I eat, I cook, I write, that’s it

By November 2, 2015 Food, Musings, The Daily Dish

Stuffing my face in Singapore last month

Stuffing my face in Singapore last month

I wouldn’t call myself a food authority.

I like what I like, and while I’ll try almost anything, there are some foods — oh, like durian and canned peas — I’ll likely never eat again.

And I’m fully aware that we all have our own preferences, palettes and food experiences that influence the way we order at restaurants, swoon over smells, and inspire us in the kitchen.

So taking the job as the food and dining editor at HONOLULU Magazine — a role skillfully executed by both the legendary John Heckathorn and passionate Martha Cheng — wasn’t a decision I made very quickly.

In fact, it took weeks.

There’s a lot of fear surrounding a job like this. First off, it assumes you know everything about food, how dishes are prepared, what ingredients are in them, which restaurants are the best in town. And secondly, it’s a visible profession — unlike other writing jobs — where people know who you are — and have very strong opinions about what you say, do and write.

And finally, there’s that inevitable comparison to past food editors. Following the forks of Heckathorn (my longtime mentor) and Cheng (my dear friend) is incredibly daunting.

I thought about all of these factors a lot. Like, literally-drawing-a-pros-and-cons-chart-that-I-toiled-over a lot. I was worried I didn’t have enough food experience, I didn’t eat out that often — basically, that I wasn’t good enough to take on this role.

So I had to evaluate this.

I eat — and often. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my kitchen, experimenting with recipes or perfecting old ones. I talk to my mom — an incredible cook, baker and human — about food. My brother is constantly sending me links to food and wine events in town. I’m a longtime reader and subscriber of Food & Wine Magazine. I’m a self-professed fan of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and the Great British Baking Show on PBS. And I’ve been writing about food — for magazines and newspapers and in my blog — for more than a decade.

What’s the problem? Why was I so afraid?

It’s never easy taking on a role that was so clearly associated with someone else. Like when I took over as the journalism instructor and student publications coordinator at Kapi‘olani Community College in 2008, a position that had been long held by the beloved Winnie Au for more than 20 years. I had massive amounts of respect for her and the way she had built the program there, and I was coming in and making huge changes, adding social media and video production, overhauling websites, and disrupting the comfortable existence of my student writers.

Let’s just say it wasn’t easy.

I was up against students who resisted change, who protested what I was hired to do. I had to convince an administration, already strapped and fielding requests from other faculty members, to fund improvements to this program. And I had to adjust from working as a full-time newspaper reporter who taught a couple of classes every semester to a full-time college instructor with a slew of different responsibilities like sitting on faculty committees, applying for contract renewals and filling out the seemingly endless forms and other tedious paperwork associated with any state job in Hawai‘i.

Man, it was rough.

But for four years, I stuck it out. A couple of students left, but most stayed — and many more joined the staff and enrolled in journalism classes. The program thrived.

Did I replace Au? No way. And I didn’t really want to. I just built on whatever she had already done for the program, and I knew I couldn’t have done what I did there without her commitment and contribution.

That’s how I feel about this job at HONOLULU.

I can never replace Heckathorn and Cheng. They each had their own approach to the role. And like the rest of us, they have their own preferences, interests, food memories, palettes, cultures, histories and skills. They saw food in sometimes very different and sometimes very similar ways. But they both had two things in common: a passion for food and telling stories. And I definitely share that with them.

I’m not one of those people who see food as fuel. (I’d be a lot skinnier and healthier if that were true!) Food, at least in my family and life, has always been that thing that brings people together. I still have family dinner on Sundays — now with my mother-in-law — and talk incessantly about recipes with my mom. One of my most favorite things to do is slowly browse the aisles of grocery stores — here, anywhere — and check out new ingredients and food products. And I have, even as a child, loved growing vegetables at home, something I still do, though now in hydroponic tables. (It’s what happens when you marry an aquaponics farmer.)

I’ve worked at a restaurant, at a commercial farm, done catering, even helped organize an international conference on food sustainability. And oh yeah, I have a degree in journalism and have been writing professionally for 15 years.

While I might not have the editing experience, mad cooking skills and command of the English language like Heck or the restaurant resume, globe-trotting experiences and poetic writing ability of Cheng, I need to feel confident that I can rely on whatever I bring to the job, and do the best that I possibly can.

Will I replace them? No way. I can’t. And why would I want to?

I’ll just be me. I’ll work hard, do my homework, eat a lot, learn everything I can, ask questions, be humble, and tell interesting stories that I hope inspire — or at least entertain — you all.

