The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: interesting

Anyhow Noodles

“What are you making?” you asked, as you walked into the kitchen. “Ugh, you’re using that giant ass wok. It’s such a hassle to wash,” you said.

“Hey, this wok is feeding your ass so don’t complain,” I replied.

“So what are you making? It looks like you’re just randomly throwing things into the wok and frying shit up.”

“That’s right, I’m making ‘Anyhow Noodles.'”

“Anyhow Noodles? What the heck is that?”

“It’s where you randomly throw things into the wok and fry shit up. When you understand cooking enough at my level, you can throw anything into a wok and it’ll turn out fine.”

“So what goes into Anyhow Noodles?”

“You have to have noodles, that’s why it’s ‘Anyhow Noodles’ and not ‘Anyhow Rice,’ right?”

“I can see that…”

“And then, you add in vegetables, meat, brown sauce and you’re done!”

“Wait hold on. Brown sauce?”

“Yes. Brown sauce. It’s sauce that’s brown.”

“And what goes in brown sauce?”

“Brown flavour.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It does back home. Everyone knows what ‘brown sauce’ is. It’s an established flavour.”

“You’re making shit up. You’re fucking with me.”

“If you don’t believe me, go ask your friend Cassie. She’ll know what ‘brown flavour’ is. All Asians know it.”

……

“Ok I don’t believe it. She told me ‘brown’ is totally a flavour. Her mum makes food with it too, what the fuck. That’s so weird.”

“Well I’m sorry the food you’re eating is weird.”

“Ok then what’s the meat that goes into Anyhow Noodles? ‘Has-legs’? ‘Living-creature?’ ‘Matter???'”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just beef.”

Wontonception

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Everyone knows what goes into a bowl of wonton mee (云吞面). You typically have egg noodles, baby yu choy or equivalent greens, char siew (roast pork) and wontons, of course.  It’s a fairly simple dish with no frills. However, what if you wanted to frill it up and make it unnecessarily complicated for a potluck party in which you would fish for compliments?

Then you flip the script and create mee wonton.

You see, I go to this potluck party fairly often where people have come to expect that I bring something interesting each time (I brought kueh pie tee previously). But I can’t keep bringing new dishes all the time! Even new animals and drugs are discovered at a faster pace than new dishes are invented. I wracked my head for concepts and deconstructed a dish I practically ate all the time as a kid.

The concept I had in my head was: take the mee, take the vegetables, take the char siew and put them all into the wonton. If you had a wonton stuffed with wonton mee ingredients and put the wontons in a bowl of wonton mee, you can achieve wontonception! I had no idea how to achieve that since I wouldn’t consider myself an expert wonton maker. However, I was determined and set out to try.

My first attempt involved brushing two egg wonton wrappers with oil and putting it into a muffin tin, putting the ingredients in and baking it. It didn’t work. It resulted in a thin-crackling skin that was not very palatable. You see, I was trying to avoid deep frying anything, since deep frying always resulted in grease lingering the air for days. My kitchen did not have a vent and I had to manually vent anything out of the window with a box fan.

Plus, using two wrappers on top of each other wasn’t enough to contain enough ingredients to make for a satisfying bite. I had to figure out a way to expand the working surface area of the wonton, and came up with the idea of overlaying wonton wrappers and then gently rolling them to compress them into one oversized wrapper.

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On it, I had mee pok noodles, baby yu choy, char siew I made from scratch and fried shallots. I used mee pok (flat egg noodles) rather than mee kia (thin egg noodles) because mee pok is the superior noodle and gives a more substantial bite than mee kia anyway. I tossed the noodles with fish sauce, a little soy sauce, and some of the char siew sauce I used to make my char siew. I stirred some sesame oil into the vegetables. The oversized wrapper has roughly six points, like an odd hexagon, and I folded it top-down, lower left and right corners, and then the upper left and right corners before sealing it with some water.

