Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It's a bird...it's a plane...it's super-dosa !

Dosa Man statueSuper-dosa, as I'm calling it, stands outside of Komala's vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Kitchner and Serangoon Roads in Singapore's Little India (across the street from the Ferrar Park MRT stop).

The first time I saw it was 18 months ago, when I visited Singapore for two days during an extended Asian trip. But my eating schedule didn't allow room for Komala's, so on this latest visit, I made sure to write it into my schedule.

The restaurant is "McDonalds meets the South Indian menu." It has many of the hallmarks of American fast-food: uniformed staff members (complete with baseball hat and name tag); a long, brightly lit menu board (focusing on South Indian cuisine); and even "combo meals."

I placed my order for the lunch special of the day and a masala chai, paid the bill (under 5 Singapore dollars), was given my receipt and directed to the service counter. The staff member over there wasn't terribly helpful, but I eventually received a small plastic number to bring to a table. The special and tea arrived minutes later, fresh off the griddle.

value meals

The special of the day was "Navaratina Dosa", nine miniature dosai the size of silver dollar pancakes (5 cm diameter) with nine different toppings: crunchy corn meal and spices; coconut; peas and spices; onion; cashews; red and green processed cherries; and two mystery savory toppings. Alongside was a tray of three chutneys (onion, mint, and coconut) and a small bowl of sambar. All in all, it was quite tasty, and just the right amount of food. The small size of the mini-dosai resulted in a pleasant density and nice crispness on the outside.

9 flavor uttapam

Super-dosa also makes deliveries, but unfortunately not to my neighborhood.

dosa man on motorcycle

Indexed under Restaurants, Malaysia and Singapore
Technorati tags: Singapore : Food

Saturday, October 28, 2006

More on the Singapore Photo-Collage

[update : "Gaylan district" corrected to "Geylang district" in the fresh bean curd description]

As promised in an earlier post, some more details about the 9-photo collage. Through the wonders of digital photo editing, I broke the square into three rectangles, and will explain them from left to right.

  • Yam puff. A crispy fried pastry filled with pureed yam. Often it is spiced with curry powder (and hence called a "curry puff"), but this one wasn't. And thus it was somewhat bland. Source: Maxwell Road Food Center
  • Pancake with peanut filling. A thick crepe flavored and colored with pandan leaf (Pandanus latifolius, P. amaryllifolius), then spread with a mixture of ground peanuts and sugar, and rolled into a coil. The one in the photo was only so-so, as it must have sat around for a little while before I purchased it. Source: Maxwell Road Food Center
  • Carrot cake. This dish is classic hawker's fare, with a mysterious name. It usually contains no carrots and often doesn't resemble a cake. One of the guidebooks I consulted says that the "carrot" in the name comes from the giant white radish (a.k.a. daikon), which apparently is also called "white carrot." In the carrot cakes I ate, the white carrot did not appear as a diced vegetable, but instead is first formed into some kind of steamed cake. The cake is cubed before tossing into the wok with the other ingredients (eggs, soy sauce, pickled radish, bean sprouts, some chili sauce). Although some hawkers form it into a pancake before serving, it is just as often mounded onto a plate for service. Despite consulting many books about Singaporean food (at the gleaming Singapore National Library), I was unable to learn the ingredients or method for making the radish cake. If you know of a recipe for the cake, please provide a link in the comments. Source: Makansutra Gluttons' Bay food center near the Esplanade performing arts center.

  • Khandvi, an Indian chaat. I had not seen this dish before, so naturally I ordered it right away. The yellow cylinders appear to be made of a steamed dough that has been lightly seasoned with tumeric and other mild spices. Source: Ghaangothree restaurant on Hindoo road in Little India.
  • Cheese murtabak. A murtabak is a filled pastry that uses the same dough as roti canai. (a classic Malaysian street food). To make the murtabak, the roti master takes a ball of dough and stretches it into an impossibly thin sheet, then folds it around the filling and cooks it on a griddle. Here is a video of a roti canai master, and another. The Source: Mr. Prata, near the Botanical Garden.
  • Fresh bean curd. Tofu at its purest. Freshly made, flavored with a spoonful of palm sugar syrup. The ultimate in subtlety. Source: Rochor Bean Curd, on Sims Avenue in the Geylang District.

