Americans Taste Test Singaporean Food

In a follow-up to their previous video which featured “Singaporean snacks/food”, Buzzfeed has come up with another video that showcases a number of dishes easily and readily available in Singapore’s ubiquitous (but often under-appreciated and overlooked) hawker centres.

The generally positive comments by the men and women in the video instilled a sense of pride in my food-crazed self; comparable to that of hearing one’s national anthem at an Olympic Games medal ceremony.

While we’re on the topic of pride; the comments section of the video is littered with people attempting to be gastronomically patriotic – as expected. Sadly, these individuals have only managed to come off as being silly, petulant, and ignorant: rambling endlessly about the “authenticity” and “originality” of the dishes showcase in the aforementioned video, while making statements about neighbouring nations having better tasting food – all of which reek of emotionally-charged bravado and appear to be nothing more than a vehement expression of what can be considered to be a case of culinary chauvinism.

The burning question on my mind is: Why we can’t just discard the false and misleading label of “authentic” food (what is “authentic” food anyway?) and appreciate food – along with its countless nation/culture-crossing renditions – simply for its multi-sensory satisfying properties?

Food & Socialikes Connect 2015

With an overcast sky and light drizzle as company, I made my way through the labyrinth of narrow alleys and lanes around Chinatown in central Singapore. I walked passed a Hindu temple already abuzz with activity; filled with worshipers and devotees diligently exercising their faith and going about their rituals within the gated grounds – despite it being only half-past-eight in the morning. The damp asphalt road ahead was flanked by two mirroring and near-parallel rows of colourful and refurbished shophouses; home to eateries and design studios, amongst other businesses.

Further up the road, the staff of Caribbean restaurant Lime House were already busy with preparations in the kitchen as they were playing host to Food & Socialikes Connect 2015; dubbed as the “first ever conference in Singapore for food bloggers and Instagrammers, by food bloggers and Instagrammers“. Not long after taking a seat on the brightly-coloured bench outside the restaurant, I met up with a fellow participant of the event, Ian. After exchanging pleasantries, Derrick (one-fifth of the event’s organisers) prompted us to join other early-birds up the dimly lit flight of stairs of the eatery’s third storey lounge.

In addition to Derrick, the rest of the organising commitee – Aries, Nathanael, Nicholas, and Nicole; all of whom were dressed in pink – took the effort to greet each and every one with enthusiasm and humility as they waited in line for registration. As the crowd grew, so did the level of enthusiasm and excitement. I then spotted a familiar face in the crowd – Adam Shah, from The Halal Food Blog. He felt relieved to see a familiar face amongst the crowd of fifty-or-so people, and we then made our way to our seats. As the crowd tucked into their morning coffee courtesy of Gentleman’s Coffee and Kafve Coffee, together with a chicken sandwich by venue host Lime House; Nat played the role of school teacher and attempted to call for decorum in the room filled with boisterous and excited food lovers.

A “wefie” featuring yours truly and Adam Shah of The Halal Food Blog. Photo: @thehalalfoodblog

The event showcased an array of food-centric individuals: companies, app developers, food bloggers, food photographers; the list goes on. Dixon and Shawn from Burpple kicked off the programme by giving their insightful thoughts on how the collaboration between food and technology has helped shape and subsequently expand their business. Food photographer Alex Ortega was next to grace the stage, armed with tips and tricks for smartphone food photography. Despite being a man of few words, Alex managed to successfully capture the attention of the audience who listened and watched very attentively for anything which may give them the upper hand for two of the day’s food photography contests – one of which will see Alex serving as the judge.

Armed with his own plate and set of cutlery, Kevin Beatrice Marling‘s photo was a winner in judge Alex Ortega‘s books. Photo: @kevin_the_snitch

After the lunch interval, four names in the local food scene – Maureen Koh (Miss Tam Chiak)Dylan Ong and Joshua Khoo (Saveur); and Willin Low (Wild Rocket) – served as panelists in a talk about the impact of social media on restaurants. With the mid-day sun shining through the windows; the pros and cons of social media were openly discussed, along with a few jibes at some rather peculiar traits often seen on social media with regards to people reviewing and talking about eateries. The panelists collectively understood that the reality of technology and social media cannot simply be left aside; seeing it is as something very relevant and powerful in today’s times. They came to a rather comical and unplanned agreement that those who work in the food industry should not read food-related blogs, in an effort not to be too distracted and/or discouraged by words from food writers, bloggers, and anybody who has access to the internet.

