Burt Wolf's Menu: The Malay Community of Singapore - #115

Singapore -- it’s the place to take a look at the ancient food traditions of a city that is world famous for good eating.  We’ll discover the great recipes of Singapore’s Malay community, and the secrets of their spice mixtures.  We’ll tour the town and discover some edible love letters.  So join me in the Malay Community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The nation of Singapore sits on a group of islands at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Just north of it is Malaysia and just above that, Thailand.  Below it are the straits of Singapore and they are the key to the country’s history. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Commercial trading between India and China has been going on for about five thousand years.  And for all of those years, the Malaysian Peninsula has rested right smack in the middle.  Ships would come down to the west coast of the peninsula from India to do a little business in spices -- pepper, ginger, cinnamon.  Along the east coast you would find Chinese junks doing a little business of their own.  And eventually Arab traders joined in.  The area became a center of commerce.  Actually, it was more like a point for piracy.  The waters around Singapore are kind of narrow and as the trading ships came through, local pirates would come out out to do... what local pirates do.   For hundreds of years the land around Singapore was just a jungle with a specialty in local piracy.

But all that changed in 1819.  The British and the Dutch had been jockeying for position in the area.  The British were thinking about moving out of the neighborhood and leaving it for the Dutch, if the Dutch would give them a nice bit of property in India that the English had been coveting for awhile. Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles was the English Lieutenant-governor of Java and he hated the idea. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Raffles saw his opportunity when the old Sultan of Johor died without leaving a clear heir to the throne.  The sultan’s oldest son was in exile.  So they put the youngest son of the sultan on the throne.  But there was some real question as to whether the youngest son had the right to sit upon that seat.  So Raffles brought back the older kid, had him declared the new sultan, and then made a deal with him for exclusive English trading rights in Singapore.  He paid his new sultan three thousand Spanish dollars a year for those rights, and five thousand Spanish dollars a year went to the local Malay chief.  Raffles was in business.

Raffles had been able to obtain an important site for British trade in the area and he drew up a plan for the development of his new town. It was divided into areas for each of the major immigrant groups and its commercial strength was to rest on its location as a port.  His plan set the basis for the history of Singapore during the past two centuries.  When Lord Raffles showed up in 1819, Singapore was little more than a Malay village.  The majority of the small population were Malaysian Muslims who had drifted down the peninsula, but their cultural influence has always been greater than their numbers.  Today fifteen percent of the population of Singapore is Malay. They are very much part of the modern city, and the fact that they were here first is reflected in many subtle ways, including the fact that the national anthem is sung in Malay.

Today Singapore is a major Asian city. Its downtown business district is as modern and up to date as any city in the world.  Almost the entire population of Singapore lives on one island, which has a limiting effect on expansion, but only in the horizontal plane; vertically, the sky’s the limit.  For thousands of years the major economic activity of Singapore has been trade.  These giant buildings house the corporate offices of the major companies that manage much of the world’s oil business.  Because Singapore is in the middle of the most important shipping routes of Asia, it has become one of the busiest ports in the world.  Each year more than 100,000 ships pass through the facilities at the Singapore yards.   Singapore is also an outstanding financial center; its banks handle hundreds of billions of dollars in international transactions.  But if you’re not interested in making money, hey, that’s OK, Singapore will help you spend it.  Orchard Road has an impressive shopping area.  Mile after mile of stores, representing designers and manufacturers from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. 

Clearly business is important, and so is shopping -- but neither may be the single great compulsion for a Singaporean.  The consuming passion in this town is consuming good food.  No matter who you are talking to, within a few minutes the subject will come around to eating. Singapore has some 25,000 places to eat in and a population that is slightly over two and a half million.  Lots of competition, and lots of great food.

Within Singapore’s Malay community there is no more traditional dish than Satay.  It’s on the menu of hundreds of restaurants throughout the city.  Satay as it is presently presented is simply a bamboo skewer with three or four bite-sized pieces of shrimp, chicken, or lamb that have been marinated, and grilled and served with a peanut sauce.  Satay probably got started in Indonesia and over the years became a standby throughout Southeast Asia. It has even became a regular part of the service on Singapore Airlines.

Chef Mohammed Sharif works with the airline and is a specialist in Malay dishes.  He starts his Chicken Satay by preparing the marinade.  Shallots, lemon grass, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and a little water are blended together into a paste.  When the mixture comes out of the blender, one pound of chicken cut into bite-sized pieces is added in. Before the meat is mixed into the paste, two tablespoons of each of the following get added in: cumin, coriander, salt, sugar and oil.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That gets covered and rests in the refrigerator for four hours.

Next a dipping sauce is made.  A quarter of a cup of peanut oil goes into a sauce pan, to which is added a quarter of a cup of chopped shallots, two tablespoons of chili paste, a cup and a half of chicken stock, a cup of ground peanuts, a quarter of a cup of sugar and a little salt.  All that is boiled together for three minutes.  A charcoal grill is fired up, or you could use a broiler.  A little oil goes onto the grill to give it a non-stick surface. The chicken gets put onto the skewers, and grilled.  Traditionally a fan is used to bring up the temperature.  Because the skewers here are made of bamboo, the end you hold is kept to the side, away from the direct heat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The fan’s also pretty good for cooling off the chefs!

The chicken, lamb or shrimp satay is served with the peanut sauce, and a few pieces of onion and cucumber.

The indigenous food of Singapore was originally the cooking of Malaysia and Indonesia.  In Singapore these foods are presented as four different cuisines.  The first is Sumatran Nasi Padang.  It originated in the Padang area of Western Sumatra.  Many of the dishes consist of coconut cream combined with various spices and chilies to produce a sauce which is then used as the cooking base for fish, poultry or vegetables.  White rice comes in to dampen down the heat of the chilies.  Second is Javanese.  The most famous of the Javanese dishes is satay.  Next up are the Malayan dishes.  There is a considerable similarity between Malayan and Javanese cooking but the approach to spicing is somewhat different.  One of the best of the Malayan dishes is seafood coated with a sauce made from coconut milk and spices, and then grilled in a banana leaf.  The fourth of the traditional cuisines is called Nonya.  Nonya cooking combines many of the traditional ingredients and cooking techniques of both the Chinese and the Malaysians.  Laska is a good example; thick noodles and shrimp drawn from a Chinese recipe, then blended together with Malaysian coconut milk and spices.  

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Start with these four indigenous cuisines, add the eight regional styles that came from the Chinese, and the two forms that were imported by the Indian settlers, and you will see why Singapore is famous for its good cooking.  Of course, you also must give the people of Singapore credit for not being influenced by English food during the colonial period.

Violet Oon is one of Singapore’s leading food authorities.  She writes for major newspapers and magazines, represents the nation at important food events around the world, publishes a magazine devoted to food called The Food Paper, authors cookbooks, runs her own restaurants and educates people, like me, who want to know about Nonya cooking and Nonya culture.

VIOLET OON:  Well, I belong to what is known as the Paranakan culture; it’s a cross-culture of Malay and Chinese culture, mainly ethnically Chinese, but we’ve been here for generations and generations.  It’s also known as Nonya; Nonya is a term for the women of the culture.  And it’s also known as Baba culture; those are the men.  Now you know --

BURT WOLF:   Nonyas are the women, Babas are the men.

