Giving a Holiday Party

Published on December 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

In my opinion, the holiday season begins a bit prematurely in Singapore. Orchard was decked out in tinsel weeks before Hallowe’en and supermarkets started playing Michael Buble’s Christmas album even earlier. So there’s been plenty of time to think about and plan a holiday party. But if you’re wondering how to prepare a Christmas dinner in your shoebox-sized oven, or if you’re worried tropical heat and the holiday spirit don’t mix, or if you just hate the idea of cleaning up after a party…keep reading.

The Tree. Like many of us, pine trees are not native to this part of the world and some handle relocation better than others. Avoid the little ones on ice that supermarkets sometimes carry; despite their green needles, they’re often already on their way to being totally brown by December 25th. IKEA is a reliable source of both artificial and real trees, but be warned they sell out quickly. Tangs or Robinsons also carry artificial (even completely pre-decorated) trees. My favorite option is to support local nurseries (like Far East Flora, Thomson Nurseries, or Bedok Garden & Landscaping, to name a few), who offer several sizes of U.S.-sourced pines. Don’t worry – you’ll get used to perusing Christmas trees in the humidity.

The Decorations. You have a wide range of options when it comes to balls and baubles to decorate your home with. Malls have pop-up exhibitions or shops where you can grab some cheap and cheerful danglies (Tangs has a whole floor). Larger Cold Storage outlets offer Christmas-themed paper plates and napkins, while IKEA carries cute decorations and cheap yet festive glassware. You’ll see a bunch of “Christmas Fairs” advertised but they’re often like any other shopping event (except with an additional stall or two selling handmade holiday-related items); it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find decorations.

The Food. I confess: despite throwing several Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, I have never actually roasted my own turkey. I don’t trust my skills or my finicky oven. Conveniently, both NTUC and Cold Storage begin filling orders for Christmas feasts starting in late November. You can have an entire banquet quite literally delivered to your door, complete with gravy, stuffing, wine, and dessert. Several restaurants and specialty stores also feature festive catalogs, like Da Paolo Gastronomia, Royal Plaza on Scotts, The American Club, Meat the Butcher, and Huber’s Butcher.

The Clean Up. If you’re DINKs like us and a live-in helper would be overkill, fear not. There are cleaning services you can call, but I’ve found most require you to pay for a couple of weeks rather than a one-off service. Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Helpling is like Uber for cleaning services. You hook it up to your credit card and input your address, number of rooms, extra requests, and your desired timing. Note you’ll want to schedule in advance as it can take a few days for them to find someone for you.

Regardless of the premature festivities, holiday parties these days are no longer the dreaded gauntlet they once were. The best part of all these conveniences is that they allow you to return your focus to the heart of the season’s celebrations: enjoying time with friends and family.

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The Rich World of Kyoto

Published on August 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

When you live surrounded by the glossy newness of Singapore’s infrastructure, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dignity of Kyoto’s several thousand years of architecture. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, this city is a bastion of the nation’s culture and is rife with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My husband, however, couldn’t get over the fact that progress seemed to have halted in the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic bubble collapsed And yet the trains still run perfectly, the buildings are old but not decrepit, and the analog ticket machines work without a hitch. If your impression of Japan was formed by sushi restaurants, anime, and the somber economic statistics, a visit to Kyoto will reveal a nation of more depth and breadth than you can imagine. This is a country that knows itself, that treasures its multilayered identity, and is content to move at its own pace.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, big and small, and you can spend weeks going from one to another. Instead of hitting sites at random, I suggest doing research beforehand to hone in on the temples and shrines you really want to see, and then plan a route accordingly. My top three are as follows:

    1)    Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll want to set aside at least half a day to wander dreamily through the endless corridors of red-orange torii gates trailing up the mountain.

    2)    Heian Jingu. The vivid shrine buildings are reason enough to visit but it’s the stunning traditional gardens (which took 20 years for gardener Jihei Ogawa to perfect) that elevate this expansive site to magical.

    3)    Kinkaku-ji. Probably the most well-known temple in Kyoto, this is a popular site well worth the crowds. It doesn’t matter when you go, as every season renders the gold temple picturesque for different reasons.

Other temples and shrines I recommend are: Ginkaku-ji for its lush moss gardens, Kiyomizu-dera for the views of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji for its bouquet of sub-temples and historic Zen gardens, and Yasaka Shrine for a night walk. Though of course, there are thousands more.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Since it is possible to overdose on temples, take advantage of your time in Kyoto to experience some of Japan’s traditional arts. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon just strolling along the preserved streets of Gion, the country’s most famous geisha district. While genuine geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) can be spotted in the evenings, you’re more likely to see women in colorful kimono during the daytime. Many of these are tourists who have dressed up for the day. If you’re eager to join them, there are a number of shops that will rent you an entire outfit, from the socks and shoes to the elaborate hairpins. The geiko and maiko still visit and entertain at the teahouses dotting Gion, and during cherry blossom season they give an annual dance performance called Miyako Odori (literally “Dances of the Old Capitol”), which we were lucky enough to catch. If you’re in town during the month of April, it would be a shame to miss. Gion is also the perfect place to buy high quality souvenirs, such as handmade pottery, paper fans, goods crafted from kimono style fabrics, lacquer ware, origami paper, green tea leaves, matcha powder, and more. While a formal Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours, a cozy teahouse just off the main stretch of Gion called En offers visitors a taste of the elaborate rituals. With explanations in English and the opportunity to try whisking green tea powder ourselves, it was an informative yet calming experience for everyone.

