Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cheese, less glorious cheese

So remember way back when I left a promissory note in the blog that I would write a whole series of cheese posts? Much to the relief of some of you I'm sure, I never got around to it (though I did take pictures of many of those cheeses so you never know!). And if that was you, well you can rest assured that you will not be getting any documentation about the cheeses that are readily available in the average supermarket here.

Well, you won't after this post.

Note to cheese entrepreneurs: don't choose a name for your dairy product that makes it sound like animal parts in gelatin. When I'm in the mood for cheese, I'm very definitely not in the mood for head cheese.

Or there's this one, which at least sounds economical and dietetic, though not necessarily good:


Actually, there is good cheese here. It's just that what was "everyday cheese" in France seems to be a luxury item here. So perhaps for our next special occasion dinner, I will visit the specialty grocer with a walk-in environmentally controlled cheese room! Until then, Laughing Cow and Babybel are as good as it gets ... at least those names are slightly better than the ones here?

Monday, September 13, 2010

And the winner is ... bags!

Well, maybe not the winner. I actually still don't know which take-away container is the most common. However, the bag is indeed proving very popular for cold drinks. I see it all over the place, and have now been given a few myself.

Sugar cane juice with lemon:

Note the straw sticking out of the bag. The vendor put the half lemon in the bag, tightened the bag and squeezed it (oh the convenience!) then added ice, (freshly pressed) sugar cane juice and a straw. (I should add that this was possibly the best sugar cane juice with lemon that I've had here.)

Also used for iced milk tea:

Someone in front of us in the milk-tea line bought tea for four -- and it is definitely easier to carry four of these one handed than four cups (maybe even when those four cups are in a carrier). The coldness of the ice also circulates better in the bag than in a cup.

And here's how you drink out of the bag:

While walking.

Although you can't really see it in this photo (yes, the camera does take videos ... if its user switches from camera to video mode), James is in motion -- a key element to the bag take-away format because the fact of the matter is, you're not going to be able to set the bag down on your desk (oh the inconvenience!).

You could, of course, pour your beverage into another vessel (like we did the Indian food). James suggested that one could instead hang the bag from a coat rack or doorknob in your office. Now if I could just find a 10-foot straw ...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bag of coffee, anyone?

The other day I saw a man walking down the street, carrying what I could have sworn was a bag of coffee.

At the time, I thought maybe his coffee cup had sprung a leak and he just let all the coffee leak into the bag and got rid of the cup.

Ok, that probably sounds really odd and you're thinking, "What planet did you grow up on and why in the world would you think that?". To which I respond with this photo:

It seems that the drink carrier given out by most business here in Singapore bears little resemblance to its American counterpart in cardboard or molded paper pulp, as the case may be.

In fact, my first thought when I saw the guy with the coffee bag was that he was lucky he didn't get a carrier like this one. This other local version is basically a plastic coffee sleeve, with a strappy handle, but with no reservoir for coffee to leak into. (This photo isn't ideal, but this guy was sort of onto me so it was the best I could get.)

And then we got some carryout Indian food for dinner.

The tandoori chicken and the naan came in styrofoam clam shells and the pratha came wrapped in paper. Everything else -- the rice, the chutney, the dal, the aloo gobhi, etc. -- in bags.

These clever little bags have a drawstring up top (as you can see from this picture of the empty pappadam baggie), which gets cinched and then tied around the base of a loop formed in the bag.

All you have to do is pull on the loop and the drawstring loosens up and you can untie the bag and pour the contents into the serving vessel of your choosing.

How common these carryout bags are remains to be seen, but they're pretty nifty ... unless you're living in a hotel and your only serving vessels are two coffee cups and their saucers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Now that's a cracker!

If you go to the HaitaiTM website you will learn that the Haitai Cheese Cracker is the "Cheese Flavored Legitimate Cracker".

It really is a cracker. No joke.

It's actually a really tasty cracker that could be the lovechild of a CheezitTM and a SaltineTM, but better that either of its "parents". Or maybe that's what the "legitimate" claim is all about. Maybe it's "legitimate" meaning "original" and it's the Haitai Cheese Cracker that gave rise to both Cheezits and Saltines?

In any case, it seems to be very popular with coffee: "You Can Enjoy The light Taste of The legitimate Cracker When You Eat It with coffee" (caps original).

