In the Land of Tsukemen.

The Land of Tsukemen.
Nothing beats a bowl of Tsukemen.

There are a thousand and one articles on the internet reiterating the benefits of travelling. I don’t see a reason to encourage people to travel, unless they are on the related industry’s payroll. When our ancestors settled down and took up agriculture, their thirst to explore, so as to understand, only grew stronger. We have never left our nomadic tendencies behind. It is still in our nature to explore the worlds beyond our own.

Silly talk aside, after a year of freshman toil and a summer internship, I decided that I needed a break to simply relax. I had conceived a solo trip but it turned out to be a father-and-son trip, which I didn’t mind. Except that there were fewer bits of relaxing, and more of trying to be a better son. Leading a trip can be more tiring than wandering off on your own. In any case, nothing beats family and my dad’s pretty cool. Thanks Dad.

Japan never disappoints. It isn’t a perfect country, nor can it sway my attachment to Paris, but its wonders are boundless. It tops my list of most-visited countries, yet there remains so much more uncovered treasures, waiting to be discovered on my next visit. And Japan is so much more than Tokyo. Admittedly, for Tokyo, I’ve gotten used to marvelling at its amazing produce, unparalleled hospitality, and endless food basements. On this trip, I sought out a few special places, which have impressed upon me subtly, yet indelibly. By chance, these places line up in their respective categories: Coffee, Tsukemen, Pastry, and Sushi. I will write about these highlights individually, in time to come, otherwise this would make a very long post. In short, dedication is key to excellence, and the Japanese know it best.

Who can walk away from fireworks?
Who can walk away from fireworks?

Moving on from all things edible, this trip also coincided with the Sumidagawa fireworks festival, which also happens to be on my dad’s birthday. I don’t like crowds, but I couldn’t walk away from my first Japanese festival. Everyone had put on their yukata-s, brought bentos for their picnics along Sumida River. Night came and so Tokyo celebrated my dad’s birthday, with lights and sparkles incomparable to the little candle on my dad’s cake, which we had later in the night. Surely the crowd was nearly unbearable, but it is difficult to regret attending such a festival.

No regrets too, to have stayed in Tokyo for six days. It was slightly longer than necessary, but not having to rush from city to city was a blessing. Perhaps it would take a few years before I return to this city, but there is no doubt that I would visit again. Till then!

09 | Be our GÆST

A plateful of greens and reds
Beetroot Salad

I wouldn’t usually drive into the Central Business District. Traffic is impossible, and parallel parking frightens me.  But McCallum Street sounded like the quieter side of Tanjong Pagar. With some courage, and lack of wisdom, I went behind the wheels to brave the lunch crowd. The parking lots were accommodating; the traffic behind me were less so. After considerable effort, I could finally switch off the engine and set forth to the destination on my reliable legs. The hot weather didn’t offer much relief, nor did forgetting to put parking coupons. So when I had finally arrived at this café just opposite Amoy Street Food Centre, I got myself an iced white.

I’m ambivalent about having my coffee cold. My favorite espresso drink is the piccolo latte, or ‘short white’, or ‘magic’, or Gibraltar. Purists will condemn me for putting these in the same band, but I’m not that particular. With well-textured milk and decent espresso shots, a concise hot coffee drink works for me. On the other hand, cold brews are intriguing, and tropical heat necessitates cold refreshment.

The café’s non-existent AC didn’t help. We relocated to an alfresco table, which was much better with the occasional breeze. I opted for the beetroot salad, after a heavy breakfast. With rocket, sliced almonds and feta, it was aptly dressed. Given its size, it could use a little more acidity. Maybe a dash of lemon juice or some fresh citrus segments? On the positive end, the sourdough that came with the salad was sufficiently tangy, which I’ve taken a liking to during my stay in Paris. However, more gluten development would make a better crumb, and the crust could be more pronounced. Nevertheless, it made a good meal!

My company had the pork sandwich. The thing I have against tall sandwiches is that if you can’t pick it up and take a bite without dislocating your jaw, it can be quite a hassle. Especially when you just want to kick off your shoes and bask in the ambience. That’s why I prefer tartines – open-faced sandwiches, which makes more sense. They are usually flatter so you can take it by the bite, or you can easily cut it on the plate. But really, this is a matter of preference, so anything goes.

