Thursday, June 20, 2013

Not so good just now...

No, the situation is not so good for the moment - I very seldom write about the bad parts of life on this blog, but obviously, it would be cheating to pretend things are well - just now, the haze in Singapore is considered hazardous for breathing (what can you do, if you can't breath???). So no updates until things clear out - we didn't get masks from the stores early enough (optimist, as ever) - so are confined indoors for some time to come. Anyway, Happy Summer Solstice for those celebrating....! 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pounding away Peranakan spice pastes...

Fresh ginger, galangal, turmeric, coriander seeds, dried and fresh red chillies, garlic and shallots are all used for the spice paste for the Perakan dish of Acar Awak, kind of spicy chili pickles. I'm quite obsessed with them, and snack them directly from the jar while waiting for the dinner...  
I'm not aspiring to be a food blogger, even if I have loved to cook ever since I was able to hold the spatula; there are enough awe-inspiringly creative food writers out there already, many of whom also are stunningly talented gardeners (actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some ambitious scientist would figure out that the genes ruling our love for these two areas are closely connected...) But I just wanted to post some pictures of my newest fancy, which is pounding my own spice pastes for the Peranakan dishes I've started to love since we moved to Singapore.
Candlenuts and blanchan, a dried shrimp paste that needs to be toasted before using, are two other necessities for the Acar Awak spice paste, here on small traditional Peranakan dish decorated with peonies and phoenixes (two motifs loved by the Peranakan for their auspicious symbolism) for serving condiments at the dining table.
I'd been in several Asian countries, inclusive Singapore and Malaysia, long before last year's move, but I'd only skimmed the surface what comes to the local cuisines. Being a multicultural country, the dishes here are as manifold as the people making and eating them: people of Chinese origin form the majority here, but there are even large populations of Malay, Indian and Eurasian decent. The Peranakan subculture has strong and living roots here, and the cuisine is proudly prepared in families and served by many local restaurants and food stalls (as I wrote in my previous post, these middle class professionals and wealthy merchants were descendants of Chinese, Indian and even European immigrants who married native girls from the Malay Archipelago -  the Malay term ‘peranakan’ means literally ‘locally born’; these intermarriages occurred as early as in the 14th and 15th centuries when trading between the different areas started to develop).
After some vigorous pounding, the paste starts to take form in the mortar (it took me almost 45 minutes to get to this stage... at least I'm getting good muscles from these "heritage projects"!).
"Sunning" the vegetables for a couple of hours is an important phase in the cooking process - they develop more taste and become more crunchy.
The thing is, when you develop a love for the local dishes, from the coconut-scented laksa soup to nonya and all other types of curries, you realize that pastes from the supermarkets don't get you even near to how the dishes really should taste. And while food processors are fast, only pounding by hand really brings out the deeper aromas of the ingredients like galangal, turmeric, ginger, coriander seeds, garlic, dried and fresh chillies and little shallots to mention just a few.  Luckily, when I was browsing through some of the junk/antique shops in the backstreets of Singapore, I bought a huge old stone mortar with a pestle, almost too heavy to handle, but wonderful when you need to prepare larger amounts of spices. And it hasn't been idle in the back of the storage room; I've been pounding away all kinds of pastes several times a week, sometimes with tears running from the large amounts of chili and shallots often required in the recipes. So even if not quite keeping to the subject of my blog, here are some pictures from my latest food adventures among the local cuisine of Singapore.
The completely addictive end results of Acar Awak (unfortunately, in a Japanese bowl, I might need to go back to my junk shop and buy a Peranakan porcelain one to be even more authentic...where does it end?)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Joo Chiat - a heritage gem at the East Coast

The corner of Joo Chiat Road and East Coast Road has row of typical Singaporean shophouses that has been preserved within the Joo Chiat Heritage Town area. Shops filled the first floor at the street level, and the owners lived above their businesses. Rumah Bebe, a shop selling traditional Peranakan embroidered clothing, beaded shoes, ceramics and cakes is housed in the turquoise part of the row, and Kim Choo Kueh Chang, my favorite Peranakan dumpling and kueh provider to the left of it. The shophouses are typically very ornamental - with plaster decorations and colorful tiles, and many other rich elements loaned from both European and Chinese building traditions.

