Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Chocolates with a "wa" twist - Salon de Royal Kyoto's pop-up store @ Japan Food Town

At the mention of chocolate, most people would probably associate it with countries such as Switzerland and Belgium which are well-known for their quality chocolate. This is intriguing in the sense that cocoa beans, the source ingredient for chocolate, are largely grown in Africa and South America and these countries famous for chocolate don't actually grow their own cacao plants. In the same sense, you might not associate Japan with this sweet treat, especially not when it comes to Kyoto, the old capital which embodies everything Japanese even in this modern era of speed and technology. Interestingly, there is a chocolatier from Kyoto which has been around since 1935 and is well-known for its amazing range of chocolates and by-products. This spring, if you are in Singapore, you should visit their pop-up store located at the event square of Japan Food Town (Level 4 of Wisma Atria) to find out what makes them so good.

I attended the opening day event on 18 April, thanks to the invitation of J Passport after I signed up for it on their website. Today's event was restricted to the media and invited guests (about 50 as per the website) but due to the size of the venue, it was a bit difficult to move around without running into another human wall. Coupled with the spot lights dotting the perimeter of the event square, I got rather hot and bothered especially after I had rushed to make it in time for the event. In addition, despite the fact that I had provided my blog URL in the application, I was classified as a guest rather than media which I can understand to a certain extent since I don't belong to a formal media outlet. The main differences between being a guest and media representative were that the latter got a detailed write-up about the company and the pop-up store and a bigger goodie bag.

Salon de Royal was founded in Kyoto on 1 April 1935 and combines the best of East and West influences in its products. As mentioned above, chocolate is usually seen as a Western product but it goes through an amazing transformation here which is quite unlike the chocolates you find in Europe. As explained by the company's representative during the event, it produces three main categories of chocolate i.e. chocolate bonbons, Hannari (Rinpa) chocolate and pecan nut chocolates. Not only does the company incorporate ingredients with a strong "wa" (Japanese) feel into its products such as matcha and arare (rice crackers), its packaging also embodies the deep Japanese influence due to its roots in Kyoto. For example, urushi boxes i.e. lacquer coating and Japanese tea bowls (chawan) are used as packaging for the chocolate bonbons. For its Hannari and pecan nut chocolates, the outer packaging is influenced by Rinpa-style paintings which is one of the major historical schools of Japanese painting.

The highlight of the event would have to be the live demonstration by Chef Emori Hiroyuki who is Salon de Royal Kyoto's official adviser and the 2015 champion of the World Trophy of Pastry Ice Cream Chocolate. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a good look at his demonstration because there were too many people crowding around the table. I couldn't help but think that it would be nice if there was a video camera hanging above to capture the process and project it on a TV screen just like what we see in a lot of those cooking demonstration videos online. This would ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to observe the demonstration. Otherwise, it might be better to reduce the number of people attending each demonstration because the venue is simply too small. If you are attending the event for the public held on 19 April, you might want to get near to the demonstration table before it starts so as to secure a good spot.

As it was too hot and uncomfortable for me to squeeze in, I ended up catching glimpses at parts of the demonstration through the mobile phone screens of those who took videos of it. This photo I have here was taken after the matcha ice cream cake was completed. Apologies for this unflattering picture which does not show the true beauty of this cake because I was standing too far back.

After the photo session, the participants were treated to samples of the matcha ice cream cake. In terms of taste, I think that it was pretty good especially the matcha layer which was flavourful and aromatic. However, it doesn't seem that the pop-up store will offer this item though so you might want to attend the public event to sample this.

In the goodie bag given to the guests, there were a pack of candy-coated pecan nuts and a piece of chocolate bonbon. I don't eat bonbons that often because they are usually quite pricey so I can't say that I know a lot about this type of chocolates. Nonetheless, the bonbon given to me was very smooth and the aroma of the chocolate lingered on my palate for a while. Impressive taste but I think I would need more convincing to actually shell out money for it. As for the pecan nuts, the package contains two small packs each with 3 pieces. Considering that you need to pay $7.50 for each package, that works out to about $1.25 per piece. The refined taste and texture you get definitely justifies this price tag but to be perfectly honest, this is probably something you would want to buy to indulge yourself once in a while or as gifts to people who matter most to you. While looking at the displays, I saw a few more flavours which interest me so I should be going back to the pop-up store to buy them.

For those who are interested in attending the demonstrations open to the public on 19th April, the two timings are 12.30pm and 6.30pm and you would need to register through J Passport's website. Even if you can't make it in time for these, there will be five demonstrations daily by different patissiers and the pop-up store will still be around till 31 May.

Other than showcasing the company's products, there are also a series of events lined up during this period to introduce Kyoto's culture to Singapore. Do check these out if they interest you:
- Shakuhachi flute: 30 April
- Noh drama maskmaking: 6 May
- Calligraphy: 7 May
- Nishijin Ori Textiles: date to be announced

If you happen to be going to Japan, you can visit their main shop cum cafe which is located beside the Kamo River where you can sit outdoors during the warmer months from May to September. The shop offers a wide selection of the company's chocolate products along with desserts and beverages like coffee, tea and wine. Alternatively, if you are in Osaka, you can go to their shop at the B2 level of Hankyuu Sanbangai Departmental Store to buy their products.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thai goodness amidst fresh greenery - Basil Thai Kitchen @ Paragon

Whenever I go to Orchard Road, I sometimes find it difficult to find a nice place to eat at without burning a huge hole in my pocket or having to queue for ages just to get into the restaurant or put up with the buzz in a packed place. Coming across Basil Thai Kitchen was a coincidence as I needed to eat dinner on a weekday night near 9pm but some places were about to close then. As the food photos looked rather decent and the prices seemed reasonable, it was then decided that we would eat here.

