Singapore: Diversity through Food

31 10 2008

While I was in Singapore, my friend P sought to expose me to all different quintessentially Singaporean foods.  The best and most direct way to understand a culture is often through its food.  Reflecting its diverse Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultural heritage, in Singapore fusion is the rule and ethnic variations of the same dish are very common.  Even in restaurants that specialize in certain cuisines, the local Singaporean flavor can often be tasted. Spices are are used more regularly and with higher complexity and curry use is common.

Knowing me very well, the very first place P took me when I arrived in Singapore was to a food hall, where I had a delicious Chinese fish ball soup with spicy noodles.


Chinese Fish Ball Soup


Spicy Dry Noodles

Although the soup and noodles were very Chinese, they tasted different to me.  I could tell even from the first taste that the people of Singapore take their spices very seriously.  The spices in the soup were much more complex and spicy hot than I was accustomed to in typical Chinese cooking.

For brunch the next morning, we visited another coffee shop/food court.  In Singapore, these food courts are abundant and are called coffee shops.  I don’t know why, as it didn’t look a bit like a Starbucks.  LOL!

As you can tell from the different signs, the choices were many and reflected the cultural diversity of the city state.


The stands in the photo below include: Chicken Rice, Vegetarian, Noodle Village, and Local Delight.


The Indian Muslim stand is just across from the Tim Sum (dim sum) stand.


Dessert stand featuring Chinese, Malaysian, and other southeast asian varieties of cool, light refreshment.


Chinese inspired food.

P and P’s mom ordered for all three of us and it was delicious!  We had a combination of Hokkien and Indian food for breakfast.  Hokkien is a Chinese dialect that originated in the Fujian Province of China.  It is equivalent to Taiwanese and is also common in many overseas Chinese communities in southeast Asia.


Hokkien Bee Hoon (mifen in mandarin) with fried bean curd and sauteed vegetables.


The famous Roti Prata (Indian).


Hokkien Chwee Kway is a steamed rice cake topped with preserved radish.

On the day after, we had dim sum for brunch.  This meal was much more traditionally Cantonese, of course.  While I’ve never had dim sum in Hong Kong or Canton, it was at least very similar to the best dim sum I’ve had in the United States.


Shu mai and steamed shrimp dumplings


The dessert cart

That night, after spending a few hours in Little India, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant.  I have always loved Indian food, but I felt that this food was much more intense and flavorful than usual.  Yum!


The wonderful menu made me drool.


Nasi briyani with mutton.


I forget what this dish is called, but it was a flat bread stuffed with a spicy paste that you dip in three kinds of curry.


We also had some chicken masala and topped off our meal with a mango shake.  Perfect!

On my last day, we had brunch at another coffee shop near a mall, where I had some more Malaysian flavors, including the famous Laksa.


The menu at the Malaysian food stand.


My delicious and spicy Laksa.


Mee Siam


Lontong

My culinary journey through Singapore really opened my eyes (and teared them up too!) about the many cultural influences in this interesting country.  As a souvenir, I brought home a couple spice packets for Singapore’s famous bak kut teh and can’t wait to make it!





Singapore: A Complex City State

30 10 2008

I am just back from a weekend spent with my friend and former coworker P in the lovely country of Singapore. I was in Taiwan visiting relatives and wanted to see P so I booked a flight on the budget airline Jetstar, which has direct flights from Taipei to Singapore daily.


A view of Singapore from the plane.


Downtown Singapore is very westernized and skyscrapers are a common sight.

Although it’s mostly known these days as a major Asian business center, to me Singapore is still an exotic locale. For one thing, I have never been so close to the equator; Singapore is only 1 degree north of the equator and you can feel it. I thought southern Taiwan, being south of the Tropic of Cancer, was hot and humid. It is nothing compared to the heat and humidity of Singapore. It is like walking into a hot and spicy soup. Thus it is unsurprising that people are dressed very casually here – it’s just too hot to wear too many clothes.


Singapore is definitely in the tropics.