I tried baking the wonton again in a muffin tin. I was really trying to avoid deep frying anything. When the wonton came back out with a disappointing skin, I was like, “Ok fine. I will deep fry you bastards.” And so I did. The smell of grease permeated the air and mocked my failure at avoiding deep frying. But the wontons came out fine. Deep frying solves everything.

I cut into a deep-fried wonton and the contents tumbled out, a mess of char siew, vegetables and mee pok. My job was done. I had created a chimera that I will parade around the dinner party and bards will sing praises of my endeavours. I brought along some sambal belacan chilli I had made to go along with the wontons.

Most people didn’t stop to listen to my big exposition before eating the wontons at the party.

You ain’t so good, Google Neural Net

Google recently launched an interactive web game to train its neural network to recognise objects. The game, Quick Draw, calls on human users to draw a prompted object within a short period of time and the machine tries to guess what it is based on what it has learned so far from all of the inputs of previous players. Quite ingenious, to crowdsource training a machine learning (ML) program since many people are always looking for an excuse not to do work.

I wanted to test its learning limits. I more or less had a sense of how previous inputs for the prompts would look like, since humans tend to draw objects similarly when under time pressure. I wondered if I drew all of the objects from a different perspective, would the program still recognise it as the object — a task which humans are very capable of?

The answer is: not really.

I experimented with drawing in a sequence that would not be obvious what the object is immediately, but the end product would be discernibly apparent. I experimented with odd and skewed perspectives. Google Neural Net failed most of the time.

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I think my mountains were really good! I started with a skewed line to not trigger immediate “mountain” responses from Neural Net and then quickly added half lines but by the time I was done, any human would have seen that these are really good mountains.screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-3-30-52-pm

I thought it was cute that my mouth were interpreted as a bear, an owl and a smiley face. What?? I started with the top line forming the nose, lips, mouth, chin and neck, followed by the back of the head. I filled in details and drew an arrow pointing to the mouth. In Neural Net’s fairness, its creators probably never accounted for it to learn the concept of pointing — a task that I don’t think is too difficult given how far we’ve come along in ML. It seems Neural Net has really only been learning to identify objects by scanning them as a whole.screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-5-23-15-pm

I drew a jagged tooth key, instead of a wedge-end key because I thought it’d be too obvious. By the time I finished the key, Neural Net still hadn’t recognized it. I had some time left and literally drew in the words “KEY” hoping it’d help Neural Net along but noooope. It thought it to be a crocodile. Cute croc though.

Looking at what examples Neural Net uses as its learned base to pass judgment, one sees that humans tend to draw things either profile or head-on, and hence how Neural Net learns to identify objects.

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Come on. My butterfly was clearly the best butterfly all of Neural Net’s learned examples.screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-5-22-35-pm screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-5-22-45-pm

How are some of your examples even mushrooms!? They look more like penises! I declare my mushroom to be mushroomier than your learned examples!

Google Neural Net, it seems you have a long way to go.

 

Bonus pic from a friend:

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COME ON. In what universe are these trombones?? I’m starting to think people have never seen what a trombone looks like.

On copyrights and conlangs

One would imagine that if someone invented a language for use in a creative work, that someone could retain copyrights to the use of the language, would he or she not? According to U.S. case law, that might not be so, in the opinions of the Language Creation Society (LCS), a nonprofit organisation created for the promotion and discussion of constructed languages (conlangs). LCS submitted an amicus curiae — unsolicited advice to the courts for pending cases — to the Paramount v. Axanar case, where Paramount Pictures sued Axanar Productions for infringing various parts of its intellectual property over a fan-produced film Prelude to Axanar. These include: Vulcans, likeness of Vulcans, Romulans, uniforms with gold shirts, triangular medals, etc etc., and The Hollywood Reporter has more information on how Axanar is planning to respond to each claim.

What caught my interest was that Paramount laid claim to the Klingon language, which got me thinking: “Can conlangs created for the purpose of creative works be copyrighted?” Paramount has claimed the copyright to the Klingon language, its vocabulary and its graphemes but LCS believes that its claims will not hold in the court of law — indeed, anyone can claim copyright to anything but it is only when copyrights are challenged in courts that they are found to be valid or otherwise.

