

    Local tipples
    Try the ubiquitous Beerlao, one of the most delicious and refreshing home-grown brews available in South-east Asia. If you are so inclined, try the potent local rice whisky, lao lao. Some bars offer it in cocktails if you find it too strong to drink on its own.

    Money
    ATM machines are hard to find, so make sure you have spare US dollars or Thai baht on hand. With the exchange rate for the local currency (S$1 = 5,860 kip), being a “kip millionaire” may be overwhelming. Credit cards are accepted in places such as hotels, restaurants and bars.

    Bridge crossing
    Do not be afraid to cross the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river, near where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet. The bridge is built only during the six-month dry season, when the water level is low, but the view of the gently meandering river is spectacular. A small fee is charged (5,000 kip or 85 Singapore cents) to help maintain it.

    Breakfast
    While there are French bakeries aplenty, with delicious croissants and pain au chocolat on display, go for a local breakfast of noodle soup khao soi instead. The spicy minced pork noodle dish, made with flat rice noodles, usually comes with a generous bowl of vegetables and aromatic green herbs, including mint, Thai basil, coriander, bean sprouts and lime.

You can practically cover the entire 26 sq km city in a day.

Must-hit tourist spots include Wat Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple built in 1560 with an elaborate, glistening Tree Of Life glass mosaic. While it does not have the scale of larger temples, the details are exquisite. Look out for scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana painted on the inner walls of the main temple and carved into gilded teak wood on the front panels of the adjacent chariot house.

Then there are the breathtaking Kuang Si Waterfalls with their aquamarine rock pools. Allow at least three hours to take everything in, including stopping by the Bear Rescue Centre on the way up, exploring the different levels of the waterfalls and wading in the pools.

The bear sanctuary houses Asiatic black bears which have been rescued by the Lao authorities from the illegal wildlife trade.

For shopping, there is the bustling night market that stretches from Sisavangvong Road to Settathilat Road and runs from 5pm to about 11pm. Shawls, rugs and handbags showcasing Lao weaving and embroidery are aplenty. But if you pop by around 10pm, when stall owners start to pack up, you are more likely to get a generous discount.

The mighty Mekong river is a constant presence in the Lao way of life and the best way to revel in its majesty is with a four-hour cruise on a traditional Lao slow boat. Bounmi (bounmi.com) offers private cruises. As the muddy water laps gently against the sides of the long boat, take in the mountain ranges of Phou Thao and Phou Nang, between which Luang Prabang is nestled.

Stop off at the Pak Ou caves, dramatically carved out of limestone cliffs. The craggy caves house more than 4,000 Buddha statues, but the view from the inside is magnificent, looking out to where the sky meets the earth.

GROWING WITH FOREIGN HELP

The trademarks of rapid development, however, are omnipresent. The group I travel with late last year visits a hotel in the centre of Luang Prabang that has not been named yet (it is now called Azerai), but the rooms are furnished, the poolside bistro that serves French-influenced fare is operational and smiling staff mill about. It is one of several that are slowly but surely popping up.

French multinational hotel group Accor has stunning properties, including the 25-villa Sofitel Luang Prabang (www.sofitel-luangprabang.com), located in the residential area of Ban Mano. The former governor’s residence is the peak of luxury, with gazebos, outdoor bathtubs and private plunge pools.

The expatriate community’s presence is visible.French cafes and Buddhist temples sit side by side along Sakkaline Road, while at night, the same stretch is vibrant with nightlife establishments such as lively tapas spot La Casa Lao (lacasalao.com).

While there is a curfew set at 11pm in the Unesco World Heritage Site, it is not strictly followed and most places shut the doors with the party continuing inside long after.

Coming from Singapore, which is home to some of the world’s best bars, I am pleasantly surprised to find a rival-worthy cocktail bar just down the road from renowned hotel Satri House. Run by Briton Andrew Sykes, 525 (525.rocks) is located in a repurposed house with a beautiful, lantern-lit front garden and plush couches on the inside.

Its menu of classic and bespoke cocktails is pricey (80,000 kip or S$13.60 and above), but exceptionally well-made. Try the New Old Fashioned, made with Lao honey, which gives the strong whisky drink a sweet finish while taking the edge off. It is so good, I go back twice.

The expatriate presence has also catalysed the rise of more social enterprises, which are providing job opportunities for the community. About 70 per cent of the landlocked country, hemmed in by Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, relies on agriculture for work.

Businesses in Laos typically have to be co-owned by a Lao partner and the newest entry is the Laos Buffalo Dairy (www.laosbuffalodairy.com), located en route to Kuang Si Waterfalls.

Comprising a commercial dairy and production facility to make yogurt, cheese and ice cream, it is headed by former high-flying career woman Susie Martin. The Australian, who used to work for a multinational company in Singapore, admits that uprooting her family to start a dairy farm in Laos in 2014 was “a bit of a mid-life crisis”.

The dairy rents buffalos from farmers to give them an alternate income source and shares knowledge on breeding practices to improve the survival rate of calves. An on-site production facility, which aims to provide cheese and yogurt to restaurants and hotels in Luang Prabang and the rest of Laos, creates jobs for locals and imparts skills as well.

Ock Pop Tok (ockpoptok.com), which means East meets West in Lao, has been in operation since 2000. British co-founder Joanna Smith says “textiles are a conduit to discovering Laos” and, along with her team, she champions indigenous weaving and handicraft practices from ethnic groups including the Hmong, Khmu and Tai.

“We want to raise the profile of weaving, which is typically viewed as peasant work, but has so much more value,” she says.

At Ock Pop Tok, you can watch weavers at work or even give it a go. You can also take a dyeing class, purchase fair-trade Lao textiles and have a traditional meal overlooking the Mekong river at its cafe. There are also Western dishes and an afternoon tea set.

RECEIVING BLESSINGS

But for all the five-star glitz of hotels and bars as well as the palpable foreign presence, tradition still runs deep.

For instance, my travel group experiences two traditional Baci ceremonies – an important local custom usually carried out at events such as births and marriages – to “call the soul”.

The ritual involves village elders chanting around a large conical flower arrangement with white cotton strings dangling from it. The elders then go around to every individual at the ceremony to tie the blessed strings around both wrists. The recommendation is to leave the strings on for a minimum of three days but, ideally, you should leave them on until they fall off.

What I do not expect, however, is how moved I am by the ceremonies – which are very similar to Hindu rituals. It feels like my own grandmother is conveying a blessing and extending protection and it stays with me long after we leave the grounds.

COPING WITH CHANGE

There is little left of South-east Asia that is not easily accessible, but Laos seems to be one place that has remained off the radar – until now.

It is like the secret destination you do not want to tell anyone about, though Luang Prabang feels like it is on the cusp of a tourism boom.

In the past few months, at least three new airlines have started flights to Luang Prabang. Singapore Airlines’ sister carrier SilkAir first flew to Laos in 1995, but the flights were discontinued soon after. They were brought back in October last year as part of a landmark deal signed between Singapore and Laos. Laos is the airline’s 10th destination in South-east Asia.

Beneath the tranquil surface, however, there is an uneasy sense that perhaps it is all happening too fast.

At dinner in Satri House (www.satrihouse.com), a former royal residence that has been converted into a hotel, a senior member of staff recalls how Luang Prabang used to be like a small village where “everyone knew everybody else’s affairs”.

This intimacy is now gone, she says. But she is not resentful. Luang Prabang, with its unhurried pace, retains its soul amid rapid development. She reasons: “It’s ok, that’s what change is like.”

•The writer’s trip was hosted by SilkAir.

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SANTIAGO, CHILE

Tickets to Lollapalooza, one of summer’s most popular festivals held in Chicago, are often sold out months in advance.

In 2010, the music festival made its successful international debut in Chile and has been an annual affair there since.

True to its American origins, the festival, held in the Chilean capital of Santiago, features popular bands across genres such as heavy metal, punk rock and electronic dance music. There are also art, dance and comedy performances.

This year’s headliners include American metal band Metallica, Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo, British indie group The xx and Canadian R&B singer The Weeknd.

When: April 1 and 2

Info: www.lollapaloozacl.com


CHIOS, GREECE

What is the best way to celebrate Easter? On the island of Chios, the Greeks fire rockets.

For more than 100 years, locals in the village of Vrontados have taken part in Rouketopolemos, or rocket war. About 60,000 homemade rockets are fired between two Orthodox churches – Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani – from 6pm the day before Easter Sunday.

No one knows knows for sure the origins of this festival, which has roots in the Ottoman era.