  • Char kway teow. Rice and egg noodles in dark sauce, with bean sprouts, and usually prawns, Chinese sausage and cockles. This particular version was served on a large dried leaf (bamboo?). Source: Makansutra Gluttons' Bay food center near the Esplanade performing arts center.
  • Dokla chaat. A cake made from a mixture of rice flour and chickpea flour (besan) which is fermented overnight, then steamed in blocks. In this case, it is served with yogurt, tamarind sauce and herbs. Source: Ghaangothree restaurant on Hindoo road in Little India.
  • Teh tarik. Literally, "tea pulled", this very common hot beverage is a mixture of long-steeped tea, condensed milk and sugar (usually a lot, as Malaysians and Singaporeans love sugar!). "Pulling" tea involves pouring it back and forth between two vessels that are separated by several feet--sometimes as many as five or six feet! The pulling does three things: cools the drink, makes it foamy, and dissolves the sugar in the liquid. The excellent blog Rasa Malaysia has a link to a video showing the pulling in process. Source: you can find this drink just about everywhere.

For more authoritative explanations, I recommend cookbooks published by Periplus Publishing (e.g., Authentic Recipes from Malaysia), the Lonely Planet World Food Malaysia & Singapore, as well as bloggers who live in Singapore or Malaysia (too numerous to link).

Indexed under Travel, Malaysia and Singapore
Technorati tags: Singapore : Food : Travel

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Borneo Greens (Unusual Greens, Part 5)

Photo of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo (Sawawak province)(Updated 10/8/16: changed title, added tags to photos, removed broken links)

The word "unusual" has many uses: odd, abnormal, rare, unconventional. Whereas my previous "unusual greens" posts have been about rare greens, this post is about "amazing" and "exceptional" greens. The reason for this is that the "Borneo greens" aren't from the Farmers' Market or a local Asian shop---they are from the lower slopes of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia (4,095 m).

Mt. Kinabalu is northern part of the Malaysian province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. In the map below, the mountain is denoted as "Gunung Kinabalu" (gunung = mountain in Malay). It is a popular mountain to climb because of its relative ease (no special equipment needed, just a lot of endurance) and the interesting geology of the mountain (a massive block of rock rising from the jungle). (I didn't climb the mountain, as the part about getting up at 2 AM for the summit attempt contradicted my ideas about what a vacation should be.)

The diversity of vegetation in the forest is astonishing. Just about anything that isn't moving is covered with moss, lichens, climbing vines or epiphytic plants. Orchids appear here and there along the trails. Pitcher plants (a type of carnivorous plant) are also a feature of the park.

The first photo is of the Liwagu River. A trail runs alongside the river at varying elevations above the rushing water, and rarely drops down to water level. The river canyon is deep, making parts of the trail quite dramatic.

Photo of Liwagu River in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

Every now and then we would notice a pitcher plant along the side of the trail. The park has multiple species within the park boundaries, but I saw just three or four species.

Photo of Pitcher Plant in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

The diversity of ferns in the forest was unreal. Some were the size of trees, while others could be held in your hand. They each had their own way of unfurling.

Photo of fern unfurling in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

Borneo has over 1000 species of orchids, so it is not hard to see a few types while hiking through the forest. This is a Dendrochilum variety (probably).

Photo of Dendrochilum sp. orchid in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

I'm not sure what species these are, but the white flowers are a bright surprise in the mass of green, brown and grey.

Photo of a forest orchid in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

Yet another mystery plant (probably not an orchid). The shape of the leaf is great.

Photo of half-hearted plant in Mount Kinabalu Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

The last photo is of a huge leaf that we found on Gaya Island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. My foot is a size 9 U.S.(~42 European), giving this leaf nearly a 1 meter diameter. It was raining hard during that particular hike, so the giant leaf was good to have above us. Update (10/28): the leaf is from a Macaranga gigantea tree.

Photo of huge leaf, Gaya Island, Sarawak, Malaysia

If you would like more detailed comments about how I got to the park, where I stayed, and so forth, please drop me an e-mail and I'll respond in a little while after I assemble my trip notes.

[updated to specify species of the huge leaf in the last photo]

Monday, October 09, 2006


  • Top (L to R): yam puff, pandan pancake with peanut filling, carrot cake (a Singaporean street classic)
  • Middle: khandvi (an Indian chaat dish), cheese murtabak, fresh bean curd
  • Bottom: char kway teaw (rice and egg noodles in dark sauce), dokla chaat, teh tarik

After the significant detour in the last post, it's time to return to food. And what a return it will be: blogging from Singapore. This first post will be a few photos from the first days of my visit; later posts will provide more details on some of the unique or interesting foods I ate or saw (including the photos above).

Unfortunately, the first few days of my visit have included one of the worst episodes of air pollution in years. The cause is purposely-set forest fires in Indonesia (to clear rainforest for palm oil plantations, for example) and so the air here smelled of wood smoke (as it a campfire was following me) and had a somewhat Hadean look to it. Unpleasant, but certainly not bad enough to stay inside---there are hundreds of food places to visit, countless items to try!

