Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fishball Story
You all know Fishball Story by now (if not, you can read the Makansutra story here). Yes, that young and passionate hawker Douglas Ng who is bringing back handmade fishballs, the way his grandmother used to make them. He uses purely fish and no flour. It's an arduous process that sees him up at 4am beating, blending and pressing fishballs and chili-scallion fish cakes. He's only 23 but he has got it right.

The fishballs are soft and gently bouncy, with the natural sweetness of fresh yellowtail fish. His noodles are exactly the way I like them - al dente and dry. And for S$3.50, it's a very hearty portion. What a steal for an artisanal lunch.

Apart from the fishballs, he also personally prepares the sambal (which has a gorgeous umami kick from dried prawns or something), and the fried pork lard. Oh yes, I requested extra lard pieces as you can see. Freshly fried ones make a whole world of difference.

I tried both the spicy and non-spicy version. The spicy one with his homemade sambal wins hands down. Honestly, folks, it's not that spicy, so even if you can't take chili  heat, go for it and just enjoy. For those who need more heat, well, that's what the chili padi is there for.

I should have taken a photo of Douglas too. They are very friendly at the stall, and really pay attention to what customers might need. They gave me more soup when they saw that my noodles had dried up a bit after photography. And I read various other instances where customers were delighted by the extra steps they took to ensure a wonderful meal.

Fishball Story
This is now my favourite fishball stall. If you approach the hawker centre from Beach Road, the unit is somewhere towards the back on the left. Do follow them on Facebook for updates. Sometimes they may have to close for washing, sometimes they stay open late. https://www.facebook.com/fishballstory

#01-85 Golden Mile Hawker Centre
505 Beach Road
Singapore 199583
Open daily 10.30am-5pm (but go early as they may sell out by 3pm sometimes)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's Singapore's 49th birthday, and what unites us better than our crazy, unexplainable, incessant love for food? We have so many amazing dishes on one little island nation. But which local dish do you think represents you the most?

Take the Electrolux fun interactive quiz here:

It turns out I am Nasi Lemak.

On another attempt, I got Chili Crab. Haha. I hear Laksa and Char Kway Teow are lurking somewhere. Even an Ice Kachang! What are you going to be?

Well, whatever dish proves the most popular in this quiz is going to be showcased at TANGS in a cooking demo by Electrolux Chef-in-Residence Eric Low. Mark your diaries for Sunday 17 August, 3-5pm!

Electrolux found in a food survey that 93% of Singaporeans say that they are passionate about food, but a huge percentage – 65% – describe their cooking skills as limited or a disaster. This cooking demo is a way to show Singaporeans that there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to cooking, and these easy-to-cook recipes can help them take the first step to building kitchen confidence.

Interestingly, 35% of men claim to be the primary meal preparer in the family, but only 8% of the women say their husbands do more of the cooking.

Chef Eric Low
Chef Eric Low is an amazing teacher - he loves sharing information and I have learned a lot each time I listen to him. I've got some of his recipes to share too, in a future post. Do watch out for those.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

[UPDATE 14 Aug 2014: The Lime Truck will be at Orchard Gateway for both days now, due to unforeseen restrictions. No more The Vault, folks!]

FIJI Water is bringing one of America's best loved food trucks to Singapore!

The Lime Truck
The Lime Truck from Los Angeles was the winner of The Food Network’s "The Great Food Truck Race" (season 2). They will be bringing their signature dishes in a two-day pop-up at The Vault (15 Aug) and Orchard Gateway (16 Aug). Full proceeds go to Willing Hearts, a volunteer-run non-profit organisation set up to provide for the needy in Singapore.

Chef Daniel Shemtob, CEO of The Lime Truck

Chef Daniel Shemtob, CEO and founder of The Lime Truck, will star in this collaboration with FIJI Water and the Kerbside Gourmet, Singapore's first gourmet food truck with a social vision. The "Kerby" truck will be transformed to replicate the Lime Truck's signature lime green exterior, with Chef Daniel on board.

Blue Crab & Jicama Taco

All dishes will be served with a bottle of FIJI Water (330ml). The blue crab and jicama taco (above) looks delish bejewelled with pomegranate seeds. You can also expect their fresh fish ceviche tostada, and the braised pork belly taco with tomatillo pico de gallo (see below)!