Kyoto’s geographic location and Japan’s comprehensive train system make it easy to incorporate several day trips into any itinerary. Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji are all less than an hour on the JR Line and each offers something different: delicious food and energetic nightlife in Osaka, a sprawling park overrun with friendly deer in Nara, the famous beef in Kobe, and the brilliant white, immense 680-year-old castle that is the centerpiece of Himeji. Before your trip, you can purchase a JR Rail Pass for the Kansai region, which will allow you to move between these cities with ease.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Of all the day trips we took, Arashiyama stands out. A mountainous district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is known for its scenic beauty and restful atmosphere. The shallow, slow-flowing Ōi River is peppered with small boats full of day trippers. Paths into the leafy hills lead you to such gems as Matsunoo Taisha, one of the oldest shrines in the Kyoto area, as well as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, the ethereal bamboo forest, and a stone engraved with four poems written by Zhou Enlai, who was inspired during his visit to Arashiyama. After a long day of strolling along the river and basking in the gorgeous surroundings, a soak in one of the many onsen (hot springs) was heaven.

Once known for being a challenge for non-Japanese speaking visitors, Japan has gone to great lengths to make navigating its streets less scary. Buses and trains announce stops and tourist attractions in English. Station names and signs directing you to nearby sites have all been translated. The majority of restaurants we ate in had an English menu on hand. However, it’s the Japanese people that make Japan a genuine joy to visit. Their renowned politeness is often referenced as a joke or a cliché, but it’s impossible not to appreciate when you come face to face with it.

For example, after wandering through the beautiful Isuien Garden in Nara, I asked the attendant of the gift shop if he happened to know the English name of a splashy pink flower blooming across the grounds. He said he wasn’t sure as he only knew its Japanese name; would I mind waiting a moment? I heard him phone the woman manning the entrance and overheard her say that she didn’t know it either. The attendant returned to me with a regretful bow and a sincere apology, all over the name of a flower. It’s the effort put in when there’s no need, the almost obsessive attention to detail, and the cherishing of true quality that make Japan an exceptional and exquisite place to visit..

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“The Lacuna” & Pan Dulce

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Barbara Kingsolver’s luxurious novel The Lacuna.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

The Lacuna doesn’t read like historical fiction, but it is a lush exploration of how momentous events like World War II and the Cold War impacted the lives of everyday individuals. It’s one thing to learn from a textbook that the fear of Communism pushed the U.S. to unfairly persecute foreigners, but when it starts happening to Shepherd, who you as a reader know intimately after several hundred pages, you feel the tragedies of history with a fresh pang.

Like I said, I love serendipitously finding the perfect book. The Lacuna is a luxurious examination of two themes very close to my heart: the impact of words and a writer’s inability to not write, as well as the infinite questions of identity that come with belonging, soul and citizenship, to more than one country.

You can read the rest of my article and explore my attempt at Pan Dulce HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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Minding Your Manners

Published on May 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Etiquette can be tough to master at home, let alone abroad. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. For example, I only just found out that if a Singaporean woman introduces herself as Madame Lim, she is using her maiden name, as opposed to when she uses Mrs. Hoh, which is her married name.

As a tourist in Singapore, you’ll likely be forgiven your faux-pas, but if you’re an expat doing business here, it’s a good idea to adapt to the work environment. As the saying goes, “Think global. Act local.”  When you put in the effort to understand local expectations, it not only shows your clients that you respect them, but will also enable you to adjust your marketing strategy or meeting style for a greater chance of success.

Punctuality is a virtue so arrive to meetings on time. Introductions are almost always in order of age. Ethnic Chinese generally use a very light, extended handshake feeling the traditional Western bone-crushing grip is offensive. Chinese men and women may shake hands, but the woman must always extend her hand first. Older ethnic Malayasian men may only shake the hand of another man. Younger Malays sometimes shake hands with foreign women, but it is more appropriate to bow the head which is how two Malay women meet. Indians may shake hands with members of the same sex and will smile and nod when being introduced to somebody of the opposite sex. Hugs are rare in the US in business, but pretty much non-existent here even between friends. Don’t back slap or high five either. In general, folks here simply don’t like to be touched.

If you’re introducing two people, state the name of the more senior or more important person first. When meeting with a Singaporean counterpart, wait for him or her to introduce you to the rest of the team. Avoid using first names until your Singapore counterpart suggests it. This is especially important when dealing with older people. In fact, most Chinese counterparts will introduce you by your last name.

Resist the temptation to give compliments. Giving or receiving compliments is not common in Chinese culture. In fact, if you do give one, your counterpart will probably respond with the words, “Not at all” or “It is nothing” rather than “Thank you.” Conversely, Singaporeans think nothing of asking highly personal questions that Westerners considered inappropriate.