One local legend claims it was born when the Ottomans prohibited the local Christian population from celebrating Easter. The resident churches came up with the idea to have a fake war and shoot their cannons at one another, so the Ottomans would not approach the churches, while people celebrated Easter inside.

In fact, real cannons were used for the event until the Ottomans banned their use in 1889 and the locals switched to rockets.

When: April 16

Info: rocketwar.com


AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

If street festivals are your cup of tea, head to Amsterdam for King’s Day, held every year in honour of the king’s birthday.

King’s Day is celebrated across the country, but Amsterdam’s festival – about 700,000 visitors join more than 800,000 locals in the celebrations – is the biggest and ranks among one of the world’s largest street parties.

On April 27, the streets and canals become a sea of orange (the Netherlands’ national colour) as more than 1.5 million people flood the city centre to drink beer, watch street performers and discover hidden treasures at the street market where thousands of locals set up stalls.

Concerts are held in the city’s main squares and the canals are clogged with boats and barges carrying orange-shirted revellers.

When: April 27

Info: tinyurl.com/n7wacyh



Bask in Native American music and culture at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, ZACK SMITH

NEW ORLEANS, USA

Since 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has celebrated the music and culture of Louisiana.

After Mardi Gras, it is the state’s second-biggest festival. The 10-day fiesta draws thousands, who come to immerse themselves in the unique melange of Louisiana culture. It also attracts some of the biggest names in music.

This year’s headliners among more than 100 acts include Stevie Wonder, Maroon 5, Kings of Leon, The Roots, Snoop Dogg and Alabama Shakes. New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde will also perform.

There will also be a Native American village, craft demonstrations, workshops and markets, as well as booths showcasing local food heritage and Cajun culture.

When: April 28 to May 7

Info: www.nojazzfest.com


SEVILLE, SPAIN

Two weeks after Easter, when spring is in full swing and the air is scented by orange blossoms, the people of Seville in southern Spain will parade through the city’s streets to celebrate the Feria de Abril, or April Fair.

It is the biggest and most colourful festival in Andalusia, where thousands come together to dance, drink and visit friends and family.

During the week of non-stop partying, horses and carriages roam the streets and many people are clad in traditional costumes – men in traje corto (fitted pants, a short jacket and a wide-brimmed hat), while women wear brightly coloured flamenco dresses with matching jewellery and tasselled shawls, carry fans and put a flower or comb in their hair.

Many of the activities are concentrated in a roughly 1 sq km stretch called Calle de Infierno (Hell Street), where bars, restaurants, amusement rides and games are set up.

Nearby, more than 1,000 tents called casetas are erected by wealthy families, businesses, clubs and trade associations. Inside, people gather to drink, eat, dance and talk until the wee hours of the morning.

Most of the tents are private and require an invitation to enter. Hence, it is a good idea to make friends with a local before attending the festival because this is where the festival’s true spirit resides.

The fiesta coincides with Seville’s main bullfighting season from March/April to October, when there are daily fightsat the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza. The best matadores come to town and the most important bullfights take place during this time.

When: April 30 to May 6

Info: www.andalucia.com/festival/seville-feria.htm

Lydia Vasko

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SPRING PANCAKE & FRIED CHICKEN

“Spring pancake and fried chicken with a hint of cumin and topped with the house special ranch dressing. The best way to start my day.”

Ms Fonda Tjang, 32, doctor’s assistant

Instagram: @tjang.fonda

Get it from: The Populus Coffee & Food Co, 146 Neil Road; open: 9am to 7pm (Mondays and Wednesdays), 9am to 4pm (Tuesdays), 9am to 10.30pm (Thursdays and Fridays), 9.30am to 10.30pm (Saturdays), 9.30am to 7pm (Sundays); tel: 6635-8420; www.thepopuluscafe.com

Price: $21


Spring pancake & fried chicken. PHOTO: FONDA TJANG

63-DEGREE EGGS

“63-degree egg with toasted sourdough, fresh ricotta cheese, baked beans and stir-fried chilli beef ribeye. The bread was yummy, but the stir-fried beef was overcooked.”

Ms Cheng Ying Ying, 28, real estate consultant

Instagram: @y2jingaojiak

Get it from: Open Farm Community, 130E Minden Road; open: noon to 4pm, 6 to 10pm (Mondays to Fridays), 11am to 4pm, 6 to 10pm (Saturdays and Sundays); tel: 6471-0306; www.openfarmcommunity.com

Price: $31


63-degree eggs. PHOTO: CHENG YING YING

PURPLE SWEET POTATO BALL

“The purple sweet potato ball with ground peanut filling has the soft and gooey chew of muah chee and a luscious filling of molten peanut butter.”

Mr Shawn Loh, 29, lawyer

Instagram: @larvitar

Get it from: Tian Bao Szechuan Kitchen, 05-06 Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road; open: 11.30am to 9.15pm (last order) (Mondays to Fridays), 11am to 9.15pm (last order) (Saturdays to Sundays); tel: 6734-4216; www.tianbaorestaurant.com

Price: $6.80


HANDMADE MEATBALL CONGEE

“Some days, we just want a bowl of comforting porridge for dinner. I love well-cooked, smooth congee. This one is made with Japanese pearl rice and Thai fragrant jasmine rice.”

Ms Eileen Lim, 42, customer service officer

Instagram: @eileen_eats_alot

Get it from: Canton Paradise, 01-02 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue; open: 10.30am to 10.30pm (Mondays to Fridays), 10.30am to 11pm (Saturdays and Sundays); tel: 6688-8868; www.paradisegroup.com.sg

Price: $9.80


GRILLED PORK BELLY

“Juicy slab of grilled pork belly with addictive salty crackling in a clear vegetable broth. Served with a slice of freshly baked rye bread.”

Ms Veronica Phua, 46, creative director and marketing consultant

Instagram: @veronicaphua

Get it from: Firebake – Woodfired Bakehouse & Restaurant, 237 East Coast Road; open: 6 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays; tel: 6440-1228; www.firebake.sg

Price: $22

Cara Wong

•Share your food photos with readers. Hashtag your photos with #STFoodTrending or e-mail your high-resolution photos to stlife@sph. com.sg, together with your contact details and “Food Trending” in the subject header. The Sunday Times will feature the best ones here each week.

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Tai Seng

The once-drab Tai Seng industrial area is seeing a second wave of food and beverage outlets opening there. These are in addition to a restaurant cluster in BreadTalk IHQ, which opened in 2013, and Hei Sushi in Sakae Building.

The first crop of cafes sprang up in 2015 in The Commerze @ Irving, a light industrial building in Irving Place. Now, another batch of eateries, housed in 18 Tai Seng, a nine-storey, mixed-use building, is opening.

There are three restaurants there by Michelin-starred establishments – Liao Fan Hawker Chan by one-Michelin-starred Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle at Chinatown Complex Food Centre; ramen eatery Tsuta from the one-Michelin-starred Tokyo establishment of the same name; and the one-Michelin-starred Hong Kong dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan.

There are also new entrants to the market such as 18 Grill, which serves Tex-Mex food; and Japanese restaurant Kinzan-ya.

Others include vegan fast food joint nomVnom, Sunny Korean Cuisine and Huggs Coffee.

18 Tai Seng opened last month and has 45,000 sq ft of retail space over two levels. More than 40 per cent of its 35 tenants are food and beverage businesses.

Across the road from 18 Tai Seng, in Centro Bianco Building, is Flame Cafe, a Western cafe-cum-steamboat tower restaurant that has a more upmarket restaurant, Spark, tucked at the back.

And at The Commerze @ Irving nearby, at least four of the more than 14 eateries are new.

They include Koat Aroy Thai Restaurant, which will open on Friday.

Business owners are tapping on the large catchment of office workers in the up-and-coming commercial zone, where many home- grown and overseas companies have set up their headquarters.

The lunch crowd will certainly expand when office workers and other tenants start moving into 18 Tai Seng next week.

The mall also serves residents from the nearby Bartley and MacPherson estates with amenities such as a supermarket and a childcare centre that will open by the middle of this year. There is also the congregation at the nearby Trinity @Paya Lebar church on weekends.

An underpass linking Tai Seng MRT station to the mall will open by the middle of this year.

Ms Dewa Sriwati, 35, general manager of Green Croft salad bar in 18 Tai Seng, says the outlet has a continuous flow of customers.

She adds that sales are three times better than at its other outlets in Fusionopolis and Pasir Panjang, with 100 salad bowls sold every day.

Mr Shawn Lim, 30, co-owner of 18 Grill, says 70 per cent of sales come during lunchtime on weekdays because of the office crowd.