Citing an 1879 case Baker v. Selden, LCS said that while reproductions of creative works are protected by copyright laws, no laws exist to prevent individuals from using systems and creating their own derivative works with it. Baker v. Selden was a case where Selden created a system for bookkeeping and wrote books about it, hoping to sell the ideas to counties and the government. However, he was unsuccessful. Later on, Baker produced a book on bookkeeping that had systems very similar to Selden’s. Selden’s estate sued Baker, but the courts ruled that:

“[W]hilst no one has a right to print or publish his book, or any material part thereof, as a book intended to convey instruction in the art, any person may practice and use the art itself which he has described and illustrated therein… The copyright of a book on book-keeping cannot secure the exclusive right to make, sell, and use account books prepared upon the plan set forth in such a book.”

Thus Klingon as a language cannot be copyrighted, especially given its status where not only its creator Marc Okrand but also various scholars have contributed to the development and expansion of Klingon. Upon the establishment of linguistic rules of Klingon — syntax, phonology, morphology, etc — the language takes a life of its own and it would be unthinkable that a copyright holder could lay ownership to all and any subsequent derivative works from using that language. LCS cites the translated works of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Epic of Gilgamesh into Klingon, not to mention the technically somewhat-valid native speaker of Klingon, Alec d’Armond Speers, as proof that Klingon is a robust-enough language and trying to enforce copyrights to it would be unreasonable. It would be akin to enforcing a copyright on Esperanto today.

Moreover, the movie Prelude to Axanar isn’t ripping Klingon dialogue verbatim in their fan film, but devising dialogue based on using the Klingon language system. Indeed, besides Baker v. Selden, LCS is citing many other case laws to their effect that Klingon is a free language that cannot be copyrighted, and if anyone’s interested should check out the amicus brief (linked at the top of this post and also embedded below). The brief is also replete with lots of Klingon phrases written in Klingon script and accompanying footnotes, which I think is hilarious but probably not very amusing to the presiding judge.

So what does this mean? Feel free to write your fan-fiction in Quenya, Sindarin, Klingon, Na’vi or even that Atlantean language that Marc Okrand also created for the Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire. As long as one isn’t merely ripping off dialogue (reproduction) but can prove that the utilised language is a product of using the language systems to derive original work, copyrights to the language are unenforceable. Granted, this is merely my opinion, but other folks have voiced similar sentiments (I liked this and this from LCS member Sai), and they’re worth checking out if you’re interested in copyrights and conlangs. We’ll see May 9th how the courts rule, and hopefully it’ll be in the favour of language hobbyists and enthusiasts.

“That’s something we write for white people”

chowmein

I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.

I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:

Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.

One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”

She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”

I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”

“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”

“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”

“Sure thing.”

“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”

“White people.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.

It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.

Notes on how to pronounce Malay words in ‘Semoga Bahagia’

Singaporean musical group The TENG Ensemble did a cover of one of my favourite childhood songs, “Semoga Bahagia,” which translates loosely from Malay into “wishing you happiness” or according to Wikipedia, “May you achieve happiness.” Their use of traditional Chinese instruments for the song makes for a wonderful arrangement, led by local indie singer Inch Chua, who sounds great.

However, and some have noticed and commented on the ensemble’s Facebook post about the video, Chua does not quite get the pronunciations of the words right. Chua’s pronunciation is a highly Anglicised/Americanised vowel/consonant map, informed by her Chinese background. If the TENG Ensemble ever wishes to redo their video — and I think they’ve indicated their interest in doing so — here’s my notes on how to get the Malay words right. An understanding of IPA transcription will help in understanding this post better but even if not, I’ll try to transcribe it in an easily understandable format.

Note 1: The Malay language uses flapped/tapped r’s (/r/), which is similar to the r’s in Spanish, Japanese, and many other languages in the world. It does not use the rhotic r (/ɹ/) English uses.