Kang Ha Pheng Sim Kok Building

Here as in Japan, you should use both hands to pass your business card with your name facing the person. Study the card. Take the time to ask how to pronounce their name properly. Leave the card on the table horizontally facing you during the meeting. This is a sign of respect. Whatever you do, don’t put it in your back pocket. Never deal out your own cards like a deck of cards.

In Chinese culture, it’s important for people to see the exit. Since 70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, it’s best you sit with your back to the door. Generally, you will be told where to sit as there is a strict hierarchy so simply wait to be told where to sit and you’ll be okay.

Appropriate dress depends on the industry in which you’re working. Finance jobs, for example, generally demand a full suit and tie whereas many other industries in Singapore are much more casual. Try to gear your style to the client’s.

Everybody likes to feel as if they’ve won, but this is particularly important in the Chinese culture. If you’re selling something, for example, give an initial price with a room for negotiation.

Most cultures consider it polite to offer a visiting client or business partner something to drink upon their arrival. In the US and the UK, we expect glasses of water to at least be chilled or better yet have ice. Room temperature water smacks of a half-hearted attempt to provide a nice drink. But in Malaysia, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries, it’s a nice gesture to clarify whether they would prefer warm or cold water. The belief that drinking too much cold water will make you sick is still a fairly common one so if you can handle warm water, it’s probably best to just sip and make do.

Once refreshments are handled, it’s time to get down to business by…not talking about business right away. Relationships, rather than strict economics, rule business partnerships in Asia and so the straightforwardness that Americans value so highly can strike the wrong tone. We think we’re being honest and not wasting time, but the chunk of the business meeting you devote to small talk can often be the most productive part of the rendezvous. However, no matter how well that conversation goes, it can still be difficult to determine whether or not you have successfully made your case. In the same way that Singaporeans value relationships, they are also often reluctant to say “no” outright. Part of my job requires me to pitch our consulting services one-on-one to potential clients and I can never tell if I’ve made a sale until the moment they sign up. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have led nowhere, while conversations I wrote off as a wash led to that person buying a package several weeks later.

Singaporeans often put more stock in facial expression, tone of voice and posture than in the spoken word. They pay as much attention to what isn’t said to what is said. Silence is actually quite important in negotiation. By pausing before you answer, you signal that you’ve really stopped to think about what the other person said and how you want to respond. This is a symbol of respect while responding quickly is seen as rude behavior. Speaking loudly is also a sign of rudeness. Most locals speak softly and sometimes smile to avoid embarrassment and not necessarily because they think what you said is all that funny. If you’ve been getting a lot of smiles in your meetings, it may not be because you’re the stand-up comedian you think you are!

Something else rude? Moving something with your shoe or pointing the soles of your shoes towards somebody so don’t prop your feet up on the table. Things like pointing and whistling are totally unacceptable. Shrugging and winking are confusing.  Never write anything in red ink.

If you’ve lived here for more than ten minutes, you know that food is a big deal in Singapore. Business lunches can be super fancy or a quick meal at a hawker center. If you’re hosting, remember that Muslims don’t eat pork and devout Muslims should be taken to a halal restaurant. Hindus don’t eat beef. And there are no three martini lunches in Singapore. In general, drinking during the day is frowned upon, but drinking at night is acceptable and often an important part of bonding with clients.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you speak about Singapore. While Singaporeans themselves will be the first to admit they love to complain, that doesn’t give you equal rights to whine. Think about how you would feel back home if an expat complained about life in your city. Even if you agreed with their gripes, you would likely still feel a pang of defensive patriotism. Keep your bellyaching about the restaurant service or the weather to your own circle of friends and out of any professional relationships.

At the end of the meeting, guests should be walked to the elevator. High-ranking guests should be walked to the car. When a Singaporean offers to send you to the airport, they are literally offering to take you or collect you themselves.

Nevertheless, being polite on local terms doesn’t mean relinquishing all the traits that have made you successful back home. I begin my workshops by stating outright that I’m a loud American, which means I’m going to make them talk in class, urge them to work in groups and expect them to ask questions. The belligerent interactivity is often novel for adults who were taught in the more restrained Singapore style. When mixed with elements they’re to which they are more accustomed, communication not only becomes easy, it becomes enjoyable.

And don’t forget the number one rule of doing business in other countries: if you accidentally offend, simply apologize and take the lesson with you.

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The Many Faces of Geylang

Published on April 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Geylang’s Famous Shophouses

As a new expat, the first neighborhood in Singapore you learned about was likely Orchard. The second was probably Geylang. Although its reputation as the country’s red light district isn’t undeserved, there’s a lot more to it than simply being a city’s sordid underbelly. With its historic shophouses and delicious hawker food, it is also a callback to pre-1970s Singapore.

The name “Geylang” is theorized to be a corrupted spelling of the Malay word ‘gelang,’ which is a type of edible creeper that grew throughout the area. Like its namesake, the neighborhood isn’t a single trunk. All throughout its length, Geylang Road has offshoots of lanes called lorongs extending perpendicularly towards Sims Ave or Guillemard Rd. Both the main stretch and the lorongs are home to micro-businesses offering everything from bicycle repairs to bathroom fixtures to, of course, food. If you’re looking for piles of fresh durian or mangosteen, authentic dim sum, the best chili crab in the country or the trademark frog porridge, this is the neighborhood to explore.