Overall, it was a decent meal. The brunch menu seemed interesting, and I’ll be sure to drop in for that the next time round, as well as the short white I missed. The café has character, and that gives it the potential to stand out amongst the many office lunch options around the area. A more welcoming service would also do no harm. After all, building rapport with customers keeps them coming back for respite from a hectic week. With so many new places opening up here, exceptional service could well be the make-or-break deal in keeping a café going.

GÆST
21 McCallum Street #01-01 The Clift
Singapore 069047
T: 6634 0922

http://gaest.com.sg/

Baby steps.

Nutmeg Bonbons

On lazy days, breakfast takes an hour. I was feeling especially lazy today and it took two. It starts with pre-heating the oven for bread, and boiling water for coffee. Meanwhile, I would be cleaning the grinder and the press-pot. Then it comes to taking a sniff out of the bag of beans, before weighing out 22g of coffee.  No prizes for guessing where the beans came from. The bread goes in the oven for five minutes, while I work on the hand grinder. The water is 95C and part of it is used to pre-warm the glass. While the water cools to 90C, the grounds are emptied into the press-pot and brewing begins with a steady stream of water. The bread is sliced and three minutes into immersion, the filter is plunged down and out comes the brew. The ritual ends with taking out a dollop of jam for the bread.

That, my lad, is breakfast.

I made myself a second cup of coffee today, because I can. As I nibbled on the crust of bread, I thought to myself how simple things intrigue me most. It might not be the best way of brewing nor the best bread, just ordinary jam and humble coffee, but it works for me. It may seem frivolous, but grant me that bit of luxury with bread, coffee and jam on my days off.

Simplicity is my most recent idée fixe. It means slowing down to appreciate the things that surround us. It is about finding coherence in the haves, instead of losing faith because of the have-nots. Our definitions of ‘simple’ differs, but it is easy to mistake simplicity for difficulty, or effort. The simplest things could be most difficult to come by. What had impressed me most during my stay in Paris was a modest tarte au citron, one that I have never succeeded in replicating it faithfully.

Due in part to the first kitchen I had worked in, plated desserts had intrigued me most. Like drawing on a blank canvas, one’s imagination is the only limit to put different flavours, textures, colours and temperatures together. Increasingly, my attention slants towards doing the simple things right – churning ice-creams, making bonbons, and in general, being positive. I can’t recall the slightest reason that has sparked this preoccupation, but it becomes self-reinforcing. Simplicity implies contentment; contentment perpetuates simplicity.

I’d always thought that the state of being content is dangerous. It breeds laziness and stifles progress. Yet, the impetus for improvement can come from elsewhere – such as the spirit of excellence or the drive of passion. Being content can be a source of strength. It’s like patting oneself on the back for making the small little steps, while not forgetting the distance ahead to strive further for. On the other hand, putting oneself down, for the sake of progress, can become toxic, and is uncalled for. As with words, simplicity is also a choice.

I like making bonbons because they are simple, but challenging. In light of the aforementioned, I am happy with these. They aren’t perfect, perhaps nowhere close, but I have found some familiarity in its execution. It was exciting too, to try out flavour combinations, and I had nutmeg, fennel, and vanilla for the ganache. There aren’t many chances to make bonbons in a proper setting for long, and I am glad that I could finish (for now) with a proper batch of chocolates.

 

08 | It’s OK.

Coffee Brew

Onions. Mille-feuilles. Winter clothes. These are the things that come in many layers. People are much simpler things. There are our inner thoughts, and then our external representations. What’s on the outside could well be very different from what goes in our minds, but it’s the differences that make up our personalities. By saying this I don’t mean it as an absolute truth. We’ve all lived long enough to know nothing could be 100 percent. It’s just a comforting perspective.

Our external representations differ when we’re with different people. Across time, space as well, and I couldn’t sound more redundant. But sometimes it’s necessary to state what’s obvious. Like telling your loved one how you feel. Because it’s necessary. In any case the differences can be upsetting, when we couldn’t be sure who we really are, who we could be, and who we should be. In the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert L. Stevenson wrote, ‘man is not truly one, but truly two.’  I think it’s a gross understatement. Man is truly… many?

It’s also a strange case how we can be obsessed with one and many at the same time. The Grand Unified Theory, the Ego, and the One. We like these singly, and we find comfort in their coherence. On the other hand, when it comes to money, time, or attention, we want many, or should I say much. It’s also strange how ‘money’ and ‘time’ are uncountable nouns, although when we count we are mostly counting time or money. To quote a bryologist I once met, ‘Man has very strange taste.’

