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An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

                                    trending now:

                              singapore food wars

                                                                  By Ken Schechet

This is the first in a series of dispatches from our correspondent Ken Schechet, who is eating his way through Asia.

If you’ve ever been to South Philadelphia and are a foodie, you have probably been to the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue where the two signature cheese steak joints, Pat’s and Gino’s, are directly across the street from each other and staring each other down constantly.  Of course, you need to try them both.  Rivalries like these are so delicious to me, on so many levels, that when I heard about two similar situations in Singapore I had to see them on a recent visit.

                                          chicken rice

First, let’s talk Chicken Rice.  If there’s a national dish of Singapore this is probably it.  It comes to the region via Hainan Provence in China.  The chicken is poached below the boiling point. Then the water is boiled, the chicken is put in, the heat is turned off, the pot is covered, and the chicken just sits there for about 40 minutes.  (I’m sure there’s a lot more than water in that pot but nobody’s talking.)  The resulting stock is then flavored with ginger, garlic, and a few mystery ingredients and used to make the rice.  The dish is served with dipping sauces made from red chili and garlic, and dark soy and ginger.  Cucumber is also boiled in the broth, combined with soy and sesame sauces, and served as a side dish.  The chicken may be cold, room temperature, or anyway they feel like serving it.  It may be served with or without bones.  Any way you do it the result is a soft, aromatic dish that may not blow you away but is extremely pleasant.  People in Singapore who eat this dish a lot get very sophisticated about it, and very opinionated too. 

Now let’s talk about where to get it: pretty much anywhere in Singapore, but we’re going to focus on two stands in the Maxwell Street Hawker Center which is located in Chinatown.  (Much more on Hawker Centers in an article to come.)  Tian Tian is a stall in that center that has become famous.  It’s in all the guide books and Anthony Bourdain went crazy over it years ago in an episode of No Reservations.  What is not as well known is that the head chef got into a big argument with the owner (who is a relative), and left taking most of his staff with him. He then opened his own place, Ah Tai, exactly three stalls to the left.  South Philly all over again. 

We first tried Ah Tai.  The set came with a clear soup, boned chicken served pleasantly tepid, vegetables, cucumbers and all the dipping sauces.  When the chefs saw that my wife and I were sharing the dish they immediately ran out and gave us a second soup.  At Tian Tian there was a line of mostly tourists.  The chicken was served cold and on the bone along with the vegetables, but no soup.  There was a more extensive menu and you could certainly get as many side dishes as you wanted.  In both places we spent about $5. 

Both were very good in different ways, and I could begin to see how the locals could get into all sorts of discussions of the relative merits of each.  But I liked the chicken lukewarm, I thought the dipping sauces at Ah Tai were better, I thought the chicken was softer, I liked the guys there, and they get my vote in the big Chicken Rice war.


Another very Singaporean dish is Laksa, which is part of the Peranakan cuisine.  Peranakan, which means “native born”, are the descendents of Straits-born Chinese.  They have beautiful traditional costumes, lovely jewelry, and great food.  The dish is rice noodles, fish cakes and shrimp in a spicy soup made of coconut milk, dried shrimp and curry spices.  Versions of this dish are popular in Malaysia and Indonesia and there are different variations in Singapore.  You may find cockles or hard cooked eggs in the dish in some places.  But the most famous Laksa comes from an area called Katong where the noodles are cut up so only a spoon is required and the broth is very rich. 

I had heard of two places, both on the East Coast Road, across the street from each other, that were vying for best Laksa in Singapore.  They were 328 Katong Laksa and The Original Katong Laksa.  We got to 328 easily enough but Original Katong Laksa was nowhere to be found.  Locals told me that there had been a place across the street but that they were no longer there.  My disappointment was only assuaged by the fact that the 328 Laksa was sensational.  I actually buy a packaged Laksa in an oriental supply store and have it often with shrimp balls and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast or a light lunch.  This was light years different.  It was just an amazingly flavorful bowl of wonderfulness that is a defining dish in a food obsessed country.

It looked like this was a food war that had been won, but later I got on the internet and found that Original Katong Laksa had moved to another part of town due to a rent dispute.  It is now in a more modern facility and has a more extensive menu.  Unfortunately, time did not permit tracking it down, but if I ever go back to Singapore you know what my first stop will be.

