Exploring Singapore using the five senses. Second installment -Taste

Did you know that the latest San Pellegrino to restaurants in Asia survey has singled out no less than three dining establishments in Singapore for recognition? These restaurants are custodians of the subtle pan Asiatic tasting menu, serving course after course of flavourful delights reflective of the island nations’ rich tradition of cultural cross gastronomic hybridization.

An in depth examination of these offerings, combined with insight into the vibrant street food of Singapore would be richly rewarding and informative.

But it’s been done before by people with far more educated pallets than mine. No, in order for my evaluation of the Singapore food scene to take full advantage of the blunt instrument that lies behind my pearly whites, I’m going to balance out the scales by examining the rich tradition for simple, yet complex cuisine offered by a Singapore stalwart – the neighbourhood 7-Eleven.

Now I wouldn’t say that I’m uniquely qualified to offer an opinion on the varied delights of this often under rated outlet, but if my family crossed Mr Lee’s emporium off our daily shopping agenda then his ability to take his family of six on their annual vacation in Aspen might represent an almost insurmountable financial burden.

Not Mr. Lee, but a good approximation. Hasn't got a Slurpy financed Rolex.

Not Mr. Lee, but a good approximation. Hasn’t got a Slurpy financed Rolex.

I fully understand that the offerings of 7-Eleven may be seen as pedestrian and even boring to many, however I should stress that this is in Singapore, not only the land of the Durian, but also a place of unique and often unexpected tastes (at least for the average Westernised palate) . I’m going to go out of my way to demonstrate that not only can the 7-Eleven provide for many daily requirements such as toilet paper,edible underwear, sunglasses, prophelactics and sticky gecko traps, but that it also holds the promise of some truly unique gastronomic experiences.

First some ground rules:

1)      Where possible the ingredients used in the food item should be authentically Asian.

2)      I am to taste at least one mouthful of the food item in question – taste, not swallow, there’s a limit to what I’m prepared to do for science and this blog.

3)      The guiding principle has to be that it should be theoretically edible by someone who has not been repeatedly struck by lightning or suffered a recent concussive blow to the head – no detergents.

4)      At least one of the items will be selected by my nine year old daughter to ensure fairness. My wife wants nothing to do with this other than to point out that the bucket is under the sink.

5)      In order to ensure said fairness and an alternative to my tired old taste buds my daughter has just volunteered as co-victim. Sorry fellow gastronomic explorer. She’s young, she’ll learn.

So without further ado here’s the result of a short shopping spree, which Mr Lee and his interchangeable shop assistants were more than happy to help out with. If I am unable to finish this blog entry, then I want to be bronzed not cremated (although it is possible that I’ll simply spontaneously combust from over exposure to food additives or yellow dye number 6, making this a moot point).

  1. Prepared Cuttlefish With HONEY.
  2. Dried Mango – (daughters choice).
  3. Tao Kae Noi – Original Flavour Crispy Seaweed
  4. Bird’s Nest Beverage with Rock Sugar.
  5. Dessert cups of unidentified jelly.

1. Prepared Cuttlefish With HONEY.

The saying that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is a useful truism, applicable to many situations. If catching flies is a pastime that you indulge in with any regularity (whatever floats your boat) then have I got some advice for you. The addition of dried cuttlefish will enhance your chosen hobby to the extent that you may have to wear protective clothing.

If any of my readers have any interest in oceanography then they’ll recognise the genus Vampyroteuthis infernalis (I may have got genus and species mixed up, it’s difficult to concentrate or indeed breath, type and see when you’re retching uncontrollably). This charming creature is the so called Vampire Squid From Hell and I can only assume that the cuttlefish in this snack are closely related.

I can only imagine that there are abundant schools of Vietnamese Vampire Cuttlefish in FAU area 71 of the Pacific Ocean, which is where the raw ingredients for this apparently popular regional delicacy are sourced. This is the only way I can explain the sheer evilness of this snack. I would rather have a large cuttlefish eat me, than have to face eating this again.

