Bliss in a Bowl

This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on 17 February 2012.

Singapore is a super city like no other. From its humble beginnings as a tiny Malay fishing village, this highly progressive, technologically advanced and infamously law-abiding Southeast Asian nation has prospered into a booming megalopolis almost overnight. Known primarily for it’s shipping, banking and high-end retail industries, Singapore has surpassed even the most developed of countries in terms of sustainable economic growth. As a result, a great number of Chinese, Malay, Indian, European and more recently, Filipino migrants and hoards of tourists alike have flocked to its man-made shores. Yet, despite the city’s charm, its collection of concrete monoliths and its notoriety for erecting a mall around every corner, your main purpose of travel to Singapore should not be to go shopping or sightseeing. You come to Singapore to eat.

Revealed only recently to the outside world through the magic of television and the Internet, Singaporean food culture is unmatched in terms of quality, variety and creativity. Iconic dishes such as chicken rice, fish head curry and Singaporean noodles are results of a mélange of ethnicities, each with their own gastronomic tradition. Needless to say, the food is unimaginably good, whether it be served at one of the many fine dining establishments or carelessly consumed at a makeshift table inside a random hawker center. To the locals, more important than where you eat is what you eat and in Singapore you eat a lot.

If there were one mortal sin in the Singaporean food bible, it would be to miss out on their National dish – chicken rice. This deceivingly simple meal of broth, perfectly boiled chicken, and white rice cooked in stock with the optional greens on the side contains layer upon layer of complex flavours. On its own, it tastes amazing. Dressed in the accompanying ginger, chili and black sauces, the feast becomes even more fragrant and intense.

Similar in preparation and equally delicious is the pork rib herbal tea soup or Bak Kut Teh. Chunky cuts of bone-in pork are cooked tender alongside the pig’s chitterlings and various other organs to produce a deep and savoury stock. Eaten with plain rice and braised vegetables, it is comfort food at its finest.

Fish head curry, on the other hand, is a literal melting pot. A monstrous head of Ikan Merah (Red Snapper) stewed in an Indian-style curry with tomato, eggplant and okra is unique, Singaporean fare. The Snapper’s flesh is succulent and sweet, the eyes a delicacy. The thick, dark curry strikes a definitive balance between tamarind, heat and spice, allowing the fish to retain its natural flavour.

Even Xiaolongbao, the most coveted of Chinese buns, can be found in Singapore. Not unlike Hakaw or Wantons, these soup-filled “dumplings” are a dim sum rarity outside of Eastern China. Notably, it is the novelty of its consumption –sucking out the hot soup before devouring the bun– that has popularized these bites. Delicate, pork-filled and divine, its preparation is both an intricate and wearing task, undertaken only by the most skillful of cooks.

Still, there is more. Shui Kueh is steamed rice cakes baptized in preserved radish and chili. Briyani, an elaborately spiced, saffron and basmati rice with your choice of chicken, mutton or fish is a must in Little India or Arab Street. Singaporean chili crab, flattened Kaya toast, ethereal Roti Prata and a few, delectably sweet Klepon (rice balls) and Kueh Kosui (tapioca cakes) both rolled in coconut or maybe some frozen mango pudding for dessert.

These treats aside, no other Singaporean dish can ever compare with a large, steaming bowl of Laksa. Considered authentic Peranakan cuisine (a marriage of Chinese and Malay influences) with a myriad of variations, this fiery, curry noodle soup, heavily laden with a barrage of ingredients is a personal favorite. Bean curd puffs, fish sticks, shrimp, cockles and thick rice noodles all coalesce amidst a luscious, coconut-infused broth. Though it may look filling, the curry is light and satisfying, ideal for breakfast in the sweltering Singapore heat. Bliss in a bowl.

To wash it all down, nothing beats a freshly made cup of kopi. Unbeknownst to most foreigners, Southeast Asians are conspicuous consumers and at one point, major exporters of superior blend coffee. Brewed over a charcoal grill in a hefty silver pot, reminiscent of a garden watering can, the kopi is strained numerous times through a stocking and then served. Full-bodied, robust and viscid, this potent elixir is not for the fainthearted. Traditionally served with sweetened, condensed milk, kopi is, without exception, the fitting end to yet another exquisite Singaporean meal.

Given the boundless culinary treasures Singapore has to offer, it is easy to lose yourself in all things appetizing. Happiness, it seems, can be found in the most basic of human experiences. Whether it may be a simmering bowl of Bak Kut Teh, crisp, deep-fried, golden brown strips of doughy youtiao or simple, plain white rice, there is no denying the soulful qualities of genuinely good food. Nevertheless, in Singapore, there is no such thing as a single, perfect meal. Rather, every meal you have will be nothing less than perfect. ✌

Chinatown, Singapore


Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas en de Zwarte Pieten
Sinterklaas en de Zwarte Pieten. Photo Courtesy of Copyright © 2003-2011.