Before I entered the restaurant, I wasn't aware that it was a different dining concept under Thai Express. As compared to the signature orange-themed Thai Express, Basil Thai had a lot of greenery in the form of flowers and green plants placed on the tables which gave it a fresh feel in line with the basil element in its name. Upon closer scrutiny of the menu, you would then notice some similar dishes between the two restaurants although servings and how they are plated do differ to a certain extent.

The first dish was tom yum soup which I thought was pretty good and whetted my appetite. To be honest, I usually do not like tom yum soup because some versions can be too sour while some are too spicy to my liking. However, this had the right balance and the amount of ingredients was more than I expected for a price of $8.90. I don't know if there are any differences in how they make this tom yam soup as compared to Thai Express because I usually found the latter to be too sour for me.

Next up was another Thai cuisine signature dish - pineapple fried rice ($11.90). The portion did seem a bit small as compared to the price but the saving grace was its taste and generous portions of seafood hidden within that bowl of rice. There was a nice aroma when this was served and the rice grains were fluffier than what I tasted before at Thai Express. The freshness of the seafood embedded within the rice also made a good impression on me. However, it might be good to alter the size of the plate as the extra space as seen in the photo reinforces the impression that the serving is small. Personally, for a big eater like me, this portion size is hardly satisfying but for small eaters, they might be content with this amount.

The Massamam chicken curry served with rice ($13.90) was definitely my favourite because the chicken's texture was so tender and the curry went very well with the plain white rice. The amount of chicken was also quite substantial for a big eater like me. Some curries tend to be quite heavy on the palate and leave a very strong aftertaste but this version was actually lighter and not that spicy as it looked even though I was slightly worried when I ordered this. Actually, the default option was to eat the curry with the crispy roti but I was too famished that night and wanted to have rice instead. Thankfully, the staff members were very accommodating and accepted my request for an alternative for this dish. Perhaps I will go back to try the roti version and see which pairing is better.

On a separate occasion, this time on a Saturday evening, I went back and ordered their green curry chicken with rice ($10.90). Visually, it was rather disappointing to see such a big plate with so much empty space. The lone piece of lettuce didn't do much in enhancing the visual appeal of this dish and the rice wasn't even in a complete circle shape. As for the curry which I always order when I eat at Thai Express, the portion seemed somewhat smaller because I didn't get that many pieces of the chicken and the curry was on the bland side but somehow looked oilier. Considering the price, I might have been better off getting the pineapple fried rice which would at least satisfy my taste buds even though the portion sizes still left much to be desired.

Last but not least, here's the Virgin Basil Mojito ($3.90) which I considered to be a steal because you hardly get drinks below $5 in most restaurants these days. This is the perfect antidote for the sunny and hot weather here with its refreshing sensation and taste being a match for the spicy Thai cuisine. In terms of the portion size, there is also nothing to complain about.

Considering that there are still many dishes which I have yet to try here, I should be coming back for more visits especially if I need to get a decent meal at relatively affordable prices. Especially considering that the restaurant is located in the middle of Orchard Road and in a shopping mall known for its high-end branded offerings, this will be a good place to keep in mind during your Orchard Road visits. However, even though it is another dining concept under the same company, there needs to be a bit more done to differentiate the offerings from both brands. In terms of decor, there is nothing that links both brands together because the main theme colours are different but some of the dishes are replicated across both menus so there may be a need to adjust accordingly to the positioning of the brands. And one last thing, the portions either need to be adjusted to make them more filling or the plates need to be shrunk or else that feeling of dissatisfaction will probably mar the dining experience to a certain extent.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hanami in our forever tropical land - Blossom Bliss 2017 @ Gardens by the Bay

Thanks to Gardens by the Bay, you can indulge in the annual hanami every March without having to fly to places like Japan to view these little blossoms of pink and white heralding the arrival of spring. Having been to this event last year and this year, I noted that there were some noticeable enhancements in this year's edition although there were still some improvements to be made. In terms of crowd control, I can't really comment because I went to the 2016 event on a weekend (which was a really bad idea) while I went to the 2017 event on a weekday (crowded but still manageable). As for the condition of the sakura blooms, I noted that there were a lot of buds this year which were yet to bloom. It could be that there were some new sakura trees planted towards the end of the event to replace those which had too many wilted flowers so that was why I felt that the floral coverage was a bit sparse in some sections.

The first time when I went for hanami in Japan, the best shots I took were those with the cloudless pastel blue skies as the background or along a path with sakura trees lined up to form a natural tunnel of flowers. Unfortunately, due to the limitations we face in Singapore due to the sweltering weather and that the sakura trees were displayed indoors, these two settings are unlikely to be replicated here. Nonetheless, I still appreciate the effort in trying to showcase such a fragile flower here in unfavourable conditions. However, there were people who clearly do not appreciate this and do uncivilised acts such as tugging at the branches forcefully to take selfies with the sakura at close proximity or holding up the flow of human traffic by refusing to budge until they get their perfect selfie. When you come face to face with such behaviour, it no doubt affects the pleasure derived from the hanami experience.

Rather than using words to describe the beauty of these fleeting blossoms, I'll let the photos below do the talking ~

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Really not worth the time and money - NASA - A Human Adventure Exhibition

Lesson learnt today: Museums are meant to be enjoyed on quiet weekdays.