VIOLET OON:  Yes.  And the food, which is our most spectacular sort of part of our culture, is known as Nonya food, because cooking is a feminine art, and I think that’s why that word is sort of very much in use.  Now, we are walking down Emerald Hill Road in Singapore.  It’s become a very chic address.  The houses were where the rich people of my culture stayed at the turn of the century and this century, and the architecture you see is very like a, I call it a “wedding cake,” you know?  A bit of a bad-taste wedding cake, very colorful.  Our culture is  -- you see our motifs are the furniture, the dress, the crockery is very , very colorful.  The motifs are, if you look at it, very Arabesque.  So that’s the Malay influence.  Floral, rather than Chinese, which would be more symbolic -- animals and bats, and they would have all those other things.  Well, our culture uses the more floral motifs, which is sort of inspired by the Malay culture.  And our food would also be a mixture of Malay and Chinese.  You get the blandness of Chinese food, the fineness of it, with the spiciness of Malay cuisine, and I think people like it because it’s a mixture of two, two flavors, two textures, and two cultures.  And it’s been sort of developed into a classic cuisine with actual set dishes for festivities, for wedding feasts, for funerals, for births.  And all these are sort of big celebrations in a person’s life.  The Chinese have a saying that there are three big occasions in their life:  the day you’re born, the day you’re married and the day you die.  In our culture, we celebrate the feasts of the Chinese culture.  The first big birthday would be your sixty-first birthday.

BURT WOLF:   I have to wait ‘til I’m sixty-one before I get a big birthday?

VIOLET OON:  Three score and ten, yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

VIOLET OON:  Well, it’s like into your seventh decade...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Right...

VIOLET OON:  ...then the second one is your seventy-first birthday, and normally the biggest birthday celebration is the eighty-first, ‘cause most probably by the time you’re ninety-one you’re dead, you know?

BURT WOLF:   You wanna get it in while you still can.

VIOLET OON:  (Laughing)  Yeah, so when it’s the eighty-first birthday you find that Chinese families will come from all around the world --

BURT WOLF:   --for an eighty-first birthday.

VIOLET OON:  --for an eighty-first birthday. 

BURT WOLF:   Interesting.

VIOLET OON:  And normally you’ll have noodles, which is also part of our Paranakan culture for --

BURT WOLF:   Right, a symbol of long life.

VIOLET OON:  Yes, and you mustn’t cut the noodle --

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

VIOLET OON:  -- especially if it’s your mother-in-law’s birthday... [BURT laughs]  ...she thinks you have a message somewhere if you cut the noodles up, you know?

BURT WOLF:   Aah, I’ll be very careful about that.

VIOLET OON:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, very careful of that.

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

VIOLET OON:  And noodles would have, in a birthday, [“So we would have noodles at a birthday”]  but sort of in our Nonya culture we would also have the spicy foods, things like Sambal Udon, the Shrimp Sambal, and we would have certain Chinese soups like Hipyu soup with fish more[?], so it’s a mixture of sort of different cultures.  So I think that is, to a lot of people, the fun of Nonya cooking, the fun of Nonya food.

VIOLET OON  (NOW IN KITCHEN):  Well, this is Beef Rendang; it’s Nonya cooking but it comes from Indonesia originally, and... would you like to know what spices go into it?


VIOLET OON:  Yeah?  Well, we have garlic, which goes into the spice paste, about five cloves of it; and then there’s a chili paste, which is made from dried chilis; and then you have about a thumbful or two thumbsful of ginger.  And this here is lemon grass, which is citron -- citronella; and about two handsful of shallots.  And what you get out of all this is this spice paste that you have here, which you put in a blender or a food processor to get it into a fine paste.

BURT WOLF:  If I can’t get lemon grass, what should I use?

VIOLET OON:  Use nothing.

BURT WOLF:  Ah, nothing.  My supermarket always has that, and it’s usually on special.

VIOLET OON:  Mm-hmm.  Ahh, could you sort of pour some oil in here for me?  Now, you add two to three tables -- you have to add a bit more oil, actually; it may seem a lot, but you need the oil to cook the spice paste in, and if you’re sort of very health-conscious you remove the oil at the end of the cooking time.  And you sauté it over sort of medium heat.  You know when your spice mixture is done, and the secret is that it’s done when you have a sneeze.

BURT WOLF:  Enough of the volatile oils come up --

VIOLET OON: (overlaps)  Enough, yeah -- AH-CHOO!




BURT WOLF:  AH-CHOOOOO!!!!!  I think the dish is ready.

VIOLET OON:  Yes.  Well, at this point the spices are done, you add the coconut milk, about two to three cups of it, into the spice, yeah, so it doesn’t burn, and then I would add stewing beef, about maybe two pounds.  Or you could add chickens cut into pieces, and cut into -- the meat will be cut into cubes.  And then a bit of sugar, about a quarter of a cup of sugar... salt, maybe about one to one and a half teaspoons.  And then you could add these kaffir lime leaves, which could be replaced by lemon zest or lime zest in the States.  It’s sort of a -- gives it a beautiful aroma from the leaves.  And then you would stew it on sort of medium heat for about two hours, if you have this sort of stewing beef, two to three hours, ‘til it’s tender and the oil exudes again and the gravy gets thick.  Or if you like a nice gravy, you could sort of cook it less reduced; you could have a, a sort of creamier gravy.  So it depends on how you like it done, actually.

BURT WOLF:  That’s it.

The high value placed on hospitality in the cultures that make up Singapore has affected many aspects of the city’s life.  On the smallest scale it is the friendliness that greets you when you enter someone’s home; on the largest scale it is the government’s desire to keep Singapore as the number one convention city in Asia.  The Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, which everyone calls Suntec City, is designed to be the place to meet in the Asia-Pacific region.  It is a state-of-the-art facility with an ideal location, right at the center of the city.  And because of the size of the project, it has attracted a considerable amount of additional development to the area.  Particularly in terms of hotels.  A prime example of a top hotel is the Marina Mandarin.  It’s 21 stories high, and designed by John Portman of Atlanta, who pioneered the use of spectacular atriums in hotels. There’s a skylight that lets you feel like you are outside while having all the comforts of being inside.  Every room has a view and all the other elements that you would expect from a really first-class facility.  But because the Marina Mandarin is in Singapore, it has a gastronomic responsibility that is considerably more challenging than it would have in any other city.  Let me show you what I mean.  This is the kitchen of a famous hotel in Paris.  Many chefs, many talents, many recipes. One food... French.  This is the kitchen of a famous restaurant in Italy. Again, many chefs, many talents, many recipes.  One food, Italian.  But here the hotel must cater to at least 15 different gastronomic cultures.  The House of Blossoms presents the dishes of six different regions in China. 75 percent of the population of Singapore is of Chinese ancestry.  The Tatler serves the foods of India, which is representative of about 15 percent of the population.  It also cooks the four traditional foods of the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula, which constitutes about 7 percent of the population.  Of course they didn’t want to miss out on the great traditions of the west, so there is the Ristorante Bologna, which is one of the only Italian restaurants in Asia to be admitted into the International Association of Italian Restaurants.  The hotel’s Executive Chef is George Fistrovich, who has an impressive set of credits from restaurants all over Europe, Asia and the United States.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But the thing that impressed me the most about George’s background is his mother.  She lives  in Indiana and is a regular viewer of my reports.  As an expression of our appreciation we tried to find a recipe that we thought she would truly enjoy.  It’s called Fish Sambal.  It’s made from a boneless, skinless filet of fish with a really interesting collection of seasonings.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Is that okay, Mom?