Brave, bold and bright as they might be, Singapore's real charm does not lie in its newest and most media-touted attractions. Instead, the city's true gems are best found by digging past its shiny surface. One of them is the quiet enclave of Joo Chiat on the East Coast, a bit further east from Katong where I live for the moment. Joo Chiat fills all my requirements for a charming neighborhood: it is perfectly walkable, has a great mixture of cultures and ethnicities, loads of beautiful architecture - much of it in form of colorful Singaporean shophouses - and last but not least, great food and cafés.
This vibrant little enclave came into being a bit over century ago, when  the raising land values made nutmeg, gambier and pepper plantations and coconut groves of these eastern coastal areas give way for Singapore's growing middle class who sought out from the increasingly hectic (and then dirty) inner city. The area was named after one of the most successful plantation owners and traders of the area, Hokkien Chinese Chew Joo Chiat (also called 'King of Katong'), to whom large parts of the land belonged until early 20th century.
While having a great mix of cultures from Eurasian and Indian to Malay and beyond, Joo Chiat and Katong have traditionally been the preserve of the Peranakans. These middle class locals and wealthy merchants were descendants of Chinese, Indian and even European immigrants who married native girls from the Malay Archipelago (the Malay term ‘peranakan’ means literally ‘locally born’; these intermarriages occurred as early as in the 14th and 15th centuries when trading between the different areas started to develop). Peranakans settled in many parts throughout Singapore - Emerald Hill is another well-known Chinese Peranakan area and Little India housed Peranakans of Indian decent - but today, the Chinese Peranakan living heritage can probably be best experienced in the Joo Chiat district.

Food was and still is an important part of the Peranakan traditions, so it comes as no surprise that some of Singapore's best eateries can be found in Joo Chiat, with many stalls dating back to the 1940s. Many of them still sell traditional Nyonya dishes from kuehs like onde onde to pandan-wrapped dumplings, or specialize on other classics as Singapore chilli crab, wanton mee, Teochew porridge and of course, Katong laksa, a spicy coconut broth filled with rice noodles, prawns, sprouts and herbs (one of my favorites, I've even learned to make it myself from scratch, pounding the spice paste by hand...).
After a dip into the brink of sleaze in the late 1900s, Joo Chiat has today reclaimed its proud heritage with help of several grassroot organizations. First, was granted first Conservation area status in 1993, and then nominated Singapore's first Heritage Town in 2011. To date, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has listed for protection 928 buildings and 15 bungalows in Joo Chiat alone, which makes a stroll through the colorful streets a great deal more relaxing in this city where old buildings all too often come down in a dust cloud, feverish development goes on from 7 to 10 six days a week and the sound of jackhammers is never distant.

As often is the case, the security provided by the high protection status of Joo Chiat has led to gentrification of the area (which some locals disapprove of),  and Joo Chiat seems to be evolving into a favorite for both locals as well as foreigners, often working in different creative professions, who seek more from their neighborhoods and abodes than just off-the-rack modern design and conveniences. Hopefully things don't get all too trendy though so the mix of small businesses from bakeries to eateries, hardware shops to funeral supplies, antique houses to interior designers prevails, as it is exactly what makes Joo Chiat so lively and special.  
More restaurants from Joo Chiat Road - most of them Chinese or Peranakan, but even Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese... and the occasional steak house and pizzeria.

"The five-foot way" - Sir Stamford Raffles wrote in his famous Ordinances from 1822 that all houses on both sides of the streets in Singapore were to have a continuous walkway with the minimum width of 5 feet to provide pedestrians both shade and shelter from rain. Very clever - I'm still thankful for him every time I walk under their cover!
Decorative ceramic tiles are very typical for Singaporean shophouses, the type that was commonly used to surround fireplaces in Victorian England. The floral and natural motifs of them appealed to the Chinese who build the houses, and were used to decorate the exteriors in this warm climate.
This shophouse in the corner of Joo Chiat Road and Lane was built just before the Crash of 1929... It combines classical elements from both Rococo and Barock with Chinese animal and plant motifs, like the huge Dragons on the top of the front.
 Tin Yeang Restaurant is one of our favorite fish restaurants at Joo Chiat Road - their steamed fish dishes are deliciously fragrant and spicy.

