Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Flying under (and over) the Urban Radar

Although Singaporeans are devoted preservationists of traditional recipes, they have done less well with the flora and fauna. According to National Geographic, at least 28%—and perhaps as much as 73%—of native species have undergone local extinctions in the past 200 years. The casualties include tigers and other mammals, birds, butterflies, fish, and plants.

Best therefore to experience what’s left while you can. We were lured to one of the city's several rainforest preserves by one line from the Times’ Joshua Kurlantzick: “Watch out for the flying lemurs.” As it turns out, these creatures are primarily nocturnal, cannot fly, and aren’t—biologically speaking—lemurs, but that’s journalism for you.

The actual beasts, also known as colugos, are superb gliders, however, and perhaps the closest known relatives to our own taxonomic group: the primates. (In Kurlantzick’s defense, I don’t think “Use your flashlight to spot the superbly gliding primate relatives” would have made it past the copy editor.)

Our morning walk near MacRitchie Reservoir revealed—among much that was both beautiful and unusual to North American sensibilities—one python, two monitor lizards, three tree nymph butterflies, and numerous long-tailed macaques.

If you go, don't neglect the Tree Top Walk, a 250-meter suspension bridge above the forest canopy.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Last Meal First

Our Singapore meals ran the gamut from hawker stalls to hotel brunches, with intervals of conveyor-belt sushi and Shanghai-style soup dumplings.

We reserved our last supper for the peranakan Blue Ginger (97 Tanjong Pagar; +65 6222 3928), where we’d eaten once before, perhaps ten years ago. The dish we remembered was ayam buah keluak, or chicken with Indonesian black nuts, and it remains memorable.

Both flavor and texture are unusual, reminiscent of the traditional Mexican mole, but distinctively oily and addictively fragrant, the South Pacific offspring of a truffle and a brazil nut. Absolutely worth the extra S$1.50 each to add a nut for every person at the table.

This site offers some rudimentary botanical information about buah keluak.

Another source reports that “The dusty grayish seeds . . . have already been treated to remove the poisonous effects by being thoroughly washed and boiled, then buried in the ground with layers of ash, banana leaves, and earth for 40 days.”

Which might explain the hint of truffle.

Though becoming a guidebook staple, Blue Ginger doesn’t seem to have backed away from its nonya roots. Each member of our family proclaimed a different favorite. My mother’s choice was the fish-head curry, which featured the meaty noggin of an enormous red snapper. Our daughter’s pick was the unreservedly flavorful deep-fried chicken with ginger and soy sauce.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Singapore: all the comforts of home, but with better food

We enjoyed a family vacation in Singapore last week, a rare assembly that included my mother, older brother, younger brother, sister, wife, daughter, aunt, and two cousins.

Safe, friendly, and English-speaking, Singapore should be a favored destination for Americans and recent media coverage reflects that outlook. Since 2005 the city has been profiled in Budget Travel, Smithsonian, the New York Times, and—by Pico Iyer—in Conde Nast’s Traveler.

My mother hadn’t left her home in San Diego since a riding accident in 2001. In a sense, we planned this trip to revisit the flavors of her childhood: simple pleasures like mangoes and papaya, along with such complicated indulgences as fish-head curry and the heady mix of Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian that Singaporeans call nonya cuisine, after a Malay word for “auntie.” It’s a term of endearment, and for good reason.

Over the next few days, I’ll post restaurant reviews and descriptions of favorite dishes. This picture shows a layered dessert called santan agar agar, which—I must admit—is more fun to look at than it is to eat.