The next panel touched on plagiarism and the rights of social media users featured Maureen, together with Bernice Tan (The Hungry Bunny; a food lover who, aptly for this panel, happens to be a lawyer); Daniel Ang (Daniel Food Diary); and Catherine Ling (Camemberu). Nat highlighted that all of the four panelists have had the unfortunate experience of having their photos and/or articles plagiarised; which made them appropriate candidates to talk on the said issue. The whole room listened attentively as Bernice opened the panel by talking about the legalities of the internet and the likes (for example; the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA). She also weighed on the hefty financial costs (which she concluded and strongly reiterated to be not worthy of one’s time and/or effort) of taking a plagiariser to court, among other issues that may slip the mind of those who aren’t au fait with the law. When it came to Catherine, she mentioned with a casual yet matter-of-factly demeanour:

“It’s simple; just send them an invoice stating the link of your original post along with the relevant amount of monetary remuneration you wish to receive. I had a friend who did that, and they paid her!”

Additionally, she shared her first-hand experience about plagiarisers who were (rather shockingly and strangely) more willing to pay a blogger for using their post(s) and/or photo(s); as opposed to simply crediting them – with no costs involved – with a foot note/disclaimer on their page.

Slightly past 2 o’clock in the afternoon, famed food blogger Dr Leslie Tay (ieatishootipost) took to the floor to touch on lessons in life and blogging. Armed with PowerPoint slides and a philosophical approach, he waxed lyrical on topics pertaining to the person as an individual as well as one who could be a contributor to the society at large. Drifting away from his food blogging norm, Leslie did fairly well to get the audience and hosts to think about the bigger picture in life. The amount of social and charitable work done by him and his army of followers clearly depicts him as one who walks the talk. A collective roar and highly appreciative round of applause filled the room as he closed his talk; with the audience moved and encouraged by his words and charitable deeds.

Wong Hoong An (SingTel/HungryGoWhere) felt he had big shoes to fill following Leslie’s highly motivational and inspirational talk. Despite describing himself as one who is not very technically savvy, Hoong An brought up valuable and relevant information and experience with regards to past and present trends of social media and food. Along with his knowledge of food trends and patterns, his business insight was clearly exhibited as the talk went on.

Lee Zipeng’s Kinfolk-esque photo caught the eye of Maureen Koh (Miss Tam Chiak), and was selected as the winner for the second round of the day’s food photography contest. Photo: @zippyzipeng

Following a short tea-break, Hoong An was joined by Daniel Ang; Tony (Johor Kaki); and Seth Lui as part of the final panel discussion titled “The Future of Social Media”. Hoong An and Daniel raised the topic of YouTube being a severely under-utilised medium when it comes to food blogging; to which I wholeheartedly agree. Capitalising the use of YouTube can allow one’s blog and/or brand to grow beyond the ubiquitous photo-and-text blueprint commonly seen on food blogs in Singapore. Seth – who was on the receiving end of a number of jokes at his relatively quick rise to food blogging stardom and recent recognition in South Korea – maintained a cool composure and eloquently shared his experiences in the realm of food blogging.

Conclusion

The late afternoon sun played hide-and-seek with the off-white clouds as the day’s event drew to a close. Nat delivered the event’s parting words, together with sponsor and venue shout-outs; which was followed by a rousing round of applause in what could only be described as an event with no current equal. While there have been numerous food-centric events in Singapore, much of it has been only about the showcase and consumption of food. This gathering of like-minded individuals and entities, and building of a food-loving community (including writers/bloggers, photographers/Instagrammers, etc.) has been long overdue. I do hope that this event serves as a catalyst for similar events which gathers and engages the food-loving community in this island nation.

As expected with anything making its debut, hiccups and uncertainty would be inevitable. Unfortunately, certain discussions strayed a little off-topic (while others seemed to have dwelled a little too long on a sole question/topic); which meant certain speakers to cut their presentations and/or discussions short (which was the case for Dr Leslie Tay; who, unfortunately, had to rush through and omit some of his slides).