  Shophouses without shops - a well-preserved and quiet residential row at Koon Seng Road. According to history books here, this house type has its roots in the Chinese building tradition, but I can't help thinking of the Victorian terrace houses when I see them... Either way, they are extremely charming, and it is very lucky that this area has been preserved for the delight of future generations.

Saloon-type doors were a regular feature, they provided privacy while letting the breeze through the houses - here, intricately carved wooden doors at Tembeling Road.

Chang Pow Joss-paper trading is a rare survivor from the past - they make supplies for Buddhist funerals. Everything handmade using thin bamboo sticks that are tied together and covered with colorful paper to form palatial buildings, cars, bicycles and anything else imaginable to be burned at funerals to provide the dead with better life on the "other side".
Cars and bicycles, and huge mansions - all to make the dead family members and ancestors happy in the afterlife... Unfortunately, no-one spoke English, and did not want to tell me how much these amazing works were worth (I was actually curious enough to ask...)

There are many bicycle and mechanical repair places and hardware shops and the smell of motor oil fills the hot air when walking past. 

I'm not entirely sure if Katong Antique House on East Coast Road is a small museum or a little shop full of old Peranakan treasures from porcelain to beadworks - the old lady did not speak English, and didn't want to sell anything.

Maintaining good relations with the gods and ancestors (and of course, older generations still living) is important in the Chinese culture - I know too little to be able to tell which gods there little shrines are dedicated to, but they are a typical sight in the Joo Chiat area.

A row of smaller heritage houses off East Coast Road - all painted in individual colors according to the owners tastes...Very charming, I think.

Time for lunch... walking makes one hungry, and the fresh Calamansi lime juice available in most places is so refreshing in the heat.

One of the oldest houses, probably from the times the area was covered with coconut plantations... the second storey loggia has a wonderful collection of orchids, I would love to get a closer look at them! Loggias were practical as they sheltered the buildings from direct sun, and so kept the temperatures inside lower. 

Joo Chiat has several places of worship - Christian churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples and probably many others... Tthe Kuan Im Tng Temple can be found at Tembeling Road, and it upholds a unique three in one combination consisting of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, consolidating the essence of these three religions into “Xian Tian Sect.”

If you are interested in reading more about the Singaporean shophouses, there is a beautiful book called "Singapore Shophouse" by historian Julian Davison, with wonderful photos by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni - highly recommended!


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fort Canning Park, a verdant hill full of stories

The Gate of Fort Canning is all that remains of the fort that was built here between 1859 and 61 - the creeping figs and the green mosses are slowly painting their own landscape on the old mortar... Earlier called both Singapore Hill and Government Hill, it was renamed Fort Canning Hill in 1860 after Lord Charles John Canning, then the Governor General of India.   
I've travelled past and around Fort Canning Park so many times, without ever taking time to stop there. But when I felt quite restless yesterday, I decided catch the bus there despite the oppressive heat. And I'm glad I did, as this old park proved to be a real pearl, with layers upon layers of history from pre-colonial to late 20th century folding up along the many pathways meandering up and down the hill.
What I loved best is the extreme greenery to typical to Singapore: huge trees and palms, completely covered in ferns, creepers and mosses, forming huge canopies that protect against the relentless equatorial sun. And the undergrowth, so lush and vibrantly green - I've heard Singaporeans sometimes mention how bored they are with ubiquitous green here, which makes them want but just that, and so fill their gardens with plants that have variegated or otherwise colored leaves - but I'm still in love with this tropical nature in all shades of green.
Wandering the pathways of Fort Canning Park is a trip into Singapore's past, all wrapped in luxurious greenery. Remnants of military and seafaring history tell about the colonial ambitions in this part of the world, the spice gardens about the rich trading heritage - the reason why so many (mostly) young men risked their lives by travelling here. Combined with a touch of 'Gothic' - old, mossy tombs and graves telling about the tough life of the early colonialists and especially their wives and children - Fort Canning Park really offers the perfect scene for some very pleasant time travelling.

View to the park through the gate, with the massive iron-forced double doors.
Fort Canning Center used to be the barracks of the British army; both European and Indian soldiers were housed here. Today, this handsome building houses Singapore Dance Theatre and several other different cultural functions are held here.
One of the many ginger lilies in the park, shining like a lantern in the shade of the huge, fern-covered trees...

