Because in Singapore there's no excuse for having a bad meal.

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Thaipusam: Spiritual food for the soul, not the stomach.

Poles of the kavadi are bolted through stomach flesh.
As a Foodwalker, the majority of my street roaming attention is on food, or things related thereto. And within the realm of food production, selling, cooking and eating – down the countless narrow alleys, beneath slanted shacks and within the confines of holes in the walls – lies fascinating culture which both defines the cuisine of the local area and at the same time transcends it into something greater than the subject of gastronomy, but of humanity. This element behind indigenous cuisine is one of the main ingredients making food taste so good.

But every now and then events occur which, though not related to food, seem still to fit a Foodwalker’s cultural passion. Like this month’s holy Hindu celebration of Thaipusam. It is on this one day each year that Tamil worshipers express prayers of gratitude to Lord Muruga and his victory over evil forces of darkness in the world, and make the final push for divine help in fulfilling their religious vows. The celebration is also one of atonement, where worshippers pay penance for the past year’s failings and pray for a better and more prosperous year ahead.
It’s no easy task. After fasting for anywhere from three days to a month, a devotee impales himself with religious decorations and items of significance. I’m not talking pinpricks here – he forces hooks, skewers and steel spikes into – even through -- his cheeks, tongue, lips, shoulders, chest, back and beyond. He then embarks, in a trance-like state, on a pilgrimage from one holy temple to another.

The items attached to hooks and chains vary, each representing a specific wish. Limes, for example, symbolize protection by the deities. Small pots contain sacred cow’s milk for cleansing and good fortune. To apply these adornments, selected areas of skin are massaged for a moment with white, holy ash, then the steel skewers and hooks are plunged through the tissue and out the other side – with no pain killers.

Many pious individuals also don steel or wood float-like structures called a kavadi (appropriately meaning “burden”) on their shoulders. The kavadi is traditionally decorated with peacock feathers, aluminum plates and gold ornaments which show images of Hindu deities. Bells, chains and other elaborate components drape from them and attach to the skin. Often weighing up to 15 kg (33 lbs), the kavadi is supported by long steel spikes which extend down from the base and pierce the skin on the chest, stomach and back to hold it in place. Support rods are bolted through thick folds of skin at the base of the abdomen to hold it all in place. With every step the sharp points and poles jiggle and poke a little deeper.
Spikes in the worshipper's chest help support the kavadi.

It requires great determination and endurance to pull off the pilgrimage and the toll it takes on many worshipers is palpable. Sometime one will begin to fade out of consciousness, only to be encircled by supporters, singing and chanting, clanging and drumming – louder and faster – as if to revive him enough to continue forward. Often someone will pause to hold a pilgrim up until he regains poise within his spiritual trance. The procession has been stopped by authorities in many countries, including even in parts of India. But it remains an annual tradition in Malaysia, where hundreds of thousands head to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, and here in Singapore, where it’s an arduous trek beneath the blistering sun and high humidity from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

Friends and family walk with the devotee, encouraging him on and often carrying pots of milk on their heads during the procession. The clamor of drums, cymbals, horns and bells rings out from every devotee’s group, helping to keep him entranced, while Indian religious music blasts onto the street from the many merchants along the pilgrimage path. 

Walking on a bed of nails.

Though most walk barefooted on the hot pavement of the streets, some traverse on a literal bed of nails – spiked wooden sandals strapped to their feet – each step probing deeper into their soles. A cane is often needed to help support themselves with each, painful step.

Such large-scale public acts of penance are not witnessed much around the world anymore. And the degree of fortitude and personal sacrifice of those practicing this sacred passage impales an onlooker’s memory nearly as deeply as the hooks in the worshipers’ skin. It demands passion and commitment and generations of prior practice, which draws parallels for this Foodwalker to the culture behind something else equally as remarkable and magnificent from India: its food.

Wet Market Wanderings: Shark!


The wet markets of Singapore; how do I begin to describe them to one who has never been?  Do I simply explain that they are open air food stands contained under a common roof and offering fresh food to buy?  I could write a tome listing the endless array of fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, poultry and a host of things that I don't exactly know how to classify but nevertheless look great.  Or do I describe them as a gathering of different vendors in every neighborhood in Singapore selling meat, produce and dry goods specific to the predominant ethnicity of that area?  That could become and even bigger opus.

To the untrained eye Singapore's wet markets may all look the same. Just rows and rows of counter-height stalls piled with good things to eat. You make your way along wet, slippery floors (they hose down portions of markets periodically to wash away the detritus), past boxes, baskets and coolers stacked in narrow aisles, and a rainbow of people from all over this melting pot of culture. Everyone is reaching for things to put in their round or rectangular plastic boxes to hand up to the auntie or uncle behind the food to tally in their heads or on a scrap of paper and gesture how much it all costs. It's a bustling, crowded, sometimes pushy and frequently noisy full-on sensory experience which, if you have any interest in Singapore's local food and the people who cook it, can't be missed.  But there's more to a wet market than meets the eye and not all sell the same things.