The recipe starts with two tablespoons of oil going into a hot sauté pan. As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a quarter of a cup of minced shallots, a quarter cup of minced garlic, and a quarter cup of pureed red chilies. 

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  You take the garlic and chili and the shallots, and you stir it about ten to twelve minutes over moderate heat until all the oil comes penetrating throughout.  And that way you’ll know that all the flavors are even throughout.

After a few minutes of stirring three tablespoons of sugar are added plus a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of water. 

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Some people might find this mixture a little bit hot.  So by adding ketchup, it will sweeten the mixture up a little bit and also add a nice color to it.

BURT WOLF:   Traditional Asian ingredient.


George puts a little oil onto a banana leaf, but if banana leaves are not big in your neighborhood, some aluminum foil will do the job.  Then the fish goes onto the leaf and the sauce on top of the fish.  The leaf or the foil gets wrapped around the fish.  A little oil goes into a pan and then the wrapped fish.  Six minutes of cooking on one side, six minutes on the other and the fish is ready.  While the fish is cooking George prepares a sweet chutney.  Three tablespoons of sugar go into a hot sauté pan.  Then three tablespoons of lime juice.  Within a minute or so the sugar will dissolve into the juice.  At that point take the pan off the heat and hold it aside.  Put a quarter of a cup of sliced green chilies into a bowl, plus a quarter of a cup of sliced red chilies, a sliced mango and a cubed apple.  Then pour the sugar and lime juice mixture on top.  Two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar are added, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of chopped chives.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  This mixture can be kept in your refrigerator for three to four days, if you just minus the chives and add ‘em when needed.

The banana leaves go onto a serving plate, the fish, the chutney and a few chopped chives.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Finish the plate by two pieces of chives... and that’s home cooking, Mom -- but in Singapore!

This is Peter Wee, a leading authority on Paranakan culture.  He collects valuable examples of Paranakan history, and even offers traditional foods for appropriate holidays.  His antique shop is at the center of Singapore’s Paranakan district.

PETER WEE:  Now, in every Paranakan home, especially of this type, you have this little peephole, because we can look into the main entrance and see who is knocking at the door.  And the ladies of the house are not supposed to be found outside, and so they can peep and see who is in, who is downstairs. 

BURT WOLF:   Very functional, too.


BURT WOLF:   You drop the keys down?


BURT WOLF:   What does “Katong” mean?

PETER WEE:  Well, Katong is, in the eastern part of Singapore, this area is known as Katong.  And at this time of the year, the shop is full of Paranakan cookies.  We get these from the several bibis that make all these traditional cookies and bring them to the shop.

BURT WOLF:   Bibis?

PETER WEE:  Bibis are elderly ladies.  Now here is a tin where we keep all the “love letters,” or Quay Blanda.  Now, blanda, to the Paranakan, is “Dutch.”  So I suppose this must have been influenced by the, by the Dutch in the Paranakan culture.  And the basis for this is, of course, coconut, flour, sugar, and pandan leaves.

BURT WOLF:   Pan -- ?

PETER WEE:  Pandan leaves, fragrant, green pandan leaves.  And, talking about pandan leaves brings me to the idea, at the early days of my grandfather’s time, we used to boil hot water and put it in a, in a teapot, and they’d just put the pandan leaves into the teapot, and the entire pot of water is fragrant with pandan leaves.  And if you cool it, you drink it, my goodness, it’s so fragrant.  Pandan leaves! ...  Now that is what we call the aga-aga.  It’s made into the shape of a rabbit.  Now, we make this out of seaweed we collect from the sea and we dry it up...

BURT WOLF:   And that’s dried seaweed?

PETER WEE:  ...for at least a month or two, you dry the seaweed; you leave it under the sun, rains, and then you wash it until it turns white. 

BURT WOLF:   And then it becomes like a gelatin.

PETER WEE:  Gelatin.  Then once it is formed, it will last from five to six months.  Now this --

BURT WOLF:   What is that?

PETER WEE:  Ah, now this soft-looking little cake here is what we call quay bakul.  Bakul is “basket,” because it is steamed in a basket, and it is steamed for eight hours...

BURT WOLF:   Like a plum pudding.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  The longer you steam it, the darker the color will be.  So this is --

BURT WOLF:   The sugar carmelizing in it.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  So you get that -- this is made of glutinous rice.  Now this is very important to the Paranakan Chinese New Year because this is the main cake that has got to be offered to the deity. 

BURT WOLF:   I like the symbolism of that; the stickiness of the rice holding the family together, the roundness, all in one place, and those two things making life sweet.

PETER WEE:   And it is also stated that if the family is mourning that year for someone who has passed away, they cannot make this cake; because if they make this cake it would not stick together.  But they will receive gifts of this cake from their relatives.  So if one is mourning, it’s very superstitious -- you cannot make this cake. ... It’s a photo of my father and mother’s wedding day; they were dressed in the traditional Chinese costume, which is also a Paranakan costume.  You can see that she wore a very unique aspect of Paranakan bridal headgear, which is made of a hundred and forty-four hairpins.

BURT WOLF:   A hundred and forty-four hairpins!

PETER WEE:  And she walked into the Church of San Teresa and she was married in a Christian manner, wearing that traditional costume.  We believe -- the Chinese believe, and the Paranakans also have that feeling, that you know, life has got to be complete with longevity, prosperity and happiness.

BURT WOLF:   You wouldn’t want to be old and rich and not happy.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  You have to have all these three, so that is why we have these three star-gods representing, you know, the new year, the wishing of the new year, wishing one happiness, prosperity, and longevity.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our report on the indigenous food of the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula... an island known to the world as Singapore.  It’s done an amazing job of bringing together six different cultures and helping them preserve their ethnic traditions... especially when it comes to food.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.

Burt Wolf's Menu: Chinese Community of Singapore - #112

Singapore... almost 75 percent of the people here descend from Chinese settlers, and their community has preserved much of their ancient culture. Food and fashion, old and new.   It’s the place to take a look at the 5,000 year history of herbal recipes for good health, and find out how they work. Plus some dishes that just taste great.  So join me in the Chinese community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

Thousands of years ago Chinese traders started sailing down through the South China Sea, turning west at Singapore and heading for the Bay of Bengal to do a little business in India.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During those centuries a few Chinese traders settled in Singapore, but the numbers were very small.  When Singapore became a member of the British Empire, Chinese immigration increased considerably.  And by the middle of the 1800’s sixty percent of the people in Singapore were Chinese.