Mr Brian Chua, 35, a director at Hersing Culinary, which runs Liao Fan Hawker Chan, Tsuta and Tim Ho Wan, says business has been “above expectations”.

Tsuta, for example, sells about 250 bowls of ramen daily.

A plus point for business owners in the area is the low rental. Rent ranges from $4 to $12 per sq ft, which is two to five times lower than in areas such as Raffles Place or Serangoon Central.

18 Grill’s Mr Lim says lower rent makes it “easier to break even”. He expects to recoup his about $250,000 investment within 11/2 years.

Likewise for Mr Charlie Sng, 45, of Koat Aroy Thai Restaurant, the low rent allows him to “test the market” as a first-time restaurant owner.

Eateries also host corporate events for offices in the vicinity.

Flame Cafe has hosted company meetings and retreats in its vast 4,000 sq ft space. It also carved out a fine-dining restaurant, Spark, earlier this month. The 60-seat eatery serves a five-course meal that starts at $55 a person.

The lack of watering holes in the area has now been plugged by Meats N Malts, an American diner and bar which opened in BreadTalk IHQ in January. It attracts executives who want to unwind with drinks and food after work.

Mr Bryan Ong, 27, director of The Colture Group, which runs Meats N Malts and other pubs such as Molly Roffrey’s, says prices of the tipples at Meats N Malts are 20 per cent lower than at its other joints in the city, as its customers are “more price-sensitive”.

Most diners give the thumbs-up to the increase in dining options.

Manicurist Valerie Koh, 29, who lives nearby, says: “It’s good that the queue at Tsuta ramen in 18 Tai Seng is shorter than at its other outlet in Pacific Plaza.”


New eateries in Tai Seng

18 TAI SENG, 18 TAI SENG STREET


Pulled pork burger. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

18 Grill

What: This 30-seat casual restaurant serves Tex-Mex food such as burritos, quesadillas and tacos and pulled pork burger. Diners have a choice of pork, chicken, beef or cod for most of the dishes.

It is opened by Mr Tommy Lim, 63, who was a corporate chef with American diner Chili’s and Italian eatery Spageddies for 30 years.

Where: 01-26

Open: 11am to 9pm daily

Info: Go to www.facebook.com/pg/18Grill

Green Croft

What: This salad bar offers salad bowls (from $7.50) with about 50 ingredients to choose from. Interesting ones include seafood sambal, smoked duck and tandoori chicken. It also serves sambal crabmeat pasta ($10.90), creme brulee ($3.50) and wraps.

Where: 01-K2

Open: 11am to 9pm daily

Info: Call 6385-0508 or go to www.green-croft.com

Tsuta

What: This Tokyo-based Michelin- starred ramen restaurant has opened its second overseas outlet here. The 18-seater has an exclusive miso soba ($16), which is served in an umami-rich stock made with hatcho miso from Tokushima Prefecture in Japan. It comes with porcini mushroom oil, watercress and beansprouts.

The restaurant also sells shoyu ramen (from $15).

Where: 01-01

Open: 11am to 9pm daily

Info: Go to www.facebook.com/pg/Tsutasingapore

Liao Fan Hawker Chan


Popular dishes at Liao Fan Hawker Chan include soya sauce chicken rice, char siew noodles and pork rib hor fun. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

What: This is the second outlet of a chain fronted by hawker Chan Hon Meng of the one-Michelin-starred Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle at Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Popular dishes include soya sauce chicken rice ($3.80), char siew noodles ($5) and pork rib hor fun ($5).

Where: 01-02

Open: 11am to 9pm daily

THE COMMERZE @ IRVING, 1 IRVING PLACE

Belgaufra Singapore

What: This cafe serves Liege waffles made with dough from well-established Belgian waffle dough supplier Belgaufra. The chewy waffles, which are made on the spot, come coated with caramelised sugar. Its small menu includes plain waffles ($5.80), waffles smeared with Nutella or Speculoos spread ($7.30) and Big Wafflous ($10.80) that is topped with fried egg, cheese, an avocado slice and bacon or ham.

Where: 01-29

Open: 10.30am to 6.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 6702-2729 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/BelgaufraSG

Koat Aroy Thai Restairant

What: Highlights from this Thai restaurant, which will open on Friday, include the charcoal barbecue set ($28) with prawn, squid, flower crab and crayfish; claypot glass noodles with prawn in tom yum broth ($15) and deep-fried fish with mango ($22).

Where: 01-24

Open: 11am to 10pm daily

Info: Go to www.facebook.com/pg/koataroythai

The Pitstop

What: This 28-seat cafe offers creative East-meets-West dishes. Popular picks include beer-infused mixed spice chicken ($13.90), pan-seared teriyaki chicken ($12.90) and gula melaka pancakes with walnuts ($10.90).

Where: 01-20

Open: 8.30am to 7.30pm (Mondays to Wednesdays); 8.30am to 9pm (Thursdays and Fridays); 9am to 1pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 9006-0572 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/thepit stop.sg.cafe

OTHERS Flame Cafe/Spark Restaurant


Spark Restaurant offers wallet-friendly fine dining. PHOTO: SPARK RESTAURANT

What: This 4,000 sq ft space houses two eateries. Flame Cafe, which opened in August last year, offers cafe fare such as beef burger ($14.90) and chilli crab pasta ($13.90).

For dinner and supper, there is also a four-tier steamboat buffet (from $24.90+) with more than 40 ingredients. Diners cook them in a cooker with compartments for soup and cheese fondue and a grill and steam chamber.

A 60-seat space was carved out from the back earlier this month for a Western restaurant, Spark. It has a five-course menu ($55) with main courses such as furikake-crusted Chilean seabass; and Angus ribeye with truffle garlic mash. The menu, which can be paired with wines or champagne, changes every three to six months.

Where: 01-01 Centro Bianco, 73 Upper Paya Lebar Road

Open: 8am to 11pm (Mondays to Thursdays); 8 to 2am (Fridays and Saturdays); 9am to 11pm (Sundays)

Info: Call 6282-0251 or go to flamecafe.com.sg, sparkrestaurant.com.sg

Meats N Malts

What: This three-month-old American diner and bar serves hearty dishes such as Steak N’ Egg ($17.80), a sirloin steak sizzling with garlic butter and topped with a sunny-side-up egg; and a Carnivore sharing plate ($24.80) of barbecued pork ribs, chicken wings, pork belly, tandoori chicken skewers and fries.

There is also an extensive list of tipples such as draught beer, wines, whiskies, vodka, gin, rum and tequila.

Where: 01-07 BreadTalk IHQ, 30 Tai Seng Street

Open: Noon to midnight daily

Info: Call 6909-0010 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/meatsNmalts


Middle Road 

Looking for a place to eat in Middle Road is not a problem. The question is, what to eat? Finding an answer is now more difficult as a new crop of eateries has opened there recently.

These new restaurants include Hotel G’s Ginett, a bistro-wine bar, and 25 Degrees Burgers & Liquor Bar, which opened last month. There is also Chinese restaurant Song Garden, which opened in Mercure Singapore Bugis last December.

Other newcomers include Sbam, a fusion vegetarian cafe in Fortune Centre; and Mellower Coffee, a Shanghai-based coffee chain. Both opened last month.

Despite the higher rental that the mature district commands – from $7 to $15 per sq ft – business owners are counting on the high human traffic from the nearby offices, tertiary institutions and tourist attractions bounded by Bras Basah and Bugis MRT stations.

For Sbam’s Ms Yogeswari Preshant, 35, Fortune Centre was the top choice for her first food and beverage venture. In January, she jumped at the opportunity to take over the space vacated by a Chinese vegetarian eatery.

She says: “This area is guaranteed to have crowds during meal times. It shows in the low turnover rates of eateries in Fortune Centre, many of which have been around for decades.”

Echoing this view is Ms Cindy Chan, 37, a manager at Italian restaurant, Follia, which re-located from Clover Way near Bishan to Waterloo Centre last November.

“Clover Way was difficult to find and parking was also an issue,” she says. “Now, business has improved by 30 per cent as there are more walk-in customers.”

She now pays 20 per cent more in rent.

Seafood tower restaurant Captain K opened its second outlet in Middle Road in January because of its proximity to Bugis MRT station, a five-minute walk away. Its first outlet in Prinsep Street is near Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. Owner Kenneth Koh, 34, notes that the two-storey unit in Middle Road has a “very visible frontage”.

With the number of established eateries already in the neighbourhood, these newcomers know they are in for intense competition.