This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011.

“Christmas comes early to the Netherlands” is probably the most exhausted cliché, christening every article ever written on the Dutch yuletide season. In fact, to the millions of jolly little children waiting to open their presents in the Netherlands, Christmas day comes three weeks too late. Though this practice may seem strange to most, the fact is that the ritual of gift giving historically originated not from the pilgrimage of the Three Kings, but rather from Father Christmas himself. Interestingly, for the Dutch, Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November.

Not unlike his North American counterpart, Sinterklaas is a white-bearded, kind-hearted old man clothed in red. However, the similarity in appearance ends there, as this solemnly vested Sint Nikolaas closely resembles an archbishop, complete with the ceremonial miter and staff. Indeed, his tall, considerably slim stature is a far cry from the plump, rose-cheeked, cola-loving Santa whom we have all come to know.

The arrival of Sinterklaas is a jaunty affair of national importance. Crowds of enthusiasts, accompanied by their nostalgic (if not exhausted) parents, gather at the port to welcome the Sint with pomp, pageantry and in-depth media coverage. As Dutch lore dictates, Sinterklaas originally hails from Asia Minor (Turkey) and travels to the Netherlands by ship from his permanent residence in Spain. He then tours the countryside on horseback, visiting children from city to city, making a list and checking it twice. At present, the Sint’s tight schedule includes a royal appearance with the young Dutch princesses as well as stopovers in Belgium, French Flanders and the outlying territories of the former Dutch Empire (including South Africa, Suriname and Indonesia).

The culmination of these festivities is marked by the celebration of Sinterklaasavond (Saint Nicholas Eve) on the 5th of December. As the forbearer to Christmas Eve, the evening’s rituals are somewhat similar. Upon the Sint’s arrival on Dutch soil, each child puts one shoe at the foot of the fireplace (or central heating unit) and stuffs it with a carrot or hay as a treat for Amerigo, Sinterklaas’ steed. After much merriment, poetry and songs, the children are off to bed and awaken the next morning to find a sack full of gifts and their shoes filled with candy. By then, Sinterklaas would have slipped quietly into the night, only to return the next year.

What appears to be a rich fairytale tradition is made even more interesting with the inclusion of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Parallel to Santa’s elves, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) serve as the Sint’s entourage, accompanying him on his annual state visit with a dusting of pepernoten (small cookies made with cinnamon, anis and clove). They are commonly dressed in bright, lace-collared, 17th century page costumes, sporting feathered hats and black leather shoes. Known in former times as the Sint’s enforcers, the Piets administer treats to the sweet and spanks to the spoiled. Armed with a whip fashioned out of willow, it is said that they punish the naughty with a good lashing. If this is still insufficient for a child to make straight his ways, the Piets might even go as far as stuffing the brats in a burlap sack and taking them back to Spain.

Nowadays, Zwarte Piet is marred by controversy. It is not so much the malevolent child abuse, which is more folklore than fact. Rather, it has more to do with the Piets’ cartoonish appearance – a blackened face, curly, afro-like hair, pearly whites and thick, bright red lipstick. Since the Sint has his historical roots in Turkey, his companions being of Moorish decent is a sound explanation; hence the Zwart in Zwarte Piet. Still, when Dutch (Caucasian) men and women paint their faces black, wear kinky wigs, ruby lipstick and dress up in gaudy outfits, a few raised eyebrows is unavoidable.

The Dutch insist that climbing the dirt and soot-lined chimneys result in the Piets having blackened faces. Those who find these kooky characters offensive claim that this argument is quite weak. Why then are their suits immaculately clean? Considering their slapstick likeness, the Piets resemble a stereotypical, caricature version of a black person. To add insult to injury, the crowds of children gathering to pay homage to Sinterklaas are all dressed in their miniature Zwarte Piet costumes, making an extra effort to apply the iconic black face paint. Sadly, despite being an all-time favorite holiday ritual, this practice has been the subject of racial protests from the Dutch immigrant population, particularly those with African origins.

Be that as it may, this debate is better left uninitiated. The arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is, after all, a time for celebration. It commemorates the feast day of Sint Nikolaas, the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. More importantly, it is a time for the gathering of family, for gift giving, merriment, poetry and songs, delicious warme chocolade melk (hot chocolate milk), pepernoten, speculaas (winter spice biscuits) and decadent, chocolate alphabet letters.