The Lime Truck's concept is "fresh, healthy, accessible food" and since its inception in 2010, it's garnered a cult following for its soulful cooking using fresh ingredients, jazzed up with contemporary appeal. They have two brick and mortar restaurants named TLT Food, and Chef Daniel Shemtob was named one of "LA's 30 under 30" by Zagat.

So come for a taste of the legendary food truck revolution that's sweeping America and help contribute to the needy! Remember 100% of the proceeds go to charity.

#FIJIWaterLimeTruck Giveaway
Bonus! FIJI Water is giving away $50 worth of food vouchers on its Instagram (@FIJIWaterSG). To stand a chance to win, simply repost the giveaway photo (look for this one above) and hashtag #FIJIWaterLimeTruck. Results will be announced this Friday.

Stay tuned for updates on https://www.facebook.com/FIJIWaterSG

All photos courtesy of FIJI Water

Monday, August 4, 2014

Locals come to pray for pregnancies and smooth deliveries at Phước Hải Tự (福海寺, "Luck Sea Temple" ) in Saigon

After a day of slow-paced tranquility in Da Lat, we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City where we had more sights to see. Like this amazing scene at Jade Emperor Pagoda which has chambers with different deities to pray to - this one is Kim Hua, the Goddess of Fertility. The light coming through the roof is perhaps a good omen for many women who come here to pray for pregnancy and smooth deliveries.

VietJet Air heading back to Ho Chi Minh City
Our VietJet flight was smooth from Da Lat in the central highlands. It takes only 25 mins to get to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Malaysia Airlines classic livery, taken 17 July at Saigon Airport
When we landed, we saw this Malaysian Airlines plane with classic livery. I had not seen this old logo in a long time - what memories. Sadly it was also the morning of 17 July 2014...we did not know a major disaster would happen to them just a few hours later.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda was built by the Cantonese community in 1909
This is the Jade Emperor Pagoda or Chùa Ngọc Hoàng at 73 Mai Thi Luu Street, District 1. Originally a Taoist temple (the Jade Emperor is the ruler of the heavens in Taoism), it has been renamed Phước Hải Tự (福海寺, "Luck Sea Temple") since 1984 when it came under Buddhist management. Yes, try finding it on FourSquare and you'll see so many names.

Jade Emperor Pagoda or Phước Hải Tự (福海寺, "Luck Sea Temple" ) in Saigon
It's a small and rundown temple, but with lots to see. Devotees will release turtles into the pond for good karma. Inside are various altars, statues and figurines from both Taoist and Buddhist lore. The air is dense with the smoke of incense. A lot of punters also come here to pray for good luck.

You can buy candles and incense to burn at the temple
You can buy candles and incense to offer to your deity of choice. I love these translucent red ones stamped with gold lettering.

There are various chambers; this one dedicated to the Chief of Hell
There are several small chambers that are quite intriguing. This one to the left of the main sanctuary is dedicated to Thanh Hoang, the King of Hell. It has a mystical and otherworldly feel. His red horse is by the right and he is flanked by strangely Puritan-looking black figures. The rest of the eerily dark chamber - the Hall of Ten Hells - is filled with wood panels depicting punishments awaiting those in the netherworld.

Buddha statue in the multi-faith temple of Phước Hải Tự (福海寺, "Luck Sea Temple" ) in Saigon

Buddhism has had a profound effect on Vietnam's 20th century history. It is still one of the most visible religions in Vietnam.

Street life outside the temple
Street life outside the temple. Some vendors sell birds and tortoises for Buddhists to release.

Viet Village
Lunch was at Viet Village, which was a pretty elegant dining space.

Cute little chicks
These are "Incubating cranes in the nest" - something like scotch eggs. Adorable.

Viet Village in Ho Chi Minh City
The food is generally safe, and well presented. Expat prices but may be worth it if you want that nice atmosphere and comfort.

Startup Coffee
Cafe next to Viet Village. Don't let it be said that entrepreneurship is dead. Creativity is another matter, however.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City
After that we visited the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace or Dinh Doc Lap. This building witnessed every historical event in the Saigon government until the regime finally fell in 1975.

Tank replica at Independence Palace
A North Vietnamese tank famously crashed through the gates on 30 April 1975. This effectively ended the Vietnam War and caused the Fall of Saigon or Reunification Day, depending on who you speak to.