At three-month-old Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar in Fortune Centre, chef-owner Aeron Choo, 23, sets her restaurant apart by focusing on sashimi such as otoro and hamachi that are aged on ice, and smoking ingredients over sakura wood.

She also imports rarely seen ingredients such as fugu (pufferfish), monkfish and shintamanegi (yellow onions) from Japan.

She says the 15-seat restaurant attracts Japanese chefs who work in the hotels nearby and come for supper after their work.

Follia restaurant’s strategy is to waive GST and service charge, and offer lunch sets priced from $8.

Most diners The Sunday Times spoke to work in the area and enjoy the many dining options.

Civil servant Jean Ng, 31, who has lunched in Ginett, says: “Its bistro and wine bar concept is interesting. I plan to return for drinks.”

 


New eateries in Middle Road

Sbam


Ms Yogeswari Preshant, co-owner of Sbam, which serves vegetarian fusion cuisine. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

What: The name of this month-old vegetarian cafe stands for Spice, Brew And Masala. The cosy eatery serves fusion food – dishes from Chinese and Malay cuisines cooked with spices such as cardamom and saffron.

Popular rice bowl sets (from $6.90) include “prawns” coated in a fiery sambal; cashew chilli gong bao “chicken”; and nasi lemak that comes with soya-based “fish” and rice or belinjo crackers, made from gnemon tree nuts.

It also serves pasta such as spicy “tuna” pasta and snacks such as potato gyoza. Diners can help themselves to a free flow of beverages.

Where: 02-05 Fortune Centre, 190 Middle Road

Open: 11am to 8pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 9625-4434 or go to www.facebook.com/sbamrestaurant

Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar


Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar chef Aeron Choo offers a range of tapas-style dishes. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

What: This Japanese casual restaurant serves sushi, sashimi and Japanese small plates. Its omakase-style menu starts at $68 for five courses.

Chef-owner Aeron Choo, who has worked in Japanese restaurants for nine years, offers tapas-style dishes made with seasonal ingredients from Japan.

A highlight is onsen tamago, egg yolk and salmon roe topped with caviar and winter truffles. Seafood items include botan ebi and bluefin tuna. Complement the meal with rare Japanese tipples such as Junmai Ginjo Aiyu Dry sake and Nomura golden plum wine.

Where: 02-10A Fortune Centre, 190 Middle Road

Open: 6 to 11.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 9170-4583 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/KappouJapanesesushitapasbar

Ginett

What: Clink your glasses to one of the more wallet-friendly happy hour deals in town.

This chic bistro-cum-wine bar offers about 70 French wines, with prices starting at $6++ for a glass of 2014 Domaine des Hautes Ouches.

To go with the tipples are charcoal-grilled dishes such as Angus sirloin beef ($22) and pork belly ($16) cooked over apple wood. It also serves cheese and cold cuts, pasta and salad bowls. A two-course set lunch costs $18++.

Where: Level 1 Hotel G, 200 Middle Road

Open: 7am till late daily

Info: Call 6809-7989 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/ginettsingapore

25 Degrees Burger & Liquor Bar

What: This burger joint from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles is located in Hotel G.

The swanky 40-seat burger bar is named after the difference in temperature between a raw and a well-done burger patty. Burgers made with USA Angus beef are the main draw and there are five ($14 each) to choose from.

Number One is piled with creamy crescenza, gorgonzola cheese, caramelised onions and bacon, while Number Four has seared yellowfin tuna and fried onions on a bed of butter lettuce.

Diners can also customise their burgers with more than 30 sides and condiments (from $9.50 for a turkey-based burger). For drinks, there are milkshakes and spirits such as gin, vodka and rum. The lunch set ($18++) comprises a burger, fries and beer or soda.

Where: Level 1 Hotel G, 200 Middle Road

Open: 11am to 11pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 11 to 1am (Fridays and Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Go to www.hotelgsingapore.com/dining/25-degrees

Song Garden

What: This 120-seat restaurant serves contemporary Cantonese cuisine. Signature dishes from executive chef Wong Shea Nung include roast chicken on a bed of beancurd skin (from $25++); and lamb rack stuffed with diced cod, served with honey-black pepper sauce ($22++ a person). Dim sum highlights include pan-seared otah siew mai ($6++ for four pieces) and steamed chee cheong fun with chunky prawn filling ($6++).

Where: 02-01 Mercure Singapore Bugis, 122 Middle Road

Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6 to 10pm (weekdays); 11am to 3pm and 6 to 10pm (weekends)

Info: Call 6521-9299 or go to www.mercure.com/A0D7

Mellower Coffee

What: This Shanghai-based coffee house chain has opened a 4,000 sq ft flagship shop here that has a retail gallery and barista bar, where latte art and coffee-blending workshops will be held later this year.

Signature brews include Sweet Little Rain ($9.80), which has a cloud of candy floss hovering over a cup of coffee; and Ondeh x Latte ($9.80), which has coconut milk and pandan served with a shot of gula melaka coffee. Or for something stronger, go for its coffee cocktails such as Guinnespresso ($9.80) with whisky, espresso and lemon juice.

Where: 01-01 The Prospex, 108 Middle Road

Info: Call 6255-0820 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/Mellower-Coffee-Singapore-1813999808866034

Captain K Seafood Tower

What: This restaurant offers seafood cooked in steamers stacked in three to nine tiers. The five-tier set ($128.90 for four people) contains scallops, prawns and shellfish. Juices from the steamed seafood drip into a pot of kombu dashi at the bottom tier, which can be used later as a steamboat broth.

Popular a la carte add-ons include Sri Lankan crabs ($9.80 for 100g). This 6,500 sq ft outlet can host events for up to 70 people.

Where: 01-00 Midland House, 112 Middle Road

Open: 5.30 to 10.30pm (Mondays); 11.30am to 3pm and 5.30 to 10.30pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays); 11.30am to 3pm and 5.30 to 11pm (Fridays and Saturdays)

Info: Call 6255-5744 or go to www.captainksg.com

Follia

What: This 45-seat restaurant serves hearty Italian fare. Popular dishes include thin-crust pizza with toppings such as burrata and Parma ham ($30). Other dishes include squid ink pasta ($26) and braised veal shank with risotto ($36).

Desserts include tiramisu ($12) made with seven types of alcohol.

It also offers a daily set lunch menu that starts at $8. The service charge and GST are waived.

Where: 01-23 Waterloo Centre, 261 Waterloo Street

Open: 11am to 10pm daily

Info: Call 9799-3661 or go to www.facebook.com/folliasg

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It is a Sunday afternoon at the Montreux Jazz Cafe Singapore.

Parents of young children clink glasses, tuck into food and listen to a live jazz band perform at this Orchard district cafe.

The scene is a contrast to mealtimes for many parents of young children: Before the little ones are able to feed themselves properly, it is common for a father and mother to take turns eating quickly while attending to their offsprings’ needs.

Teacher Lisa Tham, 35, who has two toddlers aged four and two, says: “Mealtimes are a hectic affair for my husband and me. I usually end up eating cold food because I start on my meal only after my kids have eaten.

“Even then, I have to wolf it down because the kids may be bored after eating.”

So where are the children at the Montreux Jazz Cafe, that their parents are so relaxed?

They are kept busy with activities such as face-painting, imaginative play, storytelling and dancing games in another section of the cafe under its Sunday kids’ programme.

Launched in January, the programme, which is free, is the cafe’s way of enticing families with young children to its premises.

Lawyer Martin Brown, 37, dined recently at the cafe’s Sunday brunch with his children. He found out about the kids’ programme through friends.

He says: “It was a great, valuefor-money brunch with good music, a relaxed atmosphere, excellent food and, most importantly, the kids were happy and entertained.”

Mr Livio Capillera, the cafe’s marketing manager, says: “Most restaurants offer only kid-friendly menus, so we saw an opportunity to take things one step further, by creating a unique kids’ programme on Sundays.

“The young ones are professionally taken care of while the adults can dine leisurely – it’s a brunch that has something for the whole family.”

Other food and beverage operators here have also been upping the ante for family friendliness.

These establishments provide – at no extra cost – more than just play facilities or colouring materials to keep children occupied while their parents dine.

Last December, Grub cafe in Bishan Park launched a three-hour free event targeted at children aged four and older called Sensory Play Day, which saw about 30 little ones participating across two sessions.

Because of the good response, the cafe management brought back the event for the past two Saturdays, to coincide with the March school holidays.

A total of about 30 children took part in the two sessions. Several stations were set up on the lawn in front of the cafe and children dug their fingers into child-safe play dough, tubs of water filled with water beads and multi-coloured rice grains.