I can often choose which market to venture into depending on the category of my peckish sentiment at the moment.  If, for example, I want lamb or mutton, along with ghee in which to cook it and banana leaves on which to serve it, I head to Tekka market in Little India.  If pork tickles my palate, I avoid Tekka and head to Tiong Bahru where one can buy the entire swine's face or -- for the more particular -- just the ears or tails or trotters, not to mention all (and I mean all) parts in between.

Pig's heart/lung combo - is it still called "pork??"

If, alternatively, my menu calls for fully intact chickens or ducks; whole pigs; live frogs; squirming eels; turtles, lotus root packed in mud; any variety of live crabs; preserved duck eggs (which, by their blackened, straggly feathers and overall semi-decomposed appearance, may very possibly be the ultimate misnomer); nearly any variety of dried sea flora or fauna or piles of tender, soft noodles, it's off to the Chinatown Complex.  Of course great fish, fruits and vegetables can be had at an of these, though one gets picky over selection and price, so I have my favorites.

 And don't forget the dried foods ranging from a biology lab's worth of seaweed, dried meats, fish, herbs, prawns, fungi and countless varieties of shriveled critters and mollusks in varying stages of decomposition. The list of options available at the many Singapore wet markets goes on and on, and after only a short while you find that nothing shocks or disturbs you anymore and everything is worth at least an exploratory taste.

But every now and then something shows up that intrigues even the most well-seasoned wet marketeer and is worthy of special note.  And this particular day was no exception.  I walked into the market in search of lemon grass to make a refreshing "tea" to cut through the tropical heat that simmers within my core after a crowded morning slogging through the fish-scaly puddles and fleshy air of a wet market.  When I happened upon a shark. Not a shark like the smaller ones in every fish stall - black tip reefers or the ubiquitous dogfish used to make an affordable interpretation of shark's fin soup.  But a rather biggish shark -- stretching nearly 2 meters.  In other words big enough to cause your average expat holiday snorkeler to uncontrollably contaminate the clear waters of a coral reef.

The creature's pinpoint eyes--piercing even in death--caught my attention first, following which I momentarily scanned its length, estimating the height of its dorsal fin and, inevitably, the diameter of its wide mouth.  I stood there, admiring the catch of the day, with its tawny sandpaper skin, intricate leopard spots and creamy underbelly.

I touched it.

"You wan buy?" The Chinese fishmonger barked at me from across the crabs and squid.  I could sense from his dubious expression that he already knew the answer.

But I played along. "How much?"

"Seven per kilo. But must buy whole fish." No doubt, a "special promotion" for the sweaty ang moh with the Nikon standing before him.

"How heavy?"  I replied, eyeballing the beast as if sizing it up for my wok at home.

"Fifty five k-g.  Very nice!"

I did the math and wondered if in Princeton, New Jersey one could buy a fresh 120 pound shark for $300. That's about $2.50/pound.  Not bad, I thought, trying to picture our maid's expression when I slapped that bad boy down on the kitchen counter so she could get to work.

But apparently I was not the only one with such grand ideas, because before I knew it a more ambitious Singaporean stepped forward and, speaking rapidly to the vendor in short, sharp words, pointed to the fish.

I glanced at him, my face demonstrating disappointment at his attempt to usurp my family's dinner.  My competitive spirit flared and I nearly leaned in to begin the bidding war.

But he had the advantage -- Mandarin -- and the negotiation went fast and furious, until he handed over what appeared to be a much smaller amount of currency than previously required of me, and sealed the deal.

"Xie xie," my fishmonger friend nodded at my victor before dropping the money into a tin and turning away to address an enormous grouper in need of filleting.

And so ended my shark tale.  But that's okay, because tomorrow is another day in the wet markets of Singapore... and I'm going back for goat....

Postscript:  None of the foregoing is intended to condone the fishing for or killing of sharks. Great controversy exists over the indiscriminate killing of sharks for their fins. Often the desecrated creatures are just tossed back the sea – sometimes still alive. I believe that such a cruel practice is both inhumane and an unjustifiable waste of valuable wildlife resources. What do you think?

Singapore's Tasty Garden of Ginger

A walk through the Ginger Garden section of Singapore’s idyllic Botanic Gardens is like stepping into a microcosm of natural beauty. The understated elegance of the flowers, some with firm, waxy blossoms, others with wispy, delicate petals, are perhaps what moves me most. Unlike the flamboyant orchids nearby, so stunningly vibrant and optic like glittering movie stars beneath the klieg lights, ginger plants are the quiet, intelligent girls in the classroom; like Gilligan’s Maryann in the shadow of Ginger, or the kind of girl a good son takes home to mother.