Singapore is also a fascinatingly diverse country that is made up of a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures with a little bit of British thrown into the lot.  One of the things I like best about Singapore is that it is a nation of juxtapositions, where traditional and varied Asian cultures can meld with western technology.  It is its very complexity that makes it strong and interesting.

Singapore was actually a lot less British than I expected, despite the fact that it was a British colony for over a hundred years. I’m not saying that the British did not leave a mark, because they certainly did with English being the official language, the government and infrastructure having been guided by the British colonial system, and the smatterings of colonial architecture evident in the various ministries and historic hotels.


A ministry of some sort.

Although the population is 75% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 9% Indian, the city-state was also much less Chinese than I expected. Perhaps it’s just the places I visited in Singapore, but based on knowing countries like Japan, Taiwan, and China (regionally), where the population and culture is very homogeneous, Singapore was not dominated by Chinese culture.  For example, Chinatown is very small in Singapore, despite the large ethnic Chinese population.


The bright rehabilitated buildings of Chinatown.


Hawker stands in Chinatown.


Chinatown is only a few blocks wide in Singapore, and located right downtown.

Some may say that it’s because it’s Chinatown everywhere in Singapore, but I do not find it so.  There is certainly Chinese influence in the architecture on the island, but I felt that the western and southeast asian aesthetics were more dominant. In addition, there seemed to be a great movement for integration of the different ethnic groups under the overall larger umbrella of Singaporeans.

Perhaps the Chinese-ness of Singapore is deeper than I can detect as a visitor.  I know for a fact that my friend P has grown up in a very traditional Chinese household in many respects.  In addition, her English is littered with Chinese, as is common in Singlish (Singaporean English).   She has also told me in the past that many people in the older generations are more comfortable speaking Chinese.  She has even mentioned that there are some/many Singaporean Indians who can speak Chinese, which I thought was really cool.  Maybe the Chinese influence in Singapore is so deep that it is not immediately apparent because it has so seamlessly integrated into everything here.  In any case, observing the different cultural influences on Singapore has been one of the most interesting parts of visiting, in my opinion.

Instead, from my very unscientific assessment, Singapore is a mixture of its cultures, with the Southeast Asian influence among the strongest. Where does my evidence come from? The food.  Just take a look at any of the many food halls, coffee shops, and hawker centers.  In most of these places, there is an equal representation of Chinese, Malay, and Indian food and its variations.  Chinese Indian, Chinese Malay, Vegetarian Indian or Chinese, and Halal Chinese are just a few examples of the fusion cuisine common in Singapore.


A coffee shop near Pasir Ris.

Further reflecting that cultural complexity, Singapore is also very westernized and boasts a highly developed economy.  Since separating from the UK, joining Malaysia, and seceding to form its own nation, Singapore has turned its lack of natural resources into a positive and is now the 6th wealthiest nation per capita in the world.  Because of its small relative size, from the beginning of its independence the Singapore government has focused on industrializing of its economy and attracting direct foreign investment.  This led to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century of a modern economy based on electronics manufacturing, trade, petrochemicals, tourism, and financial services.


The famous Merlion – the symbol of Singapore.


Merlion Square


View of the Esplanade, aka the Durian.

On the whole, the streets of Singapore are very clean and neat.  This is probably due to the fact that there is a $1000 Sing Dollar fine for littering.  Buying and selling chewing gum is also strictly prohibited, although the actual act of chewing gum is ok.  Because of this, a lot of gum is brought into the country by individuals.  Unlike Japan, where a rigid social structure keeps things neat and tiday, in Singapore cleanliness and tidiness is reinforced by a system of fines.  While this is very different from the American system, most of these fines and rules only serve to encourage civil behavior and discourage unruly behavior.


Unrefurbished streets are rarer these days in Singapore. Here is a part of the older part of town, which has not yet been overhauled and cleaned up.

Next: Singapore Part 2: Food





Where am I?

27 10 2008

I have been quiet on the blogging front because I am currently traveling.  So for this post, I pose a challenge to my readers.  Where am I?