However, much respect and credit has to be given to the five aforementioned organisers for making the event a reality and success. Despite the initial brouhaha concerning a venue change, they pressed on and successfully managed to secure an alternate venue, along with an impressive number of names and sponsors from the local food and beverage industry, namely;

Alfero GelatoBrand CellarCold Front CoDancing ChefThe EntertainerFijiFullerton HotelGarden PicksGentleman’s CoffeeHuijiKafve CoffeeThe Laughing CowLime HouseMiam MiamOceans of SeafoodThe Palette KnifeSoon HuatSpicy Thai Thai CafeSunrise Bistro & Bar, and Win Win Food Singapore.

The event’s goodie bag; made up of various food and beverage items and food vouchers. Photo: Food & Socialikes Connect

A quick chat with Nat after the final panel discussion revealed that there may be a possibility of a similar event next year, but he seemed slightly more open to the idea of making the event a biennial one. Only time will tell as to what will be in store for future installments of Food & Socialikes Connect. One thing is for sure though; I would be more than thrilled to be sitting in a room of like-minded people and soak everything in once again.

Here’s to many more great food experiences, together with positive growth and development of the food-loving community in Singapore!

eat food. live food. x The Halal Food Blog

While exchanging e-mails with Adam Shah (The Halal Food Blog) with proposals and ideas regarding the Table Talk feature, he suggested that we both participate in a “food blogging exchange/collaboration”; where I will feature The Halal Food Blog on my platform, and I will be featured on his. Without hesitation, I gladly agreed to this idea; and the rest, as they say, is history.

I immediately decided on one of my go-to eateries as the venue for our meet-up – Sinaran Muslim Seafood. Halal Chinese-style cze char dishes are the main feature at this establishment; which often sees a full house during evenings and weekends. Advance reservations by families are commonplace so as to avoid the disappointment of not being able to secure a seat.

Penned in an enthusiastic and eloquent manner; Adam Shah, together with his brother Azlan Shah give their take on the dishes we had on that night. Don’t forget to drop by and say hello to the folks from The Halal Food Blog for more halal dining options in and around Singapore!

Cubes by Lernert & Sander

I recently came across this fine work of art, photography, and knife skills (of which classically-trained chefs would certainly be proud of). Could anything else seem more beautifully composed?

Quoted from lernertandsander.com:

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant asked us to make a photograph for their documentary photography special, with the theme Food. We transformed unprocessed food into perfect cubes of 2,5 x 2,5 x 2,5 cm.

For those who think they are able to name all the ingredients in this piece; head on over to Sporcle to test your food-identifying supremacy. The catch? You only have fifteen minutes to successfully name all ninety-eight pieces of cubed food – though some may be repeated. Good luck!

Table Talk – The Halal Food Blog

Table Talk is a new series featuring food-lovers from all walks of life in Singapore. This casual question-and-answer-style interview features food-centric topics together with discussions, opinions, and exchanges of ideas in relation to food.

This first edition of Table Talk features 32-year-old Adam Shah; together with his 29-year-old brother Azlan Shah; who represent one-half of the team behind The Halal Food Blog. After three years of food blogging, these food-loving siblings – who hold full-time positions in the corporate world as a call centre manager and a marketing manager respectively – share their thoughts and experiences about being the go-to names for halal food and halal food blogging in Singapore.

This inaugural edition of Table Talk features food-loving siblings Adam Shah (left) and Azlan Shah (right); who represent one-half of the Halal Food Blog team. Photo: The Halal Food Blog

Could you share how you got started with food blogging?

Adam: We started the blog about three years ago, mainly because we were not able to find much information with regards to halal eateries in Singapore. So I thought to myself, “The next time we eat out; I’ll take photos of the food, do a short write-up, and post it online.” We did so in hopes that it will be beneficial to similar-minded food-loving people. As time went by, we managed to amass an increasing number of followers.

We are very thankful to them and consider ourselves to be very lucky and fortunate to be where we are now.

Are there any challenges you have faced (or continue to face) as food bloggers?