On any other day, the line between political correctness and cultural affairs may be drawn. If done properly, it can spark a healthy discussion on culture, identity and race, thus enriching cultural understanding and social values. With regard to Sinterklaas however, it is best to leave your arguments at the door, lest you want Zwarte Piet to take you back to Spain. ✌

Made Local

This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on 19 November 2011

In recent years, there has been a growing trend in local manufacturing in the United States, Japan and much of Western Europe. This “slow movement” is distinguished by the production of goods in small batches, whose raw materials are locally sourced and are either handmade or fabricated using more traditional, time-consuming methods. As a result of their limited quantity, artisanal quality and a sustainable approach to sourcing and production, these products retail at a high margin, even competing with luxury brands in terms of price.

This “less is more” approach to local manufacturing can be viewed as a reaction to increasing globalization, the outsourcing of factors of production, the consequent dominance of China and India and the reality that the West (with the exception perhaps of Germany) no longer makes things. Accordingly, slow manufacturing is close to home. Small, independent businesses employ an indigenous workforce who labors in domestic workshops (as opposed to mega factories) while procuring inputs native to the region. Unsurprisingly, brands that champion these methods of production have gained a cult following with customers wiling to pay a premium for their products.

Take, for example, The Hill-side – a New York-based men’s accessories brand that specializes in scarves, pocket squares and ties. Although most of the fabric is sourced from the best Japanese mills, its products, more specifically the label of its products, are 100% made in the USA. Contrary to contemporary sales methods, the firm has opted out of an online channel, making a limited amount of its wares available only at select retailers.

The same goes for Billykirk – a leather goods company founded in 1999 by two brothers in their Los Angeles garage. Renowned for its timeless designs, premium American hides and fine craftsmanship, the firm insists on using low-tech, traditional manufacturing techniques to produce well made, long lasting, heirloom pieces. Ten years on, the brand is now in high demand among global fashionistas and has since moved its slow production to a New Jersey studio.

At the same time, Europe fanatically endorses its vibrant local traditions and a similar outlook can be said for its products. Despite heralding the free market and birthing the Industrial Revolution, small and medium enterprises remain dotted across the European landscape. From bespoke tailors and couturières in and around European fashion capitals to made-to-measure gloves and espadrilles at the heart of Barcelona, it is evident that slow manufacturing is still alive in Europe – albeit the current health of its guilds remains questionable in these uncertain economic times.

Given the fact that consumers are willing to spend more on handcrafted, locally sourced, artisanal products from the United States, Europe and Japan, how then is this any different from purchasing identically manufactured products from the developing world?

Lest we forget, Asia, Africa and the Middle East are kaleidoscopes of rich local cultures, deeply rooted in craftsmanship. Khorat silk, Yogyakarta batik, Cebuano furniture, Delhi leather sandals, Mongolian moccasins, Phoenician pottery and Fes tiles are but a few examples. Characterized by the lack of heavy industry, particularly among least-developed countries, manufacturing is literally done at home as opposed to being close to home. Strikingly similar to slow manufacturing in the West, much of the backyard production in the developing world is done in small batches, using materials endemic to the region and are almost always handmade.

How is it then that local products from developing nations that are of equal if not finer quality, produced in the exact same manner are considered incomparable to their Western counterparts?

The unequal treatment of these types of goods can be attributed to their perceived value. Consumers are willing to pay more if the benefits of a specific product are perceived to be greater than the cost of ownership of that product. Supposedly, the customer gets more than what is bargained for. This is the logic behind shoppers preferring the slightly more expensive Brand X laundry detergent to Brand Y, even though the goods are exactly alike. This is also the founding principle of luxury brands, of which exclusivity and social status are the value-added, granted at an exuberant cost. In effect, companies are spending billions on advertising campaigns to increase the perceived value of their products in order to stimulate demand and justify the price.

In this case, however, it seems that consumer perceptions go beyond the overall value of a product’s attributes and take into consideration its country of origin. That being said, developing nations have always been unjustly labeled as cheap. This can be credited to their poverty, lagging industrialization and flawed human rights records. As a result, products made in the developing world carry a negative connotation and are consequently undervalued, despite being of equal or greater quality than Western handmade goods.

Let it be clear that slow manufacturing among developed nations is indeed a positive undertaking. The movement promotes the establishment of small and medium enterprises, which in turn provide employment opportunities to local communities and enforce sustainable methods of sourcing and production. In this respect, local manufacturing stimulates national economies – a much needed remedy to the perennial economic crisis.

The issue, therefore, is not that locally manufactured, artisanal products from the United States, Europe and Japan retail at a higher margin. The quality of these goods is undeniably superior and the time and effort invested in their craftsmanship does, perceptively at least, justify the price. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that corresponding products in the developing world, crafted with even finer class, are not treated with the same sophistication. Rather, these effects are consistently underrated and cast out as cheap.