But the bustling day trade probably wasn’t the reason you heard about Geylang so early into your tenure here. The district is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of brothels. Some are regulated by the Singapore government, while others pose as KTV (karaoke) lounges or operate behind the scenes illegally. In order to gain an insider’s view on one of Singapore’s more infamous neighborhoods, I interviewed my friend Dafydd Green, who has lived in Geylang for just over a year.

SAN: Why did you choose to live in Geylang? Did you know the reputation of the area before you moved there?

DG: Geylang is going through a big development push now with many buildings being knocked down and condos going up. Having lived in places like Beijing before, I like seeing this development take place so I thought it would be more exciting to live there… I knew about the area’s reputation beforehand but it didn’t really phase me.

SAN: What do like about living in that area?

DG: I like the diversity you see if you walk around. On most Lorongs there is a Buddhist building and there is a vast array of Buddhist schools. You get a very interesting perspective on the island’s history because much of the area is made up of Peranakan buildings with old trade shop names, historical ‘clan’ or area association buildings (e.g. the Tang Lim Association and Xu Clan Association building, which would have been used in the past to bring immigrants from a certain area and surname together).

I am a big fan of the people who hang out here – you need only say a couple words in Chinese and sometimes you can be invited to join a table and be fed or hydrated well. The 24-hour nature of Geylang is also something I have come to really appreciate because it works with any lifestyle. For example, there are many places open for breakfast at 7am, the whole street is open for lunch, and you can be guaranteed a great prata or char siew between 2am and 6am. There are also a lot of legitimate massage places that are open late, and there’s nothing better than KTV followed by a foot massage.

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

SAN: What do you dislike?

DG: Sometimes it gets under my skin when busloads of people turn up and don’t walk in straight lines. I think the sheer amount of people passing through makes the street a bit dirtier than most places in Singapore. The more liberal approach to spitting and urination adopted by some is displeasing to say the least. I also don’t appreciate being thought of as a potential customer by the many “male enhancement” pill sellers on the street!

SAN: What has your experience been like with the seedier sides of the neighborhood?

DG: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid some of the seedy elements of Geylang, but unless you visit certain areas then these are very scant. Vice and gambling are contained to a few lorongs. I don’t oppose legal prostitution, and ‘negotiation’ is very discreet so it’s not that Geylang is a vice-ridden cesspit that makes residents uncomfortable. You only come across the seedier aspects in certain places and at certain times (e.g. the occasional police raid), but in many ways Geylang is far less sketchy than Orchard Towers.

Prostitutes are in different places, such as the odd lorong, in brothels or in high concentrations on certain strips. As a lone male walking through some places, you will be approached and touched but it’s not a big deal to shrug off. Actual brothels aren’t obvious, and you only see prostitutes if you go inside. Depending on your disposition, you may find negotiations between prostitutes and customers a bit disturbing but the legality of prostitution is very matter of fact — you will sometimes see policemen checking ID cards, and there isn’t any aggressive or pushy behavior towards prostitutes.

The seedier elements for me are the illegal sides of prostitution. It’s obvious I think who is there illegally because some are very nervous and clearly not Singaporean. A surprising aspect was how some of them come across – there are prostitutes who dress in a revealing way, but others wear something like a Sunday dress and carry a handbag. It’s kind of similar to visiting the red light district in Amsterdam, where people sitting in windows don’t wear as little as possible, but are just waiting for customers to come.

SAN: What are your favorite places to eat in Geylang?

DG: There are some great places for food. Beyond the many frog porridge and Jiangsu places, there’s the very famous L32 on Lorong 32 that sells ‘handmade noodles’ accompanied by dried fish, a meat of choice and fiery chilies. There’s a Penang seafood restaurant close to the Aljunied MRT station that serves up a great Penang Laksa. Both Ho Kee Pau (43 Geylang Lorong 27) and Wen Dao Shi (aka 126 Dim Sum) at 126 Sims Ave dish up great dim sum. My personal favorites are a ‘knife cut noodle’ stall on Lorong 27 and a Malay stall run by a charming couple that serves up some of the best Malay food in Singapore.

 

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A Weekend in Hong Kong

Published on February 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re homesick for the gritty vibrancy of New York City or just looking to spend a weekend somewhere other than a tropical beach, Hong Kong is the perfect whirlwind. Grungy, chaotic, and built amid a range of tall hills, Hong Kong seems to be opposite in personality from manicured, flat Singapore. And while you’ll never be able to see or do it all in a single weekend, the following itinerary will give you a taste of the buffet of experiences Hong Kong has to offer.

Friday Evening

Getting from the airport to the city is a piece of cake. Purchase the Airport Express Travel Pass, an Octopus card that holds one-way or roundtrip airport-to-city trips plus three consecutive days of unlimited travel on MTR. You can ride the brisk Airport Express straight to Central.