Adam: People tend to think that we do this on a full-time basis, but that’s not true. Thanks to Singapore’s fast-paced lifestyle, we only eat out as and when we have time to do so; mainly after work hours and/or during weekends.

Additionally, some readers have came up with – what we consider to be – weird requests. A common example would be asking us to review a place prior to their own visit; and subsequently telling them how it’s like. Nevertheless, we still try our best to accommodate and accede to our readers’ requests.

We don’t pre-arrange food reviews, nor do we announce our arrival beforehand. This ensures credibility on our part and, most importantly; we like to be treated the same way as any other person who might choose to dine at any of the establishments we’ve featured. As long as our conscience is clear, we have nothing to worry about.

Azlan: I think food blogging can be quite disheartening at times, and there have been instances where we wanted to call it quits. Some readers have the tendency to expect that we – as bloggers – owe them something; whereas we think what we offer is similar to a kind of service. As Adam mentioned, we eat out and write about the eateries at our own time and do so out of our own pockets. We’ve also had instances and encounters with readers which were not too friendly in nature; particularly those which involved mis-communicated and/or mis-quoted information.

For the record: we base what we write on the information provided by the owners and/or proprietors at the point of time when we visit an eating establishment. The platform we provide is very useful (people take references, advice, and decide on where to eat via our blog), but we also realise the weight of the words we type can be considered rather heavy to some.

Also, during our initial foray into the food blogosphere, we became pretty riled up over trolls and their comments. Over time, we’ve learnt to just let them be – there’s no point in getting overly worked up.

What are your thoughts on the local halal food scene?

Adam: I have to say, the halal food scene has boomed exponentially as compared to the last five years, give or take. Almost everywhere you go, there is a halal eatery. Big chains are also jumping on the halal bandwagon, and I think such establishments are aware of the value of the MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) Halal certification in terms of bringing them more business. All in all, the halal food scene in Singapore is much better and offers much more choices than before.

Azlan: The food scene will always be what it is because people enjoy eating. We are more technologically savvy and thanks to globalisation, we’re more exposed to different types of cuisine and food.

We have also been fortunate enough to have met some very down-to-earth food proprietors and owners; some of whom are grateful to us for featuring them. Some have even went as far as saying that they owe their success to us. However, we keep telling them that we didn’t do anything. We believe that if your food is good, it will sell itself. Our job only involves informing people about the availability of different food options.

In recent times, Muslims in Singapore have been airing their views/concerns online about international chain establishments that have set up shop on the island nation but are not halal-certified. What does this reveal or tell you about the current demographic influence, demands, and/or purchasing power of Muslim consumers in Singapore when it comes to food?

Azlan: A lot of Muslims in Singapore are unhappy that (international fast food chain) Subway’s Singapore franchise, for example, is not going the halal route. I prefer to look at things from a different angle and proceed to question: from a business standpoint, will Subway benefit from turning halal? If you were to weigh it out, the non-Muslim community far outweighs the Muslim community; especially in Singapore. I don’t understand why people are blaming Subway for not going halal. We, as Muslims, should not deprive non-Muslims of what they like to eat – some of which may include non-halal items such as pork and bacon.

If we’re really that desperate for a submarine sandwich, we can easily head across the Causeway for Subway. And now, there are local halal places like Toasties to get our submarine sandwich fix. One can even head to ZAC Butchery to get your own meats and whip up your own sandwiches!

At the end of the day, it’s a business decision made by companies as to whether they choose to go halal or not. Furthermore; applying for the halal certificate is not cheap, nor is it easy to obtain.

Adam: Some people tend to have a narrow-minded and one-sided way on judging eateries. But as Azlan mentioned, it’s ultimately a business decision made by the companies. Technically, the companies don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why they choose not to go halal.

However, as mentioned previously, we are considered very fortunate to have more and more eateries going the halal route.

With more western-themed/inspired cafes and eateries popping up, and decades-old hawkers calling it quits; alarm bells are ringing with regards to the decline and potential demise of our local food culture. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Azlan: As mentioned, people are more adventurous when it comes to food, and they want to try new things. The rise of cafes and restaurants serving western cuisine seems to be a novelty of sorts. Realistically, we don’t consume such food on an everyday basis. People still turn to comfort food such as nasi lemak and roti prata, as it is generally cheaper as compared to food from cafes and/or restaurants. Our local food culture will never die.