Most of the Chinese immigrants had come here as indentured workers.  Their plan was to earn as much money in Singapore as they could and then head back to their hometowns in China.  When Singapore became a Crown Colony under the direct control of England, it began to play a key role in Britain’s world trade.  Commercial sailing vessels were on their way out and steamships were taking over.  When England opened the Suez Canal in 1869, Singapore became the place to refuel when steaming between Asia and Europe.  Much of the work associated with the port fell on the backs of the Chinese laborers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Chinese that settled in Singapore are known as the Straits Chinese.  The word Straits is a reference to the waters around Singapore.  Their history around here goes back for hundreds of years.  Originally their families lived in the southeastern part of China. Over the centuries they came wandering down along the coasts through Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, ending up in Singapore. The Straits Chinese are as Chinese as any other Chinese.

The Straits Chinese of Singapore keep the same lunar calendar as traditional Chinese all over the world. They share the same cultural influences of great thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu, they write with the same pictorial language, and sign their important documents with the same type of chop.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As more and more Chinese showed up in Singapore during the 1800’s, Singapore became primarily a Chinese town.  By and large, the laborers stopped showing up, and the new immigrants were traders, shopkeepers, and businessmen. At one point, the government encouraged a policy where all of the Chinese were to learn to speak Mandarin, the mother tongue of China, and in that way, all of the regional groups could communicate with each other.  And since almost everybody in Singapore speaks English, they can communicate with me.

Madame Ng Siong Mui comes from a long line of food professionals.  She writes for magazines in both Europe and Asia, and authors a series of very successful cookbooks.  Today she’s taking me on a tour of her local Chinese market.

NG SIONG MUI:  Burt, this is the best time to see Singapore because all our local people are getting ready for the Chinese New Year.  So we have dried goodies... look at all these decorations!  This is the time, you see, all these waxed ducks.  The duck are killed during the autumn period, and because of the oil covering, laminating the duck, that’s why it’s called Waxed Duck.

BURT WOLF:   Waxed duck.

NG SIONG MUI:  And waxed sausages. 

BURT WOLF:   And all New Year.

NG SIONG MUI:  All ready for the New Year goodies.  Guess what is this?  Persimmon!

BURT WOLF:   Persimmon!

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes, and it’s pressed flat.

BURT WOLF:   I want to taste this.  Sweet?

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes, very sweet.  Try it.

BURT WOLF:   Mmmmm.  That’s very nice.

NG SIONG MUI:  Nice?  And we can eat it as a snack.  It’s very good for children, because this will help them to have a good diet.  Very good digestion.  So to the Chinese, this is our snack, like potato chips. 

BURT WOLF:   Much better.

NG SIONG MUI:  Thank you.  Oh -- these are... these are not cannonballs.  These are fruit from the Hubbard tree [?] and we call it “Buddha’s Fruit.”

BURT WOLF:   Buddha’s Fruit.

NG SIONG MUI:  Buddha’s Fruit, because they always come in a bunch of eighteen.

BURT WOLF:   Is that a special number for Buddha?

NG SIONG MUI:  Buddha has eighteen gospels, the very close followers [note - we think she means “disciples” rather than “gospels”].  So because of that, we call it Buddha’s Fruit.  ... Oh, this is the Chinese sea moss.  It is actually a vegetable, but because it’s so minute, and its black color is like our hair, that’s why we call it fat choy.  Fat choy in Cantonese we mean the “hair vegetable.”

BURT WOLF:   Hair vegetable.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah.  We use it for stew.  And because the is punched with good luck --

BURT WOLF:   Right...

NG SIONG MUI:  -- and good prosperity.  So it is a must during our Chinese New Year.  Oh, this is our birthday fruit.  You have people having their birthday, we usually have not one pair, but nine.

BURT WOLF:   Nine peaches.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, nine peaches.  We have a story behind it.  We believe that the peach tree will need three thousand years to flourish, three thousand years for flowering, and three thousand years before the fruit is ripe.  So it’s nine thousand years.  And we wish the recipients longevity.

BURT WOLF:   So you get nine peaches to represent nine thousand years of life.

NG SIONG MUI:  (over)  -- nine thousand years, yes. ... These are not coffee beans.  This is pebbles mixed with sugar, and after that we put the chestnuts in --

BURT WOLF:   Very nice!

NG SIONG MUI:  -- the chestnut is all even, and the sugar content will penetrate during the cooking so the nut will be very sweet like sugar.  You see the roasting?  Now we can go back and do some cooking!

Just up the street from the market is Madame Ng’s cooking studio where she conducts classes, and where she keeps part of her collection of Chinese cooking equipment.  And now let’s cook!  Madame Ng’s first dish is for strips of pork, stir-fried with slices of soy bean cake.

NG SIONG MUI:  It’s a very healthy dish.  Here we see mushrooms...

BURT WOLF:   Right...

NG SIONG MUI:  ...and this is dried bean curd, shredded bean curd, and we have the chive buds.  Chive flowers, but they are left to bloom with the buds here.  If you have in your place you can use chives, just chives will do it...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Just plain chives.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes.  And we have our bean sprouts.  And here we have a little bit of shredded pork; you can use chicken or beef or mutton, your choice.  Or even if you use seafood, it will do.  So we’re going to have a very colorful dish.  Shall we start?

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Okay.  Yep.

Stir-fry recipes move along at just under the speed of light so it’s a good idea to have all of your ingredients ready.  A tablespoon of salt goes onto a half pound of pork loin that has been cut into thin slices.  The salt is followed by a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of cornstarch and a tablespoon of oil.  Those ingredients are mixed into the pork to form a marinade, in which the pork rests for about ten minutes.   Then the stir-frying starts.  A little oil goes into a wok.  To which is added a few slices of fresh ginger, some shallots and some garlic.  A moment of stir-frying. Then in go the chives and bean sprouts, along with some sugar, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of soy sauce.  A few more moments of stir-frying and everything comes out of the wok.  Then into the wok goes a little more sliced ginger, the mushrooms and bean curd cake, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar.  A little more stir-frying. The chives and bean sprouts return for a moment.  Then everything gets turned out of the wok again. 

NG SIONG MUI:  Burt, at this stage, if you are vegetarian, this dish is ready.  If you want to add meat for more flavor, you can have chicken, you have meat and beef.  And today we are using a little bit of shredded pork.

Into the clean wok, two tablespoons of oil, followed by a few slices of garlic, and a few slices of fresh ginger. The pork comes in.  Some stir-frying.  A splash of Chinese wine or sherry or a touch of brandy.  Then the vegetables return and as soon as everything is hot, it’s ready to serve.  Madame Ng’s second recipe is for beef and apples, and I’m the cook!

NG SIONG MUI:  This is beef; we’re going to add some marinade to it.  We’re adding salt, sugar, a little bit of soy sauce -- okay, that’s not too much, that’s right.  And add a bit of cornflour [cornstarch].  Yes.  Add in a little bit of oil to seal up the juice.  That’s right, and give it a good stir, and we leave the marinade on for about two or three minutes.  And we add Chinese wine later, before the cooking.  And now we are ready, you have the spatula --

BURT WOLF:  Spatula -- suture -- scalpel --


BURT WOLF:  -- clamps --

NG SIONG MUI:  Okay, first of all we have the oil first.  That’s right.  A little bit more.  That’s right.  We’re going to add in the three important ingredients:  ginger, garlic and shallots to fragrance the oil.