If you arrive before 10:00pm, head to Tsui Hang Village restaurant (New World Tower, 16-18 Queen’s Road) for Hong Kong’s most delicious tradition: dim sum. Like many of the city’s hidden gems, Tsui Hang Village is tucked away on the second floor of an innocuous office building. Their dim sum menu isn’t as extensive as one would hope, but the quality of their barbecue pork buns, tofu pudding and hand-torn chicken make up for it.

Drop your luggage off at your hotel and change into something swanky before taking a cab to the International Commerce Centre (the ICC building), which houses the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. On the 118th floor, you’ll find the ultra-modern Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world. Cocktails aren’t cheap but the view of Victoria Harbor at night is nothing short of breathtaking.

Saturday

Eminently walkable yet also stocked with reliable public transport, Hong Kong was built to be explored. Take the MTR to Diamond Hill Station in Kowloon and follow the signs to Nan Lian Garden, a Chinese classical garden designed in the style of the Tang Dynasty. While the popular Wong Tai Sin Temple is an easy walk away and worth a visit, I found the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery to not only be quieter but more fascinating. Founded in 1934, this Buddhist monastery’s interlocking wooden architecture is the only of its kind in Hong Kong.

Then it’s on to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. You could take the MTR to Prince Edward Station, but I found it more fun to meander through Kowloon’s bustling suburbs, which allowed me to stroll through the charming Kowloon Walled City Park and to snag a snack in the food district. “Bird Garden” is bit of a misnomer – it’s actually a miniature market tucked onto a raised walkway enveloped in lush greenery. And even if you’re not looking to take home a sparrow or cockatiel, the towers and aisles of twittering cages are mesmerizing.

After all that exploring, it’s time for a luxurious interlude. Take the MTR down to Tsim Sha Tsui and indulge in Afternoon Tea in the lobby of the oldest hotel in Hong Kong, The Peninsula. When you’ve finishing savoring the delicate pastries and elegant architecture, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is just a short walk away. Finish your time on Kowloon by wandering along the famous waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Take the last Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, soaking in the view of the skyline on the way, before heading to the raucous Lan Kwai Fong area, a cluster of bars and restaurants where you can grab a bite and party until all hours.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Sunday

Linger over breakfast and coffee at one of the city’s many cafés before making your way to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which opens at 10:00am and is located inside Hong Kong Park. Originally built in 1844, the museum building was the office and residence of the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong up until 1978. In addition to admiring the gorgeous building, you’ll learn about the history of tea drinking in China and the gentle art of creating clay teapots.

Next to the Museum of Tea Ware is the K.S. Lo Gallery, which houses ceramics dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644AD). For a real treat, settle into the Chinese Teahouse on the ground floor for traditional tea snacks and tea prepared the old-fashioned way. From the park, it’s a quick walk
to the famous Peak Tram, a Victorian-era train that hauls visitors up to the highest peak on Hong Kong Island. If the weather is clear, the views are well worth the crowds and the ticket price.

After descending, wander towards Hollywood Road and en route be sure to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators (the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world). Hollywood Road and its many side streets are chock full of antique shops, boutique clothing stores, artisanal coffee shops, and chic wine bars. Spend the afternoon getting lost and finding one-of-a-kind souvenirs to take home..

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“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” & Orange Endive Salad

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

True to his name, Tsukuru becomes an engineer with a focus on railroad stations, but it’s only when his girlfriend urges him to untangle the emotional knots left by his past that he decides to find his colorful friends and learn what happened. While I was as eager as Tsukuru to uncover the mystery, Murakami is a master of reminding us that no matter how many questions we ask, we can never really know everything about people, even those we consider closest to us.

You can read the rest of my article and explore my tasty winter salad recipe HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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On Finicky Expats in Singapore, and their Double Standards

Published on December 3, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

So — a little excited — The Wall Street Journal recently launched WSJ Expat, their hub for expatriates and global nomads, and has featured my piece! Here’s a snippet:

Rather than accept these aspects of Singapore’s restaurant culture as simply foreign, we tend to throw up our hands and declare that Singapore isn’t nearly as modern as advertised, forgetting that this glitzy city was a tropical backwater not even 50 years ago. Sure, every last dim sum hole-in-the-wall has passed the city-state’s rigorous health inspections and food poisoning is rare. But the appetizers arrived after the main course! The bathroom has squat toilets! They’re charging us for napkins!

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

“Pomegranate Soup” & Gush-e Fil

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Marsha Mehran’s short novel Pomegranate Soup.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

While this is a well-told story, it’s not a very well-shown one (to paraphrase Mark Twain). The prose isn’t very elegant and occasionally the food-based metaphors veer dangerously close to overwrought. There are, nonetheless, a few gems. Like when the youngest sister Layla’s exotic allure captivates Benny, the town’s baker, and reminds him of the youth “he had forgotten in all these years of kneading the unsavory rolls of both his profession and the body of his cold wife.”