Here is clue #1, which may help you know what part of the world I am in:

Here is clue #2, for my business friends:

Here is clue #3, which gives it all away:

P, you are not allowed to guess since you were there with me!

I will be traveling for a little longer, but look for future posts about my time in this city!





Review: Hotel Kurcafe in Füssen

22 10 2008

On the night before we visited Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles, we stayed in the town of Füssen at Hotel Kurcafe.  We decided to book this hotel because of good reviews from both Rick Steves and Tripadvisor.  We had high hopes for this hotel because of these reviews.  Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the service and accommodations.

First, let me start with the positives from our stay.  Our initial impression of the hotel was very positive.  The location in the town of Füssen was very convenient, the room was very clean, and the hotel seemed very nice in general.  In addition, there is a parking lot right next to the hotel and we were able to park for a nominal fee.  The room’s decor was fine and looked comfortable, although we were amused by the sexy picture above the bed.

Now I will get into the negatives.  First, when we checked in, the woman at the front desk was very brisk to the point of rudeness and made us feel like we were imposing by staying at this hotel.  I have stayed in many 4-5 star hotels, and this kind of treatment is unacceptable, especially at a hotel that bills itself as 4 stars.  In addition, the woman at reception only gave us one room card for all four of us.  She only gave us another key after we specifically requested it when we went out to dinner later that evening.  I will point out that this woman was the only person at the hotel who was rude, and everyone else we encountered were very friendly, courteous, and professional.

Second, the room we were assigned differed from the one that was advertised.  We booked a four person family room at Hotel Kurcafe.  As we booked online directly through the hotel, we expected to get the room advertised as the family room for four people as you can see here.  In the picture shown for this room, there are what look like two queen size beds side by side.  Instead, we received Room 10, which has one queen size bed and a pull out sofabed.  If they had advertised the room as a queen bed with a sofabed, we would not have chosen this room.  Since it was past 7 PM when we checked in, we decided to make the best of it.  However, in the middle of the night, the sofabed became unhinged and broke.  Thus it ended up being a very uncomfortable night.  Since it was after midnight at that point, we tried to fix it ourselves and ended up being able to put it back half hinged.  We found that if we did not move at all the sofa would stay hinged and in one piece.  As you can imagine, this made it a bad night for us.

The bathroom was very modern and chic.  However, since the door was see through, it was not very suitable for a room for four people.  I do not fault the design, per se, as I found the aesthetics pleasing, but this room is clearly a two person room.

We were very pleased with the continental breakfast served the next morning.  The hotel had a full spread of both cold and hot breakfast foods, including bacon, eggs, bread, toast, and other typical items in addition to fancier fare like chocolate covered strawberries.  Like many European hotel breakfasts, you must order your coffee and cappucinos from the server (although it’s all included). 

When we checked out, we made sure to let the hotel know of our displeasure with the sofabed.  The lady at the reception (a different person from the night before) was very apologetic and courteous, which we appreciated.  She deducted 20 euros from the room rate and gave us a small bag of truffles for our trouble.

In summary, if you are looking to book a four person room at this hotel, be very careful of what you select.  Definitely request that you not be put in Room 10.  Since the other reviews from Tripadvisor are generally positive, though, I hope that our experience was isolated.





Germany: Neuschwanstein

21 10 2008

After leaving Rothenburg, we were eager to continue our journey on Germany’s Romantic Road and see “Mad” King Ludwig’s famous Neuschwanstein Castle.  Easily the most photographed castle in Germany, Neuschwanstein is the epitome of the modern day idea of a (very unrealistic) romantic medieval castle.  In fact, this castle was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland and Cinderella’s castles in Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.  We had high expectations for this attraction because of its fame and dramatic history.

 
A view of the countryside approaching Füssen and Neuschwanstein.


Quaint towns dot the countryside on the Romantic Road.

