Pandan leaf is a common ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes, and I probably can’t get away with pretending to share it with you here as a “secret.” But I will tell you that when I discovered the magic of this subtle yet complex flavor—a flavor that outshines vanilla bean by far—it was a real revelation for me. I’d tasted it before, since fresh pandan leaves are key to authentic Thai mango sticky rice. But I didn’t know exactly what was upping the ante of my favorite coconutty dessert until I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai. Our guide & teacher shoved a bouquet of pandan leaves in my hand, and from then on, I was pandan fan número uno.
Imagine my glee: it’s like knowing you’ve always loved chocolate gelato but only just learned what chocolate is. There I had been, traipsing around Southeast Asia in my American ignorance, thinking sticky rice was pure coconut cream mixed with rice and completely unaware of the pandan possibilities that were ahead of me.
Later, I found pandan leaf gelato in Kuala Lumpur and I nearly collapsed out of pure joy. I ordered a third scoop. I’m somewhat embarrassed, but the neon-green, lip-smacking pandan gelato is still the most vivid memory I have of my entire trip to that amazing city, filled with an insane array of delicious food. But there you have it: I’d become a bit obsessed.
We’d traveled to Kuala Lumpur in the first place because a number Singaporean friends had recommended it. Chung Deming, a local chef and friend of a friend (a Singaporean writer, Genevieve Wong), had taken it upon himself to properly instruct us on the cuisine of the city-state. This is required education for anyone who spends even a short layover Singapore (just ask Anthony Bourdain). If you’ve ever been, you know they take food very seriously– almost every Singaporean has an off-the-charts food intellect (Is that a thing? It is in Singapore). Every dish we tasted lead him to describe yet another dish we should try as soon as possible, which eventually lead to his mouth-watering descriptions of street food KL.
Thus we went. When we returned, I told Deming, the Singaporean chef, about my PANDAN OBSESSION, and he was kind of like, well yeah, duh. “I actually have pandan ice cream on my menu,” he reminded me. Deming, however, had used his culinary intellect to put a spin on pandan-flavored desert that was a little more sophisticated, even more delicious, and, well, really cute:
The “Wonderffle” is a delicious turtle-shaped waffle, with an even more delicious turtle ‘shell’ constructed out of scoops of pandan (!) and lemongrass ice-cream, which you yourself can then top off with a personalized amount of a Gula Melaka glaze.
If you find yourself in Singapore, definitely check out The Quarters, where in addition to amazing concoctions like the Wonderffle, you can also try re-imagined classic Singaporean dishes (a Satay burger on a sticky rice ‘bun’? Yes please. Chili-crab pasta? Claro que sí.).
If you go to Kuala Lumpur, take everyone else’s advice about the amazing street food in Jalan Alor. Afterwards, consider heading over to the Pavillion Mall in Bukit Bintang for sheer contrast’s sake. While you’re there, you may just find a fancy pants pandan gelato— have one for me, please.
The same creativity you find in the food scene in Singapore is also notable in the renaissance of local literature. When I taught creative writing at NUS in 2012, my students could barely contain their enthusiasm for their own work and for the possibility of creating and participating in a Singaporean literary scene. With every line break decision, every plot turn written, every new sci-fi world imagined, they seemed to sense the importance of the act, as if each was also an attempt to carve out a larger space for their voices to be heard.
If you visit Books Actually (which you should), you can pick up a copy of A Luxury We Cannot Afford, which is put out by the store’s lovely Math Paper Press. If you’ve done even a little research on the awe-inspiring success story of the city-state, you’ll know the name Lee Kuan Yew and you’ll recognize the title of this book. Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister (/ “Founding Father”/”(mostly) benevolent dictator“) famously pontificated that poetry was a luxury Singaporeans could not afford.
Even if you haven’t read up on the Little Red Dot, as Singaporeans affectionately refer to their 50-year old country, you probably have at least some idea of the government’s, er, pragmatism. It isn’t a city you’d necessarily think of pinning on a literary map, or associate with the bohemianism that you can generally find amongst hordes of poets. It wasn’t a place I’d envisioned teaching creative writing, or returning to in 2015 with a poetry fellowship. Censorship is still a thing, and the economic hub is infamous for its productivity-driven culture.
It’s easy to take the self-portrait the government has painted alongside the knee-jerk reaction most Americans have if you speak the country’s name (“I heard you can’t chew gum there and if you walk a dog you’ll be executed.”), to pretend you then have an understanding of the place. But you would be seriously missing out if you didn’t investigate further. Singapore is one of the most complex places I’ve ever lived, and Singaporean writing reflects that.
