Tuesday, July 21, 2009
A Surreal Makan Tour with Bob Blumer
It was a surreal afternoon.
I still haven't come down from Cloud 9.
OMG we got to meet BOB BLUMER from The Surreal Gourmet and Glutton for Punishment!
The Surreal Gourmet is still one of the more original and quirky food programs ever made. Everyone who has seen it loves the Toaster Mobile and the fun food ideas each episode brings. Glutton for Punishment has Bob taking up unusual food-related challenges, and pitting himself against the pros (sometimes trouncing them too!).
And thanks to a special Makan (Eating) Tour organized by Discovery Travel and Living, we (media and bloggers) got to spend a few hours yesterday afternoon exploring eateries with him in the eastern part of Singapore. Bob is really nice in person and we all had tremendous fun despite the scorching weather.
First stop - Kway Guan Huat, home of Singapore's finest popiah (fresh spring rolls). This is where popiah skin is still made by hand. The popiah skin master on the right has been doing this for 40 years (and his father did it for 60 years). He says it takes 1-2 years to master the skill.
The rice flour dough is really soft, goopy and cold. You're supposed to flip it into a smooth round ball around your fingers (easier said than done). That's what makes a nice circular skin on the hot griddle.
When you have the shape ready, smear it onto the griddle in one decisive circular movement and lift the dough ball back up. You'll need the right amount of force, speed, and elegance to create the perfect paper-thin popiah skin. This is an exercise in calculated strength and agility, but it is also a ridiculously addictive challenge.
Leslie and I had the chance to try our hand before Bob arrived. You just keep wanting to perfect it. My first attempt was surprisingly good enough to earn a thumbs up from the master, but thereafter I think it sort of went downhill. Ah. The harder you try, the more you will fail, little grasshopper.
And now we come to the filling. Kway Guan Huat does it Nonya (Peranakan) style. There's sambal belachan (prawn paste chili), minced garlic, shredded omelette, cucumber, coriander, braised turnip and carrots with crabmeat, toasted pounded peanuts, and a crispy fritter bits made from flour and fish. Bob likes what he sees, and listens attentively as Zita carefully introduces each ingredient.
Mmmh, but will he like the final product? He's not had fresh spring rolls before. All of us look on with anticipation as he starts trying a piece. Oh my, you should have seen him light up. He describes it as "an insanely delicious burrito but with complex Asian flavours" and loves how the sweet, savoury and spicy flavours and textures combine into one heavenly explosion of sensations.
Most of us probably take the humble popiah a bit for granted, having grown up with it all our lives. I love popiah but even I got some new-found appreciation for it after this session.
Now Bob tries his hand at rolling the popiah. Yes, you know how it can get messy. Bob piles on the ingredients - they are so delicious, it's natural to throw moderation out the window. But fat popiahs are the hardest to roll!
It takes skill to fold and roll a popiah tightly enough but without breaking the delicate skin.
Tada! Turns out Bob is really good at it! There were hoots of surprise and approval at his amazing first attempt. He reveals that he's had some sushi-rolling training in California. Yes, there are similarities in rolling both, and he was clever to have spotted it when observing Zita roll the popiah.
Anyway, Bob says this popiah is one of the better things he's tasted in a while, and he's quite eager to come back for more. We had to move on, as we were already running late.
Second stop was in Geylang, and Bob hopped across the road to check out a local fruit stall. He tried some mangosteen and recognised the smell of durians even before we saw them (he is one of the few foreigners who isn't revulsed by this heavily maligned fruit).
No, he didn't really eat that. But hey, excellent chopstick skills!
We brought Bob to Old Mother Hen, a really old-school "cze-char" (literally "cook-fry") outfit. Quite a feast there of their signature dishes - claypot chicken rice, steamed homemade beancurd, kung pao claypot frog legs, KL-style dark Hokkien fried noodles, hotplate herbal kampung chicken, stir-fried Fallopian tubes (oh yes) and even steamed shark's head (which I have never tried, and well, still haven't).
OK. Let's all pay attention to the baked salt sculpture, and not the stir-fried Fallopian tubes. Bob is not into crazy, bizarre, chewy and crunchy entrails. But the rest of the bloggers and media gained some new bragging rights (and probably a few "OMG that's sick!" responses from friends).
For the final stop, Bob really wanted to go for laksa, but acquiesced to try bak chor mee (minced meat noodles) and fish maw soup instead. There was no time for both. We ended up at Seng Kee, where the soup and noodles are generously flavoured with "ti po" or dried solefish. The umami factor is really strong here.
Here's Bob trying out bak chor mee. The old man running Seng Kee is well known for theatrical flipping of bowls as he prepares the noodles. Bob took 3 plates and started juggling them in the tiny, dark, cramped kitchen! I wish I caught it on video.
Anyway, the tour ended all too soon. Bob, thank you again for spending your time with us. If you do come back to Singapore, we'll take you to all the laksa and other places you want to try, and we promise not to foist anymore weird food on you!
Big hearty thanks also to Priya and Rita of Weber Shandwick, and to Discovery Travel and Living for making this a reality!
Glutton for Punishment 3 premieres Thursday at 2230hrs starting July 23. Encores air on Sunday at 0200hrs and Tuesday at 0800hrs on Discovery Travel & Living (Starhub Channel 16).
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