Staff from Messy Fingers, the company that Grub partnered for the events, facilitated the kids’ interaction with the elements at the stations and looked out for their safety.

Mr Ng Wee Chuan, 38, was impressed by the programme. He attended the event earlier this month with his wife and son, who is three.

“I was able to enjoy my coffee,” he says with a laugh, adding that his son was kept busy playing with dough and water beads at the event.

He appreciated the fact that he did not have to pay for it.

“It’s a nice gesture,” he says.

Children who participate in The Fullerton Hotel’s Town Restaurant weekly Sunday Brunch kids’ programme are also well looked after.

While an external vendor conducts activities such as face-painting, balloon-sculpting and bookmark-making, hotel staff keep a watchful eye over the children.

Apart from these activities, which are all free for the children of parents who dine there, the children can also play in air-conditioned comfort in an activity room, which holds multiple play structures, a ball pit, Lego toys and a basketball hoop, among other items.

The room has a food corner, where the kids can refuel with juices, pastries and light bites while they play.

Another way food establishments keep children engaged is to excite them with food prepared specially for them.

Barnacles by the Sea at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa has a buffet counter just for kids during its Sunday Brunch.

The buffet section comes complete with burger patties, pasta, finger food, hearty soups and a chocolate fountain.

The section is built lower than elsewhere in the restaurant, so that young children can reach the food items easily.

Another dining outlet at the same resort, Silver Shell Cafe, boasts a similar concept. The all-day dining cafe also has a buffet area designed for kids that is packed with a selection of mains, salads, sandwiches, juices and desserts.

At breakfast, the kids’ meal experience at the cafe is topped off with daily activities such as magic shows, giant Jenga challenges, mini golf and Xbox dance-offs.

Parents will be pleased to know that there are more of such free offerings to come from establishments here in the upcoming months.

Grub has a birthday bash celebration in May that will see a host of free activities, including a huge bouncy castle and star-gazing.

The cafe is also planning a series of free activities for kids in June and December.

From April 2, Pan Pacific Singapore’s Edge restaurant will feature a kids’ dessert corner and a balloon sculptor at its Sunday Champagne Brunch.

The dessert corner is specially built to cater to the height of young children. There, the young diners can help themselves to gummies, giant meringues, apple lollipops and popcorn.

Shangri-La Hotel Singapore is also looking to launch an “extensive, family-focused programme” later this year, as part of its newly renovated Tower Wing.

Parents say they welcome the efforts of these food and beverage operators.

Mrs Tham says: “Such programmes and activities give parents such as myself some respite and a chance to dine a bit more leisurely.

“If not, it’ll be just another harried meal.”



Montreux Jazz Cafe (above) has programmes run by a children’s entertainment agency, while The Fullerton Hotel has a play room and a kids’ food corner. PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN, MONTREUX JAZZ CAFE

Restaurants with kids’ programmes

TOWN RESTAURANT

Where: The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, 1 Fullerton Square
What: A play room with multiple play structures, toys, activities such as face-painting and balloon- sculpting and a kids’ food corner
When: Sundays, noon to 3pm
Cost of kids’ programme: Free
Dining cost: Children under the age of six dine free at the Sunday Brunch, while those aged six to 11 can enjoy the Sunday Brunch at $55++
Info: Call 6877-8911/8912

MONTREUX JAZZ CAFE

Where: Pan Pacific Orchard, 10 Claymore Road
What: A dedicated kids’ programme run by a children’s entertainment agency
When: Sundays, 11am to 3pm
Cost of kids’ programme: Free
Dining cost: A Children’s Meal costs $18++, but kids can enjoy the programme even without purchasing the meal
Info: Call 6733-0091 or e-mail reservations.sg@montreuxjazzcafe.com

GRUB

Where: 510 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1
What: Activities include interacting with birds and playing with sensory items such as water beads, coloured rice and child-safe play dough and doing sand art. Workshops are also organised during the school holidays.
When: Varies
Cost of kids’ programme: Varies. Go to Grub’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/grub.com.sg for more details Dining cost: Kids do not need to order a kids’ meal to participate in the activities
Info: E-mail info@grub.com.sg

EDGE

Where: Level 3 Pan Pacific Singapore, 7 Raffles Boulevard
What: A roving balloon sculptor and a kids’ dessert corner
When: Sundays from April 2, noon to 3pm
Cost of kids’ programme: Free
Dining cost: Children under the age of six dine free at the Sunday Brunch, while those aged six to 11 can enjoy the Sunday Brunch at $64
Info: Call 6826-8240 or e-mail celebrate.sin@panpacific.com

SILVER SHELL CAFE

Where: Level 3 Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, 101 Siloso Road, Sentosa
What: A kids’ buffet section and specially organised activities
When: 6.30am to 10pm daily; the kids’ activities are conducted only during breakfast from 9am
Cost of kids’ activities: Free
Dining cost: One child aged five years old and below dines free when accompanied by a paying adult. Children aged six to 11 years old enjoy 50 per cent off the adult buffet price (prices vary)
Info: Call 6371-1966 or e-mail fbreservation.sen@shangri-la.com

BARNACLES BY THE SEA

Where: Level 1 by the waterfront, Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, 101 Siloso Road, Sentosa
What: A kids’ buffet section, an outdoor magic show and balloon-twisting
When: Sundays, noon to 3pm
Cost of kids’ activities: Free
Dining cost: One child aged 11 years old and below dines free when accompanied by a paying adult; $38++ for each additional child Info: Call 6371-1966 or e-mail fbreservation.sen@shangri-la.com

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I am not saying any more that prices at any restaurant are low. The last time I did was in my review for Botanico last month, but I found out last week that its prices have gone up.

And now I hear that The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar, which was opened by the Como Group about two weeks ago, may increase prices too. The restaurant did not confirm it, but said it would gradually adjust prices as new seasonal dishes are introduced.

So if you are planning to dine there, go fast – even though it is not easy getting a table. The reason behind the buzz is New York-based celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who fronts the restaurant.

The Frenchman owns more than 30 eateries around the world, ranging from the high-end Jean-Georges in New York to the more casual Mercato in Hong Kong. The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar is the latest on that list, its name inspired by the fact that the colonial-era building it is in was once the cookhouse for the British military’s barracks in the Dempsey area.

The setting is casual, but the menu is a collection of dishes from the chef’s vast empire, including some of his fine-dining restaurants. So you find signature dishes such as a raw tuna with avocado that has been kept on the Jean-Georges New York menu for years, as well as the molten chocolate cake that he is famous for, which has been copied by restaurants worldwide since the 1990s.

These may appear dated now, but are good indicators of how the chef rose to fame more than two decades ago. And true classics are those that stand the test of time.


The Crispy Salmon Sushi, Chipotle Mayonnaise, Soy Glaze (above) is worth going back for. PHOTO: THE DEMPSEY COOKHOUSE
  • The Crispy Salmon Sushi, Chipotle Mayonnaise, Soy Glaze (above) is worth going back for. Prosciutto Wrapped Pork Chop, Glazed Mushrooms, Sage (left) is done well.

    THE DEMPSEY COOKHOUSE & BAR


    Block 17D Dempsey Road, tel: 1800-304-5588, open: 6 to 10pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 6 to 11pm (Fridays, Saturdays, eves of public holidays and public holidays), noon to 3pm (brunch on Saturdays and Sundays), noon to 2.30pm (lunch on Mondays to Fridays, starting soon)

    Food: 3/5 stars

    Service: 3.5/5 stars

    Ambience: 4/5 stars

    Price: Budget from $70 a person, without drinks

For me, the Yellowfin Tuna Tartare, Avocado, Ginger Marinade, Spicy Radish ($18) works because of its delicious dressing, a blend of soya sauce with a hint of ginger. I like, too, that the tuna is cut into thick ribbons instead of being diced into cubes, as the fish has more bite.

As for the Warm Chocolate Cake ($15), it has become such a cliche that I do not expect to be impressed by it. But I am – the first time.

The recipe has since changed. At my first dinner, which I was invited to with my colleagues when Vongerichten was here for the opening two weeks ago, the cake had grains of salt in it. But when I returned last week on my own, the salt was missing. The dessert was good, but no longer distinctive. Apparently, some customers complained that it was too salty.

As for the other dishes, I don’t find any of them bad, but there are just a few that I would go back for.

The Crispy Salmon Sushi, Chipotle Mayonnaise, Soy Glaze ($16) is one of them. The nugget of rice is deep-fried to get it crisp, for a stark but pleasant contrast to the slice of fatty salmon draped over it. A dollop of mayonnaise binds them, its chilli flavour subdued so the fish does not get overwhelmed.