Simply put, it is a matter of perception. ✌

Colonial Mentality

This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on 31 October 2011

Colonial mentality was a major issue during my upbringing in the Philippines. The expression was made popular at the height of the US Army Base boycotts during the early nineties. Primarily, this term referred to the favoring of imported goods, usually popular brands from the United States, over local products. On a cultural level, however, this encapsulates a dangerous belief that our former colonial masters – the entire Western World to be exact – were, are and always will be far more superior to us in every single way.

Arguably, this statement may be considered an exaggeration. Be that as it may, the fact that Filipinos consistently fall victim to colonial mentality is undeniable.

Over the past decade, more than half a million Filipinos have immigrated permanently to the United States. It is quite amazing the lengths people will go to (legal or otherwise) for a greencard – a Mount Everest of requirements and forms, never-ending lines, a labyrinth of red tape, not to mention the ridiculously extravagant application fees – all for a chance at a “better” life, a crack at the American Dream, salvation in the land of milk and honey. As a result, colonial mentality has evolved from a desire for imported goods to coveting foreign nationality. And if my memory serves me correctly, covetousness is a deadly sin. In this case, it is because we Filipinos posses a foolishly romantic perception of the West where there is no poverty or suffering, only prosperity.

We need only to consider the news to render colonial mentality invalid. First and foremost, the United States and the majority of Western Europe no longer make our imported goods. Thanks to increasing globalization and massive outsourcing of production, everything is now made in the developing world, specifically in China and India. In fact, in response to the deepening issues of the global economic crisis, President Obama openly admits that despite being a champion of innovation, the United States needs to go back to making things. At the same time, European Heads of State agree that the EU lags behind tremendously with regard to innovation and manufacturing. Subsequently, in terms of imported goods, colonial mentality can no longer refer to “Made in the US” (or EU) as everything is now made in China.

Another misconception we have is that poverty does not exist in the West due to its economic stability. No one can be blamed for this idea. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has become the largest, most superior economy in the world. As then and now, we know where our loyalties lie. Consequently, the Philippines has patterned everything from its systems of education, government, language, infrastructure and even the Constitution from the United States in the hope that adopting the American system of democracy, free-market economy and public education will bring about equal, if not greater prosperity to the nation.

Whether this is true today is beside the point. Every system has its flaws and the West is no exception.

Given the current circumstances, the situation in the US and Europe can only be summarized by the Foreign Media’s favorite word: Crisis. Beginning in 2007, global headlines have proclaimed the arrival of the Western apocalypse namely, the US housing crisis, the subprime mortgage crisis, the US financial crisis, the global economic recession, the US homeless crisis, the US jobs crisis, the Euro Zone crisis, the Portuguese, Spanish, Irish, Italian and Greek sovereign debt crises, the EU financial crisis and the list goes on.

Naturally, this economic turmoil has had devastating effects on the citizens themselves.

From Greek anti-austerity rallies in Athens to the Occupy Wallstreet movement in New York, people throughout the Western World have gathered in protest against rising unemployment, economic injustice, cutbacks on social welfare and the overall failure of their governments to respond. To say that the economic climates in the US and the EU are unstable and its futures are uncertain is an understatement. For every available job in the US (blue-collar or otherwise), there are at least seven applicants. Almost 46 million Americans rely on foodstamps and other subsidies for their daily meals. That is to say, as of 2010, 46.2 million Americans were classified as poor. Now it seems that milk and honey have run out in the Promised Land and the economic prosperity that once characterized the West is waning.

If the Philippines continues its dependence on the West, it runs the risk of contagion in terms of economic malaise, something our nation obviously cannot afford as a developing country. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite our affinity with all things American, the Philippines maintains closer economic ties (imports and exports) with its Asian brethren – China, Japan and Singapore in particular. Although the US accounts for a significant share of Philippine trade, the majority of our country’s international business is conducted within the Asian region. Once again, this is due in part to China being both the fastest growing economy and the world’s factory.

The fact that colonial mentality is no longer applicable today therefore necessitates a new model for national development. With a highly skilled, exceptionally educated, English-speaking workforce, thriving services and manufacturing industries and an abundance of natural resources, ours is a recipe for success. For far too long, the Philippines has been nursing a stiff neck, twisting toward a westerly direction. It is high time our nation shifts its attention to a more promising ideal – itself. Sadly, what prevents us from doing so is a lack of self-confidence. More specifically, it is our highly exaggerated, overly romanticized, defeatist belief that the West has won. ✌