Replica of stolen jet that was used for a bomb raid on the palace
Replica of stolen F-5E jet that was used for a bomb raid on the palace.

Independence or Reunification Palace at Ho Chi Minh City
Inside you'll see the various meeting rooms and ceremonial halls.

Red circles mark the spots where
The rooftop of the palace. Nguyễn Thanh Trung, a pilot of the Vietnam Air Force and an undercover communist spy, flew an F-5E aircraft from Biên Hòa Air Base to bomb the palace. The red circles mark where the bombs landed.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
A short walk away from the palace is the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, built around 1880. The statue of the Virgin Mary stands before it.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
It is of course much smaller than the Notre Dame in Paris. But it's still quite impressive. All the original building materials were imported from France.

Saigon Central Post Office is just across from the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Just across from the Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office designed by Gustav Eiffel. Yes, the man who lent his name to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This was built when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina in the early 20th century.

Interior of the Saigon Central Post Office
The neo-classical architecture inside is so stunning, you sometimes forget this is an actual working post office. But it's such a tourist attraction these days. You'll see tourist shops to the left and right of this main hall.

Next up - a coffee break!

We went for a quick workshop on how to brew Vietnamese coffee.

This is how you start a cup of Vietnamese coffee
The Vietnamese filter is like a coffee pot for one. First you fill the top part with three rounded teaspoons of freshly ground coffee. Place the metal screen onto the coffee (you can press it to compact the coffee - this apparently makes it stronger). Pour the boiling hot water onto the coffee, using a spoon to gently break the flow of water. Fill it to about a quarter.

Let the coffee slowly drip to the bottom
Put the lid on and let the coffee steep and drip to the bottom. This should take about 3-5 minutes, so having a friend around to chit chat with helps.

Lift the whole strainer and enjoy your coffee
Remove the whole filter and strainer on top and enjoy your coffee (you can add condensed milk or sugar). The lid makes a convenient saucer.

Royal Lotus Saigon lobby
Back to the hotel to freshen up. We stayed at the Royal Lotus Saigon which is in a row of hotels.

I had a nice room at Royal Lotus Saigon
Some of the rooms have been refurbished. I got a really nice corner room which was extra spacious.

So spacious my corner room is at the Royal Lotus Saigon
Yes, much more spacious. But my bathroom did not have see-through windows like in the neighbouring room.

Banh Mi street stall
We were really craving some street food and begged our tour guide for some recommendations. He told us about this Banh Mi stall that he goes to every morning. It was near our hotel.

Lady making Banh Mi
Two streets down to the left and a short walk later, we found the stall. We ask for Banh Mi Thit (the works). It was 15,000VND - less than US$1! The lady works fast, and we soon carried our precious packages back to the hotel to shoot and eat.

Banh Mi from the streets of Saigon
It was good. The fillings looked a little skimpy to our gluttonous eyes but the taste was just right. Nicely crisp bread that was soft on the inside. Hey, that sounds just like a Po'Boy. Except no way you'd get a Po'Boy for less than a dollar.

So that capped our short trip to Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 1: HCMC Pho, Thien Hau Temple, Cyclo Ride, Water Puppet Show, Saigon River Cruise
Day 2: Excursion to Da Lat the City of Love and Flowers, Bao Dai's Summer Palace, Railway Station, Night Market
Day 3: this post

VietJet offers daily flights between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City with duration per section of 1 hour and 50 minutes. The flight departs Tan Son Nhat International Airport at 8.50am (local time) and Changi International Airport at 12.40pm (local time) daily. VietJet is looking to increase the flight frequency for this route to 14 round trip flights weekly to meet increasing demand.

Psst...VietJet is now having a sale! If you book before 31 August, you might be able to get fares for as low as S$0.50 - less than the price of this banh mi! Of course, that's before the airport taxes and surcharges.

Buy your tickets online between 1pm and 3pm
at their website - http://www.vietjetair.com/Sites/Web/en-US/Home
or the booking tab on their Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/VietjetSingapore

Many thanks to VietJet for the media familiarisation trip, and to Canon Singapore for loaning me the 5D MkIII for the photos. 

I love this baby!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Flying over central highlands of Vietnam

On the second day of our Vietnam trip with VietJet Air, we flew to Da Lat in the south central highlands. Just half an hour away from bustling Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and it's a different world that's much more laid back.