Did I mention I was going to eat…?

***

Look for my stories in HONOLULU Magazine and in its Biting Commentary blog. And yes, I’ll still be blogging here, too!

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#CatTravels: Gardens, Indian food and a guy named Roger

By October 29, 2015 #CatTravels, Food

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I didn’t have much time left.

I only had three full days in Singapore, and this was already Day 3. I had a lot to pack in!

One of the attractions on my Singapore to-do list was the Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre landscaping project adjacent to the Marina Reservoir built on reclaimed land in Central Singapore. The park, which opened in 2012, was part of the government’s plan to transform this area into a new downtown district.

And it’s worked.

This park, with two climate-controlled conservatories and its famous man-made mechanical forest of 18 Supertrees that generate solar power and collect rainwater, is a major destination for anyone visiting Singapore.

Our first stop was to the Flower Dome, the larger of the two conservatories here. It spans three acres, with a mild, dry climate ideal for plants found in the Mediterranean and other semi-arid tropical regions like Australia and South Africa. There were succulents, orchids, olive trees, chrysanthemums, palms and lilacs — all flourishing in this habitat that remains between 73 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. (There’s also an awesome bistro, called Pollen, here. We didn’t get a chance to eat there, though.)

Inside the Flower Dome at the Gardens by the Bay.

Inside the Flower Dome at the Gardens by the Bay.

While we were there, the Flower Dome was bursting with chrysanthemums. This display changes seasonally.

While we were there, the Flower Dome was bursting with chrysanthemums. This display changes seasonally.

Wild daisies, one of my favorite flowers!

Wild daisies, one of my favorite flowers!

Next to the Flower Dome is the the 2-acre Cloud Forest, which replicates the cool, moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions from 3,000 to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. There’s a 138-foot Cloud Mountain that you can walk around, complete with a 115-foot waterfall.

Both domes, kept at around the same temperature, was a welcome respite from the humidity outside. We took our time walking through the gardens in here!

The view from above the waterfall looking down. This is a popular spot for selfies.

The view from above the waterfall looking down. This is a popular spot for selfies.

Here, you can learn about the unique biodiversity and geology of cloud forests and the environmental threats they face.

Here, you can learn about the unique biodiversity and geology of cloud forests and the environmental threats they face.

Then we wandered around the Supertrees, standing 160 feet tall and towering over the rest of the gardens. These innovative structures, which light up at night, are really the focal point of the Gardens by the Bay — and provide a lesson in sustainability. These trees are home to enclaves of unique and exotic ferns, vines, orchids and bromeliads. They’re also outfitted with photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy. And they collect rainwater to use in irrigation and fountain displays. These are super functional — and super cool.

One of the 160-foot Supertrees.

One of the 160-foot Supertrees.

There is an elevated walkway, the OCBC Skyway, between two of the larger Supertrees where you can take in panoramic aerial view of the gardens and surrounding city.

There is an elevated walkway, the OCBC Skyway, between two of the larger Supertrees where you can take in panoramic aerial view of the gardens and surrounding city.


Here’s what it’s like to walk along the Skywalk.

After a quick stop at McDonald’s for seaweed fries and flat whites, we headed to Little India, a Singaporean neighborhood east of the Singapore River and across from Chinatown. The goal: to find something to eat. (Isn’t that always the goal?)

We caught a cab from the Gardens by the Bay to Mustafa Centre, one of Singapore’s 24-hour shopping malls. It’s a retail hub attracting people with its variety of goods and services. We were mesmerized by the sheer volume of stuff sold here, from saris to dishwashing soap.

Among cities, Singapore has one of the largest Indian populations outside of India. The mass migration to this island country started in the early 1800s; a more settled community emerged in the mid-20th century. Today, this gritty neighborhood lures unskilled migrant workers and tourists seeking tasty Indian food.

We were in the latter group.

Inside Mustafa Centre in Little India.

Inside Mustafa Centre in Little India.

Our plan was to eat at a restaurant on freshly cut banana leaves with our hands.

That’s a must in Singapore!

And the best place to do this — and eat delicious food — is the Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road. (There are two of these restaurants; find the one that has the word, “Apolo,” on its name.)

Inside the Banana Leaf Apolo in Little India.

Inside the Banana Leaf Apolo in Little India.

Roti, naan and dishes to dip them in.

Roti, naan and dishes to dip them in.

This restaurant serves authentic Northern and Southern Indian fare that’s served on a banana leaf placemat. You’re supposed to eat with your hands — well, your right hand only; your left hand is for, uh, something else.