You can read the rest of my article HERE and explore my variation on the recipe for gush-e fil (or elephant ears) featured in Pomegranate Soup. Hint: I added chocolate-whiskey sauce.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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“A Single Man” & Baja Fish Tacos

Woo! Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Christopher Isherwood’s short novel A Single Man, which is 50 years old this year and still incredibly meaningful.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

George not only faces the challenges of an expat but, due to his sexuality, he also has a much smaller pool of people he can trust with his true self. It’s akin to speaking a foreign language well enough for day-to-day interactions but not for communicating deep feelings or complex thoughts. You get along with the people around you but you are forever dogged by the knowledge that their impression of you is incomplete, that you have yet to find a way to say exactly what you’re thinking, and that you have no idea how they would respond even if you did.

You can read the rest of my article and discover why I paired A Single Man with a recipe for Baja Fish Tacos HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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A Mac’n’Cheese Tour of Singapore

Published on September 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

It’s no secret that you can tour Singapore on your stomach. New flavors and exciting spices can be found in almost every corner. But sometimes, no matter how delicious the nasi lemak or how tempting the char kway teow, you just want something unhealthy and American for dinner. And if you’re going to indulge in proper, gooey mac’n’cheese, then you may as well explore the city while you’re at it. Here’s my roadmap for discovering Singapore’s neighborhoods while feasting on this all-American comfort food.

OverEasy at One Fullerton. OverEasy might just be the perfect place for a person’s first night in Singapore. If you’re still woozy from the jetlag and your stomach isn’t up for chili crab yet, zip down to One Fullerton for American diner food. After making acquaintances with the famous Merlion, you can tuck into OverEasy’s Good Old-Fashioned Mac & Cheese while being dazzled by the Marina Bay Sands’ nightly laser show. However, I’m a sucker for their Truffled Mac & Cheese with Wild Mushrooms. You can also indulge in other American classics like homemade lemonade and beef sliders. Afterwards, wander along the bay front and enjoy the breeze.

Pique Nique Mac’n’Cheese

Pique Nique at Ngee Ann City, Orchard. Any introductory tour of Singapore would be remiss without a thorough exploration of Orchard, which is like a combination of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. It’s a shopper’s paradise during the day (if your wallet can stand it) and it’s a brightly-lit spectacle at night. Whenever you find your energy flagging, stop by Pique Nique for a hot serving of their Roasted Chicken and Mushroom Mac & Cheese. Located in the basement of the elegant Takashimaya department store, this underrated restaurant is a perfect rest stop for tired shoppers hungry for filling, perfectly-seasoned comfort food (including whoopie pies and five types of fries).

Brewerkz, Clarke Quay. Another touchstone in the expat nightlife of Singapore, this restaurant and microbrewery has been in business since 1997. And since nothing goes better with handcrafted beer than quality bar food, that’s just what Brewerkz delivers. Their mac’n’cheese is true to the soul of the dish (no vegetables here!) and has that perfect texture: crispy on top, chewy in the middle. Clarke Quay has a lot of Western restaurants but few have been created by Americans for Americans. Nevertheless, the riverside is a thriving hub of activity and once you’ve had your fill of mac’n’cheese, you can stroll down to both Boat Quay and Robertson Quay.

Latteria Mozzarella, Duxton Hill. One of the unfortunate truths for Westerners who have moved to Singapore is that quality cheese is sometimes hard-to-find, expensive, or both. But Latteria Mozzarella is a godsend to any cheese-lovers searching for a classy evening out. Even their mac’n’cheese has been elegantly upgraded by its being served in a hollowed pumpkin. The gourd isn’t just for show though. The rich lining of pumpkin adds an unexpected oomph to the mac’n’cheese without overwhelming those homey flavors you love so much. The Duxton Hill area is always bubbling with nightlife and is a picturesque neighborhood that features Singapore’s classic shophouses.

28 HongKong Street, Chinatown. One of the city’s hidden gems, 28HKS is a glamorous speakeasy known for its obscure location and exemplary cocktails. It’s been lauded in TimeOut Singapore and the Wall Street Journal but neither article mentioned one of the bar’s biggest attractions for me: the mac’n’cheese balls. Crispy on the outside, hot and gooey on the inside, these mac’n’cheese balls are the perfect intersection of luxury and familiarity. There’s no fancier way to eat this beloved dish in Singapore and as 28HKS is tucked right next to Chinatown, it’s a perfect beginning or end to a night of exploring one of the city’s most historical districts.

Whether you’re looking for classic mac’n’cheese or for a twist on this old favorite, Singapore obliges. Everyone has his or her own way of settling in to a new home, so who’s to say you can’t explore this dynamic Asian city via comfort food?

 

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“Freedom” & Spiced Sweet Potato Fries

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my piece about how Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom reminded me of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and why it inspired me to make spiced sweet potato fries. PAPER/PLATES is run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books.

Here’s a snippet of my post:

Another difference between Anna Karenina and Freedom is that this novel has a happy ending. Call me a naïve optimist, but I like that. People are frequently unhappy creatures, but rarely are they totally doomed. Readers and writers frequently confuse ‘realistic’ with ‘depressing’, and I appreciated that Franzen uses an even hand when portraying the good and the bad in life. Despite the Berglunds’ flaws and unhealthy obsessions (all depicted in a stark, unforgiving light), it nevertheless holds true that people can grow into better versions of themselves, even if it takes years or decades.

