Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Random Bites

My sister said I should update this blog more often. When I started this, I thought it would be a repository of my musings on food and life as a grad student, I didn't think it could become a regular obligation. But food, in a sense, is obligation. And there's nothing like a good social obligation to get me writing. 

Here are some of the random bites I've eaten so far:

Palak Paneer! Yummy cottage cheese in a flavorful curry that's not too heavy. When eaten with a nice warm prata, the taste is heavenly! And it's also light on the pocket.

Japanese squid-stuffed pancake balls. Doesn't sound appetizing but it does melt in your mouth, especially because it's smothered in Japanese mayo and bonito flakes. 3 balls costs SGD 3.20. A bit pricey but since it's sold at Takashimaya, you get what you pay for.

What's Singapore (Malaysia and Indonesia too) without some Satay? This is one is straight from the Adam road hawker center. For SGD 10 you get 12 sticks. "Not bad", said the Satay lover.

And of course, Chopsuey - our Chinese solution to left-over veggies. This one was specially and instantaneously created by two pinoy NTU students plus myself. Collectively, we call ourselves the Chopsuey Boyz!

Random bites for random times. The readings are piling up but I have resolved to keep my nose in the books AND in the kitchen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's cooking at 13 thousand feet?

Classes have officially started. But for now, it's "shopping week" where students get to attend all classes before they decide which electives to pick. I've been a casual window shopper but I am looking forward to attend the orientation classes on negotiation, asian governance and leadership.I'm still in a daze, though, from my one week vacation together with 6 other MPPers to Malaysia. Got to visit three cities in the span of one week - Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Not bad, actually.

Except for a brief incident with a passing female Macaq Monkey, the highlight of my trip has got to be climbing Mt. Kinabalu. It's touted as the world's most accessible mountain for non-climbers. But before you start visioning escalators that lead up to the top, let me just burst that bubble. While Mt. Kinabalu is accessible, don't think you won't get to the top hopping and skipping to the tune of "Up, Up and Away". It is still a hard climb for non-climbers and I recommend minimal preparation for those who want to enjoy the journey and reach the top smiling.

But what exactly awaits the determined climber? Well, how about a view like this:

And aside from that, some surprisingly good food. 

At the Mt. Kinabalu National Park headquarters (some 1-thousand meters 
above the sea), and depending on the price you pay, you will get a night's rest at a comfy but spartan guesthouse and a breakfast buffet. Now if you're thinking two eggs and toast, think again. This was one of the best breakfast buffets I've had outside of China. It had the staples: rice, noodles, eggs, pancakes. But it also had congee, cakes, fruits, waffles, french toast, hotdogs, and the proverbial pork and beans (and lots of it too). We were amazed to say the least and we expressed our amazement by making sure to quietly pack our bags with a bunch of bananas, some bread, and eggs...you know, for good luck. 

Closer to the top at Laban Rata (3,273m), the final camp before the summit, you get no less. There's a buffet there too for all the weary climbers who manage to conquer the never ending steps. It boggled me the first time I stepped into the dining area. I had to ask myself 'why bother bringing up all this food?' That's thanks to the porters who hull up kilos of goods for a mere 17 ringgit a kilo. Then I looked around and saw the reason: spoiled tourists like us who welcome the lighter load and the hot meals, and are willing to pay more than double the price. It makes me want to become a porter instead, at least I get a free meal too. 

Climbing Kinabalu is hiking 5-star style with most needs (including shelter) taken care of. This is in stark contrast to the hikes I am used to with the UP Mountaineers where we slept in leaking tents and brought up every pound of food we dared cook ourselves. Then again, the meals we had then tasted great. We think it's the altitude affecting our brains. Still, if you've never tried canned corned beef at 700 feet, you haven't lived.

At around 2AM, while darkness hugged the mountain, we left the relatively warmer Laban Rata for the biting cold to reach the peak. All of a sudden, I felt like I was in some Everes documentary with a hundred other climbers, mostly westerners, making the same mad dash to the top. I was ready, having been told to bring only what you needed, and I felt in tip-top shape. Some of my classmates had a difficult time going up. But thankfully, with the help of a couple of chocolate bars, we all made it to the top. 

If there was one thing I regret about reaching Kinabalu's peak (4,095m), it's that I didn't bring enough food. In my pockets I had two apples, two cloud 9 chocolate bars, and a choco-cream cookie. All except one apple was consumed by us on the way up. How I wished I had a nice sandwhich and a cup of tea to share with everyone while staring at the clouds below us. I celebrated by eating the apple on the way down.

That only means I need to go back, this time armed with the most essential tools: a stove, a pan, and a match. Food isn't just meant to be eaten on the road. 

(more pics in my facebook album)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rojak is Singapore

Graduate students are notorious eaters, or should I say non-eaters. That is, there is only thing they (or rather 'we') do not eat: real food. 

From cup noodles to microwaved eggs, the food of convenience is the food of choice. After all, one can argue, there simply are not enough hours in a day to slice, stir-fry, and serve a good home-cooked meal when you're up to your ears in readings and papers due.

But I romanticize the graduate student life too much, or maybe that was just my Tito Ricky talking. I still remember the frozen cans of coke that exploded in his freezer at Darden. 

In reality, time is what you make of it and it just so happens that students believe they can't make time to cook, or a decent ham sandwich for that matter.

Luckily, I am in Singapore. Aside from being a 'fine city', Singapore is also a foodie's paradise. With the confluence of cultures, tastes, and traditions, the food choices in S'pore are dazzling for the foodie newbie like me. There are hawker centers that peddle cheap but tasteful meals and chi-chi restaurants that cater to tourists and the ever so upwardly mobile Singaporean. Being a student, I am more inclined towards the former. Though I would not say no to a free meal at the latter, hint hint. 

In the array of Indian, Chinese, and Malay cuisine, there is probably no dish as representative of Singapore as Rojak. I read that somewhere in a pamphlet. Rojak is literally a mixing of various ingredients and flavors. It can include anything from cucumbers to bean sprouts and even pineapple and can either be sweat or savory. I've never eaten Rojak myself, I'm just waiting for someone to point out the best there is, but I can tell by what I've heard it's like nothing I've ever tried before. 

The closest approximations I can give are Indonesia's Gado-Gado and our very own Halo-halo. But they are either only salty or sweet. Rojak promises to be a mix of a little bit of everything; much like Singapore is neither here nor there when it comes to architecture, culture, and especially food.

Stay tuned for my first Rojak experience.

In the meantime, the local hawker center near where I live, at College Green, is providing me with countless (possible) blog entries. Today I had Mutton Chops - no, not the exaggerated side burns - imagine instead slow cooked mutton pieces in a rich tomato masala sauce topped with hot french fries drizzled with lots of mayo. It's also served with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and... drum roll please... a spoonful (read: not enough) of pork and beans! The cook takes pains to ration the beans from the can. Gosh, didn't know it was that expensive in Singapore. Mutton on the other hand is like chicken here!

It's a good meal to eat after a workout or visiting an HBD on a school assignment. I could do less with the mayo though. I feel ten pounds heavier and 5 Singapore Dollars lighter. But overall verdict: yummy lah!