I usually go for exhibitions on weekdays which is naturally less stressful for me because I don't have to get annoyed at the people who keep blocking my view when I want to read the content and see the exhibits or stand in my way when I want to take photos. Coupled with those selfie maniacs who wouldn't rest until they get the perfect shot in that pitch-black room, the boisterous young people who just want to have fun rather than view the exhibition or those who are bent on talking big business on their phones in that quiet hall, weekend exhibition visits are usually a big no-no for me. The reason why I made an exception today was my inability to make it on a weekday these few months and that it's ending tomorrow so there was no choice. However, the whole experience left much to be desired and reaffirmed my belief that I should avoid exhibitions on weekends as much as possible.

If you are planning to catch this tomorrow on the last day, do take note of the following:

1) Book your tickets online first.
On hindsight, I should have booked the ticket online but I wasn't sure if I could make it today until the last minute so I didn't. As such, it resulted in a 30-min wait just to get the ticket and another 10 mins outside the exhibition hall to get in.
There is a shorter queue to get your tickets if you have made the online booking so it will cut the queuing time considerably.

2) Make sure you go in a group of even numbers
The one-for-one offer means that you will be disadvantaged if you are going for this alone or in a group of odd numbers. There is no discounted price for people who are on their own so effectively, you pay the price for 2 tickets. What's more annoying is that, as a Sands member, there is no discount for this exhibition even though I've enjoyed this perk a number of times in the past.
By the way, in case you are wondering, you can sign up for the Sands membership for free and there is no minimum spending requirement. There are some privileges, offers and discounts at various shops and you can earn points which can be redeemed for rewards. One of the key reasons I got this membership even though I don't go to MBS that often is because it offers further discounts on the ArtScience Museum tickets.

3) Remember to get your free Vitaminwater
It is stated on the ticket that you get one bottle of Vitaminwater for each ticket presented to the museum shop so don't forget to get it.

4) Beware of the tight walkways
If you are intending to bring your kids along, you may want to consider leaving your prams outside although I'm not sure if you can leave it in the museum's custody. The main reason is that the huge number of visitors plus the narrower-than-usual walkways will make it difficult for you to navigate.

On the whole, I wasn't sure what the purpose of this exhibition was. It seemed like the exhibits were put together but there was no coherent "theme" linking all these elements sequentially in a line. For example, the section about the space missions only focused on Russia and US but it would have been better if there was some insight into the space exploration efforts from other countries as well.

The display of the information also left much to be desired. For example, in the section which featured various people who had visions about space exploration such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Jules Verne, the screen which featured individual write-ups about them took so long to move on to the next person that it was impossible to stand there and read everything especially with the never-ending batches of people coming into the hall and jostling for space. If it had been a less crowded day, this might not have been an issue but still, the slideshow really needs to speed up.

Another thing which got me really annoyed was that the explanation for the exhibits were placed too far from the exhibits. It wouldn't have been less of an issue if the hall was less crowded but then it looked as if the information was crammed into one board for a few groups of exhibits. As such, I had to keep shuttling to and fro just to make sense of what I was seeing. To do that against the flow of the human traffic was an arduous effort and you can't help but feel that people are annoyed about you "holding up" the traffic. In addition, some of these panels had a glass cover over it which created light reflections thus making it even more difficult to read the content.

As there were quite a number of equipment and space shuttle exhibits which are naturally quite large, this seemed to have affected the amount of space left for people to move around and to look at the exhibits from various angles. For example, there was a model of a space shuttle which was so long that I couldn't take a decent shot of it because the walkway was crammed with people who were watching a video on the wall opposite this exhibit. Just getting to see the information panel was a huge challenge. Based on my experience so far from various exhibitions, if videos are to be shown, there is usually a space for people to gather in front of the screen where there are seats provided at times. It is unusual for so many things to be fitted within one small space and it hinders both those who want to watch the video and those who want to see that exhibit. As you can see here, I didn't manage to take a picture of the entire shuttle and had to take four photos of different portions.

Considering how expensive the ticket was (mine was $19 for a local resident ticket but it would have been halved if someone shared the extra ticket with me), I wasn't expecting this G-Force experience to come with a fee. In fact, the museum's website didn't indicate that at all:

Experience gravity as you never have! Take a trip to space and back and have a taste of what it feels like to be an astronaut embarking on your journey out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Let astronaut and test pilot Gus Grissom be your guide as you go on the famous Mercury Liberty Bell 7 flight, the second in a series of successful U.S. manned suborbital flights in 1961.

Imagine my surprise that this comes at a fee of SGD 6 per ride! From my video taken outside the fence, the whole ride was a mere one minute. How does that sound to you? No wonder only the young people were queuing for this!

On the whole, I was very disappointed with this exhibition. Frankly speaking, even if I had gone on a weekday and didn't experience all these issues with queuing and crowds, I would still have been dissatisfied because the content was very lacking. This was a shame especially considering that most of the exhibitions I've been to at the ArtScience Museum met my expectations. When you think of the fact that their admission tickets are generally pricier than our local museums which offer free entry for citizens and PRs most of the time (except for some special exhibitions), there's got to be more effort in ensuring that the content matches up to the price tag. And I really hope that I won't be penalised yet again for going to museums alone.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Showcasing Hokkaido's charms @ Japan Food Town

In recent years, there's been a significant increase in promotional events from Japan especially those organised by and featuring specific prefectures. During these events and exhibitions, the local companies come to Singapore to showcase their products and services which usually comprise of food & drinks, technological products, handicrafts and art works. It's a good thing that there are coordinated efforts now to promote these places and their specialties for the purpose of doing business and boosting tourism although the scale and content of these events tend to vary across a wide spectrum.

Currently, there is an event at Japan Food Town (Wisma Atria) featuring Hokkaido which is a place that's probably very familiar to most Singaporeans. At the event square, the crafts and cosmetics fair consists of a number of booths featuring such products from the prefecture. This fair will run until 8 March.

