Category Archives: Travel

Little India, Singapore

by William Lychack

Eggplants are, apparently, either male or female, Kali getting us up to our elbows in these great bins of eggplants, explaining in her sing-song voice how females will have more meat, less seeds, and will be less bitter for us. She shows us the way males don’t have dimples under their fat end and explains how we’ll be candy striping the skins later and dressing them with salt to draw the water out before cooking. We are, by the way, in Little India, in the middle of one of Singapore’s many wet markets, Kali having started our education in her native Tamil cooking by teaching us first how to choose the best produce and then how to dicker the best prices with the stall owners. “You must be willing mongers. Kali holds each fish by its tail to test its freshness. She opens the gills, which need to be bright red, and strokes each tiger shrimp to be sure they’re slippery to the touch, which means they’re fresh. There are great baskets of slow-moving spider crabs and, above us, scissor swallows swoop back and forth under the ceiling. Kali argues over the price, has the fish wrapped in newspaper, and tells us that she doesn’t know about us, but she already has the most important ingredient for any meal—hunger.

Outside is Serangoon Road, the walkways strung with rally flags and colored lights—it’s the day after Ganesh’s birthday—and bright red shrines to the Elephant Boy and his mother, Sati, stand on every corner. Bollywood music warbles under the awnings of a music store. One of Singapore’s most famous fortune-tellers happens to be at the corner and we stop and sit in the shade of his sidewalk booth, his bright green parrot looking,” she says, “to walk away.”

We’re winding a path through this warren of dry goods and flowers, fruits and vegetables, making our slow way toward the musky smell of lamb, then poultry, and then the slick-wet concrete and tiles and smell of the fish at us and choosing our card from the deck before him, the man reading our hands and numbers, Kali translating the what has been and what will come.

Singapore has been home to my wife’s family for more than seven years now—and we’ve planned a feast before returning home to New York. Our final evening in Asia will be tandoori prawns, chicken curry, eggplants, lentils, chutneys, yogurt cucumbers, yellow spring rice, papadam bread, chocolate carrot cake… And as soon as we get home from the market, Kali has us cleaning the prawns, as they’re the quickest to spoil. She talks in a kind of Singlish, a derivation of what most native Singaporens speak, and she tells us how rinsing the shrimp after we peel and de-head them will remove all the flavor from their flesh. We are new to cooking like this, my wife and I, and we just do as Kali does.

“How did she learn to cook?” we ask.

“As a little girl,” she says, “learning to cook, watching my mother, she’d always let me help prepare with her. ‘Chop the onions,’ she’d say. And I’d take up all the little bits and pieces and put it all behind and wait for lunch to be over and for my mother to disappear for a nap. So then I’d go and take all her ingredients into the backyard and, with a little stove and a little pot, I’d cook all the ingredients and try to remember how she did everything. Then I’d call my neighbors, take banana leaves for plates, and make the children sit and serve them. Sometimes my mother caught me, but the more my mother said, “No, no, no,” the more I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Not a single ingredient goes into the meal that isn’t connected, in some way, to a story for Kali—the medicinal uses of young ginger, the way she learned to make the mango chutney, how her husband worshipped her lentils leading to why and how they divorced. “I told him I couldn’t go on like we were,” she says and smiles and chops the chicken with a heavy butcher’s cleaver, “and he either had to leave or kill me.”

She describes her cooking as somewhere between the traditional, spicy food of her grandmother and the hawker-style food of her mother. “I cook for health,” she says, “health and presentation.”

