Singapore Takeout (New York): Feeding the Homesick

Calvin Trillin once wrote of Singaporeans: “Culinarily, they are among the most homesick people I have ever met.”

Truer words have rarely been said. Thankfully for us homesick transplants, however, the Singapore Tourism Board has been on a publicity rampage recently, ever determined to spread the gospel of our extraordinary cuisine.

And so it was that I found myself in the heart of New York City’s fashionable Meatpacking District on Friday, soaking in the heady smells of a creamy spicy laksa brewing, trying to quell my palpitations. Before us was a shipping container, a portable kitchen that the tourism board designed to travel the world, hitting nine cities starting with London in June and ending with Sydney in March 2012.

Starring in New York’s “Singapore Takeout” was chef Malcolm Lee, who helms Singapore’s Candlenut Kitchen, a restaurant that serves traditional Peranakan food, a Straits Chinese cuisine that combines flavors from the Straits of Malaya and China.

Chef Lee will be serving up Singaporean food in New York Sept. 17 and 18 from noon to 3 p.m. and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview before the public gets to have its first bite …

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Obao: Panned Asian


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New York is filled with so many “pan-Asian” restaurants that it can be difficult to get excited about yet another one setting up shop.

Vietnamese pork chops? Been there. Summer rolls? So, so done that.

And Obao, Michael Huynh’s newest addition to his rapidly expanding string of Manhattan restaurants, hits these and all the other usual notes that you’ll find at many other similarly billed places in the city.

What’s different? Not much, compared with your run-of-the-mill multi-ethnic Asian restaurant.

There are some hits — anything meaty and/or grilled. And, of course, some misses, namely a “spicy” Singapore laksa (pictured above) that’s so watered down that its broth tastes like hot water with some curry powder tossed in toward the end.

But here’s the thing: Even at Obao’s recession-friendly prices (which put entrees between $9 and $18), for those who enjoy a hearty bowl of noodle soup or a crisp papaya salad now and then, there are just so many other places in the city to go for better versions.

So, why eat here?

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The Real Thing


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I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of “authentic” food.

There’s an interesting story in Singapore’s Straits Times today about foreign eateries trying to bring authentic takes on their native cuisines to Singapore. French boulangerie Le Grenier à Pain, for example, apparently stuck to its crusty baguettes even though Singaporeans typically favor softer versions that local bakeries serve up. Ditto for Quiznos and its authenticity. (Yes, this article actually cites the American food-court sandwich chain in its roundup.)

Nonetheless, there are some Singaporeans who disagree with this business strategy — one is quoted as saying that restaurants should take local preferences into account since “the customer picks what he likes most, whether or not it’s true to the original taste.”

The story made me think of the tale a friend recently told me of taking his Beijing girlfriend to Italy. There, she sniffed at the way Italians do Italian pasta dishes, finding them lacking when compared with the versions she’s had in China.

Sure, cuisines get altered all the time when they migrate from country to country — ingredients are added, steps are subtracted. But what happens when the tweaked, polyglot product ends up being what people believe to be authentic?

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