BURT WOLF:  Don’t add oil.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, half of that.  Good. 

BURT WOLF:  Okay...

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, give a good stir-fry.  All right.  Ready?

BURT WOLF:  Mm-hmm.

NG SIONG MUI:  We’re gonna add in all this -- Choose as many colors as you like to make the dish colorful.  And the soy sauce... now we’re gonna add the apples.  Soak the apples in a bit of salt solution to keep the color.  And we’re ready, we’re gonna dish out this dish again... lift it up here.  Look at the beautiful color.  Thank you.  Now, this time, same as usual -- put them all in.  Now -- and just before cooking, we add the Chinese rice wine.  If you don’t have Chinese rice wine, you can add in sherry or brandy.  Give it a good stir, but you must be done quick.  You see?  Once they reach the correct temperature, when the beef is eighty percent cooked -- at this stage, medium rare -- we’re gonna add in the vegetables.  Give it a good stir; combine them together, and then we add a dash of sesame oil.  And the dish is ready.  Look at the beautiful color. 

BURT WOLF:  That’s enough for our first serving.

NG SIONG MUI:  Very well done.  And now, to top it, we’re gonna have the cashew nuts.

BURT WOLF:  Looks great.  Let’s eat.

NG SIONG MUI:  Shall we?

Clyde Min is a citizen of the United States, who grew up in Hawaii. In 1991 he moved to Singapore to become the general manager of the Marina Mandarin Singapore Hotel.  Soon after his arrival he became interested in the complex issues confronting a community with an extraordinary heritage that needs to be preserved, and at the same time is under pressure to expand and develop.  He joined the Singapore Heritage Society and works to find appropriate solutions to these issues.  Today he’s taking me through Singapore’s Chinatown.

BURT WOLF:   I understand that part of this area was scheduled to be knocked down at one time.

CLYDE MIN:  Well, luckily I think, someone in government saw that they were actually destroying a lot of the charm and a lot of the history of Singapore, and they decided to save the buildings.  And by acquiring them from the private owners, they were able to restore them -- and then, of course, Singaporeans being great business people also, sold them back to the private individuals.  And of course now they’re worth a lot more than when they were first sold to the government.  ... Well, the fresh green coconuts are extremely nutritious; they actually have a water content in here, and a lot of people actually have found this to have been life savers.  And if you’re on a deserted island or on long journeys, the water that’s in here has sufficient food value to keep you alive.  Of course, the meat is used to make the milk. ... This is probably egg which has been marinated in a herbal sauce, probably a tea base; is this a tea base?


CLYDE MIN:  This is interesting...

BURT WOLF:   What is it?

CLYDE MIN:  It’s to open the watermelon seeds! 


CLYDE MIN:  My goodness!

BURT WOLF:   I never -- there’s a piece of cooking equipment I never saw, a Watermelon Seed Opener.

CLYDE MIN:  Very clever. 

BURT WOLF:   You put a watermelon seed...

CLYDE MIN:  ...inside, on the other side...

BURT WOLF:   On the other side...  I’m gonna buy some of those.

CLYDE MIN:  These are dried meats.  You know, during Chinese New Year, it’s not looked on favorably if the housewife has to keep cooking or doing anything like that, so they eat a lot of dried goods...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Ahh, interesting...

CLYDE MIN:  ...which have already been cooked and prepared. 

BURT WOLF:   So everything is preserved so they don’t have to do any cooking.

CLYDE MIN:  (over)  Exactly, of course it’s the winter months, so things are left out to dry in the dry winter months.  We’ve got duck, pork sausages done different ways, oysters --

BURT WOLF:   Oh, dried oysters!

CLYDE MIN:  Right. 

BURT WOLF:   So again, we’re seeing all these dried foods so that people don’t have to cook during the New Year.

CLYDE MIN:  (over)  Exactly; dried scallops...

BURT WOLF:   I always enjoy shopping on an off-day, you know, when the stores are empty and you can just wander down the street like that, and... no problem getting service and no lines...

CLYDE MIN:   (Laughing under)

Many of the emperors of China encouraged the art of Chinese herbal medicine.  The Shen Nong period, which dates back some 5,000 years, was a time when many of the important concepts in Chinese herbal medicine were first formulated.  It was a time when philosophers were particularly interested in the opposing forces of nature.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  ... Forces that were eventually codified into the theory of yin and yang.  Yang is the male force -- dry, hot, active.  Yin is the female force -- moist, quiet, cool.  Everything in the Universe has been divided into neutral or one of these two forces. The trick, of course, is to keep the forces in balance. 

Food has always been the primary method for controlling this balance, and the individual’s good health.  If your system has too much yang, which is to say your engine is running too hot, then you need more yin foods to cool you down.  If the doctors feel you have too much yin, then yang foods are prescribed to heat you up.  In traditional Chinese medicine, only when food had failed to do the job were drugs prescribed.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Today in the Western world, we are constantly faced with the increasing costs of our high-tech, quick-fix medicine, costs that it appears we can no longer afford.  Maybe it would be in our best interests to take a closer look at a system that has helped prevent illness for over 5,000 years by using the individual diet.  There may be things here that we can learn and incorporate into our own Western technology.

One of the easiest ways to see the historic relationship between Chinese food and Chinese medicine is to stop into a restaurant that specializes in herbal recipes.  The Imperial Herbal Restaurant in Singapore is directed by Mrs. Wang-Lee.

MRS. WANG-LI:  The aim of this restaurant is actually to promote healthy eating, the Chinese way, using Chinese herbs.

BURT WOLF:   What are the most common medical reasons for people to come to the restaurant?

MRS. WANG-LI:  Well, we have a Chinese, a resident in-house Chinese physician from China, and a lot of people come here to, just to check their balances, the yin and yang, whether they are in balance and healthy, and we see what he can recommend but -- mainly because the taste of the food attracts the people here, not as -- it’s not a cure, you know, this kind of food is just for prevention.  And to the Chinese, tonics are very important because it helps to maintain health and also to prevent illnesses.  This is what we offer in the restaurant; it’s just like any other Chinese restaurants.  You have soup, you have dessert, and all that.  But the only thing is that every dish is designed for your good health, and there are certain herbs added to each dish; all this has been blended by our herbalist, Mr. Li.  We have this eggwhite with scallop, which is served in a nest made of potato.  It’s pretty to look at, but it’s also very tasty.  And this is good for the production of body fluid and also very good for complexion, so it’s a very popular dish with the ladies.  And then you have the shrimp with walnuts.  And of course, walnuts go very well with shrimp, as both are supposed to be good for, um, virility.  And of course, the walnuts also resemble like a brain, so it’s supposed to be a brain food.  (Laughs)

BURT WOLF:   So from that one dish I’m going to get smarter and more virile.

MRS. WANG-LI:  (Laughing)  Yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Can I get an extra portion of that?

MRS. WANG-LI:  No problem, yeah.  And then we have the eggplant with pine nuts, okay?  Eggplant, it’s a cool energy food.  This is deep-fried to balance it so it does not become too cool an energy.  For some people, Chinese people do avoid eating eggplants because they felt it was too cool for their body.  And pine nuts are supposed to be good because they lubricate the system and also retard aging. 