KALI’S NAN PURI

½ Cup Milk (warm to the temperature of blood and add ½ teaspoon of sugar in a medium-sized bowl)

Add 1 Tablespoon of yogurt to Milk

Add 1 teaspoon of yeast (sprinkle on top)

Cover with clear-plastic wrap

Ready when foggy (yes, FOGGY—difficult to believe or explain, but after about 10 minutes the bowl will have a fog over it and will be ready for the flour)

Add 3 Cups of flour

1 teaspoon salt

Knead dough always toward the middle, using a light oil on your countertop to avoid sticking, adding touch of warm water

Turn dough over and let rise a second time

Make a log of the dough and cut into 2-inch pieces (approximately the size of a golf ball)

Roll out into a 1/4–inch pancake

Cook in very hot oil (the bread will puff up), turn when golden brown, and let drain

Dim Sum on my Mind

Chinatown in San Francisco rivals that of New York, and I always look forward to comparing restaurants and styles. As a huge fan of dim sum, my only complaint is that the variety and selection at most restaurants have narrowed. Dishes tend to look and taste the same, as less attention is put on branching out to other choices, and I don’t mean more chicken feet. At Ton Kiang, a restaurant on Geary Blvd. specializing in Hakka cuisine, my dim sum prayers were answered.

As could be read through their website, “The Hakka people originated in the far north of China over 1000 years ago. During the course of several great migrations they dispersed across China and throughout Asia. Many settled near the Ton Kiang (East River) Province. Hakka means “guest” and refers to people living in an area who are not natives. The Hakka people picked up dishes and ingredients from each of the regions through which they traveled and incorporated them into their cuisines.”

Therefore the menu offers a much wider variety of classic Chinese dishes. My bartender friend Jared at the W hotel suggested Ton Kiang, but stressed, “Go early.” I showed up at 11:00 am and had to wait an hour. From the looks of things I thought they were giving away something for free, or I was a tourist who didn’t know the code word for gaining access.

When I finally got in, what a sight to behold. A tantalizing parade of delicacies transported me to Hong Kong. The rapid fire attack of hot, fresh goodies never ceased. Every time I ordered a dish, the next one seemed more interesting. And everyone spoke a food competent English. No translation was necessary, though. Shrimp dumplings get pea tips, chives, spinach, napa cabbage, mushroom or scallops. There are pork buns, dumplings, roast chicken, duck, and sticky rice with meat wrapped in a leaf. I feasted on asparagus (asparagus!), long beans, bok choy, shrimp-stuffed eggplants and rice crepes. There were pig knuckles, clams, fried prawns, stuffed scallops, crab claws and egg rolls. It was a dizzying display of masterful dishes, not a melon in the lot.

As usual I ordered far more than I can eat, but with ingredients that fresh, and preparation that satisfying, who can blame me?

There was no time to talk, and I definitely skipped dessert. It was easily the most powerful dim sum experience I had ever enjoyed. Since then I have been lamenting in NYC. I’ve got dim sum on my mind.

Mexicali

San Francisco needs no introduction. It has fast become a great food town with all the trimmings. But there are several charms in the surrounding Bay area as well, most notably The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, four star dining California style. Other notables can be sought out by word of mouth. In this instance just 17 miles north of San Francisco, in Novato of Marin County, Las Guitarras stands proudly. Since 1978, owners Roja and Maria Elena have been serving the best of Mexico to anyone willing to take the trip.

The purpose of the visit was to meet the family of my companion, K, who feels partially raised by this tight knit Mexican-American family. Although she is she is Costa Rican, she often acts like a Chicana. Tia Emma, who apparently was working that night, invited us to her table. Her son Alberto was at the table too, watching his daughter Isabella playing with a ballon. This is a family joint, family run, and the sight of a Mexican family at play during work hours is endearing. Isabella was just too cute. The boss sat down, and her first glance sent chills down my spine. I came under immediate scrutiny. I told a few jokes, aided by the margaritas, and wooed them with my voracious appetite.

It’s hard not to stare at the grill from my vantage point. The giant oysters, laying there naked and ready, looked look like clients of Balco as well. But first the margaritas, on the rocks made with El Jimador tequila, pure and delicious, easily one of the best I’ve ever had on either side of the border. Not to be outdone, but feeling good, I ordered number two, but requested it frozen. Lalo, part of the family, took quick but cordial offense. “Frozen. Then you lose the fine taste of the tequila. We don’t do frozen at Las Guitarras.” I swallowed in embarrassment, and said, “Of course.” Then Lalo brought out a fresh concoction, this time with the addition of hibiscus, a potent flavor making for an unusually fabulous libation. Time for those monster oysters. Maria Elena insisted on the oyster al Jerez, and I asked for the BBQ for comparison. The BBQ was savory and sweet. The oyster underneath, fat and meaty. The al Jerez had melted white cheese, and the sherry vinegar was a great counterpart. Not a drop of sauce was left. I used the remaining tortilla chips to sop up the sauce from the shells.