From what I observed, the brands and products featured are those which I've not seen before at other events such as travel fairs so it should be fairly interesting for most people. On the other hand, as the event space is very small, the variety of items exhibited is somewhat limited. In addition, it doesn't look like there is a lot of publicity for this event so unless you happen to be dining at Japan Food Town, chances are you might not even walk to the event space to look at what's on offer. In my case, I swung by after my meal and left in about 5 minutes or so as I was rushing elsewhere. If I had more time, I would have stuck around to talk to the exhibitors to find out more about the products. As such, my observations below were largely based on what I saw and what I gathered from the brochures given to me.

One common grouse about Japan's products is the high price tag which is understandable to a certain extent due to import costs and of course, exchange rate fluctuations. Much as we all know that their products are of a certain quality, we can't deny that the price tags do intimidate consumers especially those who may not understand the value of the products fully or cannot reconcile the price with their assessment of the item's value. This is like a chicken-and-egg issue where if there is a larger quantity circulating in the market, costs may be driven down but Japanese products tend to be in limited quantities here so there won't be significant cost savings. Ultimately, this cements the impression that Japanese products are good but pricey.

Besides the fair, there are also dishes using Hokkaido's products from the restaurants at Japan Food Town so you can give these a try while you are dining there. I had the Hokkaido deep fried potatoes at Rang Mang Shokudo which tasted good as expected but I didn't quite like the taste and smell of the cod roe sauce that was poured onto the potatoes. The dishes featured in the poster will be offered by the restaurants until 8 March which is the same date as the end of the fair. As such, if you are keen to check this out, you probably need to arrange a visit this weekend or anytime soon. There is a promotional campaign where you can take a photo with one of the photo boards there and upload to your social media account. Upon doing so, you will be given a free gift by the exhibitors.

Here are some of the items showcased at the fair which you may want to check out on your own:

Here are some art and craft works from the Ainu people said to be indigenious people of Japan and Russia. According to the brochure I got at the fair, the town of Nibutani in the Hidaka area (Hokkaido prefecture) has a number of Ainu households, some Ainu-owned craft shops and two Ainu museums i.e. Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum and Historical Museum of Saru River so this is a place for visitors to interact with the Ainu people. The items featured here include the Nibutani Ita which are wooden trays with spiral Moreunoka patterns and Ramuramunoka fish-scaled patterns and Nibutani Attus which are textiles made from tree barks. These two categories of works were designated as Traditional Craft Industries by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on 8 March 2013.

For those who like ornaments and items made of wood, this corner features trays, wine bottle holder, photo frames, clocks and even a handphone holder with rather simple designs and clean lines. Although these products have a feel somewhat similar to Muji (no frills and a simple design) and I must admit that they look rather nice, the prices are pretty steep in my opinion so it may be that you have to find out more from the exhibitors why exactly these products are priced at these levels. On a related note, most of the items I saw had a tag saying GST included but you may want to ask about the price again just in case what's displayed does not include GST.

This brand Sucremor offers a range of skin care products using beet sugar from Hokkaido. Apparently, the inspiration of their name came from the French word sucre which means sugar. The founder of the brand got the idea from a colleague when she was working in New York about using sugar for moisturising purposes and it turned out that this brought about an improvement in her daughter's eczema condition. From the company's brochure, it was said that the company compared and analysed about 200 types of different sugar before deciding on the sugar made from Hokkaido-grown beets for its moisturising and anti-bacterial properties. There are five aromas to choose from i.e. citrus, lavender, rosemary, hakka (Japanese mint) and vanilla. For babies, you can get the organic sugaring massage scrub which is supposedly gentle enough for their delicate skin. I'll probably go back before the fair ends just to know more about the product and get one to see if it's as good as it claims.

For those who like Japanese traditional artwork and dyed products, you would probably be interested in what Mizuno Somekojo has to offer. This dye-printing factory from Asahikawa, Hokkaido, has been in business since 1907 and specialises in dye printing of various products such as noren (the curtain used outside Japanese restaurants), clothes for the Yosakoi festival, flags and curtains. Even if you are not visiting Hokkaido anytime, you can head to their shop Some no Anbo in Asakusa, Tokyo, for their products which should be quite accessible. Although I find their designs and products very attractive, I was deliberating for a long time whether to buy anything because I struggled to think of a place at home where I can hang it up! Perhaps I should just go back for a second look and get the snowy scene item which I saw yesterday?

One booth which I found quite interesting was Date Yasai which introduced the vegetables grown in Date City, Hokkaido known for its warm coastal climate and volcanic soil. In its brochure, there is an extensive list of vegetables from the city with the names in English and Japanese. This should come in particularly useful to those who are learning Japanese or those who want to know the names of the vegetables in case they want to buy them in Japan. There is also a calendar indicating the harvesting periods for each type of vegetable so depending on when you visit the city, you are aware when is the best season to eat what vegetable. Perhaps the only thing which was lacking was that the booth was too small and there were no "real" vegetables showcased there. When it comes to promoting foodstuff, seeing and being able to taste it would be essential in helping to build awareness and demand from the customers. If there is a future opportunity for the vegetables to be showcased in Singapore, having some food samples would definitely attract more attention and interest. It was also not apparent if the vegetables from Date can be bought here so I suppose that they are here to build awareness for a start.

And last but not least, here is the main stage where you can take pictures with the photo board and upload to social media so as to earn the free gift.