For the main course, I am most impressed with the Prosciutto Wrapped Pork Chop, Glazed Mushrooms, Sage ($32). The meat is a tad tough because it is not Kurobuta or Mangalica – premium meats that, I confess, have spoilt my palate. But the cooking cannot be faulted – the meat is pink in the centre, the way it should be.

The distinctive saltiness from the ham gives the pork an extra dimension of flavour and I have a soft spot for sauteed mushrooms, of which there are plenty here.

Desserts are good, especially the Salted Caramel Ice Cream Sundae ($14). Salted caramel is one of my favourite ice cream flavours. Add to that crispy popcorn and crunchy peanuts covered in hot fudge and it gets even better. Every scoop brings a different sensation, depending on whether you pick up popcorn or a peanut – they look the same under the hot fudge. Either way, it tastes good.

What will tempt me back to The Dempsey Cookhouse, however, is not so much the food as the lovely setting. The restaurant looks like an indoor garden with leafy potted plants, while the bar has an entire wall turned into a vertical garden.

Tall, white filigree wicker chairs fit right into the garden atmosphere, as does the high ceiling. In the evening, the lamps – an eclectic mix of huge, geometric-shaped lanterns and small hanging lights fashioned out of old crystal pieces – give the restaurant a soft glow.

The restaurant opened for brunch last weekend and will start lunch service soon. I would like to see it bathed in sunlight, which I’m sure would be charming.

So yes, I’ll be back.

•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke and on Instagram @wongahyoke

•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.

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My mother used to say – and still does – that my eyes are bigger than my stomach.

This is funny, especially if you have seen the size of my belly, but she knows me well. When travelling or just wandering through a supermarket or food shop, I become mesmerised by merchandise and, inevitably, some of it ends up leaving the shop with me.

I have even parlayed this into a weekly column called Posh Nosh, where I spent hours on weekends looking for unusual and good snacks to write about. Even though the column is no more, I cannot help myself and still live for the thrill of finding the perfect snack or condiment.

The problem is that after trying it and possibly writing about it, the stuff stays in the cupboard or fridge and I never seem to get round to finishing anything.

I live in a tiny home and my food cupboard is miniscule. At least twice a year, I have to clear out my fridge and cupboard.

Last weekend, I did my first clean-out of the year.

  • ROASTED CHICKPEAS


    INGREDIENTS

    900g to 1kg canned chickpeas, drained

    2 Tbs olive oil

    1/2 tsp flaky sea salt

    1 Tbs shichimi togarashi, or to taste (below)

    METHOD

    1. Place the chickpeas in a large colander, rinse under running water and drain for about 30 minutes.

    2. Preheat oven to 200 deg C.

    3. Pat dry the chickpeas with paper towels or a tea towel, discarding any of the skin that falls off. Place in a mixing bowl. Add the olive oil and salt and toss with a spoon to mix well.

    4. Line a large baking tray (I use the one that comes with the oven) with foil or baking paper. Spoon the chickpeas onto the tray, spreading them out.

    5. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes, rotating the tray at 20 minutes.

    6. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle the shichimi togarashi over the chickpeas and toss with a spoon. Pile into a serving bowl and serve immediately.

    Serves four as a snack with drinks

Japanese tidy-upper extraordinaire Marie Kondo, whose 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art Of Decluttering And Organizing, is a bestseller, says to find things that spark joy and to keep them. Everything else can go.

The problem is that most food sparks joy in me and I hang on to things I really should chuck.

Case in point: a jar of bacon fat I have had for too many years, which I cannot bear to throw away. I tell myself I will one day make bacon fat mayonnaise.

My “big eyes” have also led to my amassing kilograms of chocolate with good provenance and unusual flavours, but which I have no desire to eat when I am home. I also have bottles of booze sitting around, unopened.

My ultimate guilty pleasure is luncheon meat. I have cans of it from all over the world, but I never eat them. There also appears to be a ton of salt in my food cupboard. I use it, but not as quickly as I add to the collection.

Looking at the crammed shelves of both fridge and cupboard, I was determined to be ruthless. Out went everything that was past the sell-by date and I made food parcels for friends who might appreciate the food that is still good.

At the end of it all, I was happy looking at whatever I had left neatly squared away in boxes.

But would I have to do it again in six months, when things pile up?

That is why I made another decision that day: I am going to limit the things I let into my home.

Being vigilant and sticking to my guns will be difficult.

A year ago, I decided to stop buying bags because I have far too many of them. I was so very good, but in the last two months, I bought two.

One of the purchases was made on a whim, the result of taking the escalator to a restaurant, when hopping into the lift would have allowed me to bypass all the stores on the way to lunch.

I love both bags and will get a lot of use out of them, but this cycle of acquiring and chucking is ridiculous and wasteful. It has to stop.

For one thing, I have to stop buying chickpeas and canned tomatoes because I have far too many cans of both in my food cupboard. However, they are endlessly useful, so I am planning meals around them, now that I can see them in the food cupboard.

A bottle of passata went into a baked fish dish with kale and mushrooms from the fridge. The other cans of tomatoes will be turned into soup or pasta sauces.

I wanted to make hummus with the chickpeas, but then, I would have to buy tahini or sesame paste, which would add to the condiments collection. So, I decided to make a snack with them instead.

The recipe is simple. I roast the chickpeas with salt and olive oil and then sprinkle a spice mix on them. Look in your pantry and see what you have. Baharat, ras-el-hanout, your favourite curry powder and spice rubs – provided they are still fresh – can add a lot of flavour to this simple snack. I used shichimi togarashi, a Japanese blend of chilli and other spices.

Roasting the chickpeas concentrates their flavour and they end up crunchy. The trick is to dry them thoroughly. So I leave them to drain for about half an hour and then pat them very dry with paper towels before roasting.

After using up two cans of my chickpea stash this way, I celebrated my big cleaning-up session with a cold beer and those crunchy snacks. Now to figure out something to do with the chocolate, without having to buy new ingredients.

www.facebook.com/tanhsuehyun

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Sometimes, it seems like big data and data science will save the world.

At least, that is what the headlines seem to suggest. Just Google the terms and see for yourself.

A story in Forbes titled How Big Data And Tech Will Improve Agriculture, From Farm To Table paints a bright, shiny future where computers will eliminate wastage and human error.

Sensors on fields will provide data on soil conditions, wind, pests and exactly how much fertiliser and water is available as the weather changes.

GPS data analytics will determine how many tractors and trucks to use, and RFID tags can trace the movement of produce from the farm to the home and even to the trash bin.

Analytics can then take all that data and determine the best crops to plant – best for the soil, best for the weather conditions and the logistics flow, plus the most profitable given agricultural commodities markets.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My question is: Would I want to live in such a world?

Maybe in this case, the answer is yes.

I’m not so sure, however, about the scenario painted by another story published in the Wall Street Journal almost on the same day.  This one is titled For A Flavour Boost, Chefs Turn to Big Data.

Here, a PhD student found that by utilising a branch of mathematics called “graph theory”, he could work out the best-tasting three-topping pizzas by examining and grouping existing consumer data on which two toppings people tended to like to go together.

The guy now works with Ocean Spray, the largest producer of cranberry products in the United States.  His job is to analyse data on “what else people talk about when they talk about cranberries”, so the company can create better flavour combinations for its future products.

The story goes on to posit a future where data scientists trawl through thousands of recipes that people have posted online, finding bizarre flavour combinations that don’t seem to make sense, but actually do – at least “according to the data”.

Is something missing here?

Can everything that has gone into the evolution of something as subjective and abstract as the appreciation of good food – culture, history, biology, artistry – conceivably be reduced or pureed into consumer data to be sliced and diced like the very same onions that were monitored, grown, transported and packaged to perfection by data science?

If so, will a future Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsay be allowed to create something not sanctioned or supported by the data?  Will they even think of doing so?

To me, life is, and has to be, part art and part science.

And it would be a dreary world indeed if life were to become all science.

That is because the past is not always the best predictor of the future and not every optimal solution in life can be arrived at simply by having a computer hack at a giant set of numbers.

Of course, you have to realise that this is coming from me, a lifelong student of the arts that purposely chose an education and career that would take me as far away from the fields from science and mathematics as I could possibly get.

And so, I will freely admit to looking at all these gleeful and smug engineers, accountants and mathematicians today with a mix of horror and resentment. 

