Prose by Photography: The Song of the Sea

There we stood- in quiet anticipation, watching as the waves lapped against and over the smoothened boulders leaving trails of white foam, while Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) rose up with its formidable rock face, basking in the sun. The water was a rich shade of teal, washing over the rocks tauntingly, challenging us to come closer. It looked cold. Really cold. For a moment I imagined falling into the strangely blue water, and shuddered at the thought of sinking into the sea and the things that might greet me beneath. To my right, a rugged-looking american photographer rubbed his hands together and stuffed them into the pockets of his grey windbreaker.

A moment ago, Jeju’s Haenyeo (also known as “women divers”) having suited up in black wet suits, singing with fishing nets slung over their shoulders, vanished into the embrace of the sea. I shifted around on my feet, feeling around the rock with the toe of my boot, careful to stay away from the water spray, and wondered how in the world these women could be so strong, so brave, and why they would choose such a challenging occupation or if it was even a choice at all.

A sharp whistle pierced the air, jolting me from my thoughts. Everyone’s gaze was transfixed upon the waters now. Sure enough, the Haenyeo were resurfacing. They were making some sort of whistling exhalation; a sound of victory as they resurfaced, bringing harvest from the sea. Even before they came close, I could see that they were smiling. It was something about the way they moved, the way they approached the shore, or maybe it was the deep pink flush of their cheeks that showed a surprising youthfulness.

What originally started out due to a need to survive, was no longer just that- and it occurred to me that perhaps these seemingly simple women had a wisdom after all. A wisdom that a large number of people in the world didn’t have – people who I knew were at this moment sitting in office cubicles, staring blankly at computer screens and dying to get out, when they could be doing something else. Something better.

A Haenyeo came by the spot where I stood and she looked up from her basket, at me. She smiled, as if knowing that I now understood that the message was as simple as this. Don’t let fear stop you like it’s stopping others from doing what they love, and you will be the early bird which finds its rewards.

Seongsan Ilchulbong or “Sunrise Peak”, Jeju Island, South Korea, April 2015

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Early Bird.”

Meal Top (밀탑), Seoul, South Korea

Category: Korean – Desserts – Bingsu (Ice shavings)

So apparently the Koreans are crazy about their bingsu, a dessert made from ice shavings, and topped with fruits or red bean, etc. (there being many renditions). Meal Top (밀탑) is one of the more famous ones and comes very highly rated at 4.5/5 on Tripadvisor, and is particularly famous for the ones with red bean topping.

165, Apgujeong-ro, Hyundai Department Store 5F, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 압구정로 165 (압구정동)

The Hyundai Department Store is right at Apgujeong metro station, and taking the escalators up to the fifth floor, you’ll be delivered right to the doorstep of Meal Top. You’ll hear it before you even see it – the clatter of cutlery and dishes and a busy chatter comes as a bit of a surprise as you navigate the escalators up past floors 3 and 4 which are full of luxury label shops and also extremely quiet.

Damage: $-$$

Each bingsu is about 8,000 KRW (~$10), which I find mighty expensive for something that comprises largely of shaved ice. Bingsu in Korea is pretty much one of the best ways to blow your money in a wink because they’re all about $10 (the cheapest one I came across was about $9). I had bingsu at 4 places around Seoul and Busan while I was there, and not once ever really left the shop feeling like it was worth the money. Nonetheless, it is a very Korean dessert, so you should probably try it at least once.

To Go: Maybe once (whether here or elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter)

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the profit margin on the bingsu is probably somewhere close to 90%, before the utilities and wages of course. The red bean, whilst wholesome and generous, could not divorce from the fact that it was still just a red bean paste, simply dolloped on top of shaved ice drizzled over with some condensed milk. The dessert was simple, good and tasty, especially if you’re having it on a warm day, but the thing that I found most spectacular, was oddly nothing to do with the dessert at all.

The service was impeccable from start to finish. Meal Top is an open-concept cafe, and the moment I stepped in from the ‘wrong’ side, the manager immediately spotted me, graciously ushered me to the seating area on the other side and pulled a waiting number from the machine for me. It was running at full house and there were several people ahead of us in the queue, but the wait wasn’t long. I watched, fascinated, as waiters transported trays of dessert barely 2 minutes after it was ordered, and as they swooped in on tables the moment guests departed, readying it within seconds for the next guests to be seated.