But this restaurant must get enough tourists to know how uncomfortable eating that way is for Westerners, so it offers utensils. Still, it’s an experience you should try while in Singapore — if not because it’s fun to do and considered rude in the U.S. I mean, when else can you eat with your hands — and it’s OK?

(Not all Indian food should be eaten with the hands, though. Soupy dishes like daal and curry are consumed with spoons, for obvious reasons.)

The fragrant saffron rice — perfect except for the peas. (I'm not a fan of peas...)

The saffron rice — perfect except for the peas. (I’m not a fan of peas…)

Flower crab in a spicy chili sauce.

Flower crab in a spicy chili sauce.

I have to say, this was one of the best meals I’ve had all year. The star of my plate was the butter chicken, a popular — and fairly simple — dish with flavored chicken pieces in a creamy tomato-based gravy that’s utterly sublime with naan. The gravy is made with tomato puree, onion, garlic, ginger, chili powder, turmeric, coriander powder and fresh cream. Oh, and butter. Perfection.

And a note about Indian cuisine: Cattle are considered sacred animals by Hindus and aren’t consumed. So you won’t see a lot of beef in Indian restaurants. And Muslims don’t eat pork due to the teachings of Islam, so you may not see that, either. But what’s prevalent on menus are chicken, goat, lamb/mutton and various seafood.

We probably overstayed our welcome here, enjoying the air conditioning, before heading back out into the humid streets of Little India.

Walking along Orchard Road in Singapore. We loved how green it was!

Walking along Orchard Road in Singapore. We loved how green it was!

For the first time, we ventured to Orchard Road, a 1.3-mile-long boulevard lined with shops, restaurants and huge malls. The original road was cut in the 1830s — there were orchards and plantations here, hence the name — but it didn’t become a retail and entertainment hub until much later; the first shop opened here in the 1950s. The area underwent a $40 million refresh in 2009 with the addition of new street lamps, planter boxes, flower totem poles and other urban upgrades.

This was what I had imagined Singapore to look like — a sprawling urban area with open spaces and trees. It was nice to walk along this boulevard and get a feel of city life here.

And then — whaddya know! — it was time to eat!

We met up with a mutual friend, Roger Lim, at one of his favorite Cantonese restaurants, Wing Seong Fatty’s — which was conveniently located just across the street from our hotel. (He said it’s “Cantonese with a twist.”)

Inside Wing's Seong Fatty's.

Inside Wing’s Seong Fatty’s.

Just for the record, there are six “Fatty” restaurants in the Singapore telephone directory today, but only one — the one on Bencoolen Street — is the real thing.

The restaurant is named after its owner, Au Chan Seng, nicknamed Fatty. (His son, Au Kok Weng, is “Skinny.” Not kidding.)

Signature dishes include the had cheong kai (prawn paste fried chicken, like the one we ate at Makansutra Gluttons Bay the night before) and the shell-less cereal prawns.

Lim knows the owner and got items not on the menu. In fact, now that I think about it, we didn’t even see the menu!

While we waited for our food, Lim, who works in marketing in Singapore, shared with us insight about Singapore. Why more people don’t own cars — too expensive; it’s around $80,000 just to get a license! — and why he prefers Hong Kong to his own home country — “more lively and real.”

And in between really great conversation, we ate.

These are bean sprouts, which I normally wouldn't eat. Except I couldn't stop eating these.

These are bean sprouts, which I normally wouldn’t eat. Except I couldn’t stop eating this simply stir-fried version.

Here are prawns in a chili crab sauce.

Here are prawns and tofu in a chili crab sauce.

Rice noodles with squid and shrimp.

Rice noodles with squid and shrimp.

An amazing pork belly dish that was perfectly spiced.

An amazing pork belly dish that was perfectly spiced.

Another off-the-menu item: sea bass in a spicy Thai sauce.

Another off-the-menu item: sea bass in a spicy Thai sauce.

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect last day in Singapore. Great food, great friends and a garden I’ll never forget.

***

Special thanks to my traveling pals — Melissa, Edwina and Dean — for planning everything and eating everything. We had way too much fun! And thanks to @singaporeaneats and Roger for showing us why you love your home country so much!

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#CatTravels: Eating at hawker centres in #Singapore

By October 25, 2015 #CatTravels, Food

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If there’s one thing you must do in Singapore, it’s eat at a hawker centre.

Because in this country, makan, or eating, is the national pastime.

Everyone eats here, in these humble open-air areas packed with rows of food stalls selling everything from fried fish balls to stir-fried curried noodles. The rich, the food snobs, the first-timers, the hipsters, grandmas, American tourists, lunching ladies — literally, everyone eats here.