On the whole, I think the fair is well-intended to inform the public about what Hokkaido has to offer. However, due to the nature of the location and limited event space, it is a bit lacking because it feels like you are just getting a small sample of what each of the brands have to offer. In future, they can probably do more to get a place with more human traffic which will allow them to bring in more vendors with a wider variety of products and services. Considering that you have to go all the way up to the 4th floor to get to Japan Food Town and walk inside to the event square, having a place where passer-bys can be attracted easily might be something to consider next time.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Maestro's return to the podium

I love to watch tennis matches. However, since I don't subscribe to any sports TV channels, I hardly ever get a chance to watch them. It's only once in a while when the local cable TV provider opens up free access to the sports channels during special occasions of the year that I manage to catch them.

Other than "Tennis no Oujisama" which got me really hooked onto the sport, Roger Federer is probably one big reason why I like the sport so much. His way of playing is like the flowing water with so much variation and fine precision. Although it's human nature to show your emotions on court as seen from many players who may get so worked up that they swear at themselves or smash rackets, Federer always looks so cool and collected even when facing the toughest challenger. Even when he lost matches, he displayed so much grace and humility as if he wasn't affected adversely by the loss.

Especially in the past few years as more younger and hard-hitting players joined the tour, Federer has been written off more than once with reasons such as age catching up on him and physical issues like injury. Nonetheless, he bounced back many times with his actions to silence the critics even though it was clearly getting more difficult for him to get to the Grand Slam finals. Unfortunately, the 6-month break he took last year due to injury also made it seem like an impossible journey for him to regain his past glory on the tour again.

Tonight, Federer had done it again. At the Australian Open 2017 final and against his biggest nemesis Rafael Nadal.

The final match was a nail-biting one and long (as usual!) for a viewer like me to sit through but I imagine that it must be worse for both players to play for that long and at such great intensity. That was also why I hoped that it wouldn't drag till a tie-breaker in the fifth set because they both looked so exhausted. Especially after seeing that Federer had to take some injury time off, the prospects of him winning seemed to be low again. However, the way he turned the tables on Nadal was so typical of Federer - classic style with grace.

What surprised me was seeing his joy at the winning moment and his eyes brimming with tears which means that this victory must have meant a lot to him. Maybe it wasn't just because he had overcome his biggest rival after so much time and effort. I think the break he had to take last year could have made him doubt his chances too. To be able to withstand all this doubt, criticism and harsh words saying that you are a "has-been", it takes a lot of mental strength to overcome this and play at the top level. That is why this victory is especially sweet for him and his fans because it proves that he can still perform.

When everyone tells you that you can't make it, being able to beat the odds and shut out all the criticism is definitely an uphill task. However, that doesn't mean that you should give up. Federer's success today was especially inspiring to me since I'm about the same age as Federer. If he can overcome his age and injury to play such a fine game again, what reason do I have to throw in the towel and not pursue my dreams even though I may be written off for being too old to dream or being impractical to still want to pursue a seemingly meaningless or unachievable goal?

Thank you Federer. Not only did you make my day for winning again, I've received a much-needed boost of courage just at the right time.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My take on the hype over Hattendo's cream buns

With the partial opening of Tanjong Pagar Centre, there are some new dining options available for the office crowd. One of the most popular ones would have to be Hattendo Cafe which is on Level 1 and boasts of cream buns which sell-out in a matter of hours. From what I gather, there are two timeslots when you can get your fix i.e. during lunch hour and after 6pm. As for the hours in between, it depends. There was one day when I visited at 2 plus but there was nothing left. On another day, when I visited near 3pm, there was still plenty to buy so this really depends on your luck.

For those who aren't aware of Hattendo, here's a brief introduction about them. Hattendo was actually a wagashi maker initially when it was established at Mihara Minato-machi, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1933 (Showa 8th Year). By the time the second generation owner took over, it was already in the 1940s after WWII when Japan entered a period of rapid growth. With hope for the bright future, the owner then started to introduce Western desserts. When the third generation owner took over, he integrated both Japanese and Western elements in Hattendo's products which are what we see today.

 Actually, on Hattendo's Japanese website, there are six types of buns in its product range i.e. cream buns, premium frozen series, melonpan, warm series, Danish series and others. However, in the local version cafe, the signature product would have to be the cream buns. There are a total of 5 flavours available i.e custard cream, whipped cream, chocolate, matcha and azuki. Coupled with the salad jars, oven-baked chicken and salmon, the cafe also offers a variety of drinks to go with the food. I am not sure if Hattendo intends to bring in the rest of its other cream bun categories and if the versions sold here are identical to the originals back in Japan though. Personally, as I've not tried the original in Hiroshima, my opinion here will be solely based on the local version.

Among the five flavours, I've tried the azuki and matcha versions. If you have seen the photo of the cream buns' interior filling from Hattendo's website, the biggest difference I noticed was how watery the cream in the local version seemed. It was noticeably more fluid compared to what was shown in the original version's picture and there were more red beans in the cream than what I had. Frankly speaking, I do not know if this had to do with Singapore's weather because the higher temperature and humidity here could have caused some water condensation to take place in the cream thus making it wetter and more fluid. As such, I thought that sort of diluted the taste of the cream and made it more bland than I would have liked. The same issue was also noticed in the matcha cream which honestly had a barely noticeable matcha aroma and flavour. It would have been nice if the flavours were intensified and the amount of water content in the cream reduced to make it more suitable for the local climate.

As for the bun itself, I felt that it was too soft to my liking and didn't accentuate the flavour of the cream. The moisture buildup seemed to be an issue here as well with the texture of the bun being rather damp and sticky to the palette. If there is a difference in the texture between the bun and the cream, it would probably have tasted better overall. However, with both the cream and bun being soft and somewhat damp, I wondered if the original recipe could have been modified slightly to make it more suitable for the local conditions.