Neuschwanstein Castle and the neighboring Hohenschwangau Castle are located just outside the town of Füssen in Southwest Bavaria. Füssen is where most people who visit the royal castles stay the night and represents the end of the Romantic Road. The town of Fussen is small but pretty. It is perfectly suited for a nice dinner and lovely stroll before visiting Neuschwanstein the next day but one night is enough. Füssen has its own castle called Hohes Schloss, but it’s not really worth visiting.  You can walk around the outside of the castle at night.


The town of Füssen


Fussen at twilight


Hohes Schloss

For a taste of traditional German food and comraderie, visit one of the local restaurants and drinking establishments in Füssen the night before your visit to the castles. Every Tuesday and Thursday night at 7 PM, the gregarious duo of Christian and Werner entertain the patrons at Gasthof Krone with local music and humor.  While we were there, we heard such classics (translation butchered by me) as “Frau Meyer’s underpants are yellow” and “There’s plenty of time in heaven to rest so let’s drink now.”


Gasthof Krone


Christian and Werner entertain with hilarious tunes and jokes.

The next morning we headed over to see the royal castles.  When you come to visit, you may tour either castle or both. It is best to buy your ticket(s) in advance, either online here or over the phone. You will be given a time window for your tours. If you decide to tour both, the ticket requires that you tour Hohenschwangau first. To get to Neuschwanstein, you can ride a bus, a horse drawn carriage, or hike.

“Mad” King Ludwig, also known as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was an eccentric king who loved building elaborate castles. Although he used his personal funds to build these palaces, he borrowed heavily from family and other royalty and neglected his royal duties, which made him very unpopular with his ministers. This caused his cabinet of ministers to declare him insane and to legally depose him. The day after his arrest, King Ludwig was found dead in the nearby lake under mysterious circumstances with the psychiatrist who certified him insane.

Ludwig grew up in Hohenschwangau Castle, which was built by his father King Maxmillian II of Bavaria in the early 19th century. Maxmillian built the castle on the ruins of the castle Schwanstein, which dated back to at least the 12th century, after falling in love with the landscape here. While Neuschwanstein is now owned by the Bavarian government, Hohenschwangau still belongs to the former royal family.

 
Hohenschwangau


The beautiful lake next to Hohenschwangau.

Neuschwanstein Castle, on the other hand, was built by Ludwig II in the late 19th century. The castle is not a true medieval castle since it not built in the middle ages, but rather designed to reflect a romantic and highly fantastical conception of a knight’s castle. In fact, the castle was designed by a theatrical set designer for the most part and not an architect.


Even my first glimpse of Neuschwanstein from Hohenschwangau was romantic.

After touring Hohenschwangau, we took a bus up to Neuschwanstein. While the bus drops you off on the path to Neuschwanstein, it is worth it to hike up to Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) before you go to Neuschwanstein. It only takes about 20 minutes to go there and back and the views are amazing. I consider the Marienbrucke a must do, because it gives you the best view hands down of Neuschwanstein. This perspective of the castle is what you see in all those tourist photos.


The best view of Neuschwanstein is from Marienbrucke, except for the ugly scaffolding (sigh).


Other views from the Marienbrucke include beautiful forests.


Marienbrucke is a small bridge suspended over these falls.

Every part of the design of Neuschwanstein was carefully planned, from its exact placement on a dramatic hilltop overlooking Ludwig’s childhood home, Hohenschwangau, to its exterior grandeur and fairy tale turrents, to the impressive interior that honored Richard Wagner’s operas.  The castle’s location maximized the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from inside. Photos were not allowed inside either castle, but the views more than made up for that.

Although this attraction is much hyped, we felt that it lived up to its expectations.  Neuschwanstein was every bit as beautiful in person as in the pictures.  While the tours are quite short, they are interesting.  The area’s natural backdrop was stunning and really exceeded our expectations.  We highly recommend that Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau be part of any visitor’s itinerary in Germany.





Review: Gotisches Haus in Rothenburg

13 10 2008

While we were in Rothenburg, we stayed at the Gotisches Haus (Gothic House) on Herrngasse for one night.  We loved every part of our experience here and would highly recommend it to anyone who wanted to stay within the walls in Rothenburg.