The texture is both stringy and bark like, with an odour I would characterise as reminiscent of an unwashed sun dried hand lining hobo’s ass. The honey is of no help at all and serves only as a counterpoint to deeply, deeply disturbing fishiness. My gag reflex has died. The cat has run away.

Have you ever tasted honeyed peanuts? Well this is almost exactly not like those.

Have you ever tasted honeyed peanuts? Well this is almost exactly not like those.

I should have known this was ill advised when the front of the packaging attempted to reassure me through stating “100% fresh direct from the sea”. Aside from the fact that the product is patently not fresh, what’s the alternative to “direct from the sea”? Someone’s bathtub, pools of stagnant water outside the Fukushima nuclear reactor?

The back of the packaging assures the consumer that the product is “best before 30/04/2014”. I beg to differ, it’s not best before, after or during anything, at any time or in any place.

Daughter’s verdict: “No, don’t want”. I have a funny feeling that an independent opinion is not going to be as easy to obtain as I had thought. She has joined the cat under the dining room table and is now building a pillow fort.

This was a terrible idea.

2. Dried Mango – (daughters choice)

A product of the Philipines.

Other food products originating from the Philipines include tuyo (dried fish), bagoong (shrimp paste), chipirones (baby squid with black ink), crab fat, and famously stomach churning balut (semi developed duck foetus in original all natural packaging). I may have dodged the gastronomic bullet here.

The dried mango isn’t bad. Apart from a texture that is oddly reminiscent of dead skin which is a bit off putting, I’d probably eat this again.

Ever watched the movie Alive. Well, this has the texture (and appearance) of what those rugby players had for dinner.

Ever watched the movie Alive. Well, this has the texture (and appearance) of what those rugby players had for dinner.

Sweet, tasty and possibly something that I’d include in the survival pack I’m putting together for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

The back of the pack clearly states that if I’m not satisfied with the product the manufacturer will gladly “refund or replace”. I note for the record that the cuttlefish folk didn’t make this offer.

A five star choice, well done Erin.

3. Tao Kae Noi – Original Flavour Crispy Seaweed

Subtle smell – faintly remiscent of plastic. Daughter goes first, opts out after licking fingers and collapsing onto the floor. Goes to get the bucket.

Down the hatch.

Don’t be misled by the happy character on the front of the pack. Although this isn’t in the same league as the Cuttlefish it’s still something that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Just an outer one, for the people who touch clothing display items, or leave empty loo rolls.

There’s a distinctly seaweed taste here, but it’s more the combination of an oily, crisp texture and low tide outside the tuna plant smell that’s startling. I wouldn’t eat this out of choice, but if I was threatened with a sharp cuttlefish I might give it another go.

To make the eating experience slightly more disturbing it’s an all or nothing proposition. Once the crispy seaweed strip (gag reflex again) reaches the tongue it sort of dissolves, releasing all of the flavour at once. Spitting doesn’t help as you are faced with a sort of gel that now clings to the entire inside of your mouth.

Happy packaging - unhappy tastes and textures.

Happy packaging – unhappy tastes and textures.

“Crispyness and natural taste of seaweed has been preserved full of goodness is packed”. This sentence is wrong on so many levels, the least of which is grammatical. Lots of things have a natural taste, including strychnine, but that’s not something I’d care to put in my mouth. Although by the end of this little experiment my opinion may have changed.

Daughter has again retired to the fort.

4. Bird’s Nest Beverage with Rock Sugar.

Time for a refreshing beverage to cleanse the pallet and reinvigorate the taste buds.

This is our first Singapore produced food or beverage item, let’s hear it for the plucky island that could.

This is a beverage the colour of blood plasma, with floaters that closely resemble intestinal worms. All in all the impression is of a mason jar with the obligatory pickled medical curiosity so beloved by B grade horror movie directors. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to this.