Speaking of taste, it has been an exciting week. Blue cheese macaron, tamarind sorbet, passionfruit-thyme bonbons. Ma Sœur brought back a couple of chocolate tablets from Paris. Pierre Hermé, Jean-Paul Hévin and Un dimanche à Paris. I would have been over the moon if she had one from Alain Ducasse’s La Manufacture du Chocolat, but I couldn’t be more grateful already. That said, I had to get another one of Mast Brothers’ from a local distributor. C’est américain, oui, mais c’est chocolat. Blame those eye-catchy wrappers.

And, obviously, I have completed my coffee brewing set with a Porlex hand grinder. Time to put my age-old Frenchpress to use. I got a bag of beans from Nylon Coffee Roasters to celebrate the occasion. This bag of goodness from Baroida has a wonderful layered profile. A remarkable lingering finish with molasses! It takes a deal of effort to brew coffee yourself, but nothing beats having a cup of goodness in the comforts of your home. Here’s to good coffee, good chocolate, forget the could bes and couldn’t bes, the should bes and shouldn’t bes L’chaim!

Nylon Coffee Roasters
4 Everton Park #01-40
Singapore 080004
T: 6220 2330

http://www.nyloncoffee.sg/

07 | Somewhere only we know.

Blackburn Tanzania V60
Blackburn Tanzania V60

I seem to have so much to write, but no stories to tell. That’s part of the reason for my hiatus, along with many other mundane reasons like getting caught up in school. Today, I’m not going to any particular point, or bother much about coherence. I’m just going to, let it go. Apologies for the pun. It makes a nice song anyway.

The past few weeks have been hectic in school, oh what’s new? Exams are around the corner, but the most burdensome projects and papers are over. Except for tying up a few loose ends, my momentum has been slowing down for the past few days, perhaps dangerously so. I’m sitting in my ‘home-ground’ café, not because I work there or live near, but because it makes a comfortable ambience. At this very moment, I’m staring out of its windows, in envy of the potted plants along the road. Basking in the sun, they dance with the butterflies in the wind.

I would be a fraud to not admit that productivity arouses me – in an asexual, intellectual way. Who am I kidding when I say that I want to do nothing? Some part of myself enjoy having books read rather than reading itself. The knowledge gained over the process of learning. The distance swam instead of the joy of swimming. The only process which I could prefer over the result would possibly be being in the kitchen and putting ingredients together. At least that’s what I can conceive over half a cup of latte. Piccolo, to be exact.

These strange things that matter to me – I would think them absurd in my days of spirited youth. The days when I aspired to be a doctor, a bioengineer, or an evolution biologist. Have I mentioned that as a child I wanted to be an astronomer? Not an astronaut, because I hadn’t known what exactly they had to do besides floating in space.

I’m wondering how that would actually feel like. Being so alone in pure nothingness, seeing Earth from above in its entirety, but yet strife and suffering remains invisible. It’s just us to be so – so conscious of what matters to us, so ignorant of what really matters. After all, what really matters might actually just be what matters to us. That is a dangerous proposition, for then what really matters right now, is a good cup of coffee, and chocolate maybe.

This also goes to show why I usually tend to write with a point in mind. Let me indulge in not making a lot sense, but don’t be mistaken – reason is my reliable friend. It shouldn’t, however, be your only friend because you’re end up a lonely person with forty cats. Another friend you must make, is chocolate. Last Wednesday, I had the wondrous opportunity to attend Cacao Barry’s launch of its range of purity from nature chocolates – Alunga, Ocoa, and Inaya. Being the fanboy I rarely am, I was more impressed at meeting the pastry chef and the chocolatier than tasting the chocolates themselves. I did had a lapsang souchong bonbon which intriguingly matched that characteristic smoky fragrance to the new chocolate. But the most important thing I went away with was a renewed inspiration to pursue what really matters most, at least to me.

Alright, I shall spend the last half of my second cup, a pourover from Blackburn Tanzania, doing nothing. It’s sweet, with bright berry notes with a lasting finish.

Necessary Provisions
21 Eng Kong Terrace
Singapore 598993
T: 9231 7920

http://necessaryprovisions.com/