You know it’s been a good year when you are able to say this: 2009 was when I began to eat for a living.
I’d always been a devotee of affairs of the stomach. I may have written about fashion and other lifestyle areas for a living but baking, braising, trying new recipes, eating out — those were what consumed me when weekends rolled around.
Luck has its ways of finding you, however. Now, on the precipice of 2010, I’m beginning to close out a lunar calendar year of cooking and eating with my family in Singapore as research for my book, “A Tiger In The Kitchen.”
My journey so far has taken me many places — France, where I had the loveliest gingery champagne cocktail with friends old and dear; China, where my father and I went in search of my great-grandfather’s footprints in the village of his birth. And, of course, Singapore, where my aunties and maternal grandmother have been plying me with meals, recipes and much, much love along the way.
With all that I’ve packed into 2009, it’s hard to decide what the highlights have been. But, inspired by some stellar Top 10 gastronomic lists out there (definitely check out Sam Sifton’s list of Top 11 dishes in New York in the New York Times), I decided to give it a go.
Here, in no particular order, are my 10 memorable eats of 2009.
Enjoy, buon appetito and listen, let’s do this again in 2010 …
My Late Grandmother’s Bak-Zhang: I’d always taken these glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves for granted as a child in Singapore. These dumplings, filled with braised pork belly and mushrooms, usually magically appeared around the time of the dumpling festival in June. I never gave much thought to the hours and care that went into them — until I learned to make them this spring.
Let me tell you — they’re not easy. And I now have more admiration than ever for my paternal grandmother, who thought nothing of rising at 4 in the morning in order to make them for her family.
Auntie Jianab’s Ayam Masak Merah: I may be of Chinese ethnicity but I’ve long been obsessed with Malay and Indian cooking. The blends of spices, the scorching-hot pastes, those fiery bowls of noodles — they’ve always been much more of a siren call to me than (generally) far blander Chinese meals.
Auntie Jianab learned how to make it from watching other women churn it out at Malay wedding feasts. It’s pretty easy to put together and delicious to boot. As recipes go, this is a keeper.
Cancale Oysters: It was cold, drizzly and we were miserable from the, well, cold and drizzle.
Still, the little wooden huts filled with crate after crate of oysters by the bay in Cancale, France, were irresistible one gray day this past summer.
At under 4 Euros for a dozen, they were a bargain. After a little squeeze of lemon and a few slurps long and loud, we were satisfied. And all too soon, it was time to move along again.
Bull’s Penis: I will be the first to say that I am a squeamish person.
Nonetheless, when I heard that a new restaurant in New York was serving bull’s penis soup, I figured I had to try it.
So how was Pho Sure’s peen? Gelatinous. And not much else.
Was it worth the slight anxiety over what I was about to eat? No. But it sure was priceless watching how green my dining companion got after sampling it.
Angel-Hair Pasta with Caviar at Gunther’s in Singapore: The restaurant meals I’ve had in 2009 have been hard to top — right up there are the nine-course vegetarian meal Michel Bras, the famously reclusive French chef, whipped together at wd-50 during a short visit to New York, and a scenic lunch I had at Alain Ducasse’s Jules Verne, looking out over Paris as we were perched up high in the Eiffel Tower.
When I think back on specific dishes, however, one keeps coming back — cold angel-hair pasta tossed with truffle oil and chives and topped with a generous, salty dollop of caviar at Gunther’s in Singapore.
The noodles were perfectly al dente and the delicate combination of flavors was simple and subtle, toeing the line between the comforting and the luxurious.
Sin Huat Eating House’s Crab Noodles: It’s hard to resist a place once Anthony Bourdain names it one of his “13 places to eat before you die.”
Once Sin Huat Eating House, famous for its crab noodles that cost $80 a plate (an astronomical figure by Singapore standards), made the list, we knew we had to try it. How were the crab noodles? Delicious, as billed — we especially loved the salty, grainy roe mixed into the noodles.
But was it worth the high price and its particularly grimy setting (you’ll have a view of algae-clotted fish tanks) in Singapore’s largest red-light district? The jury’s out on that one.
The Satay Man’s Hainanese Pork Satay: Recently, I discovered one of the last vestiges of Singapore’s old gastronomic scene — a traveling satay man. These roving hawkers used to fill Singapore’s streets decades ago but with the advent of central hawker centers, they’ve all but disappeared.
I’m grateful this satay man in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru neighborhood still exists, however. His satay, threaded with massive chunks of fat, can’t be beat. And his lovely sauce, which cuts a fiery peanut gravy with sweet, crushed pineapple, is unforgettable.
Catch him while you can.
The Cheryl Burger: A small dream came true earlier this year for me — a dish I created appeared on a menu. Like, of an actual restaurant. With paying clients. Who are not my friends.
After years of sampling my kitchen experiments, my friend Simpson, who owns Cafe Asean in New York’s West Village, issued a challenge — if I came up with an Asian-tinged burger that he liked, he’d put it on the menu. And so in March, the Cheryl burger, a cilantro-chicken burger, made its debut on the specials menu.
As you can see, I just could not get enough of seeing people I did not know order and eat my burger.
Home-Baked Bread: The joys and smells of home-baked bread had eluded me for years. This changed, however, after I joined the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge, in which amateur cooks from around the world are baking their way through Peter Reinhart’s bread bible.
If you’re going to bake one bread in your lifetime, this should be it.
Let’s Lunch Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado and Tomato Sandwich: Of all the meals I put together in 2009, it may surprise you that it was a sandwich that topped my list of favorites.
It wasn’t just any sandwich, however — it was a sandwich that was born out of an all-consuming craving that three women spread across the globe had for BLTs one lazy Sunday morning. Out of that craving sprang a virtual lunch date in which we each created our fantasy BLT. Mine was one featuring a lattice-weave baked bacon patty with tomato, lemon-avocado spread and lettuce, wedged between home-made focaccia.
Months later, our international lunch-date is still going strong.