The Ginger Garden is like a jungle, dense with greenery and a sparkle of color every now and then. A walk-through waterfall covered with white ginger blossoms adds a symphony of natural sound to a stroll along the several small paths which fan off from both sides of the main walkway. Many of the ginger plants are recognized instantly: birds of paradise, heliconia. Others are large and unusual with intricate leaves and tiny floral blooms. Bananas and a surprising array of over 250 other familiar and unfamiliar plants also fall within the ginger family and grow amongst the greenery, making this a beautiful ethnobotanic experience. Who says school needs to be in a classroom…?

Halia – ginger in the garden
But the Ginger Garden is not just about flowers; it’s also about food. In the center of the garden lies Halia Restaurant (“ginger” in Malay), a calm, relaxed place for an uncommonly good, albeit pricey, meal in a gorgeous setting. The restaurant underwent a facelift in 2011, including an attractive open kitchen inside its glass-walled bungalow dining room and an outdoor bar for al fresco cocktails in the middle of lush flora.

In keeping with its location, Halia incorporates ginger and other local ingredients into several of their dishes, drawing also upon other excellent foods sourced from around the world: Oysters from Australia, Jamon Iberico Bellota from Spain, lamb from New Zealand.

Feeling only slightly peckish, I started a light meal with Coffin Bay oysters, which delivered a clean, briny flavor. Best freshly shucked on the half shell, the sampler also included a demure tempura with ponzu drizzle, and an in-shell gratin with sautéed baby spinach dusted with nutmeg and parmesan.

Next came a tian of vine-ripened tomato which offered a delightful vegetal brightness. The super-ripe tomatoes, so bold and sweet, were layered simplistically with pine nuts, guacamole and mango salsa and were as delicious to the eye as to the palate.

I hadn't planned on a big meal, but who could resist an order of ginger-infused cubes of foie gras with green apple, fresh fig and piment flakes on top of  micro greens kissed with a balsamic deglaze?

Not me.

Or the light and crisp Tempura of white prawn with tender leaves and a tickling lemon vinaigrette?

I had to have that, too.

Then, like a haunting whisper, a black and white sesame crusted blue fin tataki main dish murmured my name. With sautéed baby spinach and saffron cream sauce, its contrasting textures and flavors were nicely balanced, though for me the more rare the better.

I could have stopped there, but I also coveted the sauteed risotto soja, blended with traces of mascarpone and parmesan and topped with oyster and a foam of truffle, seaweed and mushroom. I caved to the temptation, and its subtle umami essence amidst the creamy risotto persuaded me to keep to the sea just a little longer.

So I reeled in the Hiramasa kingfish with grapefruit foam resting on a thin potato galette. The bubbles of intense grapefruit made the powerful white fish flavors fly.

But it was rude for me to ignore Halia’s meat, right? So as a selfless act of contrition I crawled from the sea toward a drippingly juicy Blackmore Wagyu rump beside garlic saffron mashed potatos and a dollop of sautéed baby spinach. The perfectly-marbled meat nearly melted in my mouth.

Of course, I reasoned, the Pan-seared Challan’s duck breast – so perfectly rare, rendered and resting on lyonnaise potatoes – would be an excellent prelude to the earthy New Zealand rack of lamb marinated in Javanese spice and alongside purple potato puree. It would surely be a missed opportunity to pass up.

And I was right; it was impossible not to pick up the bones and clean them to nothing.

Sweet Endings 
While I tend to opt for extra pork chops in lieu of dessert, I did admire the artistry (and then the taste) of the fig tart with bacon pear ice cream, creatively coupled with an almond date atop brie. But then to not frolic in the Strawberries & Cream’s “edible garden” of raspberry, blueberry, flowers, chocolate choux pebbles and almond cocoa soil would have been a crime; especially if it meant missing the tangy passion fruit lychee shooter to wash it all down.

In retrospect I never should have had it, but it’s the Chocolate Air & White Truffle Snow that has become the newest monkey on my back. So weightless but forward was the chocolate, electrified by the almost-inhalable white “snow,” yet barely discernable to the tongue. The only crunch on the plate was a savoury egg custard phyllo stack with strawberries. It was instantly addictive and thankfully legal.

Not wanting to upset my diet, I reluctantly decided that my light meal should probably come to an end. So I ordered Halia’s own sun-dried ginger & wild mountain honey infusion which, like an astringent on my freshly-scrubbed face, invigorated me enough to jog all the way home....

Or was it waddle?

Either way, I’ll be back again soon -- when I’m feeling really hungry….

Halia Restaurant
1 Cluny Road, Ginger Garden
Singapore Botanic Gardens
6476 6711 

Lunch: 12 noon to 4pm
Dinner: 6.30 pm to 10pm