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While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
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While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
Yes, the Lemur trip to Singapore and Malaysia is underway! We arrived in Singapore yesterday morning after a sleepless thirteen-hour flight, but luckily the energy of being here carried us through, at least till a much-needed afternoon nap. More to the point, our desire to be out and eating won out over tiredness, and we met up with Lemur friend Kenny* for a late breakfast. Our first stop was the Chinatown Hawker centre, which is a sprawling, labyrinthine food hall on the second floor of a concrete mall. It's nominally indoors but open to the elements, not air conditioned, but with breezy balconies around the edges. We wandered a lot, weaving through colour-coded sections, sometimes ending up walking in circles past the same kway teow stall or the same family with a giant fish on their table. It was the perfect introduction to Singapore food and possibly an extension of our feverish jetlagged minds. Eventually, we settled on mixed meat noodles with fish balls and fried wonton. The broth was spicy and tasty, and the tangle of noodles included delicious secrets like little cubes of deep-fried lard. So. Very. Good.
 

xo fish

I’ve long been a fan of XO sauce, possibly because Dim Sum Go Go restaurant in New York makes an amazing spicy-fishy-umami version to slather on its otherwise light and delicate shrimp dumplings. As a 1980s invention designed to connote luxury, it’s probably a terribly déclassé aspect of Hong Kong food culture, but I don’t care, I love it. Still, I’d never have thought to make it if not for a coincidental series of events. First, I was given the Momofuku cookbook for Christmas. It’s a fascinating read and a lovely book but incredibly cheffy: many of the recipes require you to have made a bone stock that takes three days and some special dashi before you even begin. It’s unapologetically impractical. But one thing did stand out – a recipe for XO sauce that required two things I just happened to have: lots of good quality dried shrimp and lots of good quality leftover ham. As it happened, I had a big bag of plump pink shrimp I’d brought back from Vietnam and a vacuum-sealed pack of 5-acorn Serrano ham scraps I brought from Barcelona. It was kismet! Thus began the XO sauce experiment. Read the rest of this entry »

maw curry

The Lemurs spent the holiday season home in Glasgow and while it’s nice to relax in the bosom of one’s family, it’s also really important to me to get out and spend some time in the city. We were en route to a festive party but wanted to have dinner first – we anticipated a long and alcohol-fueled night and didn’t want to drink on empty stomachs. Sadly, we failed to realise that our host was making vast piles of delicious food, so we ended up eating twice, but that’s another story. We fancied Malaysian food and we’ve eaten at both formica-tabled Rumours Kopitiam (famously rude staff but good roti canai and laksa) and the slightly classier Asia Style (good, but tones down the Malaysian flavours). Neither were quite what we wanted, but I discovered that a new Malaysian restaurant has opened in the last year or so, called Banana Leaf. It’s been getting good notices online, and, located on Cambridge St, couldn’t be more convenient, so off we trotted. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was really sick, I wasn’t cooking at all and dinners were whatever I could persuade poor Mr Lemur to put together for us. (This may explain my substantial weight loss, although I really do not recommend the influenza diet.) Now I’m feeling a lot better and well enough to cook, but I’m still fairly weak and in need of simple and nutritious fare. I was craving poached chicken – not the Woody Allen joke of boiled chicken that’s been put through the de-flavourising machine but properly poached chicken that’s juicy, soft and infused with delicate flavours. To go with the tenderness of the chicken, I decided on a mix of peashoots and sunflower shoots – equally tender young vegetables without the indigestibility of winter greens. But you need something to bring all this delicacy into focus, or else it really would be an invalid meal rather than a energising one. Ginger is good for the stomach and ideal with chicken, so I added a zingy Vietnamese-inspired dressing of ginger, chili and lemongrass to wake the whole dish up. Cooking this dish made me feel a whole lot less like a sick girl, but the dish itself isn’t just for the delicate of constitution. Anyone feeling a bit worn down by post-holiday blues could enjoy its revitalising qualities.