Since the first time when I had the buns was about one hour after I bought them from the shop and brought them back to the office, I thought that the taste could have been different if I had it on the spot at the cafe. However, I was disappointed to note that there was no significant difference in taste or texture so I guess whether I have the buns straight from the chiller or eat it after carrying it for some time in this weather would be the same after all.

The biggest issue about food items being brought from overseas is usually whether to stick to the original formula or to adapt it to local tastes or conditions. Much as I prefer the original versions most of the time, there are times when a total copy-and-paste wouldn't work so well. For example, when Tim Ho Wan first came to Singapore, I was quite peeved to find the local baked char siew buns soft and rather damp compared to what I had in Hong Kong. In Hattendo's case, I haven't had a chance to compare the local version with its original but from what I heard from friends who tasted the original before, they had similar observations as I did about the texture and water content and claimed that the original version tasted much better. Perhaps if the local version can be slightly modified to make the bun less soggy and fluffier while the cream's texture can be made less watery, I may be enticed to brave the snaking queue for this again.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Saying sayonara to SMAP

Finally, the time has come.

Much as how reluctant you are, you have to say sayonara to SMAP at the end of tonight. Nonetheless, it really isn't a complete goodbye since the five members will still be around working on their solo careers. In that sense, nothing much has changed, only that they no longer function as a group and the name SMAP goes into history. Perhaps for fervent fans, it might hurt a lot more.

As you can probably tell, I am not a die-hard fan of SMAP. However, they've been a part of my life too, in one way or another. The very first Kouhaku Utagassen (delayed broadcast though) I watched featured them singing "Dynamite" and that should be back in 1997. Can't believe it's been 19 years since that "fateful" encounter. I found the song very catchy so that got me interested in knowing more about SMAP. Since then, I've watched many of their dramas, movies and variety shows. As for the music side of things, I don't really keep a close tab on their releases after 2003.

I must admit that I don't actually like SMAP as a group.

It's kinda different from what Arashi and TOKIO mean to me because I like them as a whole and all the members within the groups, albeit in differing degrees. With SMAP, it had always been more about Nakai and Kusanagi. For Kimura and Inagaki, the feeling has actually swung from being indifferent to neutral by now. As for Katori, hmm...let's just say that he's never been my cup of tea.

All along, everyone probably knows that SMAP members aren't chummy with one another. To me, that's fine as long as you work together well professionally. And when groups form, there is a day when they might split. To be honest, I have always wondered when they might split up, not if they will do so.

Nonetheless, when it really happened, I think it was the process which made everyone upset. The members didn't say what happened between. All the media reports are skewed, be it blaming the "traitor" or "defectors". As such, it gets really sickening to hear all the noise in this blame game while the truth remains hidden from sight. Maybe the members will be able to talk and laugh about it in years to come. Or maybe this will remain a mystery for as long as they stay in the same agency.

Considering how the group didn't break up due to external pressure such as when Mori left the group or when Inagaki and Kusanagi got into trouble with the law, the fact that they are breaking up due to internal issues makes it very sad. This seems to be the perfect textbook example of "united we stand, divided we fall". On the other hand, rather than being forced to stay together and put on a grumpy face on screen, they should just break up and make sure they will be happier after that.

Sayonara SMAP. Thank you for the past 25 years of hard work!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review of Teochew Festival Singapore 2016

Teochew Festival is back this year, literally with a bang. Since its inaugural edition two years ago, the organisers seemed to have gained some insight from the experience then and made several improvements to this year's edition.

If you've read my review of the 2014 version, these were the points which I highlighted as being lacklustre then:
- the lack of air-conditioning at certain parts of the small festival area
- the use of coupons which was a huge inconvenience and necessitated "spending exactly the same amount as the value of the coupons you bought"
- the festival being more like a trade fair rather than a cultural event

This time, the venue has been changed to the larger, posher and definitely more comfortable Sands Convention Centre. As such, despite the sweltering weather this afternoon, I could enjoy the event in cool comfort without having to sweat literally. Coupled with the fact that it was a weekday, the crowds were not as intimidating as they could be during a weekend.

With more space, the stalls and booths are spread out compared to when they were squeezed into that small tent two years ago. This allows the businesses and exhibitors to showcase more of their stuff without having that cluttered feel. And I do notice that the staff and shop owners seem more open to the idea of visitors taking photos of their booths, displays and merchandise which I suppose could be due to the prevalence of social media these days and any form of publicity would be welcome. As a visitor, I don't have to look over my shoulder and worry about being told to stop taking pictures so it is effectively a win-win situation.

As a result of the expansion of the event space, the food street is so much bigger now and I think there are more stalls this time, of which a number of them are rather famous names in the Chinese dining scene. Compared to last time when I had to stand to eat and squeeze in just to queue for my food, the experience this time was definitely more enjoyable.

The second issue about the coupons last time has been resolved with the advancement of new electronic payment methods such as Nets FlashPay. This is possibly why the Teochew Festival has chosen to use Nets as the default payment mode to eliminate the need to carry cash and the hassle of having to exchange for cash coupons like what was done in the last edition.

Note that there is a booth within the exhibition hall which sells a set of special edition NETS cards with designs of some famous Teochew operas on the front. To buy the whole set of 6 cards with no cash value in them, this would cost $50. On the poster shown on the left, the cards with the values indicated are those with cash already preloaded into them so you can buy them individually and use the value to purchase food and merchandise. If you happen to run out of cash in the NETS card, you can use the machines on site to top up accordingly.