Adam: It is much easier to get foreign cuisine nowadays; which was practically unheard of a few years ago. Similarly, the re-emergence of traditional flavours offered by cafes and non-local-themed eateries is very encouraging and interesting, though some may sound rather extreme. It may not always work, but it’s always nice to see people try. Many still want to be able to connect to their traditional foods and flavours.

One young food maverick, who goes by the moniker Satay Boy, recently posted on his Instagram page about how the tradition, heritage and culture of grilling satay is such an underrated and overlooked skill. I am of the belief that as long as there are people who still do things the traditional way, there is still hope. It will not be easy, but we can still be hopeful.

What role do food bloggers play – if any – in ensuring and promoting continuity of Singapore’s food culture?

Adam: I would say that we play a bigger role than we realise (or dare to admit) sometimes. The local food scene is primarily dominated by big names and food chains, but it’s always nice when we find a small local place that tries their best to infuse local flavours and ideas. Such owners are very grateful that we feature them in our blog because some are located in far-flung locations. Our main intention when we started the blog was to disseminate information and help people; be it diners (who want new eating options) or business owners.

Azlan: We see ourselves as regular people, and indirectly, we also lean towards smaller/underdog establishments. We are equally grateful and happy for food owners who have benefited from our features and reviews. Needless to say, we have also managed to build a strong friendship with business owners over time.

Do you have a favourite local dish that you find yourself returning to every now and then?

Adam: This is tough; I can’t decide on just one! I’m torn between chicken rice and any dish with salted eggs – crabs, prawns, or just plain salted eggs!

Azlan: *after a long pause* I’d have to go with my dad’s homemade laksa.

Adam: I would say that our dad has a huge part to play in our love for food. He cooks a lot of things at home; wanton noodles, pizza, spaghetti, chilli crabs, etc. I think he has natural talent in terms of cooking. As often as we eat outside, nothing beats home cooked food!

Azlan: My other choice would probably be nasi lemak. I’m a traditional kind of guy!

Based on your experience thus far, are there any tips you would be able to share with budding food bloggers?

Adam: Don’t think too much; just go for it. For example, if there is something interesting you see featured in a menu, just order it. The four of us behind the blog (the brothers and their respective spouses) allows for differing and contrasting opinions. People can definitely relate to at least one of our tastes. I also like to visit a place on more than one occasion in order to have a sense of the variety of food that they offer.

Additionally, it is important to be sincere. It is also important to just keep going! Somebody, somewhere is reading. A post a week or every fortnight is good. Don’t give up; persevere!

Azlan: Be yourself; keep your views and reviews as real and sincere as possible. People appreciate such traits, especially in bloggers. For your words to hold some weight, you have to be honest and not have any bias towards anything.

It is also very important to know why you are blogging. If your goal is to be famous and popular, you would tend to give up if the results aren’t to your expectations. For us; it would be safe to say that we would still keep going even if we had no followers.

Anything exciting in the works that people can look forward to from the folks at The Halal Food Blog?

Adam: There are some exciting developments coming up for the Ramadan/Hari Raya period (iftar menus, bazaars, etc). Additionally, we plan to give back to the readers by means of printing and distributing customised Halal Food Blog Hari Raya envelopes (commonly known to the Malay community as sampul duit Raya). We also plan to start a YouTube channel in the near future; which will include video reviews, vlogs, etc. We’re also going to be featured on BiTES magazine some time in June, so do look out for that!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Adam: I hope to see more people carrying on the flame/torch of food blogging. I highly enjoy the interaction between readers and ourselves. Thank you for supporting us and The Halal Food Blog!

Azlan: A very big thank you is in order for the readers of The Halal Food Blog. To those who have supported and continue to support us and the blog; thank you!

Author’s note: A big thank you to Adam and Azlan for being the first guests for Table Talk. Here’s to many more years of great food and friendship! For those who are interested about halal dining options in Singapore, do visit The Halal Food Blog as well as their Facebook page.