Aromatic poached chicken

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 3 lemongrass stalks
  • 2 large chunks of ginger
  • 20 peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup or more fish sauce
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 3-6 long Thai red chilies, to taste
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • a bag of pea shoots, sunflower shoots or whatever mixed shoots and young leaves you have available
  • a handful of mint
  • a small handful of cilantro

Your first order of business is to poach the chicken. Put the breasts in a heavy pot (Le Creuset of similar, anything that holds heat well) and just cover with cold water. Take one knob of ginger, peel and bash with the back of a knife, then add to the water. Cut off the parts of the lemongrass that are too hard to eat, slice in half and add these to the water. Add the peppercorns and a generous glug of fish sauce. Now bring the water up not to a boil but to the gentlest of simmers. You just want little bubbles forming, no more. Turn the heat down to keep it this way for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and put a lid on the pot. Leave it for 30 minutes. You will have beautifully moist and perfect chicken without any further effort on your part. Hurrah!

While the chicken is cooking merrily under its own steam, make the dressing. Finely chop the chilies, the other big chunk of ginger, and the good bits of the lemongrass. Add 3 tbsp each of fish sauce, sugar and warm water, plus the juice of the lemon. You might want to add the lemon juice gradually and taste as you go. I found with the level of ginger and sugar, the dressing could take quite a lot of acid. Remember the heat will be greatly dissipated in the final dish so be bold with the ginger and chilies.

Next, wash the sprouts well and cut the cucumber into matchsticks. Tear or chop up the mint and cilantro leaves and mix all together in a bowl. When the chicken is cooked, let it cool and then tear into shreds and mix into the greens. Toss well with the dressing.

And that’s really all there is to it. Not only do you end up with a vibrant and healthy dinner, the poaching liquid is now light Asian-flavoured chicken stock you can store and use for something else. I feel immensely better for having cooked an actual meal and even more improved for eating it. Now, if I could please maybe get my voice back (almost three weeks of laryngitis!), 2012 would start to seem like a less miserable place…

Serves 2-3, over rice

Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of No Reservationsagain and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…

Saigon can be a confusing place. There’s the whole Communism thing, for a start. Everywhere you look are reminders of the country’s revolutionary politics, from old-style posters of Uncle Ho to the ubiquitous red star flags that decorate the streets. And yet, in conversation with a Vietnamese guide, we learned that neither education nor healthcare are free here, which doesn’t seem terribly leftist. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of consumer capitalism, which suffuses the wealthier parts of the city. There’s so much building work going on, it’s going to be a totally different place in a few years. I suppose it’s something close to the Chinese model which can be perplexing from a Western political perspective. That said, I find Saigon completely charming: it has a combination of laid back urbanism and youthful energy that makes it an exhilarating place to just walk around.

Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!

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As we’ve travelled around the Mekong Delta over the last few days, there has been a constant refrain in our ears: Hello! Hello! It’s a cliche to say that people here are really friendly, but it is actually astonishing how eager to engage everyone is. The Mekong seems to be chock full of adorable moppets, all of whom yelled hello in English with great verve as we passed by. Now, there are lots of cynical reasons that one can think up to explain the situation. Maybe the moppets find white people inherently hilarious, especially when, like us, they are lumbering through their villages on bikes. This one is actually quite likely. Perhaps Vietnamese people are highly conscious of the burgeoning tourist economy and want to do their part. Again, quite probably, but I don’t think that’s all it is. People in Thailand were friendly and helpful but this exuberant enthusiasm, this desire to talk to the strange people – even in tiny children – is a whole other atmosphere. It reminds me a little of Cuba, where everyone I met wanted to talk, and even suffered my terrible Spanish gladly to chat about politics. I haven’t quite got to comparing political systems with the moppets yet (though seriously, I need some explanations) but I have been utterly charmed by the welcome we’ve received here.  Read the rest of this entry »

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