The food here is usually inexpensive and prepared to order. And every stall tends to sell something different from the others, making your visit to one of these centres, most often located in dense urban centers or near transportation hubs, a bit overwhelming.

What should we eat? Where should we go? What the heck is this?

Those were the questions running through my mind during our visit to Geylang Serai, one of the biggest and busiest wet markets in Singapore. Since 1964, this market has been a focal point for the local Malay community — and we were here to eat.

One of the food stalls at Geylang Serai.

One of the food stalls at Geylang Serai.

Melissa Chang and her plate of Malay food.

Melissa Chang and her plate of Malay food.

The first floor is a maze of vendors selling dried fruits, Malay textiles, traditional clothing, fresh vegetables, live seafood and tons of spices.

But upstairs is where the foodies flock. Here, food stalls serve up some of the best Muslin/Indian food in Singapore. You can find plates with fried chicken and basmati rice; desserts like chendol with coconut cream and ice shavings; or mee rebus (“boiled noodles” in Malay) stewed with dried shrimp, mutton scraps and flower crabs.

While there are variations within Malay cuisine that’s prevalent all over Singapore — it’s only a six-hour drive from Singapore to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia’s capital city — there are a few characteristics that remain true across the board: a generous use of spices, belcan (shrimp paste) to make sambal, coconut milk, chili peppers, and rice (nasi). Oh, and Malays rarely use utensil, opting to eat with their hands instead. (Right hands, to be exact. The left is used for, well, other things.)

Inside Geylang Serai.

Inside Geylang Serai.

One of the noodle dishes we tried at this hawker centre.

One of the Singaporean-style noodle dishes we tried at this hawker centre. Notice the thin rice vermicelli. Love that!

Another food vendor serving Malay dishes. It's like an okazuya, where you ask for a plate of rice and order two to three side dishes — or more if you want.

Another food vendor serving Malay dishes. It’s like an okazuya, where you ask for a plate of rice and order two to three side dishes — or more if you want.

Pineapple and dragonfruit juices. The pineapple one was sickly sweet.

Pineapple and dragonfruit juices. The pineapple one was sickly sweet.

Nasi ayam is the Malay version of Hainanese chicken rice, with a deep-fried piece of chicken paired with flavorful rice and a dipping sauce.

Nasi ayam is the Malay version of Hainanese chicken rice, with a deep-fried piece of chicken paired with flavorful rice and a dipping sauce.

We went to a Muslim "okazuya" of sorts with rice (topped with chicken gravy), fried chicken, tofu and green beans and quail eggs

We went to a Muslim “okazuya” of sorts with rice (topped with chicken gravy), fried chicken, tofu and green beans and quail eggs

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From the aptly named House of Gandos, we ordered its specialty: gandos, a hard-to-find dessert, called kueh in Malay, that reminiscent of butter mochi. It’s a slightly dense coconut mochi-style cake that’s completely addictive. And we got six pieces for just $2 Singaporean dollars!

After breakfast — where we literally sampled about 10 different dishes — we wandered around the first floor of the hawker centre to see what other treasures we might find.

This stall on the first floor of Geylang Serai sold spices.

This stall on the first floor of Geylang Serai sold spices.

A whole section was devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables. It looked a lot like Chinatown.

A whole section was devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables. It looked a lot like Chinatown.

These are blue eggs called kurang masin. "Masin" in Malay means salty. Kurang is a village in India. I still don't know what this means...

These are blue eggs called kurang masin. “Masin” in Malay means salty. Kurang is a village in India. I still don’t know what this means…

Another section of the market were vendors selling fresh meats like chicken and fish.

Another section of the market were vendors selling fresh meats like chicken and fish.

We spent the rest of the day walking around the enormous Marina Bay Sands, checking out the world’s longest elevated swimming pool on its top floor and the 1-million-square-foot Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which boasts more than 300 stores and restaurants and a canal snaking through it. We even made a pit stop at Din Tai Fung for its famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings).

The famous infinity pool at the top of the Marina Bay Sands. Look at that view!

The famous infinity pool at the top of the Marina Bay Sands. Look at that view!

The xioa long bao (soup dumpling) from Din Tai Fung, soaking up the shoyu-vinegar-ginger dipping sauce.

The xioa long bao (soup dumpling) from Din Tai Fung, soaking up the shoyu-vinegar-ginger dipping sauce.