Meal Top bingsu dessert Seoul South Korea Food Review Travel Diary Blog

Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul, South Korea (Gallery)

I’ve just returned from Spring in South Korea – a great time to go, with gorgeous and breathtaking scenes of Cherry blossom trees. On my first day in Seoul, I set up basecamp at a hotel in Gangnam-gu. Gangnam is a beautiful trendy district (made famous by Psy’s “Gangnam style” song) with lots of cafes and indie label shops, and lies to the south of the Han river, which winds horizonatally across the city. It is an area obviously loved by the teens to 20 somethings, but probably not so much the elderly because I hardly saw them hanging about.

Bongeunsa Temple lies in the eastern part of Gangnam-gu, just north of the sprawling COEX mall, and is an unexpected sight amidst tall buildings decked in glass. Near the entrance to Bongeunsa, street beggars sat or walked up to visitors waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights, holding their hands together with dark crinkles of toil etched into their tanned skin. Inside, there was a sense of quiet calm – especially in the gardens. I drifted from one building to another, drawn by the beautiful green and red-brown coloured paints incorporated into a simple but seemingly complex design and the neatly tiled roofs of slategray. Rows of brightly coloured paper lanterns folded into lotus flowers were strung across the ceiling of the main prayer building, and I watched silently as a lady unclasped her hands and lifted a flame to light a candle at the altar.

531, Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 봉은사로 531 (삼성동)

Open all year round; There is also a 2-day temple stay activity should you wish to participate. Alternatively, there is also a 3hr programme where you can experience participating in different temple activities.

Bongeunsa Temple Seoul South Korea Things to See Travel Diary Blog

Bongeunsa Temple Seoul South Korea Things to See Travel Diary Blog

Bongeunsa Temple Seoul South Korea Things to See Travel Diary Blog

Bongeunsa Temple Seoul South Korea Things to See Travel Diary Blog

Tian Tian Chicken Rice, Singapore

SCRIBBLES
As anyone who’s visited Singapore would know, we’re pretty well-known for amazing and affordable hawker fare, and Chicken Rice is one of the dishes which tops the list. It sounds like a simple dish – just chicken, steamed or roasted, patted atop a dome of rice – but that is exactly why this dish could be easily underrated by someone who didn’t know better. #01-10/11 Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street, Singapore 069184 Tian Tian Chicken Rice is situated on the left most row of the Maxwell Food Centre when entering from the main entrance, and will be easily spotted due to the queue that trails in front of it almost every hour of the day. However, they are very quick and one never has to wait that long. Ambience is typical of Singapore’s hawker centres, where there are many stalls selling a variety of local fare at affordable prices, operating in a very casual no-frills canteen concept. Damage: $ With a plate of chicken rice priced about $4 or $5 (if you ask for more chicken), and vegetables priced around $3 to $4, you get incredible value here. We had a feast (see feature picture) on just $16. A great option for travellers on a budget! To go: Yes! If you’re in southern Singapore / Near Maxwell Tian Tian’s is a hainanese chicken rice, and is also the one Singaporeans are proud of for having won the cook-off against celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in a publicly held tasting and vote in 2013. The chicken is smooth and the skin is silky, and unlike other hainanese chicken rice sellers, Tian Tian does a slightly thicker sauce instead of the usual light soy-sauce seasoning. Everyone would notice that Tian Tian’s chicken rice is particularly noteworthy – each and every grain remains intact, and coated over with the tastiness and aroma of natural chicken oils. They were extremely generous with the vegetables too, and they were cooked perfectly with good bite and delicious oyster-sauce flavours, and daym is that chilli spicy! Tian Tian Chicken Rice is a great choice for anyone who’s in the southern parts of Singapore (Tanjong Pagar, Duxton, Chinatown, etc.), but elsewhere, there are other great choices too, such as Boon Tong Kee at Balestier and one of my all-time favorites, Tong Fong Fatt Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice at Raffles Place.

Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant, Singapore

SCRIBBLES

Category: Japanese – Casual

Believe it or not, my first visit to Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant was because we were looking for lunch on a workday and after making a few rounds in the Raffles City basement, decided to give up on the unbelievable Din Tai Fung queue and head to Watami next door. Well, I’m glad that happened.