You can read the rest of the article and find the yummy recipe HERE.

And make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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“The Cave” & Peanut Butter Filled Chocolate Cookies

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my piece about Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s novel The Cave and why it inspired me to make peanut butter filled chocolate cookies. PAPER/PLATES is run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books.

Here’s a snippet of my post:

Reading The Cave is a very tactile experience. Since pottery is a key centerpiece of the novel, I knew I wanted to tackle a recipe that involved molding and sculpting material with my hands. However, I also wanted something with layers, as the modest appearance of the story cloaks a more complex exploration of humanity. These peanut butter filled chocolate cookies fit the bill. Much like the art of clay pottery and much like Saramago’s prose, this recipe requires patience and sometimes one or two tries to get down. But it’s hard to deny the satisfaction you feel upon completion. Be warned that these cookies are very rich; you WILL need a glass of milk to wash them down.

You can read the rest of the article and find the delectable cookie recipe HERE.

And make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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Potent Nostalgia: Cocktail Bars from Bygone Eras

Published on April 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

As I sipped a bliss-inducing Lemongrass Collins at the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap, I wondered: Just what is it about bars devoted to the past? A speakeasy can now be found in just about every major city – from Raine’s Law Room in New York to Milk & Honey in London to R2 Supperclub in Tokyo. If I had to choose two reasons why, I would say it’s partly the nostalgia for a straightforward form of glamour and partly the luxurious, hand-crafted cocktails. For anyone bored of the standard mixer/spirit combo, these bars’ bespoke recipes, freshly-squeezed juices, and house infused liquors are a godsend. And while these drinks will obviously cost more than your average rum’n’coke, the rich ambience makes up for it. These bars invite you to step out of your daily troubles and experience life as a member of the exclusive elite from a time past. The vintage Shanghai atmosphere of Miss Wong is a soothing and seductive counterpoint to Cambodia’s dry heat and Pub Street’s pulsating clamor, but don’t worry if you’re not swinging by Siem Reap any time soon. There are a couple of speakeasies to be found right here in Singapore.

However, Abhishek Cherian George would be reluctant to brand his cocktail bar, The Spiffy Dapper, as a speakeasy. With its tables plastered in vintage comic book covers and a pair of colonial Indian fighting staffs on the wall, the establishment is more of an homage to the creative and irreverent spirit of the 1920s. Originally from South India, George calls himself an “insufferable capitalist” and is an enthusiastic advocate of trial-and-error. Many of the custom ingredients on the shelf behind the bar (which bear labels such as Turkish Black Tea Gin and Cayenne-Citrus Himalayan Pink Salt) are the result of mistakes. For instance, accidentally over-dehydrating some tomatoes led to a reinvented Bloody Mary called the Ossified Mrs Grundy, which translates to ‘The Drunk Prude’ in 1920s lingo.  Every beverage on the menu sports a jazzy name and a rich description because, George says, “A product is only as good as the back story.” For him and his lead bartender Hilda, the creation and consumption of a cocktail is nothing short of art. The idea behind the drink is vital to the process and the beverage must convey the artist’s thought or emotion to the drinker.

House of Dandy

House of Dandy in the Tanjong Pagar area also has a proclivity for the irreverent. Despite being a temple to the dandy (a middle-class man in the 1800s who highly valued his refined appearance, aristocratic mind, and leisurely hobbies), the upscale cocktail bar hasn’t limited itself to top hats and aristocratic superiority. As their menu explains: “A dandified life is one that is refined and tastefully in excess. Keeping an edge without sacrificing neither style nor standards.” Thus, among the myriad of hedonistic idols that the lounge pays tribute to are Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, and Andy Warhol—see the Dandy Warhol cocktail, an inimitable and delicious blend of vodka, Midori, Limoncello, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and egg whites.

While the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap seeks to emulate 1930s Shanghai, both The Spiffy Dapper and House of Dandy allow themselves to follow the spirit of an exalted era through the years. The bathroom at The Spiffy Dapper is a maddening tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange and the walls at House of Dandy feature portraits of women wearing revealing outfits and Stormtrooper helmets. Singapore isn’t searching for a flawless recreation of a past decade, but rather for a taste of the irreverence that was once possible. The speakeasies of today strive to provide that old, gossamer spirit of carelessness in a world where now every foolish act can be splattered across the internet in seconds. So if you find yourself nostalgic for a time when leisure was uninterrupted by mobile phones and secrets remained secrets, slip into the dim interior of a speakeasy. Bring high expectations for a quality cocktail. Remember to sip slowly.

Where to Find:

Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
The Lane, Siem Reap
Cambodia

The Spiffy Dapper
2/F 61 Boat Quay
Singapore

House of Dandy
74 Tras Street
Singapore

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Camping Out in the Outback

Published on February 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

I prepared for our long weekend in Australia with a thorough Googling: first-aid for snake bites, how to recognize which spiders were poisonous and which were just enormous, and what to do if I came face to face with a crocodile (apparently, sprint away). If that seems like a bit much, it was because we weren’t visiting one of Australia’s metropolises but rather, we were going camping in Litchfield National Park.