For dinner, Melissa had invited @SingaporeanEats — she doesn’t use her real name, though we do actually know it! — to eat with us. A native of Singapore — and a bonafide foodie — she had a list of places and dishes we needed to try. But in the interest of time and convenience, she took us to what she called a rather tourist-y hawker center named Makansutra Gluttons Bay on Raffles Avenue.

It’s a lively spot, right on the bay with great views of the skyline of the island’s financial district.

But we weren’t here for the views!

The scene at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay.

The scene at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay.

Sambal stingray at Makansutra Gluttons Bay.

Sambal stingray at Makansutra Gluttons Bay.

The black carrot cake — which might be confusing to Americans. This dish uses turnips — not carrots — "cake" refers to the way the rice flour binds the ingredients. It's definitely not a sweet dessert with cream cheese frosting!

The black carrot cake — which might be confusing to Americans. This dish uses turnips — not carrots — “cake” refers to the way the rice flour binds the ingredients. It’s definitely not a sweet dessert with cream cheese frosting!

This is an egg scramble with oysters, a popular street food item here.

This is an egg scramble with oysters, a popular street food item here.

The spread, which includes chicken and pork satay skewers and fried chicken with a prawn paste.

The spread, which includes chicken and pork satay skewers and fried chicken with a prawn paste.

Our Singaporean friend said while this might be a newer, trendier spot that attracts visitors, the vendors are completely authentic and serve delicious food, even by her (high) standards.

It’s one of the highlights of any trip abroad to meet up with someone who’s from the area, someone who loves food as much as we do, someone who’s generous and willing to share her insights with us. These people really know what’s going on, what’s good, what’s hot, and what we should avoid at all costs. We were incredibly fortunate to spend this evening with this super fun, super smart Singaporean.

The skyline that night, with the reflection of lights dancing in the bay. It was mesmerizing.

The skyline that night, with the reflection of lights dancing in the bay. It was mesmerizing.

After dinner, we walked over to Merlion Park, a landmark of Singapore near the Central Business District (CBD). It was packed with tourists snapping photos of the Merlion statue, which shot water out of its mouth.

After dinner, we walked over to Merlion Park, a landmark of Singapore near the Central Business District (CBD). It was packed with tourists snapping photos of the Merlion statue, which shot water out of its mouth.

By sheer luck, we caught the nightly Wonder Full, southeast Asia's largest light and water show brought courtesy of Marina Bay Sands. It's a 13-minute show with visual effects — like these lasers — and a water show we couldn't see.

By sheer luck, we caught the nightly Wonder Full, southeast Asia’s largest light and water show brought courtesy of Marina Bay Sands. It’s a 13-minute show with visual effects — like these lasers — and a water show we couldn’t see.

Our final stop before heading back to the hotel was the Helix Bridge — previously known as the Double Helix Bridge. It was nice strolling across this well-designed, beautifully lit pedestrian bridge.

Our final stop before heading back to the hotel was the Helix Bridge — previously known as the Double Helix Bridge. It was nice strolling across this well-designed, beautifully lit pedestrian bridge.

We started the day at a hawker centre and ended it at another one. That’s not a bad plan!

***

The hawker centres in Singapore are owned by three government bodies, namely the National Environment Agency (NEA) under the parent Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Housing and Development Board (HDB) and JTC Corporation. In 2010, NEA launched www.myhawkers.sg, an interactive web portal that offers useful information on hawker centres and food stalls.

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#CatTravels: My first day in #Singapore

By October 22, 2015 #CatTravels, Food

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Singapore wasn’t a country I had longed to visit.

Sure, it was on my must-see list — but well below such destinations as New Zealand, Italy, Iceland, even Kaho‘olawe.

But I have had friends who love this island nation, once dismissed as just a stopover to better, more exotic locales in Asia. It’s clean, it’s safe, the public transportation is reliable, there’s tons of shopping.

Lately, though, this global city-state with more than 6 million people has become known for one thing: food. Chili crab, fragrant laska, biryani rice, stir-fried vermicelli — Singapore is one flavor-packed punch to the tastebuds.

And we were going there to find out what the hype was all about.

Three of us — Melissa Chang (@melissa808), Edwina Minglana (@eminglana) and me — hopped on a plane this past weekend, enduring a 10-hour flight to Manila and another 3.5-hour ride to Singapore. (Side note: Avoid Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport.) Our other traveling pal, Dean Mashino (@dkMOMUS), took the route through Japan. Smart.

I was only staying for three full days in the country; the other three were there for a week.

So we had a lot to do in a short amount of time.

After a few hours of sleep, we roused with the sun and wandered the streets around our hotel, which was located near the airport. (We moved later to the Hotel ibis Singapore on Bencoolen, which is walking distance to Little India and Parliament.) Our goal: to find Singaporean coffee and something called kaya toast.

