Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XII

This month’s fruit is quite a world traveler. The one we ate was from Vietnam, though some we see in the markets have been grown locally on Pulau Ubin. Apparently, the fruit is native to Mexico and may have been introduced to Asia via the Philippines. Here it’s called chiku; in Mexico, sapodilla. It’s reminiscent of a peach, or maybe a plum. But I think we cut into it before it was fully ripe, because although the taste was quite sweet, it dried out our mouths (the way a dry tea or wine might do).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

48 Hours in Bangkok

Historic Bangkok is a visually overwhelming place; intriguing glimpses of everyday life mingle with the ostentation of the temples, whose spires are visible from miles away. The profusion of color, the detail of the mosaics, the exotic architecture, and the friendliness of the Thais we met there (not to mention the delicious food) left an indelible impression on us - and that was in just a short trip, 48 hours from start to finish!

We stayed in a fantastic renovated residence down a local alley along the river, so we could spend some time where local families live as well as tour the historic temples and canals.

The temples we saw were Buddhist - appropriately enough, I guess, for a trip during the Vesak Day weekend. Thai etiquette requires “respectful dress” for visitors to these sites, and thus arose our major packing problem: finding shoes that weren’t flip-flops. (After living in Singapore for a year and a half, we’d gone from having one pair of flip-flops apiece to having nothing but flip-flops in our wardrobes.)

But, dress code aside, we marveled at the detailed and gleaming mosaics on every inch of each temple building, the intricate carvings in gold, and the beautiful stonework. (We marveled at the massive Asian tour groups, too, but mostly we managed to stay one step ahead of them so as to view the temples in the peaceful atmosphere they’re meant to evoke.)

A highlight was our trip through the local canals on a long-tail boat, watching local life and lunching at a floating market along the water. We saw homes built on stilts over the water and some pretty sizeable monitor lizards - “Godzilla!” said our boat operator gleefully - along the way.

Long-tails are essentially slim boats fitted with whatever motor is at hand, so it’s not a quiet experience, but they are the usual method of transport in the area. Local merchants have smaller dugouts that can be paddled by one person - even when loaded with vegetables or goods to be sold down the canal at the floating market.

We were lucky not to be taken to the main (read: very touristy) floating market, which sounded like a floating souvenir shop. Instead, we visited a floating market where Thais often go for meals - in fact, it felt very much like an outdoor hawker center along the water. We were right at home, and some of our most enjoyable interactions in Bangkok were with the wonderful vendors - from the shyly smiling papaya-salad lady to the elderly man at the wok who handed me a tasty bite of prawn cake, fresh from the pan, to sample as we waited for our order.

Best of all were the evenings at the hotel, where from the loft in our room or the deck of the restaurant, we could look straight across the river at our favorite architectural icon of Bangkok: the stunning Wat Arun, temple of the dawn.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Peel Me Some Noodles

As you may know, my regular lunchtime repast is a noodle bowl, a deal at S$2.80. I love all the different types of noodles available at your average food stall - ban mian, bee hoon, u mian, and la mian, among others.

When we went to Beijing last year, we visited Mian Ku (Noodle Loft) and witnessed some divine noodle making. Chefs in the open kitchen were flinging long strands of noodles, pinching off identically sized lumps, or shaving strips off mounds of dough, so that each piece landed neatly in one of the pots of boiling water.

Until last week, I had no idea I could catch a glimpse of equally inspiring noodle making right here - in a food court at Tampines that serves dao xiao mian, literally “knife-shaved noodles.” These are strips of noodles cut from a loaf of dough straight into the boiling water. It's as if he were peeling a huge cucumber. The fellow graciously allowed me to take a quick video, which you can watch here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mystery Drinks

Heading back to the “town” area of Pulau Ubin, we grabbed a drink at one of the makeshift cafes along the water. “Wow,” said one of our friends, “We’re really not in Singapore anymore! Is that trash along the beach?” But soon the conversation turned, as it often does, to what people around us were eating and drinking.

My favorite was a day-glo green can of something called “Joy Juice,” with an excessively happy-looking guy doing something, we couldn’t quite tell what – falling into a barrel? floating above a barrel? – you gotta wonder what’s in that. Unfortunately, when we actually bought one, it turned out to be some variant of Mello Yello.

And then there was the one, apparently brought from home by a Singaporean and fellow tourist, that we couldn’t even hazard a guess at. Does anyone have any idea what this is? Or, more specifically, what those things are at the bottom?

We’ve seen lychees, rambutans, and pineapple pieces at the bottom of drinks like this, but we’ve never seen these before. They look a bit more like flowers than fruit, but you never know; we just might have a new candidate for our now sadly out-of-date Fruit of the Month.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin, say the tourist books, is the last bastion of what Singapore used to be: a sleepy fishing village with lazy dogs asleep on the corners, chicken running loose, abundant species of flora and fauna. So one day we planned to wander down to the Changi Ferry Terminal, wait until 12 people arrived (that’s as much of a schedule as the bumboat ferry has), and head across to experience the quiet, rustic, traditional atmosphere of the nearby island.

Unfortunately, we’d chosen to visit on Labour Day (May 1), a public holiday in Singapore. When we arrived in the usually quiet, easygoing hamlet of Changi Village, all the legal parking spaces (and plenty that weren’t) were taken. And, far from waiting idly for a dozen people, the bumboats were chugging hurriedly back and forth, depositing hordes of visitors on the other shore.

On the island, we soon found that the aging zinc-roofed wooden houses and the peeling paint were the only clues that we weren’t on the main island anymore. Everyone we could see looked like they’d just come from downtown; even the bicycle attendants spoke like Orchard Road shop clerks. So we hurriedly escaped down one of the bike paths, in search of the natural beauty of Pulau Ubin.

It was beautiful to cycle beneath the overarching palm trees, sighting the occasional gigantic jackfruit fallen from a tree or a golden-retriever-colored macaque loping through the palms. But even surrounded by nature we were part of a crowd: As we biked, we were constantly pulling over to avoid the ancient vans that trundled by, laden with visitors. The many other bikers often stopped dead in front of us and got off their bikes to walk up a hilly part - just when we’d gotten up enough momentum to pedal through. “City people,” we muttered, climbing awkwardly off our bikes and walking up the hill ourselves.

There were also hordes of walkers, most looking like schoolchildren on a field trip. But they mostly stayed out of the way - until we stopped at a hut to rest and I started to get off my bike. Just as I was swinging my right foot over the top, I was engulfed by a group of them. Suddenly someone’s bag knocked my left shoulder, hard, and in slow motion, the sweaty ang moh and her bicycle fell to the ground in a heap. I wouldn’t have minded so much falling off my bike while riding it. But falling after I’d already gotten off? I found it nearly as ridiculous as the approximately 500 pairs of eyes that blinked curiously at me as I slowly untangled myself. Our friends, I noticed, had moved discreetly down the path.

We’d decided to bike the eastern half of Pulau Ubin for its boardwalk through the natural costal ecosystems rare in this part of Asia, where land reclamation is rampant. (Besides, the western half consists mainly of a temple and about a million prawn farms, which will sell them live to you.) We might not have timed the tides quite right; the water was still a bit too high for us to see some of the coral underneath. Admittedly, one of the informational signs described it as “coral rubble,” so perhaps this area didn’t survive the land reclamation as well as we’d thought. But there were still some hauntingly beautiful - if strangely dry - mangroves, as well as some feisty fiddler crabs defending their turf. And you can’t blame them, really, for staking their claim to what’s left of the quiet, natural world of Pulau Ubin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Our Evening: A Haiku

Two night conference calls,
One for each of us, talking
Over kitty yowls.