With each entrance ticket, there is a discount voucher of 3 dollars included which can be used to offset against your purchases. To utilise this, you would have to surrender your entrance ticket to the cashier so if you would like to take a photo of your ticket, be sure to do so quickly before you start buying food or things.

Last but not least, the cultural aspect of the festival seems to have been greatly enhanced this time with a section devoted to showing how the Teochew ancestors came to Singapore and what kind of lives they led. The content is presented in both English and Chinese and substantiated with artefacts from the past to make the historical information easier to understand and relate to.

At the exit of the cultural gallery, there is a stall where a calligraphy master is writing couplets for the visitors on red paper. With the upcoming Lunar New Year in a month's time or so, the couplets would come in handy as decorations. It doesn't look like any purchase is needed to get the couplets so the queue seemed to be going on endlessly every time I walked by the stall.

At the main stage area, there is a wide range of performances and activities every day. While I was there, a Teochew opera performance was going on with the seating area fully occupied and many others standing by the sidelines watching intently. To help those who may not understand the language, there were Chinese subtitles flashed on the screen which helped the audience to understand the opera lines better. However, it would be even better if there were English translations shown together for the visitors who don't know Chinese or have a weak command of the language so that they can understand the meaning of the opera lines which tend to be in the traditional form of the language.

During a subsequent Teochew talk session, there were no subtitles though so it was more difficult to understand what the speaker was talking about.

As for the food selection on offer, there is a wider range this time and the large number of seats around makes it easier for the visitors to buy their food and find a seat. Teochew signature dishes such as braised duck, fishball noodles, fishball dumplings, orh nee, oyster omelette, bak kut teh, shuijingbao, chwee kueh and pig trotters from various famous restaurants can be found here. My only grouse is probably the higher-than-usual prices which I suppose should be due to the costs involved this time at a better venue and the scale of the event which has been upgraded. The saving grace is that the quality of the food I tried this time was better than the last edition so I didn't feel that bad about having to pay so much for the food.

With regard to the festival-related merchandise range, the items on offer such as the notebooks, umbrellas and cushions seem to be largely the same as the last edition's range so it was a bit disappointing not to see new stuff being developed and released to the market.Surprisingly, at the stall which sells traditional oil paper lanterns, there are some soaps and candles made in the shape of Teochew kueh as shown in the photo on the left which look quite nice and smell good so you may wish to check these out. Honestly, for this type of special-themed items, they tend to be priced slightly higher than the norm and not readily available in shops so it will be good if they can be purchased more easily e.g. via online and priced more competitively to attract more buyers.

On the whole, I think this year's festival is a marked improvement from the inaugural edition but that is not to say that it is perfect as yet. Hopefully, when the next edition comes along, there will be further enhancements to make it even better.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A preview of Food Japan 2016 happening this Saturday, 29 Oct 2016!

Last year, it was the first time I had visited Oishii Japan. As I had arrived pretty late on the public day, I didn't really get to see and taste a lot of things or even buy much because a lot of the booths had already sold all their stock or it was too crowded for me to take a good look at what was being offered.

This year, with a rebranding and name change to Food Japan, I was intent on making my trip count for what it's worth thus I registered for the media accreditation which could give me access on the trade visitors' days on 27th and 28th October i.e. Thursday and Friday. Thankfully, I succeeded in getting the media pass despite being having such a small presence online (thank you Asia PR Werkz!) so I could see every booth in great detail and at my own pace. Phew!

For those who aren't aware of what Food Japan is, it is ASEAN's largest dedicated showcase on Japanese food and beverage, with an array of authentic Japanese ingredients and food, culinary techniques and equipment, plus demos and classes. Serving as a bridge for F&B businesses between Japan and ASEAN, Food Japan provides visitors with valuable opportunities to understand, explore collaborations and learn more about the versatility of classic Japanese ingredients, quality seasonal produces, unique prefecture specialities as well as innovative technology and machinery. (Portion in italics from the official website)

In its 5th edition this year, Food Japan showcases over 1,000 items from 304 exhibitions from 40 prefectures so this is a must-see if you are into Japanese food or would like what are the latest food and drink products out in the market. For the first two days, it is open to trade visitors only while the public gets to visit on 29th October which happens to be a Saturday and Deepavali. Prior to the opening of this event, you could pre-register for your tickets so this would have helped you to save some time in the queue. Although the pre-registration is closed by now, you can still get your tickets outside the exhibition hall at Suntec Convention Centre Halls 401 and 402.

Other than seeing the latest in F & B products and services from Japan, you can also take part in the workshops. You can either reserve a seat via this page or visit the registration counter in front of the workshop area which is located right at the far back of the exhibition hall. If you are choosing the latter option, I suggest that you go to register and make your payment first upon your arrival before touring the exhibition or else you might not be able to get a place. Here are the three classes on offer tomorrow:

11.30am - 12.30pm
Temari Zushi & Matcha Tiramisu Workshop
60 mins SGD 20

12.45pm - 1.45pm
Temari Zushi & Matcha Tiramisu Workshop
60 mins SGD 20

2.00pm - 4.00pm
Polkaros Café Presents - Mini Teishoku Workshop
120 mins SGD 45

One other tip that I would like to share with you is that you should bring ample cash if you are planning to buy any of the products sold by the exhibitors. Most of them only accept cash so it's only a few who accept Nets or even credit card for items which are more pricey. It's also better if you can prepare small notes if possible or else you may have to wait a while for your change especially with the crowds around.

If you are feeling peckish, you can head to the J Food Court area at the back (left side of the hall) to sample the selection from some of the well-known Japanese restaurants in Singapore. There's also a lot of food and drink sampling going around so your taste buds will be treated to a feast fit for a king as you go around the exhibition hall.