BURT WOLF:   I’ll take an extra portion of that one, too. 

MRS. WANG-LI:  (Laughing)  Okay.

BURT WOLF:   I guess it’s time for the doctor to come over and see if I’m well-balanced.

MRS. WANG-LI:  Yes, I’ll get Mr. Li to come over and check your pulse. ... Take off your watch.

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

MRS. WANG-LI:  The other side.  (Laughs)

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

MRS. WANG-LI:  Have you ever been checked by a herbalist, a Chinese physician?

BURT WOLF:   No, this is the first time for me.

MRS. WANG-LI:   (over)  First time.

BURT WOLF:   Feels good, though.  (Laughter)

MRS. WANG-LI:  Stick out your tongue.  Okay.

BURT WOLF:   So how am I doing?

DR. LI:  [speaks Chinese]

MRS. WANG-LI:  Oh, he says you are very balanced...

DR. LI:  [speaks Chinese]

MRS. WANG-LI:  Ah.  He would recommend an American ginseng soup for you, a double-boiled soup, because that will help to boost a little bit of your energy, and also it’s good for reducing a little bit of heat in your body.

BURT WOLF:   Can I also have a portion of the virility and longevity dish, too?   I’m ready to eat!

MRS. WANG-LI:  Superman!

BURT WOLF:   Superman?  Not quite...  (Laughter)

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Does it all work?  Well, eventually we’ll find out.  When Chinese chefs work with Chinese doctors, however, the real issue is always taste.  No matter how good a food is for you, if it doesn’t taste good you’re not going to eat it very often.  In terms of the meal I just ate, if it was good for me from a medicinal point of view, fabulous.  I would prescribe it once a week just based on flavor.

As I left the Imperial Herbal restaurant, Mrs. Wang-Lee gave me a copy of the recipe for shrimp and walnuts so the next time my yang was greater than my yin I could bring things back into balance.  As a general rule I try to test a new recipe as soon as possible after I have tasted the original dish. I want to try and recreate the flavors while they are still fresh in my mind.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  So I came back to the kitchens at the Marina Mandarin to work with my friend George Fistrovich, to test the recipe.  Mrs. Wang-Lee said that next time I take a long flight and unbalance my yin and yang I should use this dish to help reduce jet lag.  So I’ll give you the recipe; you do the cooking.

A half pound of shelled and cleaned shrimp go into a bowl with an egg white and a tablespoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in a little water.  The shrimp sit in that mixture for about thirty minutes.  At the end of that time a wok is heated over a high flame and three tablespoons of oil are poured in.  As soon as the oil is hot in goes a quarter cup of green bell pepper cut into small cubes.  The a quarter cup of celery also cut into small cubes.  A little stir-frying.  A pinch of salt.  Then a half cup of chicken stock is added.  The shrimp are drained from the egg white mixture and go into the wok.  A minute of stir-frying and the final set of ingredients go in.  A little sherry, some soy sauce.  Sesame oil.  Mushrooms. And at long, last the walnuts. 

BURT WOLF:   I feel my yin and yang balancing out as I watch it.

As soon as all the ingredients are warm, the dish is ready to serve.

Many of the Chinese who immigrated to Singapore came from a district in Southeastern China known as Hainan.  They had a strong influence on the development of Singapore, especially in the area of food.  One example is a dish called Hainanese Chicken Rice.  It is one of the most popular dishes in the country.  So popular that it is always available as a special order on Singapore Airlines. Chef Lim Ah Chye demonstrates the techniques that he uses to prepare the dish.  A two-and-a-half-pound chicken has been cooked in boiling water for twenty minutes and then plunged into cold water to stop the cooking and make it easier to handle.  Then it’s cut into pieces. If you prepared the chicken meat from boneless skinless chicken breasts instead of the whole chicken, that’ll work fine too.  A few tablespoons of oyster sauce are poured over the chicken, plus some chopped cilantro leaves.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Oyster sauce is a condiment, comes in a bottle, and you can buy it in the Asian food section of your supermarket.

Next a flavored oil is made by cooking a quarter cup of oil together with some slices of red onion, fresh ginger and garlic.  All that sautés together for two minutes.  Then the solid ingredients are strained from the oil.  The result is a flavored oil which is used on the rice, which is cooked next.  Two cups of white rice go into a rice cooker or a large sauce pan, along with two and a half cups of chicken stock. The stock can be canned or you can use the water that the chicken was cooked in.  Then the top goes on and the rice cooks for twenty-five minutes.  When the rice is ready, the flavored oil gets mixed in and the rice sits, covered, for five minutes more.  Then the rice goes into a serving dish to join the chicken.  The final element is a dipping sauce.  A blender is used to puree some red chilies, fresh ginger slices and garlic.  To that puree the chef adds a little salt, sugar, red wine vinegar and lime juice.  Slices of cucumber and tomato come along to the table.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Well... my yin feels in pretty good balance with my yang so I guess it’s time to conclude our report from the Chinese community in Singapore.  When I first took a look at the relationship of Chinese herbal recipes to good health, I was a little bit skeptical.  But now that I’ve had a closer look at the information, I’m kind of impressed -- especially when everything tastes so good.  Well, I hope you’ll join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.

Burt Wolf's Menu: Indian Community of Singapore - #107

Singapore... between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.  A modern city in the middle of Southeast Asia.  A nation that values its ethnic communities and uses their history to plan its future.  Ties to India go back for thousands of years and that influence can be seen throughout the country.  So join me in the Indian Community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

For well over 2,500 years, Indian trading ships have come across the Bay of Bengal to do business on the Malay Peninsula. At some point, the merchants began to set up permanent operations in the region.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first Indians to settle in the area appear to have come here in search of valuable  metals and precious stones.  Amazing -- twenty-five centuries before television home shopping, and there was already a thriving direct-response business in gold jewelry.  The Indians brought the jewels back to India but they brought Indian culture here.  There are Hindu temples north of Singapore that have been standing over a thousand years.  And the name of the city, Singapore, is actually a Sanskrit word; Sanskrit is the ancient language of India. It’s a reference to the story of the founding father of the city seeing a lion when he first showed up in the neighborhood.

In 1816 Singapore became a center for British commercial interests and many Indian laborers arrived as indentured workers.  They staffed the rubber plantations and the coffee growing estates.  Some of the Indians who came here, however, did not come of their own free will.  For a number of decades the English used Singapore as a place to store Indian convicts.  They did the same thing in the American colonies and in Australia, so Singapore was in excellent company.  Indian convict labor actually built some of the more important historical buildings in Singapore, including St. Andrew’s Cathedral, as well as the official residence of Singapore’s president.  When the convicts finished their terms, they were allowed to remain here as free men and many of them did so.  Today the Indian community represents about fifteen percent of the Singaporian population and they make a vital contribution to the community.   With well over two thousand years of interaction between the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula and the provinces of India, it’s no surprise that Singapore has some of the best Indian cooking outside of India.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For hundreds and hundreds of years, Indian cooks have been famous for their use of spices, and that had an interesting linguistic effect in North America.  The original explorers to the New World were looking for spices.  And when they got there, they thought they were near India, so they called everyone they met an Indian.  And that’s why our native tribes were called Indians and were called Indians for so many years.