Edwina, Melissa and Dean walk around our hotel in search for a traditional Singaporean breakfast.

Edwina, Melissa and Dean walk around our hotel in search for a traditional Singaporean breakfast.

We stopped at Q'son Eating House for Singaporean coffee and kaya toast.

We stopped at Q’son Eating House for Singaporean coffee and kaya toast.

A traditional Singaporean breakfast.

A traditional Singaporean breakfast.

Turns out, the traditional Singaporean breakfast consists of the following: a plate of pandan-scented kaya toast with a soft poached egg topped with a dark shoyu and paired with a strong and sweet cup of fresh coffee.

The toast is really the star of this dish. The bread — it has to be soft! — is slightly toasted with a melting pat of this creamy coconut butter inside. It was completely addictive.

After breakfast, we left the airport area and headed toward town — a 30-minute cab ride — to check into another hotel closer to all the action.

The ibis, which is an affordable chain of hotels, is located within walking distance from major attractions like Little India, the shopping district along Orchard Road, and British-style government buildings. (We liked that it had free unlimited WiFi, too.)

It helped that in the lobby was a 7-Eleven. We went there every morning in search of caffeine and snacks.

The chips at a nearby 7-Eleven.

The chips at a nearby 7-Eleven.

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Getting our Slurpee fix!

We had plans to meet up with our friends Sean and Lena Morris and Nadine Kam of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for lunch in Chinatown. So after a quick ride on the bus — you can purchase MRT cards at 7-Eleven, put money on it, and even use it to pay for goods purchased at that convenience store — we arrived in Chinatown just in time for another round of eating, this time at a hawker centre called the People’s Park Complex.

This was our first experience with a hawker centre, which are essentially food stalls selling inexpensive food crammed into a small space. (Street vendors were banned from the government decades ago.)

Inside the People's Park Complex.

Inside the People’s Park Complex.

This food stalls serves a fish dish that was all the rave on social media.

This food stalls serves a fish dish that was all the rave on social media.

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Here’s that fish dish.

Sean quickly ordered the chong qing grilled fish, a grouper that had been grilled and served in a huge pan of spicy chili soup. The fish was grilled in various spices and flavor broths, making it very aromatic and tasty.

Then we wandered around the centre, looking at the various foods and drinks served here.

The hawker centres weren’t what I had expected — though I admit I didn’t do much research prior to arriving in Singapore — but I had visions of the bustling food stands that surrounded Tsukiji Market in Japan or the crowded night markets of Taipei. These food stalls — and granted, we only went to a few — were far more organized and the patrons less frantic. Some stalls obviously catered to the hungry visitors armed with Yelp reviews and guidebooks; others didn’t bother to even post menus in English. It was interesting.

The food stalls sold a variety of food, from grilled fish to dessert.

The food stalls sold a variety of food, from grilled fish to shave ice-style desserts.

A nearby stall outside sold this freshly baked bread with fillings like kaya, peanuts and — my favorite — sugar and butter.

A nearby stall sold this freshly baked bread rolls with fillings like kaya, peanuts and — my favorite — sugar and butter.

You can find the wickedly pungent durian everywhere in Singapore.

You can find the wickedly pungent durian — often pre-sliced and packaged — everywhere in Singapore.

This is the Gourmet bakkwa from Bee Cheng Hiang, which consists of strips of pork belly that are specially marinated and barbecued. Great snack!

This is the gourmet bakkwa from Bee Cheng Hiang, which consists of strips of pork belly that are specially marinated and barbecued. Great snack!

This, though, I won't be eating anytime soon. We found these dried lizards on a stick. No thanks.

This, though, I won’t be eating anytime soon. We found these dried lizards on a stick at one stall. Uh, no thanks.

Next, we walked over to Maxwell Food Centre — also in Chinatown — to try the dish I had been most interested in: chicken rice.

This popular dish is adapted from the early Chinese immigrants who came from the Hainan province of southern China. And it’s simple: the chicken is cooking in a thin broth, often flavored with garlic and ginger. That broth is then used to flavor the rice. The dish is served with a hot chili sauce dip — made from freshly minced red chili and garlic — and is often mixed with shoyu and ginger. Chicken rice can be found everywhere in Singapore, from Chinese coffee shops to chain restaurants.

Sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it?

The Maxwell Food Centre is a converted wet market that has been housing hawker stalls since the 1980s. It offers a wide variety of Singaporean favorites, including Fuzhou fried oyster cake and Ho Kee porridge.