Birds nest final

Swiftlet saliva and diabetes in an convenient package.

I’ve now got terrible gas and the combination of cuttlefish, mango and seaweed flavoured burps are not improving this perhaps ill-advised experiment. The laughter coming from underneath the dining room table and from the lounge area is not helping.

OK, back the Bird’s Nest Beverage with Rock Sugar. The smell is faintly reminiscent of malted breakfast cereal. Other than that, not much to write about.

I think in falling into a diabetic coma. This is a syrupy sweet, but not in a good way. The floaters give a certain startling texture that, while not unwelcome focusses the mind on the question of exactly what makes up an average birds nest as used in this concoction.

Let me find out, talk amongst yourselves.

Right, “Bird’s nest is an edible nest created by the Swiftlet bird. The male Swiftlet bird uses its saliva, along with other items, to create a nest for breeding. The saliva, though moist and in liquid form when produced, will harden into strands.”

I knew most of this, and although the details are slightly disturbing there is a certain peace of mind knowing that the floaters are strands of dried saliva (did I just write that?).

I’d like to know more about the “other items” mentioned by the ever reliable Wikipedia. Given the close proximity to China and the migration patterns of Swiftlets, I’d like some assurance that the other items don’t include lead based paint chips. Although perhaps these would be too heavy for the average Swiftlet? I hope so, I really do.

I also note that Bird’s Nests are sourced from the Philippines. Thailand and Malaysia and exported to Hong Kong and elsewhere in South East Asia. Seeing as this is a proudly Singaporean product this begs the question of exactly where these particular Bird’s Nests come from and what species of bird is responsible. If it’s entirely Singaporean then the answer is probably pigeons. Given that the average pigeon’s diet consists of used cigarette filters I think I’d probably prefer the spit of the transmigratory Swiftlets, lead paint and all.

So, sweet, with a slightly malted taste. Again probably not my first choice for daily refreshment, but on a scale of one to ten, one being dried cuttlefish / duck foetus and ten being sirloin steak I’d score the Bird’s Nest Beverage with Rock Sugar a solid six.

Daughters verdict – not bad. Supplementary comment, “I think you should stop eating this stuff, you’ve gone a funny red colour, and you don’t look well.”

5. Dessert cups of unidentified fruity jelly.

These did have a product name, but the child has removed the foil seal so I’m unable to identify brand, flavor or ingredients. I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing.

This is going to be a blind taste test (after the possibly paint chip laced Bird’s Nest beverage this may be a more exact description than initially thought).

As with any product purchased at a check out the odour is overwhelmingly artificial. It seems that I have purchased a bite sized strawberry body wash flavoured snack and a litchi toilet spray variant. If you could imagine taking a bite from a strawberry or litchi jellyfish hybrid you’d be in the right texture zone. Now that I’ve said that, look out for the next bio engineered snack from Japan which should shortly be on the shelves of a 7-11 near you.

jelly final

This may cross the increasingly blurred lines between edible, inedible and simply foolish.

The strawberry body wash comes on strong but then disappoints by fading quickly. The litchi variant delivers flavor to a specific part of the tongue (do human beings have taste buds that respond specifically to the flavor “food additive”?) and unfortunately lingers for some time.

All in all not an overwhelmingly unpleasant experience, compared to some of the other products on this list.

Daughter’s verdict – no idea, she ran off with the Litchi flavoured concoction.

So that’s it for what I unfortunately believe is going to be the first of many posts about unconventional food outlets or food from the Asia Pacific region.

I did leave out the Durian flavoured bean curd available from the Video rental outlet, and the alarmingly gooey deliciousness of the vendor machine supplied instant mashed potatoes. But as I said I’ll probably follow up with some stomach churning mini taste tests in the future.

As Charles Dickens said when he was writing about ill-advised eating challenges in A Tale of Two Cities – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. With that pithy conclusion it’s time for a colonic irrigation and a lie down. May God have mercy on my soul.