I realise that this is really their time.  Their left-brained view of the world has triumphed and they are the new warriors of the wasteland.

But they have also done considerable damage in many areas where quality counts as much as quantity, and not everything can be reduced to a set of numbers.

Take the fields of journalism and marketing, for example, which have framed most of my career.

What defines the success of a story or an opinion piece – is it simply a measure of how many people read it?

Up to recently, calculating exactly how many people read a story was an inexact science.  You know how many people in total read a certain newspaper title, but it could never be known how many saw that specific headline that day and read the story to the end.

Of course, with the Internet and big data, now you can.

In theory, that is. You can supposedly find out the number of people who read a story or an opinion piece because this is simply the number of people who clicked on it.  You can even measure whether the story was “engaging” by clocking the time the story was on the screen.

But is a click or time on the screen really a guaranteed measure of how well-read the story was?  If the numbers are high, does that mean the story was successful in creating an impact? 

Is a long investigative piece exposing corruption in city councils that few people read really less worthy of publication than a hashjob list of top 10 ways to avoid flatulence with a sexy headline that everyone clicked on? 

If you leave it to the data and a decision-maker who simply looked at the numbers to determine the impact versus the cost, the answer would sadly be yes.

The implication is that the investigative piece would never be written – outweighed, presumably, by the fact that so much more of the world would be better informed about flatulence. Look at the data.

Similarly, marketeers these days are busy calculating the “returns” on advertisements that they buy.  This is because in the digital realm, everything has become measurable – from the number of people who clicked on an ad to the number that eventually signed up or bought something.

But not every change in consumer behaviour or perception of a brand or product is recorded by a click and a decision to buy something can never just simply be the result of that last ad that someone clicked on. 

Advertising gurus have long modelled the marketing process into four distinct stages – creating mass awareness first, then having some customers intrigued enough to want to find out more. Then, some in that smaller group grow to desire it and, finally, they may go to the store or online to buy it. 

How much of this cause-and- effect can be captured by the data?

If we are not careful, every decision will be taken over by whatever data that is available over any intangibles that are not.

After all, it is much faster and simpler to do so. No one has to take any responsibility for human preference or error and there can be no further argument over something as concrete as the numbers.

It is especially appealing in pragmatic and rules-bound Singapore, where it is all about unit cost value and clean execution.

In the British television series, Black Mirror, there is a chilling episode that takes today’s big data fetish to the extreme.

In it, every individual has a publicly accessible life rating that is collectively determined by the sum total of his or her actions in life and interactions with other people. 

Picking up a traffic offence lowers the rating, as might rude behaviour to a shop assistant, who can instantly grade you down.

A person’s entire status and worth in life is reduced to a score determined by big data.  Saddled with a low rating, the female protagonist finds that she cannot get credit, enter certain places, hail a cab or even ask for help from passers-by. 

But it is okay.  After all, it’s highly efficient in our brave new world ruled by data science. 

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For too long, travellers have been plagued by excessive roaming charges.

Roaming plans without any price caps that are difficult to understand and use were too often responsible for hundreds of dollars in fees.

Fortunately, over the past three years, local telcos have addressed the concerns of customers and the result is a streamlined, affordable menu of data-roaming plans, helping travellers stay connected while they journey overseas.

StarHub, for instance, cut its roaming plans from more than 10 to five simple plans over the past three years.

In 2015, M1 went a step further and launched a single platform, Data Passport, which allows customers to use their existing data plans overseas.

Since then, M1 has seen its pool of active data-roaming users rise by more than 200 per cent. Data-roaming traffic has increased eight-fold.

Associate Professor Goh Kim Huat, at the division of information technology and operations management at Nanyang Technological University, says prices have dropped and will likely continue to drop as local telcos respond to consumer demand and competition.

“Consumers increasingly need to remain constantly connected to the Internet – even mid-air now – and this spurs demand like never before.

“This inherent demand drives innovation in supply and leads to competition from alternative providers of mobile data. If telcos do not decrease their data-roaming prices, there are various ways consumers can bypass these services,” he says.

Telcos already face stiff competition from other services, such as rentable pocket-sized Wi-Fi routers and traveller-targeted local SIM cards, which have entered the market in recent years.

It is good news for data-dependent travellers, who now have a range of plans to suit their connection needs.


Wi-Fi router

Mr How Wei Jie first used a Wi-Fi router on a trip two years ago and still prefers it for its ability to connect to multiple devices.

The 26-year-old, a co-owner of Poke Doke restaurant in Millenia Walk, travels three or four months a year. “I have my phone, my laptop and my iPad, and if I use an overseas SIM card or a data plan, I would have to tether everything to my phone. This will be very expensive and the connection may not be as good,” he says.

The palm-sized router is handy on family trips as the group can plan their journey, look up reviews and check directions on the go. “There are six of us. If I had bought a roaming plan or a SIM card, my family members would also have to buy their own plans. A router is more cost-effective.”

OPTIONS

The Changi Recommends travel service company offers popular router options. Travellers place their order at least one day before their trip on www.changirecommends.com, then pick up and return their router at 24-hour Changi Recommends booths located in every terminal. Payment is due upon return.

The router costs $5 a day for Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam; $8 a day for China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia; and $12 a day for Australia, Europe and the United States. It connects up to six devices and offers unlimited data.

Routers from Yourwifi (yourwifi.com.sg) cost $6 to $38 a day, depending on the destination, and can be used in dozens of far-flung countries, including Mongolia, Argentina and Fiji. Travellers order their routers at least two days in advance. The router can be picked up at the Yourwifi store in Eu Tong Sen Street or delivered for $7.

Y5Buddy (y5buddy.sg) rents routers at $5 to $10 a day for destinations in Asia, $12 to $15 for the Americas and $10 to $20 for selected countries elsewhere. The order should be made a few days prior to the trip. Collect the router at International Plaza or have it delivered for $5. There is a minimum three-day rental and a $50 refundable deposit.

PROS

Travellers can maintain their local number while browsing online without incurring extra charges. Wi-Fi routers can connect to five to 10 devices at one time.

CONS

Connection will be limited to the battery life of the router, so travellers may need to carry a powerbank.

Travellers may also be limited by the Fair Usage Policy in some countries, which asserts a daily threshold on high-speed Internet connections, so that users do not take advantage of the “unlimited” service. Once the threshold is reached, users can still connect to Wi-Fi, but at slower speeds. Daily rental is expensive in less frequented destinations.


SIM cards

When photographer and Web developer Samuel Ow, 26, first travelled for work some years back, he relied on data-roaming plans from his local telco. But after he racked up a $522 bill on a 10-day trip to Europe in 2013, he switched to overseas SIM cards.

His work is heavily based on the Internet and Instagram is an important marketing tool for him. He requires at least 1.5 to 2GB of data for seven days overseas, in addition to Wi-Fi in hotels.

“The price per megabyte offered by telcos is too high. Loading my Instagram page alone would cost me and it would cost much more to load a video. If I buy a SIM card overseas, I save much more money and the coverage and reception is better,” he says.

Even though juggling overseas SIM cards and not being able to receive calls to his Singapore number can be inconvenient, he lives with that. The prices of roaming packages will have to drop further before he switches back.

OPTIONS

Dual SIM card smartphones such as the Xiaomi Mi Note 2 allow travellers to toggle between two SIM cards. They can keep their local telco SIM card in place to receive calls and text messages, but toggle to an overseas SIM for data.

Short-term pre-paid SIM cards can be purchased at telco shops around the world. Some telcos have pre-packaged SIM cards for tourists.

Thai telco AIS (www.ais.co.th), for instance, sells Traveller SIM cards, ranging from 299 baht (S$12) to 599 baht. The 299 baht card provides 100 baht worth of free local talk time and unlimited data for one week, though the first 1GB will be at a maximum 2.5GB speed and subsequent data usage will be slower.T

ravellers can purchase the cards at the airport in Thailand or at Changi Recommends booths in Changi Airport and add more data to the cards as needed.

In Hong Kong, pick up the Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM Card, which provides unlimited local calls and either 1.5GB of data with a five-day pass (HK$88 or S$16) or 5GB of data with an eight-day pass (HK$118), both at 4G speed. Travellers can purchase the cards at the Hong Kong International Airport arrival hall or at more than 1,000 convenience stores in the city.

PROS

High quality, often unlimited connectivity at an affordable price. Travellers are still contactable via Internet-based calling services such as Skype and Viber.

CONS

Overseas SIM cards can be difficult to find and purchase, especially if one does not speak the local language. On multi-destination trips, travellers will likely need to buy a different card in every country. They will not receive calls and text messages directed to their Singapore number.