And it’s also the location of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the most popular places to get the dish in Singapore.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall in the Maxwell Food Centre is considered one of the best food stalls serving this local favorite.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall in the Maxwell Food Centre is considered one of the best food stalls serving this local favorite. It’s easy to find: look for the line!

The famous chicken rice from Tian Tian.

The famous chicken rice from Tian Tian.

People who had heard I was going to Singapore had told me that chicken rice would change my life. I can’t say that it was a mind-blowing experience, but I enjoyed it, the flavored rice in particular. It was cheap enough — maybe less than $5 USD for this plate — and the flavors were mild and familiar. It’s a dish I would eat regularly if I lived in Singapore, but not one that I would eat every day while on vacation — if that makes any sense.

On the opposite end of the food spectrum from hawker centres, we met Melissa’s family at CÉ LA VI Restaurant and SkyBar, a posh eatery at the top of the very modern Marina Bay Sands.

This “integrated resort” — that means it has a casino, among other things — was developed by Las Vegas Sands and is considered one of the most expensive standalone casino properties in the world.

Open in 2011, it has quickly become an iconic fixture in the Singaporean skyline. It boasts three massive towers with what appears to be a cruise ship spanning the top; 2,561 guest rooms and suites; a 1.3 million square-food convention-exhibition center; a Caesar Palace-like 800,000-square-foot mall; a state-of-the-art museum; two large theaters; seven “celebrity chef” restaurants; two floating Crystal Pavilions; an ice skating rink that we never found; and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. It also boasts an amazing infinity swimming pool at the top with unobstructed panoramic views of the city.

But we were just here for drinks and dinner.

Marina Bay Sands is now an icon in the Singaporean skyline.

Marina Bay Sands is now an icon in the Singaporean skyline.

CÉ LA VI couldn’t be more different than the food stalls we had been visiting. On the top of this uber-trendy hotel, with an observation deck that only guests can access, this restaurant serves up modern Asian food with an extensive drink menu that makes you feel like you’re in LA, not so much Singapore.

We went with the tasting menu, which featured wok-fried shishito peppers, Irish oysters with ikura and a konbu jelly, pan-fried foie gras and baby squid with a spicy yuzu miso, and wok-fried bok choy topped with parma ham and maple syrup.

Here's the spicy tuna roll with maguro, prawn tempura, asparagus and a spicy aioli.

Here’s the spicy tuna roll with maguro, prawn tempura, asparagus and a spicy aioli.

Here are the Irish oysters, the smoked salmon roll tempura, and the seared salmon with black pepper-coated fennel and wakame.

Here are the Irish oysters, the smoked salmon roll tempura, and the seared salmon with black pepper-coated fennel and wakame.

The view from the Marina Bay Sands.

The view from the Marina Bay Sands.

I didn’t know what to expect on this trip — and so far, the food has been the highlight. Kaya toast, that thick and sweet Singaporean coffee, the flavorful chicken rice, the small plates of meticulously crafted dishes at the top of a luxe hotel — these were all memorable eating experiences.

And it’s only been one day!

***

Follow my adventures in #Singapore on Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/cattoth) using the hashtags #AlohaSingapore and #CatTravels.

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Sneak Peek into new Magnolia Bakery Cafe

By October 15, 2015 Food

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Looking around the test kitchen at Y. Hata in Sand Island, you’d think the chefs were opening a restaurant.

And you wouldn’t have been entirely wrong.

The four apron-clad workers — surrounded by containers of spices, bags of flour, ovens, racks, KitchenAid mixers and every pot and utensil you could ever imagine — were experimenting with recipes for breakfast biscuits, hearty skillets and robust salads for Magnolia Bakery Cafe, a new concept for the beloved bakery chain that’s opening up in the new ‘ewa wing at Ala Moana Center in November. This will be its first location in Hawai‘i.

The New York City-based bakery, known for its cupcakes and banana pudding, will be one of several new merchants to open as part of this multimillion-dollar expansion project. Other tenants include Agent Provocateur, Kay Jewelers, Nitrogenie and Zara.

Magnolia Bakery, which started in 1996 in NYC’s West Village, now has locations around the world, including Tokyo, Mexico City, Moscow, Seoul, Abu Dhabi, Beirut and Kuwait City. These are all bakeries specializing in classic American baked goods like cakes, icebox pies, brownies, muffins and cheesecakes. But some of its shops in the Middle East serve savory items — a requirement from the shopping malls in which they’re located — though nothing to the scale and magnitude of the cafe planned for Honolulu.