The flight to Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, was a manageable four hours from Singapore. As October is just the beginning of Australia’s roasting summer, the petite port city was bathed in dry heat and sunshine hot enough to make you squint. It’s a sleepy town that caters to adventurous tourists and features a cheerful, easygoing nightlife. We spent the entirety of our first day there, soaking in the laidback atmosphere and obtaining supplies for our weekend in the wilderness. Dinner that night was along the wharf at a restaurant called il Lido, where we sampled the native fare: kangaroo meat kebabs, freshly caught barramundi and a selection of the local bottled ales. We picked our plates clean.

Darwin is surrounded by an array of national parks, nature reserves, and conservation areas. We decided to spend our two days and two nights of camping in Litchfield National Park as it was only 100 kilometers southwest of Darwin. Including myself and my husband, we were a group of six. The two couples we were traveling with had decided to rent campervans equipped with small gas stoves, squat fridges, and narrow beds. We took a different route, opting instead to rent old-fashioned camping equipment from a local business as well as a small car. Driving along the narrow highway, I wondered what the pros and cons of each camping style would be. Outside my window was a vast tricolor landscape: red earth, spring green trees, and blistering blue skies.

Florence Falls

Our first stop upon reaching the outskirts of the park was at the magnetic termite mounds. Built by thousands of termites, these monoliths stand several meters tall and, amazingly, are oriented north-south for optimal climate control. We then took the shady, creek-side path to Florence Falls, a picturesque waterfall that spills into a plunge pool. After trekking through the high heat of the afternoon, leaping into that crystal clear swimming hole was unspeakably refreshing. Bottles of local beer in hand, we whiled away the day here as well as a short distance away at the Buley Rock Pools, a lazy cascade that links a series of natural shallow pools. Every year Litchfield National Park attracts over 260,000 visitors and though a number of other tourists (both Australian and foreign) were present, these lush sites never felt too crowded.

Campsites could be found throughout the park, each with their own set of rules and amenities. Some allow motor homes while some only allowed campervans or old-fashioned tents. Almost all sites have public bathrooms that offer clean toilets (with toilet paper!), sinks with potable water, and several showers. There is a minimal fee for camping overnight and guests are trusted to deposit their dues in locked boxes posted around the area. The grounds near Wangi Falls provided us with a three-pronged campsite perfect for our group and just as we were pulling in, we met a good omen: a wallaroo. Smaller than a kangaroo but larger than a wallaby, these gregarious creatures could be spied hopping through the brush throughout the whole park.

While the others set up a table and chairs between the campervans, we pitched our two-man tent and unrolled our swags. A nearby picnic area provided a grill for our burgers, sausages, and ears of corn, and dinner was lively. There was a call for s’mores and so we built a small fire on the sandy ground. Lacking graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and jumbo American marshmallows, we improvised with what we had been able to find at the Woolworths in Darwin: digestive biscuits, bars of Lindt milk chocolate, and a packet of squat pink and white marshmallows sporting a thin coat of sugar. Not quite the s’mores I had growing up, but not bad.

Chopper's Den

The night was broiling and sleep was an erratic, sweaty affair. While our tent had netted windows that allowed a breeze in, the campervans were stifling. However, they were mighty helpful at breakfast. Their fridges and kitchenware were invaluable; a cooler couldn’t have kept our meat and milk from spoiling in the outback’s brutal heat and I don’t know where we would have rented pans and spatulas during our short stay.

We set off for the majestic Wangi Falls at midmorning but were prevented from our much-desired swim due to a recent crocodile sighting and so trekked to the Tolmer Falls lookout instead. It was a hot, dry hike through the bush. Sandstone and quartzite had formed blocky, colorful shapes and sharp cliff faces. Far below the viewing platform were pools as bright and clear as green glass. After a quick lunch of sandwiches, we embarked on the trail to the Cascades waterfalls, a hike with more challenging and varied terrain: dense rainforest, leech-populated streams, layers of red rock, and desert plains.

Our choice of campsite for that night, the Florence Falls area, didn’t have any barbecues but the campervans’ stovetop cookers worked in a pinch for dinner and also for the following morning’s breakfast. Not long after washing up, my husband and I bundled our gear and bid our friends goodbye. We would meet them at the airport later; there was one more thing I wanted to do in Darwin before we left.

Nestled in the center of the city, Crocosaurus Cove is home to a number of prehistorically large crocodiles, including Burt, the star of Crocodile Dundee, and I intended to swim with one. Clad in my bikini and a pair of goggles, I climbed into a mesh and plexiglass cylinder (comfortingly named the Cage of Death) and was lowered into the den of Chopper, who was over 80 years old and missing his two front claws thanks to battles with other crocodiles in the wild. Despite the thick barrier, it was impossible not to feel awed, small and extremely edible next to Chopper’s monstrous, lithe form. My pre-Australia Internet research had instructed me to fight back should I find myself caught in a crocodile’s jaws, but as I swam alongside several tons of muscled reptile, the very thought of struggling seemed ludicrous. It just goes to show that there is only so much the Internet can teach you about the world; at some point you’ve got to get out there and tackle it yourself.

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