If just coffee and crackers aren't good enough for you though, here are some serving suggestions on the box.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The national pastime

It's kind of a toss-up between shopping and dining.

However, since I'm pretty sure that most of the people I know who have been here for more than three weeks would say it's dining (and that would be nine people out of Singapore's five million residents), I'm going to go with that.

And so begins my first (and still very naïve) post about Singaporean food.

Singapore has plenty of regular restaurants and food shops, but it's most famous for its hawker centers.

Hawker centers are basically open-air food courts with counters offering food from lots of different cuisines. As you walk up to the counter to check out what the stall is selling, the cooks/sellers try hawk their wares. Actually, it can even go a little farther than this and at some hawker centers you may be approached by someone bearing a menu from one of the stands in an attempt to entice you over to their stand to order.

One of our Singaporean colleagues invited the new faculty (and spouses) out for dinner at Makansutra Glutton's Bay. Makan means "food" or "eat" in Malay. So you can sort of think of Makansutra as "How to Eat", but Singapore style.

Glutton's Bay is a sort of a cleaned up mini hawker center. It has really good food stalls that were handpicked by a local food guru named K.F. Seetoh when he re-opened Glutton's Bay a few years ago (the original, in a different location, closed in the 1990s), but it's a good hawker center for beginners because, as our colleague said, it's not as loud or messy as most hawker centers and you can linger over your meal and the food is really good (imperative!). Its smaller size also gives it a nice ambiance and it has a fantastic view of the marina and CBD skyline and the Merlion ... none of which figure into the photos I took that evening. I did take this one of the crazy Noah's ark spaceship casino that opened earlier this summer.

Here's how we ate:

Oyster omelette, which is a fried egg and potato flour mixture that gets nice and crispy (from the potato) but is still soft (from the egg) and topped with small oysters (and cilantro).

Grilled sambal skate with calamansi (the little lime-looking thing that makes really delicious juice) and chili "vinaigrette"

Chicken, beef and lamb (l-r) satay with peanut sauce


Chili clams and "morning glory" (also called "water spinach")

We ate all of it. And then topped it off with some ais kacang (shave ice) with durian and chendol. It was too dark to take pictures of those, so I'll post photos of another outing for desserts sometime soon.

Food culture is really unbelievable here. It's like a whole nation of foodies. There is food everywhere and there are so many cuisines represented it's astounding. You think you like Chinese food? Well do you like Cantonese? Hakka? Hainanese? Hokkien? Peranakan? Teochew? And that's just some of the more typically local Chinese cuisines, not to mention the varieties of Malay, Indonesian, Indian, and other cuisines I don't even know about yet that constitute Singaporean cuisine.

The cuisine of Singapore is a force to be reckoned with ... a juggernaut to submit to. Ok, so I'm being dramatic (but only a little!) and I don't really mind acquiescing. And since we're waiting for housing and living in the university's executive center with no kitchen of our own, that's a good thing.

More to come ... we've already eaten so much more than this!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life as a raised zebra

Don't jaywalk.

This is serious business in Singapore. Here's an excerpt from a 2009 police force media release:

"Pedestrians who jaywalk commit an offence that entails a composition amount of S$20/-. If charged and convicted in court, the pedestrian is liable to a fine not exceeding S$1000/- or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months. In the case of a second or subsequent offence, the offender faces a fine not exceeding S$2000/- or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months."

Mind you, the fine in many US cities is considerably higher, it's just that there's no risk of prison time. But does anyone really get put in prison for jaywalking here? I kind of doubt it. However, there's some good signage, and that's the real reason for the post.

The pedestrian is instructed to use the crosswalks.

And here, the crosswalks are called "zebra crossings".

As I have just learned, that's the British English terminology. (Note also the spelling of "offense" in the press release.) The "raised" part? Well, that's because these are a crosswalk + a speed bump.

In my experience, most signs that warn drivers about crossings usually make reference to the thing that's going to be doing the crossing. And I guess this one does too, but with conflicting information: is it a man or a raised zebra?

The British traffic lexicon also includes the entries Pelican, Puffin, Toucan and the (elusive? mythical?) Pegasus crossings, but I've yet to see signs for those here.

I have seen plenty of scofflaws jaywalking their way across the street though.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

First impressions

It's eerily clean, orderly, efficient and quiet here.