Data roam with telcos

Mr Gerald Wang, 36, is overseas 60 to 70 per cent of the time for his job as head of government technology at consulting firm IDC Asia/Pacific. Remaining connected on the go – and being able to respond to calls and e-mail from clients – is an important part of his job.

“I love to have data on the go, especially when it’s my first time in the country. I use my data to look up directions and see if the taxi drivers are cheating me. It’s important for personal security and for staying connected,” he says.

These days, travellers can easily see what data-roaming plans are available at their destination and sign up for them with text messages to telcos and via telco apps and websites.

When travelling around Asia, Mr Wang uses M1’s Data Passport, which allows him to use his local data plan overseas. Overall, he is happy with it, though connection can be sluggish in some developing countries, such as Vietnam, where he found that the available data was too slow to load image-heavy websites and apps like Facebook. He had to wait till he was in a Wi-Fi zone to connect.

“For WhatsApp or Google Maps, it’s fine. But for personal use, to post on social media, it can get frustrating. One needs to temper expectations and be realistic. Different countries will present different experiences.”

OPTIONS

M1’s Data Passport is a monthly subscription service which allows customers to use their local data plan when they are travelling overseas, without needing to pay for extra data. If customers exceed their local data bundles while overseas, they will be billed just $10.70 per GB, with a monthly cap of $188.32. Data Passport is available in 56 countries and costs $10, $25 or $50 to use, depending on the destination.

M1’s prepaid customers can also use their prepaid local data in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia and Taiwan at no additional charge.

Of StarHub’s five roaming plans, DataTravel is the newest and has the best value. At $15 for 2GB or $20 for 3GB, the data is good for 30 days and can be used in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

Or buy a Happy Roam prepaid SIM card for $15, $32 or $50 at locations islandwide, including 7-Eleven, Cheers and SingPost stores, or online at the StarHub website and pick it up at Changi Airport.

Travellers can top up the card with their preferred data-roaming package, which charges Singapore data rates, from $5 for 1GB of data to $20 for 3.6GB. The card can be used in 11 places, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia.

For the widest roaming coverage, Singtel’s five data plans offer connections in 113 destinations. Starting at $20, Singtel’s ReadyRoam package provides 1GB of data which can be used in any of the 26 partner countries across Asia, Europe, the United States and Canada for 30 days. If customers exceed their 1GB bundle, they can continue to roam at the package’s data prices.

Singtel also offers affordable monthly subscription packages for Australia and Malaysia. The DataRoam Saver Australia Monthly and DataRoam Saver Malaysia Monthly plans cost $10 for 1GB, with excess data charged at the same local rate in Australia and Malaysia. In other destinations, customers can buy the Data Roam Daily 100MB Plan, which costs $10 for 100MB and can be used in more than 100 countries.

Singtel even helps customers to stay connected in the air with its In-flight Unlimited Data Plan Value. For a fixed $29 a flight, travellers can access unlimited data for their entire in-flight journey, as long as the flight time is within a 24-hour period from activating the package.

PROS

Travellers will remain contactable and continue to receive calls and text messages on their local number. They can lock onto their telco’s preferred networks to avoid excess charges and also set spending caps easily via their telco app or website to prevent exorbitant bills.

There are many plans, from low- to unlimited-data plans, so travellers can make a selection according to their needs. Many modern data-roaming plans work across multiple countries, so there is no need to change plans or SIM cards while travelling.

CONS

Even though the price of data-roaming plans has dropped dramatically over the past few years, it can still be quite expensive to roam in countries where local telcos do not have premium partnerships. In some countries, buying an overseas SIM card may still provide more data for less money.

The telco’s overseas partner network may provide slower, inferior connection to the high speeds Singaporeans are used to.

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Do not risk the wrath of actor Chua Enlai at a champagne brunch. If you spot him, make sure your plate has only appetisers, mains or desserts on it – not a mish mash of all three.

The 38-year-old bachelor says: “I can’t stand it when people put oysters and smoked salmon on the same plate as lamb chops. I go nuts. You can’t have macarons and steak, or eclairs and sweet and sour fish on the same plate. You just can’t.

“When it comes to champagne brunch, I have to eat in order. So, I start with oysters, then soup and salad, then hot mains and end with dessert.”

The Fly Entertainment artist, best known for his roles on news parody television show The Noose, speaks passionately about food and regales The Sunday Times with stories from his travels. He has eaten everything from puffin in Iceland to boiled snails in Marrakesh, Morocco. But he is afraid of snakes.

“I’m scared of the creature, so the closest I came to eating it was dried snake salad in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The snake meat was flaked and tasted like dried cuttlefish.”

He also recoils in fright as he recalls dining at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, where staff were walking around with trays of exotic food, including skewered snake.

One of Chua Enlai's favourite dishes is Ola Beach Club's Loco Moco.
One of Chua Enlai’s favourite dishes is Ola Beach Club’s Loco Moco. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM
  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    Champagne brunch with a live station serving potatoes of all kinds. I must have roasted potatoes in duck fat, mashed potatoes with truffle and a “design your own” fries with all kinds of condiments.

Chua, who moved to New Zealand at the age of eight, jokes that his family did so not because his horse trainer dad got a job there, but because there were “no snakes”. He spent 12 years there before returning to Singapore to do his national service.

A familiar face in the theatre scene, Chua’s upcoming project is the stage show The Noose & Kakis: My PSLE Is Better Than Yours, which runs from May 19 to 21 at the MES Theatre at Mediacorp in Ayer Rajah.

While he may be squirmish about eating tarantula, the animated comedian is always game to try something new. Chua, who posts plenty of food pictures on his Instagram account @chuaenlai, says: “I like to try food from different cultures and styles of cooking. You shouldn’t judge food if you haven’t eaten it. You can’t say you don’t like something if you haven’t tried it.”

Tell us about the exotic foods you have eaten overseas.

I was sick of eating tagine in Marrakesh, so I went to the Jemaa el Fna marketplace to try something else. For $1, you get a bowl of snails and eat them with toothpicks. I saw people drinking the soup, so I followed suit. Let’s just say that I like the French-style escargot.

I also ate camel kebab in the Sahara desert. It tasted like chicken and was a bit dry. I liked it, although I felt guilty when I went camel-riding the next day.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I ate bugs that were deep-fried. They tasted like potato chips.

In Iceland, I tried fermented shark, which is disgusting. It smells like the strongest cheese and durian put together.

What’s on your foodie wish list?

To have steak and a full-bodied red wine from the Mendoza wine region in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I just have a romanticised image of doing this, with a tango performance in the background.

What do you eat when you go back to New Zealand?

I miss Vogel’s bread, as well as good fish and chips, meat pie and sausage rolls.

Where do you dine in Singapore?

I love Sichuan cuisine, so I go to LongQing in Hongkong Street for mala hotpot. I go to Chicken Up for Korean fried chicken and The Beast in Jalan Klapa for fried chicken and waffles. I like Ola Beach Club at Sentosa for the view and its tropical and colourful vibe – just like the food, which is colourful and tasty. My favourite two dishes are the Loco Moco (beef patty on top of Japanese rice) and ahi poke bowl.

Any favourite hawker foods?

I started eating chilli and hawker food regularly when I came back to Singapore. I like 328 Katong Laksa in East Coast Road and bak chor mee.

What do you crave?

Potatoes in any form, whether french fries, mashed, fried, baked or the fancier pommes noisette (crisp potato puffs). I can eat potatoes every day, at every meal.

What are your go-to snacks?

My snack choices would be sea salt and vinegar Kettle Chips, muruku, chickpeas, hummus and olives.

What do you eat on the go?

I head to the KFC and McDonald’s along Stadium Boulevard because sometimes I want both a cheeseburger and fried chicken – breast meat only.

So you like chicken breast?

I like the dry meat. I also like roast pork belly – it’s also dry meat and crackling.

What’s your choice of tipple?

Like how I eat during a champagne brunch, I also drink in order. So I would start a meal with prosecco or champagne as an aperitif, followed by white wine because of the hot weather.

What are your views on service in Singapore?

I find that there is little respect for the dining experience in Singapore. Customers treat the staff like slaves and staff are also not always invested in the job. When I was in Amalfi, I chatted with service staff who have worked for 30 years and their job is respected. In Malta, I met a “fish chef” who served the salt-baked fish table-side with pride.

If you could pick someone to have a meal with, who would you choose?

American author and television host Anthony Bourdain. You have to respect a food critic who can cook and eats everything. I would love to go on a food tour with him.

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