Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise. That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate. That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City. The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade. The second? Kaya jam and toast.
Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan, a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes. The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used. I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes. It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.
Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast. With butter.
What’s that…coconut and butter? Well, just take a look:
Singapore makes it easy for you. There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight. As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits. You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars? No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.
Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:
If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it? Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.
While in the Marshallese commercial, cultural, and political hub, being in a new country and region, I just had to try some of the local Marshallese food. And if you’re thinking it’s simply coconuts and fish… partial credit.
The first local meal I recall trying was at The Tide Table restaurant of the Hotel Robert Reimers. Being jet-lagged but peckish, I chatted with the waitress about Marshallese eats; surprise, surprise, coconuts and fish came up, in addition to the Hawaiian dish known as “loco moco.”
Loco moco consists of boiled white rice, a hamburger, scrambled eggs, and some mysterious brown gravy. It’s not local, but then again, it was the most regional dish on their menu (take that, Caesar salad). I kinda liked it, but perhaps the drinks menu could offer something nuanced?
Eureka! Pandanus juice– that’s the orange liquid in the mysteriously unlabeled bottle. It was delicious! But describing the flavor of pandan(us) – an ingredient common to Southeast Asian desserts, too – is a bit difficult. Quite sweet, and probably a better name for something that people eat than its synonym, screw pine.
Now, if we take pandanus and put it on the delicious side of the Marshallese spectrum, what’s at the other end? Easy peasy: the noni fruit.
The noni fruit – native to Southeast Asia and Polynesian islands – might be known to some of you in pill or extract form to treat various maladies. I know it better as a disgusting, vile food that might even put some durian to shame.
For background, I went to a beach party, and found one of these pock-marked fruits lying around on a table. Ever the adventurous if naïve eater, I took a bite. Yuck! It tasted of rotten bleu cheese. One of my peers saw my reaction, and brought a fresh coconut over to drink. If a friend invites you to some noni and shirako, you might want to start interviewing for new amigos.
Eventually, I was able to explore Majuro, primarily to investigate local bites. The Marshall Islands accepts US dollars, so I was free to spend the wad without forex fees…but the question is, what to spend it on?
Coupled with one of the most random newspaper ads I have ever seen, I sat down at a casual place for a very filling meal. To start, I ordered a predictable coconut water, some pumpkin porridge, and grilled red snapper. Simple fare, both fresh and welcoming.
Note the condiments on the left: tabasco sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
Since the porridge and snapper tasted nice, I wanted to give them more business. Above, we have mashed sweetened sweet potatoes, and on the left, a staple starch of the Marshall Islands, the breadfruit. Having never tried a slice of breadfruit, I was blown away by its billowy French toast texture, just-right sweetness, and tropical abundance, for the next time I should have a craving.
Right before leaving Majuro, I went with a few peers to go fishing. Our local contact gave us a sampling of his home-smoked swordfish jerky, and some mercilessly hacked coconut meat.
Individually, they tasted pleasant, but combined they were even better, reminding me that cities like New York City and London might have flavors from all over the world, but the quality from the freshness is sorely lacking.
Another thing, you may not want to eat too much coconut meat, as it’s fattening like no tomorrow.
After one week touring Majuro and a few of its islets, it was time to take the long journey back to the states, starting with that trippy flight to Honolulu. You know, one of those take-off in the evening of Day 1, and land in the early morning of Day 1 flights. There was a problem, though. I forgot to buy edible souvenirs!
No worries, Majuro Airport has you covered.
Rum, Rice Krispies Treats, and eggs. Wow! This flight is going to be blast.
Have you been to the Marshall Islands? Which of the above foods would you most want to try first?
Beaches, at least while I’m traveling solo, are somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities. I might head towards one for a sunset shot, to try local seafood, or to admire the terrain, but not to kick back for hours on end.
Thus, you can imagine my…imagination’s surprise when I flew to the Maldives a some years back. I was on my way to Colombo, Sri Lanka, so why not fit in a rapidly disappearing archipelago on the way?
Beyond snorkeling between schools of tropical fish and rubbish floating by a jetty near Hulhumale’, and getting nauseous from diesel fumes from the ferries, I wasn’t sure what else to do.
Oh, right. Let’s explore Maldivian food.
Right off the bat, you should know that fish, specifically skipjack tuna, is THE staple of the Maldives. The canned (tinned for British English viewers) variety is more and more common, but traditionally the tuna was cured – in this case, boiled, smoked and sun-choked – into a product called ari. Coconuts are also par for the course, which raises Maldivian food to level awesome.
That said, here’s when I had a generally good sense of what I ordered:
The first meal I ate in the Maldives was appropriately a tuna-centric one. It tasted canned, and the chapati – known locally as roshi – was lukewarm at best. What a disappointment.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the food. I drank the water, so that’s probably where the disappointment set in.
The server knew me well.
Oops, more water.
Wandering around downtown Male’ on one of my empty stomachs, I sought refuge in a bustling short eats hole-in-the-wall.
What’s on the menu? Fried things, round fried things, fried round things, and tuna. With fried coconut. And heavily sweetened tea. And tuna, grilled that is.
The first plates come by. The lighter things in the lower-left are called gulha, made with tuna, coconut and chilies, and the darker ones are kavaabu, fried with tuna, potatoes and lime. To the right, we have riha folhi, curried tuna rolls, and in the back, unfortunately I don’t recall the names. The yellow item that looks like a swimming turtle is NOT an egg, and the glutinous cubes behind it didn’t have much taste. It’s safe to say that neither of those contained tuna. Can anyone identify those snacks?
Add the fish curry to the list of foods that made me suffer dearly. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes because it set my mouth on fire for some time. That the rice was boiling hot didn’t help things, nor did the spicy vegetables (including red onions, another Maldivian favorite). Which is to say, I’d order that curry again, if only I knew the name!
Papaya shake. Although I often think papayas have a Bubblicious aftertaste, they are refreshing in shake-form. No sugar, no ice, all fresh…just hope that the glass was properly cleaned.
Now it’s time to go into the “doldrums of food” category:
You’re supposed to spit it out?
This potent combination of a stimulant – the areca nut, cinnamon, cloves, and calcium hydroxide (to help with absorption) usually follows a Maldivian meal. That is, I thought it was a dessert, so down the hatch a handful went.