Maxwell Road food center

Little India, decorated for Deepavali

Peranakan door with tile decoration

A few links on food in Singapore
From the New York Times (if the links are broken, try visiting the NYT travel section, as many travel articles never expire.):
From elsewhere:

Indexed under Travel, Malaysia and Singapore
Technorati tags: Singapore : Food : Travel

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Did the Bluth family build Sunnydale High School?

And now, a significant diversion from the normal content.

Recently, while rewatching two of my favorite TV series---Arrested Development and Buffy the Vampire Slayer---I noticed that the same piece of art was on a wall in both shows. Very weird.

In Buffy, I noticed it in the new Sunnydale High School's main office (where Buffy is a counseler, and to which Principal Wood's office connects) in "Get It Done" (Season 7, Episode 7ABB15). Its appearance is shown behind Principal Wood (DB Woodside) in the first screenshot below. On Arrested Development, I first noticed it in "Motherboy XXX" (Season 2, Episode 13). The second screenshot shows it behind Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) in the attic of the Bluth Company's model home in the "Sudden Valley" development.

The answer to the question posed in the subject line is obviously "no," and the art overlap is probably a result of the two production companies sharing a prop department at the Fox studios in California. The air dates make it seem possible: the Buffy episode first aired on February 18, 2003, and the Arrested Development episode aired over two years later, on March 13, 2005.

More about the Bluths: The Balboa Observer, a fan site
More about Buffy: any one 651 links in Google's directory

Indexed under Art
Technorati tags: Television

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Waiter, you forgot the fly garnish for my soup! - Insects as food

At the office lunch table a long while ago, the subject of eating insects came up. One of my colleagues became nauseous just thinking about eating an insect, and I didn't feel too good either. Although I am a vegetarian, I have no ethical problem eating insects---they are below my "line" (i.e., "you gotta draw the line somewhere"), but something deep within me is telling me that they are not something I should be eating. From a hard-headed, non-emotional point of view, though, a fear of insect eating doesn't make a lot of sense. In much of the world throughout much of history, insects have been perfectly suitable food, and for good reason: they are nutritious, easy to find, and tasty.

I started thinking about this, did a little research on the subject, and started to write a post. But then other subjects caught my interest, and the post fell into "draft purgatory" (or, perhaps, hibernation or a pupation stage). Recently, a poorly titled article in the New York Times about eating insects in the Issan region of Thailand, a justified rant in response from Eating Asia, a post about queen ants at Slashfood, and a picture at Gadling (a travel blog) have inspired me to finally complete the post.

One of the most popular commentaries about insects as food is anthropologist Marvin Harris' book The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig, which devotes a chapter to insect eating (entitled "Small Things"). Harris proposes a number of reasons for taboos about or resistance to insect eating (Harris also discusses cannibalism, the Jewish and Muslim ban on pork, why pets aren't meat, and more). In other sources (like Man Eating Bugs, by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio), I have found additional possibilities. And, of course, there is my own history with insects.

Is it cleanliness?
Harris writes "The reason we don't eat them is not that they are dirty and loathsome; rather, they are dirty and loathsome because we don't eat them." (note that "we" is referring to Europeans and Americans of European descent) Harris claims that the European rejection of insects as food comes from a time long before indoor plumbing or before anyone made the connection between germs and disease. In those days, a locust living in a meadow or a spider living in the forest was probably a lot cleaner than meat from the farmhouse or local butcher.

Another cleanliness factor is that when you eat an insect, you generally eat the entire digestive system, a part of the body that is potentially ripe with pathogens and certainly firmly in taboo-land. Proper cooking of the creature will kill the pathogens within, but it might be hard to get my brain to remember that.

For most insects, you eat the whole thing, and unless it is covered with a thick layer of batter or in a cake, it is clearly identifiable: it's a bug. Most other meats are just a blob on a plate or a bun, several degrees removed from a living creature. Clear exceptions to this, however, are whole fish, shrimp, oysters, and lobsters (especially ones picked from a tank at a restaurant), which are staples of high-end cuisine. The many exceptions lead me to believe that identifiability is not as important as personal and cultural views.

Ingrained food habits?
I read somewhere (perhaps it was in Man Eating Bugs) that a person's food habits are primarily developed in the first few years of life. I grew up in a suburb in Michigan, and no one I know ate insects on purpose. I certainly didn't even consider it--it repulsed me then as it does now. The question was probably moot, in any case, as there were no swarms of locusts, huge termite mounds, honeypot ants, or giant spiders, and so finding a snack or meal was not easy. But then again, if you would have asked me when I was 12 years old if I would eat seaweed, or a smelly paste of fermented soybeans called "miso", I'm sure I would have said "No way!" So change is possible.