Da Lat in Vietnamese means "water/stream of the Lat people"- da meaning "water". The Lat are the indigenous folks there and we were told they are short, plump and rosy-cheeked. Most of them are farmers.

Da Lat is 1,500m (4,500ft) above sea level with a temperate climate. It's supposedly like Genting Highlands in Malaysia, but it being summer, I found it still pretty warm - like 28-30 deg C? Still much better than the searing 35 deg heat in HCMC though. Bet it's really nice in winter though.

The VietJet counter at the HCMC domestic terminal
We left from the HCMC domestic terminal, which is right next to the international one. If you take a bus from HCMC, it may be 7-9 hours (depending on traffic). Flying is so much faster.

Da Lat's Lien Khuong Airport is pretty new
Da Lat's Lien Khuong terminal is pretty new. It serves a lot of local tourists, especially from the North who are just beginning to explore their country.

There's a half hour ride to the city of Da Lat from the airport, passing by nice pine trees
From the airport, there's still a half hour ride to the city (30km). You can choose the shuttle bus for only 40,000VND (about US$2) or go for the taxi for 250,000VND (about US$12.50). It's a no brainer. Bus wins (just make sure you specify your drop-off destination). You do get a scenic ride past some pine trees on the way up.

Yes, Da Lat has its own Moulin Rouge, complete with windmill

There's lots of French style architecture in Da Lat, because the French colonials used to build villas here to escape from the heat of Saigon. There's even a Moulin Rouge (complete with windmill) restaurant and an Eiffel Tower look-a-like.

The food at Moulin Rouge is Vietnamese fare though
Despite the French facade, it's Vietnamese fare here at the Moulin Rouge. The soup (upper left) was interesting because it had this spongy vegetable stalk that none of us had tried before. Grilled pork with fried glutinous rice cake (bottom left) was also good. And it seemed that everywhere we went, dessert was watermelon and dragonfruit (so much so we started making bets on whether that would be the next dessert).

Durian seller in Da Lat
Durian seller under a tree opposite the restaurant. Durians are not grown at this altitude. They are brought up from the warmer regions below the mountains.

Bao Dai's Summer Palace
Da Lat was also the hunting ground of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai. This is his summer palace, which was built in the 1930s. It houses the grand meeting reception halls, office, and personal artifacts. The art deco building must have been avant garde then, but now it's like a time machine bringing us back to an emperor's hedonistic heydays.

The rooms are frozen in 1930s art deco
The building has 25 rooms. The lower floors are all business. The upper floor has bedrooms for the royal family. Interestingly, the emperor and empress had separate bedrooms (well, he had about five wives/concubines, and multiple children). Everything was left as is, including the furniture.

There's a kitschy imperial throne room where you can take photos
At one end of the lower floor is a kitschy throne room whose grandeur contrasts with the staid decor of the rest of the palace. This is where you can play at being an imperial ruler and take photos (for a small fee, of course).

The kitchen at Bao Dai's Summer Palace
The more interesting parts are the areas that were in actual use. This is part of the kitchen.

It's really a place that time forgot
All in all, it really is like a place that time forgot.

Random flower in garden of Bao Dai's palace
The palace still has gardens (including a miniature maze). I don't know what flowers these are, but they are pretty.

After the palace, we went to see another cultural site.

Da Lat's railway station was designed in 1932 by French architects Moncet and Reveron
The Da Lat Railway Station, completed in 1938, is a national historic monument, thanks to its unique design. French architects Moncet and Reveron combined art deco with Vietnamese elements. The high, pointed roofs are characteristic of the Cao Nguyen communal buildings of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Da Lat Railway Station's unique design earned it national historic monument status
Colourful windows under each of the pointy roof bring light into the spacious hall.

Steam locomotive at Da Lat Railway
The old steam locomotive is one of the two trains on display here. They used to have 11 of these.

While the station's no longer connected to the main Vietnam rail network, it still sees services to Trai Mat, where you can visit the Linh Phuoc pagoda.

Random flowers at the railway station
Hydrangeas grow very well in Da Lat. There were lots in the garden in front of the railway station.

Random flower near Da Lat railway
Close up of a random flowering plant, probably some exotic mimosa.