The menu was a cross-section of famous dishes from all over Mexico. At the top of the list is the mole, one of the most fascinating and complex dishes Mexico has to offer.

The meeting went well, and the donias nodded in approval. If not for a dinner appointment at Chez Panisse, I would have eaten the house down. Mercifully, after the second potent margarita, I was given my leave, as long as I promised to return for a real taste of Mexico on the following visit. I think I passed the test, if only barely. Hugs and kisses later, we were off to Berkeley for fine dining, but deep in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but thinking about what tasty notes I was missing at Las Guitarras.

The Oyster is a Swan

No trip to the west coast would be complete without sampling some of its oysters. Unlike in rap music, I don’t get into a west coast vs. east coast debate about which is better. I like them all, briny, sweet, large, small, etc. I’m sort of the Kobayashi of bi-valves. I’ll eat as many as you’re willing to shuck. Maybe not as quickly, but slow and steady wins the race.

In San Francisco, the Swan Oyster Depot is the kind of unpretentious, family run place you wish you had in your neighborhood. All white tile and a veritable fisherman’s aroma, with the menus on the wall and family paraphernalia collected from over the years. I made the mistake of walking in there at 5:30 on a Thursday. There were two diners finishing up their meal, and I strutted in expecting to chow down. “Everybody knows we close at 5:30.” I was devastated. The wind got knocked out of me, and I mumbled something as I tumbled backwards out of the restaurant. I stood outside lingering, when one of the burly employees came out to dump some trash. “Don’t fret. We’ll be here tomorrow. We open at eight. Come down for some chowder.” An invitation if I ever heard one.

As it turned out, I strolled in at eleven with my companion and we nudged into two seats near the end of the bar. There is only a bar, of course, as it should be, and the writing is all over the wall. This is the real Mcdeal. I nice older fella took my order, which was everything I could get, and then he proceeded to prepare it himself. He did all the shucking and plating. There were no stations to speak of. Every man or woman was responsible for his/her own customers. A plate of pristine Miyagis came forthwith, and I knew I was in trouble. If not for a lunch appointment, they would have had to ask me to leave, which of course they wouldn’t. They’re so polite. Shrimp cocktail was spot on and the clam chowder warmed my cockles from the San Fran breeze. There was a Stony Hill chardonnay and a $90. Pahlymeyer, but I was happy with my Anchor Steam.

Soft shell crabs are in season, but I couldn’t get my fill of clams and oysters. Everyone had the same smile on their faces, like they’d rather be nowhere else. I agree. I didn’t try the lobster, but I had to leave something for next time. I left, feeling pumped up and ready to go, kissed my swan goodbye, until again.

IN-N-OUT

Unlike Starbuck’s, there are some chains that never make it from the West Coast to the East Coast. The effect Starbuck’s has had on the coffee emergency NYC used to suffer from is palatable, the verdict of its ubiquitous logo, I leave up to you.

I heard so much about In-n-Out, I actually almost forgot to give her a whirl. As a hole in the schedule and my nearly empty belly would have it, there it was, on my way to Half Moon Bay.

The operation was efficient and massive. Burgers were getting produced by some unknown quota. You place your order, pay, get a receipt, wait and consume. The burger was quite tasty. The fries were weak. I had a strawberry shake, not the greatest, but hit the spot. All in all I was happy. I hear there is a secret menu. Something about the 3X3 or the 4X4. All this you can look up on the website.

Back home in NYC I admit I am craving an In-n-Out burger. Maybe we could trade them for White Castle?