252 North Bridge Road, Raffles City Shopping Centre,#B1-06/07, Raffles City, Tel: +65 6336 2425

Watami is located in the Basement of Raffles City Shopping Centre, opposite Tiong Bahru Bakery, adjacent to Din Tai Fung, and just around the corner from Soup Union and Thai Express.

Damage: $$

As the name implies, Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant is not the most upmarket place, but of course, it isn’t a budget eat either. Weekday lunch sets change daily and are around $15, but if you go at dinner or do a la carte, prepare for at least $30 each.

To go: Yes, they have some really good dishes

Watami is pretty good, although there are some dishes I believe you can get better value on elsewhere. Of their entire menu, the barbecue/grilled items are typically their most outstanding, so I would make sure to get some of that.


A MORE DETAILED REVIEW

Since, like with Sushi Tei, I’ve visited Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant so many times, it makes more sense for me to share with you about some of the top dishes I’ve had there rather than write about a specific visit, so here goes! 

Order: Ika Maru Yaki (Roasted Squid, $13.80)

Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant Singapore Food Review Blog Grilled Squid

The Ika was done perfectly, even better than the ones we’d had in a few cities around Hokkaido. Amazingly tender (none of that chewy nonsense that we often get served with), lightly seasoned to bring out the the natural flavours- it was so good we ordered a second.

Order: Jikasei Niku Miso Hiyayako (Cold Tofu with Watami Meat Miso, $6.80)

Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant Singapore Food Review Blog Cold Tofu Miso Minced Meat Spicy

At under $7, there’s no thinking twice about ordering this dish. The tofu is refreshingly served chilled, and the sauce that goes over is lightweight but surprisingly intense. The serving of minced meat is generous, the dry chilli lends a slight edge when eaten, and is well-balanced with the cold silken tofu.

Order: Asari Ishinabe Soup (Clams cooked in a stone pot with Japanese-style Sauce, $10.80)

Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant Singapore Food Review Blog Hot Pot Clams in Sake sauce

I seriously think Watami undersold this dish by calling it a “Japanese-style sauce” when it has such an incredible dose of sake. The clams were served just right, not overdone (unless you leave them sitting in the pot too long after it’s been served, since the pot keeps the heat), and we couldn’t get enough of the bubbling broth of clam essence and sake, managing to dish out at least 3 bowls-full from the little stone pot.

Order: Wafu Touban Steak (featured picture; Self-grilled Short Ribs, $18.80)

The Wafu Touban Steak reminds me a little of Gyu-Kaku but it might be unfair of me to say that, since we all know not all Japanese barbecues are created similar (remember that piece of meat you spent 10 minutes chewing?). I’ve had the Wafu Steak on 4 occasions; 3 of which the cut was perfect and super tasty, and the other of which was way too fatty and ended up popping a lot on the stove and projecting its fatty oils all over the table. I know how that sounds, and it might still be worth it, but it depends on your luck. I’m not sure if you can make a request for something not too fatty – I’ve not tried, but if you manage to, I’d love to know!

Avoid: Bariuma Teba Karaage (Shichimi Curry) (Crispy chicken wings (chilli red), $7.80)

Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant Singapore Food Review Blog Crispy Chicken Wings

Avoid at all costs. Yes, I know you’re looking at the picture above and thinking, “How can that possibly be?” Looks can be deceiving – This was dry, had little meat, was pretty tasteless and was not spicy at all.

Asia’s 50 Best: Jaan, Singapore (Part 4, Desserts & Finishing Touches)

Category: French – Fine Dining

2 Stamford Road, Swissotel The Stamford, Level 70, Equinox Complex, Singapore 178882

Damage: $$$$

The Menu Prestige itself is an ongoing concert that has no specific intervals, but I have taken the liberty to break it up into smaller sections to make for an easier read. This section comprises the last 2 dishes of the Menu Prestige, which feels proper to name “Desserts & Finishing Touches”.