The regional cooking of India is as different as the regional cooking of China, but in general the most important distinction is between northern Indian food and southern Indian food.  The south has always been home to hotter seasonings.  Fiery curries, and rice as the basic starch to cool things down.  It is also the part of India that developed some of the most famous vegetarian recipes. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The south coast of India is also home to the cooking of the Indian Muslim community.  Poultry, seafood, lamb and the hottest spicing of all.  Thousands of years ago people realized that certain spices would bring moisture to the surface of their body.  As that moisture evaporated, their body temperature went down.  A natural form of air conditioning, used in hot climates all over the world.

The northern cooking of India has more meat and less fish than the south and the starch is often wheat instead of rice.  The traditional cooking method is the tandoor oven.  Part open grill, part oven, the tandoor is used to prepare almost any recipe that is part of the cooking of northern India.  The classic eating style is to set a banana leaf on a flat surface, place the food on top, and eat with your hands.  To the untutored eye it may look like the food is just being picked up and eaten.  But there is actually a very subtle bit of gastronomic skill involved.  The spicier food is being kneaded together with the milder food so the diner gets the precise level of heat that he or she wants at any point in the meal.  Fingers are the ideal tool for this task. One of the most famous and respected Indian restaurants in Singapore is called the Banana Leaf Apolo.  The manager is David Kumar.

DAVID KUMAR:  You see, when you eat Indian, Southern Indian food, it tastes better if you use with hands.  Like -- items like fish, crabs and all that, you have to eat use with hands.  Then you can actually taste the spices and the curry, right?  And the technique of using it is, hold your, your palm like this, you put your four fingers together, you scoop the rice, right, and you use your thumb to push it up.

BURT WOLF:   Ahhhh.  So you scoop it --

DAVID KUMAR:  (over)  So as it goes, it becomes faster.

BURT WOLF:   (over)  -- push it this way.

DAVID KUMAR:  Right.  So when you come to your mouth, you hold it.  And you use your thumb and you push it in.  Not like that!  You see, you have to -- you have to have it here.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, in this part!


BURT WOLF:   Ohh, okay.

DAVID KUMAR:  The rice comes here, you push it to here, and then you push it back up.

BURT WOLF:   Is that right?

DAVID KUMAR:  Yes.  It’s the momentum.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.  I can do this.  Why one hand?

DAVID KUMAR:  The reason is why they use one hand is because they have to keep the other hand free to pick up the glass of beer they have to drink!

BURT WOLF:   I got this -- let’s eat!


For the majority of its early history, Singapore was a trading port with a mostly male society.  A large segment of the population was made up of laborers who lived in communal rooming houses.  No real homes and accordingly, no real home cooking.  Their meals were taken from street vendors who would set up a stove and start cooking. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Eventually the owners of these peripatetic pots and pans equipped themselves with chairs and tables, and became roving restaurants.  They would announce their specials for the day at the top of their lung capacity for which they became known as “hawkers”.  Each hawker had a series of favorite locations for cooking, and each eater had a series of favorite hawkers for eating.  In 1987 the government gathered the Hawkers together into Food Centers.  These centers are hotbeds of gastronomic activity.  And some really great cooking goes on.

WOMAN HAWKER (within montage):  What is this?  (Laughs)  You see the burger dancing in the oil, you see?  Rock and roll! ... Tango!  Breakdance!  Now is popular breakdance.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Even today, Hawker Foods are the favorite foods for many of the people of Singapore.  Thanks.  When I asked one of the cooks here whether he would ever be interested in cooking in a traditional restaurant, his answer was a hard and fast NO.  He says that when people come to a regular restaurant they might be coming for any number of reasons.  It might be decor, or price, or status, or location.  But when somebody comes to his hawker stall, they come for his cooking.  And he likes the uncompromised compliment.  Don’t we all.

Indian dishes are so popular in Singapore that they have become a regular part of the cooking in many hotels and restaurants.  George Fistrovich is the executive chef at the Marina Mandarin, and he makes the point with his recipe for an Indian Vegetable Sautè.  A quarter cup of oil goes into a sauté pan, followed by two bay leaves and a stick of cinnamon.  Then a quarter cup of chopped shallots and a tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger.  Next, a quarter cup of chili paste, plus a tablespoon of turmeric, and a tablespoon of chili powder.  This seasoning mixture cooks over a low heat for about eight minutes.  Then in goes a cup of water, three tablespoons of sugar, and a quarter cup of coconut milk.  What you now have is the spice-based sauce, which is held aside for a few minutes while George prepares the vegetables.  A little oil goes into a second sauté pan, and as soon as it’s hot in goes a couple of carrots cut into slices, a sliced red bell pepper, a sliced green bell pepper.  A moment of cooking.  Then a half cup’s worth of eggplant chunks, some parboiled broccoli flowerets, and some cauliflower.

BURT WOLF:   Mark Twain once said that “cauliflower is just a cabbage with a college education.”

All that sautés for about 5 minutes.  Then the vegetable mixture goes into the spice-sauce, plus about a cup’s worth of Savoy cabbage that has been cut into chunks.  A few more moments of cooking and it’s ready.  It’s served as a main course in a ring of white rice.

Dhershini Winodan is a local authority on Indian culture, and the author of an outstanding book on Indian cooking.  Today she’s taking us on a tour of Singapore’s traditional Indian community.

BURT WOLF:   So this is the vegetable market!

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  This is the vegetable market, and I’m gonna show you some unusual Indian vegetables.  Guess what this is, Burt.

BURT WOLF:   Uhhhhh... I have no idea.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  This is drumstick.

BURT WOLF:   Drumstick.  Do you play with it or just eat it?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  This is drumstick.  Not the chicken drumstick, but the vegetable drumstick.  I had to clarify that in my book.  And that one in the corner there, that’s called Snake Gut.  It’s got no, no special flavor of its own, so whatever you add to it, it absorbs the flavors and it’s very tasty.

BURT WOLF:   What’s it called?


BURT WOLF:   Snake Gut.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And that’s a Ladies’ Fingers, or okra I think that’s...

BURT WOLF:   Uh-huh, right... these are the longest beans I have ever seen.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  Yes.  That’s why we call it Long Beans.

BURT WOLF:   I like that, because you know you have to cut off the ends --


BURT WOLF:   -- on both sides and then you don’t get very much in the middle with the short European bean.  This way, for the amount of cutting I’m gonna get a lot of bean.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  Yeah.  Yeah.  That’s an eggplant.  It’s very firm, and even after you cook it it does not get pulpy.

BURT WOLF:   That’s a real eggplant, I mean, that looks like an egg.


BURT WOLF:   Now I know where it got its name from.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Suits your shirt.  (Laughs) ... You never find a corner without a Hawker Center, which is part and parcel of Singapore life.  This is the container that’s holding the brewed tea.

BURT WOLF:   Right...

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It’s kept piping hot, okay?  And there’s a little tap there.  Now what happens is the tea flows through that, and he mixes the tea with condensed milk now, and a little portion of evaporated milk.  That’s the secret.  He pours it into two cups; he juggles them (laughing), and --

BURT WOLF:   Fabulous.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And he gets this thick foam that’s right over the glass.