A Luxury We Cannot Afford is an anthology of contemporary Singaporean poetry, published in 2014 (which also happened to be the year before Lee Kuan Yew’s death and Singapore’s 50th anniversary), and I wish I’d had it in hand when I first traveled there in 2012. Frankly, it’s hard as an outsider to get an accurate sense of how contemporary Singaporeans understand their recent history, and this book helps.
The poems are collected as a way to eulogize, understand, and place “The Man,” as they refer to him here, in the contemporary Singaporean context. Though the title quotes him, and though the poems were solicited in direct conversation with his famous declaration, the book never names him. Not once. As Gwee Li Sui says in the foreword, it’s “as if one can always afford more obliqueness with him.” Which is why, as I said, it can be hard to understand what people actually think.
The anthology opens up a floor for a creative dialogue about contemporary Singaporeans’ myriad cultural and political inheritances– and this in a city where it’s considered impolite to talk about religion and, as far as I can tell, politics in public. Turn to Singapore’s poets if you want to even begin to understand “The Man,” whose complex legacy remains deeply felt but seems to exist in a protective, revered bubble.
In these poems, the ineffable symbol is treated in turn with symbolism. As Gwee Li Sui writes:
“It is timely to review the narrative that has shepherded us through the past half-century. Indeed, it seems only poetic justice to examine this polarising mythos through the ballyhooed medium of poetry.”
One of most common symbols used to speak about “The Man” is the symbol of the father. Poet Amanda Lee Koe turns this image on its head in “Last Night I Dreamt That H Was In Love With Me (Letter 1)”:
“Oh H, if you are, as we christen you, The Founding Father, then clearly you make of me an Electra. The Electra complex here then is my psycho-sexual competition with the geopolitics of Singapore for possession of you. And like Electra to Agamemnon, I will never have you” (62).
Her poem is irreverent but serious and full of quandaries she seems eager to leave open as unanswerable questions. The scalpel with which she dissects her own way of thinking is just as iron-hot as the tools she uses to dissect the image of The Man (“I’ll have you know: I’m serious and maudlin and romantic…. H I am so maudlin that I watch Godard… to see how much a man can love a woman.”)
And she is not the only one to write a poem for “H” (which is one of the most direct references to “The Man” in the book, alluding to his given name of Harry Lee Kwan You). See also: Daryl Yam’s “Love Letters to H,” which is also sexually charged. I find this fascinating, since all poems in this collection seem to be trying to understand the personal in relation to the mytho-historical. It’s as if the anthologized poets seek to make The Man flesh– or at least remember that he was such (Samantha Toh writes in “Great Men”: “No more myths can be told. There is only our small, unambitious lives”).
So the sexual imagery is fitting, if really unsettling of the respectful rhetoric that Singaporeans generally use. Fitting because it’s an image of bringing the other into oneself, of dissecting the politics of power-players, of understanding one’s place in relation to a figurehead. Many Adam & Eve re-tellings crop up in here, too, with a slightly sardonic read of “The Man” as one who played his hand at God, somewhat successfully.
It’s a riotous and thoughtful collection, and it seems to be an important handbook for local poets. The anthology is also one of the only sources you’ll find wherein the curtain of diffidence drop so dramatically. (If slyly. If symbolically.)
- Littered with Books, a bookstore in Tanjong Pagar
- Books Actually, a bookstore that hosts events and puts out books with its boutique press in Tiang Bahru
- “The Singaporean Exception,” The Economist, a primer on the complex contemporary moment in Sg
- Text in The City, an amazing poetic initiative and a tour you can take by yourself with a cellphone (!)
- Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore, ed. Alvin Pang, an anthology edited by one of the city’s best poets
- Crazy Rich Asians, a ludicrous and fun novel about, well, crazy rich Singaporeans that left me somewhat exasperated (but that might have been the point, as Roxane Gay explains).
- The Quarters SG, as described above. As not described above: durian creme-brûlée. It’s real.
- Geylang, which has the best late-night hawker centers, and where I was lead to some of the best chili crab I’ve ever had: It’s not all about the red-light shenanigans, I promise.
- Gluttons Bay: If you want a primer, stop at this, the most touristy hawker center, first. You’ll learn about the history of classic Singaporean hawker dishes. Then, definitely venture elsewhere (see Lady Iron Chef & Sethlui.com for more informed advice).
- Gelato Fruity, for my favorite pandan gelato in all of KL (disclaimer: I only tried it here).
- Heli Pad, for drinks (but who am I kidding, really for the view/experience).
- Thai Farm Cooking School
- More on Thailand later!