The location on the Herrngasse was ideal because it is right in the middle of the city.  We were just half a block from Market Square.


View onto the street from the Third Floor.

We loved the decor of the hotel. The hotel is actually in a building that has been there since the middle ages! We felt like we were staying in a castle.


Sitting area in the Lobby


Breakfast Area in the Front of the Hotel

My husband and I stayed in room 30, which also included a small sitting room and a balcony. The ceiling does slope down because of the eaves, but we thought it just added to the great atmosphere of the hotel.


View from our private balcony.

Even though the building itself is old, they have all the modern amenities, including a luxurious, modern bathroom.

My sister and her husband stayed in room 20, which is shaped more like a conventional hotel room.  They really liked their room too.  If you feel claustrophobic from low ceilings, I would recommend a room on the first or second floors.  You can see pictures and rates of each room on the hotel’s website here. Rooms range from 86 euros to 168 euros a night.

Breakfast was included with the rooms.  The hotel serves intercontinental breakfast.  You order your choice of coffee drinks and hot cooked items such as omelletes.  There is also a cold buffet with bread, croissants, cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, juice etc…  We thought breakfast was pretty good.

Rating: HIGHLY RECOMMEND

Hotel Gotisches Haus GmbH
Herrngasse 13
D-91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Tel: 09861-2020, Fax: 09861-1317
info@gotisches-haus.de
Geschäftsführer Axel Rüter
Reg. Ansbach 3477, USt 199-70801





Germany: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

11 10 2008

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a perfectly preserved medieval walled town in Bavaria, was hands down my favorite part of our trip to Germany. If you have ever had any interest in the middle ages, you will LOVE this city. This town is a storybook come alive!

During the middle ages, Rothenburg was a large and booming free imperial city that was located on an important trade route between northern and southern Europe. During the Thirty Years War, however, the town was lost to a siege instigated by a Catholic Count who wanted to quarter his troops in the Protestant city. After this devastating siege and the ensuing Plague, the city became empty and poor until the end of the 19th century. In the 1880s, when Romanticism was running rampant throughout Europe, the town was “rediscovered” and since then the town has been carefully preserved while tourism has repopulated the city’s coffers.


Rothenburg is still surrounded by medieval walls.


This is Rothenburg’s Coat of Arms, which is a literal translation of the city’s name (red castle).

During WWII, Nazi soldiers defended Rothenburg. Parts of the city were bombed, including several houses and part of the wall. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy knew of the historic significance and beauty of Rothenburg so he ordered his generals not to use heavy artillery on the city. According to the the tour we took, McCloy grew up with a painting of Rothenburg on the wall of his home that his mother bought after visiting Rothenburg. Her love of Rothenburg was essentially what saved the city on the American side. The local military commander, Major Thommes, also contributed to the city’s preservation by ignoring Hitler’s directive for all towns to fight to the end and surrendering the town before it was destroyed, thus saving the city. American soldiers occupied the town until the end of the war. A few years later, the town named McCloy an Honorary Protectorate of Rothenburg.


This fountain featuring St. George off the Market Square was also a source of water to townspeople.

The original trade route that Rothenburg served is now called Germany’s “Romantic Road” and has become a popular tourist route. The “Romantic Road” begins in Wurzburg and ends in Fussen and features charming villages, beautiful churches, scenic countryside, and other walled medieval cities.


Just like everywhere else in Germany, the cobblestone streets are neat, tidy, and filled with flower pots and ivy.

Most of the town is pedestrian only, but guests who have a hotel reservation inside the walls of the town may drive into the town in order to park their cars.  Once you get your bearings, the town is easy to navigate on foot.  You can get free maps at the Tourist Information office that is next to the Market Square.  The best map we found of Rothenburg was from the Friese shop located on the smaller square just off Market Square.  You get a free map made by Anneliese Friese if you show them your Rick Steves guidebook.


Market Square

This is Rothenburg’s Market Square (above).  The TI office is in the orange clock tower building and you enter from the right side (street side).  The Friese shop is to the left of the yellow building in this photo.