We also visited the Flower Park, which showcases some 300 varieties of flowers. Lot of foreign blooms were imported for cultivation in Da Lat over the years, and it is also known as City of Flowers.

The Flower Park in Da Lat
You'll see lots of families, tourists and couples here (Da Lat is also known as "honeymoon city").

Ngoc Lan Hotel near Da Lat city centre
We stayed at the Ngoc Lan Hotel.

Some rooms are more spacious than others
I got a really spacious room. You could do cartwheels in here! Others had a much more cosy configuration but with added balcony.

Our tour guide had earlier told us there is no airconditioning in Da Lat - it simply was not necessary because of the cool weather. But it didn't sink in until I saw that my hotel room really didn't have aircon.

My very own R2 unit - for blowing airiPhone 4S photo

Only this air cooler unit that you roll out and plug in next to your bed. A very amused friend nicknamed it my R2D2. Sadly, the cold air function was disabled. Only the regular fan works. I nicknamed it Bad Robot. Fortunately, temperature does drop a few more degrees at night, so sleeping with just the fan was fine.

Clean and simple bathroom with tub
Bathroom was decent and clean. Oh, the hotel had a spa with really cheap massage services. Like US$8 for a full-body massage - I forget how long...45 mins? 120 mins? I can't imagine how much cheaper it would be for massages outside the hotel!

Dinner at Nha Toi or "My House"
Dinner was at Nha Toi, which means "My House". Nha = House.

Chinese-Vietnamese fare for dinner
A very safe spread of Chinese-Vietnamese dishes, salad and soup.

Really nice stuffed grilled baby squid
The grilled stuffed baby squid was remarkable. Didn't look like much, and no, I didn't know what they were stuffed with, but they were addictive!

Da Lat produces its own wines
Da Lat also has a nascent wine-making industry. This bottle of red came recommended.

Da Lat city centre becomes "Hell Market" - a night market so named because it once had no lighting
The city centre comes alive at night with Cho Am Phu or "Hell Market", which is so named because a long time ago, they didn't have any lighting. Imagine everything in darkness or candlelight.

The stalls are numerous, stretching all the way down the streets, but many sell the same things - clothing, woollen wear, chips/snacks, dried goods.

Unlicensed food vendors always on the lookout for police
There are also lots of street food vendors, hawking all manner of grilled goodies - corn, sweet potatoes, squid, sausages, and so on. Many are unlicensed and always on the lookout for police. We saw them pick up and run - not easy with the hot coal grills!

Lots of streetside stalls selling snacks and drinks
Soy milk is very popular here, and some of them come flavoured with green/mung bean, sesame or peanut. But what caught our attention was the lady (on the right) who was making these crispy rice paper rolls - bánh tráng nướng.

Bánh tráng nướng - grilled rice paper roll with shrimp-egg-scallion mixture
There's a savoury mixture of egg, shrimp and scallion cooked on top of the rice paper which acts like an edible skillet! It's a hot crispy mess but so so delicious. Bánh tráng nướng - I will remember this.

French-style breads and pastries are popular in Da Lat
French style rolls and pastries seem popular here. Again the French influence.

BBQ street food
The locals were all going for the skewered BBQ treats. The chicken claws look extra gigantic though. Kowai! Scary! I will stick to dainty phoenix claws.

Da Lat is also famous for strawberries
Da Lat is also known for strawberries. You'll see them fresh or preserved in jams. We also saw other goods like dried shredded artichoke, red and white ginseng, artichoke tea, green tea, vegetable chips and sweet potato chips, etc. Much of it really cheap.

The market is also near Xuan Huong Lake, the big scenic lake that is the heart of Da Lat. A breezy night there can be lovely. Or you can head to the various cafes for some hot Vietnamese coffee. This is a town where you can chill and take your time.

There's more to explore in this capital of Lam Dong province but we head back the next day to see more of Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City - Pho, Thien Hau Temple, Cyclo Ride, Water Puppet Show, Saigon River Cruise
Day 2: Da Lat (this post)
Day 3: Day 3: more sights of Ho Chi Minh City - Jade Emperor Pagoda, Independence Palace, Notre Dame, Saigon Post Office, Vietnamese Coffee

Many thanks to VietJet Air for the media familiarisation trip. 
Photos taken (except where indicated) with the Canon 5D MkIII kindly loaned by Canon Singapore

I love this baby!
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