The spice garden, with pandan on the left side and wild pepper on the right side of the path. Raffles came to Singapore to establish a trading post for the British East India Company, and some of the most important exports from here were spices like nutmeg, mace, cloves and pepper. Raffles was a keen botanist and wanted to explore further possibilities of crops that could be of economic importance, and so established a Botanic and Experimental Garden filled with plants like gambier, pepper, sugar cane, coffee, tea and other tropical herbs, spices and crops here in 1822. After Raffles death in 1826, the garden deteriorated fast and were finally closed. It was first in 1859 that the new Singapore Botanic gardens were established in their current site in Tanglin.

Raffles Terrace. The house above the little fountain and flagstaff is where Thomas Stamford Raffles build his house in 1820 (the original building was demolished when Fort Canning was built, and the house above serves only as a memorial).
In his days, Raffles could see the boats in the harbor from this terrace; now, skyscrapers and glitzy new buildings like the Marina Sands Casino fill the view... The flagstaff served an important function as a messaging system; the merchants followed it closely, as it informed about the incoming and outgoing ships. It also announced when ships needed to be quarantined because of contagious diseases on board, and warned about fires in the city.

 Raffles wrote in a letter to William Marsden in 1823: "We have lately built a small bungalow in Singapore Hill where, though the height is inconsiderable, we find great difference in climate. Nothing can be more interesting and beautiful than the view from this spot." When I stood in front of the house, the gentle breeze made the weather feel at least a couple of degrees cooler... a clear advantage in the humid heat of Singapore. Raffles House remained the resident of the Resident Councilor (later the Governor) until the military took over in 1858. 
The lighthouse, just down the hill from Raffles House. The first landmark for entering the Singapore harbor was only a lantern attached to the top of the flagstaff; in 1902, this was replaced by a proper lighthouse that could be seen from the sea 30 km away. The lighthouse was closed in 1958 when tall buildings in the city made it invisible from the sea. 

Some of the winding pathways leading though the luxurious greenery on the hill.

The Malaysian Banyan tree is also called 'strangler fig', as it slowly hugs to death the host tree it attaches to, forming a hollow strangle of aerial roots... This one was probably already around long before Sir Raffles first set his foot here in 1819.

Beautifully scented frangipani by the Raffles House. Europeans often planted (and still do) frangipani by their houses for their wonderful scent, which is unimaginable for the Asian population here, as they are commonly used as decoration in funerals and so are seen as an unlucky omen...
Keramat  Iskandar Shah is dedicated to Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of 14th century Singapore before he fled to Melaka to escape an attack from the Siamese (keramat means a sacred place). Although named after him, it is disputed that the keramat actually is Iskandar Shah's tomb, as he supposedly died in Melaka. The tomb was carefully tended by the Malays here even before the British set their feet on the hill, and it remains so even today.

The gates from 1846 in Neo-Gothic style leading to the graveyard, now converted into a park.

Over 600 burials took place in the Fort Canning Cemetery. After decades, the graves deteriorated, and in 1954, the Government converted the entire hill into a park. The gravestones that could be salvaged were embedded into the original Cemetery wall, and form now a touching document over the tough realities of life for the traders and other early settlers in Singapore.
A large proportion of the buried were young; many of the memorials are for infants and toddlers, often several from the same families. The white stone above carries the names of Emily Delphina and Annette Elizabeth, the 5 and 1 year old daughters of the Portuguese Consul-General Jose d'Almeida Carvalho, together with a line "These are they which follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth".

 To his and his wife Sophia's great grief, Sir Stamford Raffles lost four of his five children to dysentery and other tropical diseases while in the tropics. Raffles died when only 46 years old, again due to ill health mainly resulting from his years here.  

 Little Paula left this life on Saturday Morning, 15th of August 1834.

A group of gravestones were removed and placed here from the old Bukit Timah Cemetery when it was converted into a park in 1971.  

The two rather cute and small cupolas were designed by Architect George Drumgoole Coleman. They have no obvious purpose, but it is often said that they were meant as shady resting places for people visiting the cemetery - which sounds a bit odd, as they really are quite small and there is nowhere to sit... Today, this is a popular place for taking wedding photographies, and when I left, a young couple just arrived and started posing in the shade.