Those sound like positive things, so why are they disconcerting? Well, they also stand in stark contrast to some of the things we were quite used to before coming here.

So, I love France, and I miss it, and I want to go back like nobody's business but it's also true that spending a couple of years there certainly made me expect a little grit, more than a little noise, some minor chaos -- unless you're at the préfecture in Marseille (then major chaos) -- and long, long waiting times for official business. Of course, after two years there, I can easily see that there are certain advantages that go along with each of those "negative" things (except maybe the noise one ...) and there are plenty of other really great things about France that make me want to go back, but these are some of the aspects of life that you immediately notice are different here. And that feels both nice, and a little weird.

We stepped out of the plane, which had been full (in coach class at least -- I can't say what was going on up in business or first where passengers get to travel in their own little cocoons because they don't let the riff raff up there) into the calm, cool air of Changi airport and followed the signs through the new and sparkly Terminal 3.

It smelled like the Polynesian hotel in Disney World used to smell in the 1980s. Aahh!

The bathrooms were impeccable and had toilet paper, soap and a choice of paper towels or hand dryers. Yes, this is actually something of note for me and James.

There is a special area of immigration for citizens and permanent residents that allows you to scan your ID card the way you'd scan a subway pass and go right on through. Residents-to-be and visitors have to go to the normal immigration counters, which, in this case, were not so normal because none had a line of more than about eight people and it only took about five minutes including waiting for those eight people in front of you.

James passed through immigration first (it's all orderly and "one-at-a-time", except for parents with small children) and barely had time to get a luggage cart (free) before our bags passed by on the luggage carousel.

Where was this strange land where you could get off a 13-hour international flight, go through immigration and get your bags in less than 20 minutes?

The same strange land where you could get a delicious bubble tea in the airport!

Blueberry and honey.

Or go on a walk on the airport nature trail, or swim in the airport hotel pool.

Also the same strange land where getting your work/resident permit takes about 15 minutes (of your time -- there's obviously stuff that gets done before you get there). We went down to the Ministry of Manpower (which they call "MOM") Employment Pass bureau with our paperwork and photos at the appointed time ... well, actually we were a little early. Luckily, there were greeters to help us.

And that went down something like this:

"What, you're 20 minutes early? No problem, may I have your letter?"
[Takes the letter over to one of the electronic registration kiosks and scans the barcode on the letter, returns the letter to us]
"You can go in and wait for your name to appear on one of the screens. When it does, you may go to any available counter."
We were done before our scheduled appointment.

We did have to get fingerprinted as part of that process (image on the back of the card), or thumbprinted, which seems a little intrusive, but I know that foreigners entering the US have to have all their fingers (and palms) scanned so I probably shouldn't feel weird. It's just that this never happened at the préfecture!

(It turns out my thumbs aren't very printable, so clearly I should have chosen a life of crime ... using only my thumbs. I guess there's still time, but Singapore's strict penalties for lawlessness make this a bad time to get my chops.)

After that we took a little stroll around downtown, got some fresh water chestnut juice and some guava juice at a hawker stand (more on these to come) and were amazed that we were able to carry on a conversation out on the street without having our voices drowned out by passing scooters. It seems people are required to keep the muffler on their two-wheeled motorized vehicles here. And it doesn't hurt that all the roads are new and well surfaced -- though far less charming.

All this calmness was a little too much to take so we went to Carrefour and then sat down for an apéro: the Singapore Sling -- cliché, but a drink I have been curious about since Richard Pryor mentioned it in Superman III.

Some liken it to cough syrup, but I beg to differ. It's a tasty blend of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Bénédictine, grenadine, pineapple juice and bitters. I would get another one, but alcohol is insanely expensive here -- like US$25 for a bottle of certain $7 Trader Joe's wines -- so that will have to wait for a special occasion.

But other than the price of wine, so far so good in clean, orderly, efficient and quiet Singapore.

More pictures to come!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Le Mas has moved ... Singapore.

Which means that there are a whole lot of things that I never got around to posting about in France!

I even have a few entries that I started and didn't finish up. Ugh.

Well, I'll have to save those for a rainy day ... some rainy day at some point in the future.