It would be interesting to see how insect-eating habits transfer outside of the homeland and to the next generation. For example, grasshoppers (chapulines) are a popular snack food in Oaxaca, Mexico. What do U.S.-raised children of Los Angeles immigrants from Oaxaca think about eating grasshoppers? We can guess what the teenagers think---if the parent likes it, it must be horrible---but how about the pre-teens and young adults? Are chapulines even readily available in LA? And if so, I hope they are collected from areas which are not sprayed with pesticides because insects are concentrators of toxins (i.e., the chemicals accumulate in their bodies over time, leading to high levels).

Or cultural attitudes about insects?
For me personally, the insects that I grew up with were always an enemy: swarms of mosquitos, biting horseflies, yellow jacket wasps, "no-see-ums," and other tiny pests (and this was in the days before Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and in a region without fire ants or killer bees). You'd think that would make me happy to eat them, but it didn't. I just wanted to smack them dead.

Harris offers these comments on this subject:

...the peculiar loathing which accompanies the European and American rejection of insects as food. The interesting fact is that most Westerners not only refrain from insectivory but the mere thought of eating a grub or a termite---not to mention a roach!---makes many people sick to their stomachs. And to touch and insect--or worse, to have one crawl on you--it itself a disgusting event. Insects, in other words, are to Americans and Europeans as pigs are to Moslems and Jews. They are pariah species. The standard claim that insects are dirty and disgusting makes no more sense than the standard claim of Jews and Moslems that pigs are dirty and disgusting. ... p. 173

A species will be apotheosized or abominated depending on its residual utility or harmfulness. A Hindu cow not eaten provides oxen, milk, and dung. It is it apotheosized. A horse not eaten wins battles and plows fields. It is a noble creature. A pig not eaten is useless---it neither plows fields, gives milk, nor wins wars. Therefore it is abominated. Insects not eaten are worse than pigs not eaten. They not only devour crops in the field, they eat the food right off your plate, bite, sting, make you itch, and suck your blood. If you don't eat them, they'll eat you. They're all harm and nothing good. (pp. 173-174)

...Since we don't eat them we are free to identify them with the quintessential evil--enemies who attack us from within--and to make of them icons of dirt, fear, and loathing. (p. 174)

Are insects just too hard to collect?
Harris says that the lack of huge termite mounds, swarms of locusts, or enormous waterbugs, is one reason bugs are not popular in the U.S. and Europe. That is, collecting insects in such an environment would require too much effort relative to hunting a deer or raising pigs. However, some researchers have found that it is easy to gather a lot of calories quickly:

Madsen and colleagues found that one person could collect an average of 200 pounds of the sun-dried grasshoppers per hour [near Salt Lake City, Utah]. At 1,365 calories per pound (compared with about 1,240 calories per pound of cooked medium-fat beef and about 1,590 calories per pound of wheat flour), this amounted to an average return of 273,000 calories per hour of effort invested. According to Madsen, "Even when we took a tenth of this figure, to be conservative, we found this to be the highest rate of return of any local resource. It is far higher than the 300 to 1,000 calories per hour rate produced by collecting most seeds (such as sunflower seeds and pine nuts) and higher even than the estimated 25,000 calories per hour for large game animals such as deer or antelope."
A Change of Attitude?
Did all of this research change my opinions about insects as food? Yes, a little. If I am ever lucky enough to visit Oaxaca, I'll think seriously about trying chapulines (with hot sauce and a squeeze of lime). Or if I visit the Issan region of Thailand, or the markets in Seoul, South Korea (where I saw some kind of worm for sale in large woks), I will consider trying the insects at the markets.

Dangerous Taboos
A final note on taboos takes us to Greenland. A review of Jarad Diamond's Collapse tells of the failure of Norse colonies on Greenland because the colonists wouldn't eat fish:
In Diamond's view, societies that refuse to make this choice [examining their core values and abandoning obsolete ones], but rather cling stubbornly to all their values even in the light of changing circumstances, are unlikely to survive and, indeed, risk catastrophe. His favorite example is the Norse population of Greenland. Their hubristic attachment to their identity as European Christians prevented them from achieving peaceful and productive relations with the Greenland Inuit, whom they looked down on -- even though the Inuit were far more successful as colonizers of that harsh environment, and continued to successfully inhabit Greenland after the Norse settlement had died out.

At the same time, the Norse settlers' unwillingness to alter their traditional eating habits led to an overdependence on inappropriate food sources, particularly cattle, and prevented them, astonishingly, from taking advantage of the most readily available source of protein in Greenland: fish.

Will the West's abomination of insects have similar impacts in the future? Or will insects become part of the diet as population grows and agricultural lands are degraded by industrial agriculture?

Photo Credits
Grasshopper photo from Suneko's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Spider photo from Cyron's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Other links

Indexed under Nature, Food History
Technorati tags: Nature : Food : Insects