For the Finest Cheese Selection and Condiments, the hostess swivelled over a beautiful trolley display of cheeses, both hard and soft, with a variety of textures, and began asking for our preferences before proceeding to put together a tasting platter of 4 cheeses. Biscotti was served with homemade plum, strawberry and pear jams as well. I’m not a fan of nuts so I didn’t quite enjoy the biscuits, although the one in the foreground went well with the sweet, thick jams.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Cheese Selection

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Cheese Selection and 1965 Sg50 Colheita Port Wine

The Kopke Colheita 1965, Cask #11640 was presented to us as well; a port wine that was selected to commemorate Singapore’s 50th Anniversary. Shipped from Vila Nova de Gaia, a city in Portugal which has strict standards on the ageing of their Ports, the Kopke Colheita 1965 was incredibly intense and sweet, and reminded me strongly of the Hungarian Tokaji wine I’d had in the historic wine cellar in the basement accessible from the Hilton Hotel in Budapest, which the sommelier had skilfully and accurately described as “liquid nectar”.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Coconut cream

To be honest, I can’t remember what this was, so I’m not going to try to give it a name. It was a light coconut-y foam with ice shavings followed by red ruby-like things beneath. I realised the best way to enjoy Jaan‘s dishes is to put together the different tastes and textures on a spoon and have it altogether. The same with this dish, which transformed into a creamy, cool and refreshing dessert, although not particularly outstanding.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Choconuts 'Grand Cru'

This is where Sous Chef Kirk Westaway made his appearance from the kitchen, holding a metallic canister, and asked how our meal was. He smilingly inverting the canister and leaned the nozzle into my plate like a magician about to present a trick, when out came a gush of thick chocolate mousse. As everyone already knows of my undying love for chocolate, this seemed like a possible heaven. The mousse was delicious and cold, which was all the more better, but somehow the different parts just didn’t quite come together on the plate.

The finale was the Petit Four (feature picture), once again presented with fanfare of dry ice. I’m not sure whether it could be because by this point I was i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y full, but whilst good, it wasn’t spectacular to me – the exception being the round brown globes suspended on the small sticks out of a jar, which, when bitten, revealed pleasantly a surprise of strong and fragrant liquor.

All in all, a dinner at Jaan, well worth remembering. 

Asia’s 50 Best: Jaan, Singapore (Part 2, Appetisers)

Category: French – Fine Dining

2 Stamford Road, Swissotel The Stamford, Level 70, Equinox Complex, Singapore 178882

Damage: $$$$

The Menu Prestige itself is an ongoing concert that has no specific intervals, but I have taken the liberty to break it up into smaller sections to make for an easier read. This section comprises the first 3 dishes of the Menu Prestige, and for which I find most suitable to name “Appetisers”.


Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Uni Sea Urchin Pudding with Caviar

The Hokkaido Sea Urchin with Obsiblue prawn and Kaluga queen caviar – I didn’t like. I love good uni but this was a pudding infused with sea urchin – the creamy texture of the pudding caused the natural richness of the uni itself to be lost, and whatever flavours made it through came across as slightly fishy. I couldn’t taste the prawn.

An addition complement of crostini was then served, beautiful to picture but somewhat ordinary in taste.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog Crostini

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog beetroot collection

When the Beetroot Collection was served I’d spent a good while looking at it – it was like a piece of art- a delicate, intricate mixing of textures, temperatures, and variants of a magenta colour on the plate, punctuated by some yellow and some white of the radish and whip. This was a complex dish which included “Burrata artigiana” and honeycomb, and eaten individually made for nothing much, but when we began mixing them into the same spoonful, it became something quite special which I can’t quite put a finger on, and, I suppose, was the right way to enjoy it.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 2015 Jaan Singapore Food Review Blog 55°C rosemary smoked organic eggAs if I didn’t already love egg enough, I was introduced to Jaan‘s highly discussed 55′ Rosemary Smoked Organic Egg with Ratte Potato, Chorizo Iberico and Buckwheat, which came with the great pomp of being served in a tray over a block with a endless stream of white mist gushing over and cloaking the table (feature picture). The waiter picked the egg from the tray and poured it in with the rest of the condiments in the glass, which I mixed a little with my spoon and then tasted. For all of the dish’s complexity in preparation, the egg was perfect but I still found it hard to believe that it could only be achieved by poaching the eggs at 64 degrees for 55 minutes. The chorizo, somewhat reminiscent of bacon, provided the salt to the otherwise seemingly non-seasoned potatoes and balanced the dish like a perfect breakfast.