BURT WOLF:   That’s great.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And when you drink tea through that, it’s absolutely yummy. 

BURT WOLF:   Can I have a cup?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yes.  Real good tea.  Cheers.  You like that?

BURT WOLF:   Mmmmmmmm.  Wonderful.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Okay, now I’m gonna take you to the temple.  It’s, it’s one of those small temples that have not come down and been built into a bigger temple, you know?  It’s a place where ladies come, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays, because those are the auspicious days for prayers in a Hindu temple, especially Friday.  So you’ll probably find a little crowd at this temple on a Friday.  And most of the Indian temples have this architecture, that’s called a goperum [?].  And it depicts the various gods that we pray to.  Now, every Hindu has a certain god that he prays to; we pray to everybody, but, you know, there’s one special god that we feel is our, is listening to our prayers. 

BURT WOLF:   Do you make that decision, or is it a result of your birthday, or...?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It could be that, you know, you’ve been brought up in your home, and your parents have been praying to, let’s say Lord Krishna --

BURT WOLF:   Right...

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  -- or you can grow up and you say, “I feel strength in Lord Shiva,” so... I mean, that’s the way I feel about it --

BURT WOLF:   (over)  So it’s your choice.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It’s, it’s, it’s our choice, yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Which is your god?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Actually, I come a lot to the Shivan temple, and that’s why I brought you here this morning.  And it’s always important when you’re entering a temple to take off your shoes, leave it on the side of the temple door.  And even if you’re going to a Hindu home, because we consider the home to be the temple, always important to take off the shoes.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  We have now entered the Sri Shivan Temple; this is a beautiful temple, and as soon as you enter... as soon as I enter I get this extreme feeling of happiness.  And we have the different sanctums.  These are sanctums, okay?  And you’re not supposed to go too close to these sanctums, so they’ve put a sort of a barrier here.  You stay on this side and the priest will perform your prayers for you.  ... Burt, we are now going to make your offering.  You can take this and your incense sticks, we will give it to the priest, and you will say your prayer. 

BURT WOLF:   I just hand this to him.


BURT WOLF:   Okay.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  All right.  That’s it.  And you can accept that with your right hand.  He says now, pray to the goddess Durgha [?] first, and then we go and do our prayers for the planets, the nine planets.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Okay, now here what we will have to do is to go around nine times.  Nine times.  ...  After you’ve visited the temple and you’ve done your prayers, you’re supposed to just stay around for awhile, just feel the holiness and then leave the temple.


Each year Conde Nast Traveler magazine asks its readers what they like and don’t like about their travels.  For six consecutive years the readers have told the editors that Singapore Airlines was the “Best Airline in the World”. Since I spend a lot of my life flying around the world I was quite curious to find out what it was about the airline that put it in first place.  They let me nose around a bit and I came up with some interesting facts.  The company got started in 1947 under the name Malayan Airways.  In the beginning it built its route structure in Southeast Asia.  For a number of years, controlling interest in the line was owned by both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments.  By the 60’s its worldwide business was growing but its real takeoff took place in 1972, when the airline was divided in half.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Part of it went north to become  the Malaysian Airline Systems and part of it stayed south to become Singapore Airlines.  The government of Singapore decided that the airline had to make it on its own without financial support from the government, a tough thing to do in a competitive industry.  So they did some research to find out the ten most important things to an airline traveller.  And they discovered that there was one of them that they could do better than any other airline in the world.  And that was inflight service.  So they mastered the art, and told the world about it in a campaign that became famous as “The Singapore Girl.”

In Singapore, most young men and women are brought up to help their family entertain guests.  And those family traits became the basis of the airline’s training program. Within a few years they really did have the most devoted inflight service in the business.  They also decided that they wanted to have the most modern aircraft possible.  Because Singapore is at the other side of the world for travelers in Europe and the United States, they felt that their equipment had to be the most dependable.  And the newer the aircraft, the fewer the problems you have with maintenance. Of all the major international carriers, Singapore usually has the youngest fleet.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   However, I would like to take a moment to point out that the theory that younger things don’t break down as often as older things may be true for airplanes, but it’s not necessarily true for people.  A good maintenance program for an older person will often give that person a better performance record than the record held by younger people.  You see, people get smarter as they get older and equipment doesn’t.  So there.

During the training of their cabin staff they have classes in, among other things, dress, make-up, service, diction, and water-safety.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Life-saving is important, but so is flavor-saving.  What’s for dinner?

Chef Mahendran is a member of the team that prepare the foods for Singapore Airlines. He specializes in the dishes of his native India and the following is his recipe for Indian Lamb Curry.  A half cup of oil goes into a hot sauté pan.  As soon as the oil is hot, in go two tablespoons of cardamom, cloves, and star anise. Followed by two sticks of cinnamon.  Then two tablespoons of fennel seeds and three bay leaves.  The traditional cooking techniques of India call for the cooking of the spices before the dish begins.  It’s a method that changes the taste of the spices and brings those flavors to the surface by heating the volatile oils in each spice. It does quite a job of enhancing the flavor of the dish.  Next a cup of chopped onion goes in, followed by two tablespoons of minced fresh ginger, two tablespoons of minced garlic and two tablespoons of turmeric.  Some stirring.  Then the addition of two tablespoons of coriander.  Up to now all of the ingredients have been things that are indigenous to this continent.  But the three tablespoons of chili powder and half a cup of pureed tomato that go in next are both foods that came here from South America with European traders during the 1500’s. The last ingredient at this point is chopped lamb, two pounds worth.  All that is mixed together, then simmered for 25 minutes.  When the simmering is over, ten ounces of peas go in and finally a cup of chopped cilantro.  It’s served with slices of onion, tomato, cucumber and a few rice puffs.

One of the attractions of Singapore is the zoo.  The space has been designed without traditional cages.  The animals are separated with hidden moats, or, in the case of those that live in the water, sheets of glass through which you can see.  In some spots they are allowed to interact with the visitors.

UNSUSPECTING TOURIST:  Oh, isn’t he adorable? 

The most famous attraction is the regular breakfast with an orangutan.

ZOOKEEPER:  Okay, why not try to offer some of these tropical fruits to Beetie, and at the same time put your arms around her so she feels much more comfortable with you.

BURT WOLF:   How’re you doin’?

ZOOKEEPER:  Okay.  You want her phone number, sir?

BURT WOLF:   (Laugh)  I’ve noticed that basically your diet has been fresh fruits in the last couple of months; do you feel that that’s been helping you to control your weight, and the complex carbohydrates are better for you?


Will we be sharing later?... Maybe, maybe not -- but if you’re in Singapore during July you can share an extraordinary selection of foods from all over Asia at the annual Singapore Food Festival.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That’s our report from Singapore.  It is as clean and green as the tourist brochures say it is.  The people are friendly, the food is great, and they let me go swimming with the Singapore Girls.  What else can a middle-aged journalist ask for?  Clearly that was a high point in my career.  But I want you to know that I’m not going to rest on my laurels -- no pot shall remain covered in my continuing quest for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.