“We really didn’t have the time or infrastructure to create a lunch menu (in the Middle East),” said Bobbie Lloyd, co-owner and chief baking officer of Magnolia Bakery, who was mentoring her chefs on the art of making biscuits. “So we had a simple menu. Just a few salads and a few sandwiches, that’s it.”

For the 3,700-square-foot cafe at Ala Moana Center, however, she had to come up with breakfast, lunch, dinner and — of course — dessert fare for a restaurant that will seat up to 66 people.

And for someone like Lloyd, who attended the Modern Gourmet Cooking School in Boston and has opened restaurants and even served as a private chef for Calvin and Kelly Klein, this was a daunting but exciting challenge.

“I was a chef in my first life, I have a lot of friends who are chefs, and I love to eat good food,” she explained. “When my partner (Steve Abrams) and I bought the bakery at the end of 2006, (a cafe) was always on the back burner. I have always loved breakfast foods, so to have a full-service cafe along with the bakery seems like a natural fit.”

Here’s how it will work: In the ‘ewa (Sears) wing, which is slated to open on Nov. 12, there will be a freestanding bakery, where you can grab all of Magnolia’s signature baked goods and desserts. Nearby will be the Magnolia Bakery Cafe, the brand’s first sit-down, full-service restaurant in the United States. The menu will feature breakfast all day long, with items like egg skillets, pancakes, biscuit sandwiches and seasonal salads, as well as the brand’s iconic homemade desserts.

Lloyd pulled out a tray of freshly baked biscuits — a recipe she came up with a long time ago when her daughter, now 13, wanted to learn how to make them — and drizzled honey on the side.

“Here,” she said, pointing to the tray of perfectly golden square-shaped biscuits. “Try them. We’re going to make sandwiches out of these.”

The biscuits were deceivingly light, with a crispy outer crust that I really liked — but the chefs didn’t — and the perfect consistency to be cut and filled.

And filled they will be! Lloyd plans on filling them with pulled pork, onions and jalapeños. Or eggs and bacon. Or avocado and tomatoes. And the biscuits won’t just be plain, either. She has recipes for biscuits with dill, cheddar and black pepper, and scallions.

Lloyd, left, and Low working on recipes for the new Magnolia Bakery Cafe, set to open at Ala Moana Center on Nov. 12.

Lloyd, left, and Low working on recipes for the new Magnolia Bakery Cafe, set to open at Ala Moana Center on Nov. 12.

The bakery's Nolia Pies, some sweet, some savory.

The bakery’s Nolia Pies, some sweet, some savory.

Magnolia's famous cupcakes with buttercream frosting, featured on "Sex and the City" and "Saturday Night Live."

Magnolia’s famous cupcakes with buttercream frosting, featured on “Sex and the City” and “Saturday Night Live.”


Magnolia Bakery has long been known for one single dessert: the banana pudding, made with layers of vanilla wafers, fresh bananas and a creamy vanilla pudding. It’s easily one of the best desserts I’ve ever had, perfect in every way — and you can buy them in sizes from small cups to the insanely huge double bowl that serves 20 people.

When I was in New York City last, I literally went to Magnolia Bakery every single day, almost always ordering the banana pudding — small size — or one of its equally famous cupcakes.

Of course, the bakery will be serving this specialty here — it sells well at every location, including the ones in the Middle East — but there’s a new menu item that might top that: banana pudding pancakes. It’s in testing right now.

“We’re coming up with pancakes that reflect the baked goods (at the bakery),” Lloyd said.

Genius, I thought to myself.

Other pancake flavors will include red velvet, carrot (as in cake) and its popular hummingbird, a flavor of cupcake that features a banana-pineapple-pecan cake with a sweet cream cheese icing. And she’s introducing dutch babies, a popular breakfast item in her home, baked in a 6-inch cast iron pan.

Uh, yes please.

Along with pancakes, Lloyd has come up with a variety of salads, skillets and sandwiches she’s super excited about. So much so, she pulled out her iPhone and showed me photos of them. A classic Cobb salad. A beet — not beef! — carpaccio. A Reuben bake with an egg on top. (“If it’s breakfast, you always gotta have an egg on top,” Lloyd said, smiling.)

While she plans on using local ingredients whenever possible, she wants to keep the menu true to its NYC roots.

And that means, for now, there’s no rice anywhere on the cafe menu.

“We’re still discussing it,” she said.

Magnolia Bakery and Magnolia Bakery Cafe will open on Nov. 12 at Ala Moana Center, ‘ewa wing. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Follow on Instagram @magnoliabakeryhawaii.

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