It seemed everywhere we looked there was a picturesque half timbered house, quaint clock tower, shining cobblestone street, or pretty sidewalk.  My German brother-in-law will cringe when I say this, but it was as if Disney World had come alive.  Of course, this is because Rothenburg and other German towns and castles were the inspirations for Disney.  In fact, it is said that Rothenburg inspired the town in Disney’s Pinnochio.  But of course Rothenburg is 1000 times better than any fake Disney backdrop because it is the real thing!

We thought this might be the cutest intersection in Rothenburg, on Spittalgasse (below).

This is where the town gets so Disney!  Did I mention that the town is packed with tourists?



Statue above a real life butcher shop.

But then we saw this street, and changed our minds.  This MUST be the cutest street in Rothenburg.

We were able to enjoy some cake and coffee at a sidewalk cafe with a view of this arch.


The town is full of things like hidden alleys and gardens behind walls. Through our self guided walk (from our Rick Steves guide book), we found this gem (below). It was the garden to the convent attached to a now gone Dominican church. What was interesting about this garden was that the herb garden included not only edible herbs and medicinals, but also POISON! The potency of the poison herbs was indicated by the number of crosses on the labels. Don’t inhale too much here!


Entrance to the Convent Garden, near the Museum of the Imperial City (Reichsstadt Museum).


The Convent Garden


Some poisonous herbs, which smelled bad!

We loved all the medieval touches we found just by walking around.  Here is one of the town’s entrance gates on the stone wall.

The huge wooden door had a small tiny door within it.  In the middle ages, most towns had a curfew for safety reasons.  The town would close their huge gates when it got dark and any townspeople who were left outside the wall had to apply to enter via the night watchman.  The townsperson who missed curfew would first have to identify himself.  Then, he had to bribe the night watchman.  If and only when these two criteria were considered would the night watchman let in the person.  However, the door was built so that only an unarmored person could get through, in case the person attempting entry was an enemy or traitor.

Another form of defense for the town were these stone masks over the gates.  When an offending army tried to break the gates, the town would defend itself by pouring hot oil onto the attackers.

One of the must-dos for any visitor to Rothenburg is to walk the city walls.  From there you can get magnificent views of the city and get a feel of the medieval defenses.  At times, we felt like we were in the game of Carcasonne.


View from the Rodertor Tower, after climbing up some very rickety stairs.


We even saw some people from the middle ages from the wall!


Ok, can this town GET any cuter??

Donations from all over the world helped rebuild the town walls that were destroyed in WWII.  You can see the stone plaques representing the donors when you walk the walls. Many of them were from just after WWII, but several were more recent. Nowadays, it takes 1000 Euros to buy a plaque on the wall.

I found these plaques particularly interesting:

Apparently Rothenburg is VERY VERY popular with the Japanese. Maybe one third of the modern plaques were from the Japanese!

Surprisingly, there were even plaques from the tiny nation of Taiwan!

If you are thinking of visiting Rothenburg, I would recommend that you stay at least one night.  During the day, Rothenburg is packed with tourists but the city empties out at 5 PM.  After that time, you basically have the beautiful city to yourself.  Also if you stay the night, you can go on the wonderful Night Watchman’s Tour.  In my opinion, this is one of Europe’s best tours hands down.  The Night Watchman (there is only one) takes you on an enthusiastic one-hour walking tour in period costume with a lit lamp and tells you all these great stories about medieval Rothenburg.  Plus, it’s only 6 Euros.  He is also a barrel of laughs (in my opinion).

We stayed at the outstanding Gotisches Haus right in the middle of Rothenburg, which I highly recommend! I will be writing a review of this soon to post on the blog.

All in all, the four of us really enjoyed Rothenburg.  We cannot even think of anything that we did not like about Rothenburg.  Even though it is on every tourist itinerary for Germany, this is one of those places that is really as good as it sounds.  I hope I will be heading back to Rothenburg one day, but for now I will have fond memories of this beautiful medieval town.








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