For now, you'll have to read about what's going on nearer to the equator.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

If you want money, don't go to the bank

As I was leaving the bank yesterday, having barely managed to get what I had come for, I thought to myself, money is a strange thing in France (at least from the perspective of someone who didn't grow up here). And I mean that in several ways, but getting it and spending it especially.

So, first, a quick primer: euros come in every denomination you'd expect, and then some. There are coins in the denominations of 1-, 2-, 5-, 10-, 20- and 50-centimes, or cents. There are also 1€ and 2€ coins. Finally, there are bills in the denominations of 5€, 10€, 20€, 50€ (and although I've never seen them in real life), 100€, 200€ and 500€.

That all seems normal, but here's where things start to go awry: when you go to the ATM and get out 50 or more (which you might do most times you go to the ATM for reasons that will become apparent later in this post) you pretty much always get a 50€ bill for at least 50 euros of that. This might make you think that it's easy to break a 50 here. And that's where you would be soooooooorely mistaken.

David Sedaris says it much better in When you are Engulfed in Flames, so I'm not even going to try to be clever here, but basically, you're kind of expected to give exact change and use only small bills and coins. Merchants routinely ask you to use change, "Vous n'avez pas de monnaie?" ("you don't have any change?"), instead of what would seem to be a perfectly reasonable bill, like the last time we rented a car and I wanted to pay for the 17€ insurance using a 20€ note.

Where you're supposed to get these small bills and coins when the ATM routinely gives you 50s is not clear.

And it's not as easy as just using a carte bleu or debit/credit card instead of your large bill. A surprising number (again, I mean surprising to me) of merchants don't take cards. I find this so odd because France has been using the carte à puce or "smart card", since the early 90s and while I haven't been able to verify this, I think France has been using those portable card readers (like you now sometimes see in US restaurants) since then too. But, you frequently need to use cash so you make your large ATM withdrawls, and then you think of ways you can break that 50 ...

Or, there's what's behind door #3: you can write a personal check.

Yes, checks are widely accepted -- almost everywhere you can use cash. Even restaurants (and I'm not talking about ticket restaurant or chèque restaurant, which are a whole different thing) will accept a check from your checkbook.

But even le chèque is not foolproof. For several weeks this fall, I ran paid subjects in an ERP experiment and I am finishing up a second study (the reason I went to the bank yesterday). Basically the way it works is that my supervisor writes me a check and in a roundabout way, I pay subjects with this money.

Roundabout? Yes. For several reasons.

First, you can't cash a check in France, unless you're at your bank and you've written the check. (This is actually probably a good idea because the bank can verify how much money is in your checking account.) So, you can deposit the check that your supervisor gives you and then write a check for cash. Unless you didn't bring your checkbook with you because you were planning on cashing your supervisor's check. In that case, you have to go back to the bank the next day.

But it may not work then either.

There are two branches of my bank in Aix. One of them is open from 9h-12h15 and 13h35 - 18h, the other from 8h45 - 12h30 and 14h - 18h. Despite these opening hours, one has teller service only from 9h - 12h15, and the other one has teller service during its morning opening hours and until 16h45 in the afternoon. Of course these pieces of info are not posted, so when you arrive at 16h55, more than an hour before closing time, that's when you learn that you're out of luck. But, the nice person at the reception tells you that when the teller windows are open, you can get any denominations (coins or bills) that you want. Not that this helps you all that much when you have a subject at 9h the next morning and need to be at the hospital before the bank opens to set up the experiment.

So you go back the next day, after your subject, with your checkbook, during teller hours, ready to get your money. And they're out of it. Or at least they only have one 5€-note. Yes, just one 5€-note. That's it. Not only that, but they were only willing to part with ten euros worth of coins, in a 2€, 1€ and centimes combo.

What gives?

In some ways it's not bad, it's an excuse to buy a chocolat so you can get some change, and undoubtedly, sipping that chocolat will help you think of creative ways of breaking those 20s you had to get so that you can end up with some combination that totals 15€.

Silly me, it looks like I sold the bear's pelt before I had killed it (like that? it's the French equivalent of counting your chickens...). I thought I had all my subjects. And then we realized that we really did have two groups of learners ... and that meant getting more subjects to round out the groups. So yesterday, arriving at the bank only minutes after it had opened, I managed to get only three of the six 5€ bills I wanted. It's ok though, it's the weekend and we're in the middle of a cold snap. A chocolat will taste really good tomorrow.