Over the next few days, I will be sharing more details on the booths I visited and the products which caught my eye. Nonetheless, I have a few observations on this event which I would like to mention here that may be of use to you too:

1) If you like something, you might have to make a decision on the spot to get it.
Based on what I gathered after talking to the exhibitors, quite a number of them have not entered the Singapore market yet so they are looking for distributors and importers. For those who have already done so, their presence is largely limited to the Japanese supermarkets here such as Meidi-ya and Isetan. And even if that's the case, some of them are only featured during special events so they are not available all year round.
As such, what this means is that, if you like something which you've tasted, you might have to consider making a decision to buy it on the spot or go to Japan to do the same if the product is not sold in Singapore.

2) The exhibitors are very proud of their products and more than willing to share with you on what makes their products so good or special.
Save for a few exhibitors who were seemingly more concerned with talking to people who looked like they would bring business to them or their phones were more interesting than the visitors in front of them or perhaps they were not very keen on talking to people like me who wore a media pass, the rest of the exhibitors I came across were very friendly and enthusiastic about sharing their products with me. Of course, I think the fact that I could speak Japanese helped a lot in breaking the ice between us and I really appreciated some of them willing to make an effort to talk to me in English even though they may not be that fluent. When you want to break into an overseas market, initiative is really important since you can't be sitting there to wait for business to come your way. If you are willing to approach them, they will reciprocate. And if you have any problems communicating, there are the interpreters who can help in bridging the gap.
During these conversations, I was really impressed by some of these companies and their products so that's why I want to write a detailed post and do some free PR for them. I'm not a bigwig from some established media company so it's inevitable that some people do not really take you seriously and wouldn't want to talk to you. However, since I'm already promoting J-ent in general, there's no reason why I can't do the same for Japan's F & B industry especially since I love Japanese food too. As such, do keep a lookout for these posts coming your way!

3) Learn from the experts, first-hand.
I'm sure many people like Japanese food but may not really understand or know the details or the profound knowledge that goes into making them. Besides learning through the workshops, talking to the exhibitors will definitely be an eye-opening experience. I learnt something new from everyone I talked to so it was a truly enriching day I spent at this event. Some of the information I got is not something you can easily find online or in books.

If you are keen to check out this event, do remember to head there early and hope that you'll have fun on your Saturday!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Lunchtime goodness at Shin-Do (Century Square)

Shin-Do is strictly speaking not a new restaurant. It occupies the same shop space in Century Square's B1 and used to be known as Shin-Sapporo Ramen. However, the change is not merely in its name but also its entire concept because the former was more ramen-centric while the new version includes more options in terms of teishoku, sushi and appetisers.

To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with Shin-Sapporo Ramen in the past so I stopped going there since a long time ago. Apparently, under the new concept, ramen is still an integral part of the menu with the biggest attraction being the fire ramen but there are options for people who might not want to eat ramen that day. In a way, that helps in attracting a wider pool of customers other than the usual ramen lovers.

On a weekday afternoon while on the search for a late lunch venue, I walked past Shin-Do and saw its promotional panels. There they were, wholesome lunchtime-only teishoku sets which were going for as low as $8.90 ($10.90 for the more expensive items) nett with a free cup of hot or cold green tea thrown in. If you would like to have other drinks, you need to pay a small amount to top up. The food displays outside the restaurant looked rather appealing and I was keen to try a good deal if I spotted it so I decided to revisit or should I say, give Shin-Do a chance.

The set I ordered was the teriyaki chicken set which came with pickles (takuan) and a healthy dose of shredded cabbage with a small tomato. First of all, I've not been seeing takuan that often in the Japanese teishoku sets these days so it was a pleasant surprise to see it in my bento box. I really liked it for being of the right taste and the texture was crunchy enough despite it being sliced so thinly. I would have preferred this to be slightly thicker or to have more slices in the set. As for the cabbage salad, I thought that the portion size could be a tad too much for those who don't like their greens but I personally felt that it was a welcome addition to give the meal a slightly different texture. With regard to the rice, I thought that it was a bit too soft and overcooked but the grilled and shredded seaweed lent a nice aroma to the rice which was drenched in a sauce that tasted similar to the teriyaki sauce. Just one note of caution then, the chef might have to go easier on the amount of sauce for the rice since there was too much and made the rice saltier than I would have liked. Last but not least, the teriyaki chicken was tender and flavourful and there was more pieces than I assumed the set would contain. Anything that exceeds the customer's expectation is always welcome.

On another day, I came back for the tori karaage set which gave me a slightly different experience. The time of my second visit was during lunch hour so the wait for the food to be served was much faster than during the first visit. Not that I really minded the wait since I liked the taste of what I ate during that visit but it sure wouldn't hurt to have the food served quickly when I am hungry. In terms of portion size, I thought that the amount of the cabbage salad seemed to be slightly lesser and there was one less slice of the takuan. As for the rice, there was lesser sauce poured onto it and the flavour of the seaweed was even more noticeably this time which I attributed to it being grilled for a longer time before being shredded. The rice texture was also more to my liking this time. With regard to the tori karaage, it was slightly different from what I usually get which tends to be round-shaped. The version at Shin-Do had the chicken in long strips which I don't really mind unless they use breast meat which I dislike for its dry and tough texture if overcooked. Luckily, the fried chicken here was tender and juicy enough but there should have been more mayonnaise provided to eat the chicken with.

Both sets I had were in the $8.90 group and I must say, I was quite satisfied with their quality and portion size despite the low price. I'm glad that I found another nice place to eat at and will probably go back soon to try the other lunch sets or the items in the ala carte menu.