                            cune: rioja resplendent

CUNE, or the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (the Northern Spanish Wine Company), was founded in the Rioja town of Haro in 1879. It was a heady period in the region. Marques de Riscal, the first major estate, had been established in 1850, and Marques de Murrieta had appeared on the scene in 1877. Most importantly, the great vineyards of Bordeaux had been ravaged by phylloxera about a decade before, and Rioja, for lack of other alternatives, was suddenly in great demand.

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tuthilltown spirits and hudson whiskey: an                                                   american saga

If you sat down to write a script about the creation of a craft distillery, you’d come up with something very close to Tuthilltown and Hudson Whiskey.

Craft distillers today are nearly as ubiquitous as smart phones. It was a very different story in 2001, when Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee purchased the historic Tuthilltown Gristmill in Gardiner, New York. The mill had been converting grain to flour for more than two centuries, but no one had thought of making it into a distillery. Although there were more than 1,000 farm distillers in the state producing their own booze from local ingredients prior to Prohibition, the practice was unknown more than 80 years after Repeal.

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                       the global power of pastrami

It has been a rough decade for delicatessen. New York’s famed Stage Deli served its last overstuffed sandwich in 2012, and the Carnegie Deli closed last December. If two such icons can’t make it in the Big Apple, what hope is there for the provinces?

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                                   a primer on punch

Summer doesn’t begin on June 21, or on the first real beach day. It begins on the day when you get the inspiration to make some punch. And---just like paying taxes and exiting the planet---you’ll end up doing it sooner or later.

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            casual dining in california wine country

The Napa Valley now has two restaurants that have received three Michelin stars (The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood), which means you have the opportunity to drop $1000 or more for two on dinner, just as you might in New York or San Francisco. The real dining discoveries, though, are at the more casual and lower-priced end of the scale, and these are the places that mesh better with the lifestyle of California wine country. Over the past five years a collection of chef-driven restaurants has opened with relaxed décor and delicious, market-driven menus. While most require a bit of advance planning, they don’t present the daunting reservation gauntlet of the Michelin-starred establishments. Check out these destinations for either a romantic dinner or an evening of communal fun:

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                    caorunn small batch scottish gin

Gin from Scotland, home of the world’s great single malts? At first it might seem that someone didn’t get the memo. Look closer, and you’ll find a visionary who read the memo, cheerfully tore it up, and went on to pursue his dream.

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                      vietti arneis: Grape archaeology

If you want to sell ice cream you usually start with vanilla and chocolate, and only after you develop a consumer following do you unveil your Macadamia Butter Brickle. Same thing with wine: most emerging wine regions break into the U.S. market with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the two fail-safe grape varieties that Americans can easily recognize and understand.

In 2017 it’s hard to believe that Italy was once an emerging wine region, but there was a time when perception of Italian wine quality in this country couldn’t have been lower. When I was growing up Chianti was poured from straw baskets, in restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths. It was the cheapest wine on the list (or on any list, for that matter). The American perception of Chianti began to improve only when the Italian wine law was changed to allow for the inclusion of “foreign” grape varieties, notably Cabernet. Today it would be difficult to find a Chianti Classico with no Cabernet in the blend, and many Tuscan IGTs are fragrant with the aroma of Syrah.

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                           a glass of madeira, my dear

Americans tend to regard Madeira wine as the drink of spinsters and maiden aunts. This is a shame, since they can be some of the world’s most glorious wines---delightful to sip on their own, and incredibly versatile with food.

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                     great wine for under $15?

It’s not a typo, oxymoron or stupid question. There’s a lot of very good wine at very low prices, but discovering it is a challenge---particularly when you’re strolling the wine aisle of your local supermarket or beverage superstore, staring at a tsunami of unfamiliar labels.

The answer is Mark Spivak’s Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, available as an e-book for $7.99. The book profiles 43 producers and contains hundreds of wine reviews, and gives you a clear-cut view of the good and the bad. The criteria are simple: What does the wine taste like? What kind of food does it go with? Is it worth the money?

Click here to order (fulfillment is handle by E-Junkie and payments processed through PayPal):

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