Note 2: Vowels in spoken Malay tend to be preserved in their lengths and rarely shortened unless spoken very fast. Therefore words like “jiwa” should sound like “jee-wah” (/dʒiwa/) rather than “juh-wah” (/dʒɪwa/). When singing, it’s especially important to preserve the vowels since they become very apparent when shortened.

Note 3: Malay does not usually do aspirated consonants. There is strong aspiration in Chua’s d’s in “pemudi-pemuda,” which is how we usually pronounce d’s in English. Thus the Malay “d” sounds different from the way one would pronounce “dog” in English, which has an audible breathy release in the initial consonant. (Contrast the d consonant in “dog” vs. “dandan 淡淡”)

Note 4: In Malay orthography, “ng” is the velar nasal (/ŋ/), even if it’s between two vowel. Thus “dengan” is “duh-ng-an” and not “deng-gan.” (/dəŋan/) Same with “c” it’s a postalveolar affricate (/tʃ/) as in “ch-urch” and never an “s” sound.

And now for the second-by-second analysis! My comments will be in the form of (observation); followed by suggestion if applicable.

  • Pandai cari [0:35] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • pelajaran [0:39] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • jaga diri [0:46] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • kesihatan [0:49] — Chua said kAH-see-ha-tan; kuh-see-haa-tan, preserve e vowel, don’t aspirate t.
  • Serta sopan santun [0:53] — mispronounced, rolled r; SER-TA sopan santun.
  • dengan [0:58] — good job on de-NG-an!
  • bersih serta suci [1:23] — rolled r; do flapped r instead, preserve all r’s.
  • hormat dan berbudi [1:27] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • jaga tingkah [1:29] — k consonant dropped; preserve the k sound in tingkah, but lightly released.
  • Capailah [1:38] — diphtong aɪ changed to vowel a; don’t drop the i in ca-pAI-lah.
  • pemudi-pemuda [1:42] — aspirated d’s; don’t aspirate d, especially audible in pemuDA.
  • kita ada harga [1:48] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • di mata dunia [1:50] — good job on the d! This is the example of the unaspirated d.
  • kalau kita [2:10] — a vowel changed to e (/a/ to /ə/); preserve A vowel, kAH-lau instead of kUH-lau.
  • lengah [2:12] — added a g consonant; there is no g consonant, it’s pronounced le-ng-ah, not len-gah.
  • serta [2:13] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • hidup [2:15] — Chua said he-daap (/hidap/); it’s pronounced he-doop (/hidup/)
  • sia-sia [2:16] — Chua said saya-saya (/saɪya-saɪya/); it’s see-ah see-ah (/sia-sia/)
  • jiwa [2:19] — Chua said juh-wah (/jəwa/); preserve all vowels, it’s pronounced jee-wah
  • besar sihat serta segar [2:19] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • dengan (2:23) — good example of dengan.
  • perangai pemudi [2:28] — rolled r, aspirated d; do flapped r instead, don’t aspirate d.
  • cergas [2:31] – Chua said sergas, rolled r; it’s pronounced CHeRgas, ch consonant, do flapped r instead
  • suka rela [2:35] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • berbakti [2:37] — rolled r; do flapped r instead. This word is also an example of unreleased ‘k’
  • sikap yang pembela [2:38] — vowel was changed to p-uhm-bUH-la (/pəmbəla/); preserve vowel, it’s p-uhm-bAY-la (/pəmbela/).
  • berjasa [2:41] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • capailah [2:44] — see before
  • pemudi-pemuda [2:47] — see before
  • rajinlah supaya berjasa [2:52] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • semoga bahagia [2:56] — bahagia was pronounced as bUH-ha-g-i-a (/bəhagia/); preserve the A vowel in “ba,” making it bAH-ha-gi-a (//bahagia/). It’s ok to break “gia” into “gi-a” for stylistic purposes but “ba” should remain “ba.” In Malay, “be” (/bə/) and “ba” (/ba/) are contrastive.

Hey, no one ever said Malay was easy, right?

Here’s an example of the song sung by a Malay person (I’m assuming) with all the right consonant sounds, although I think it’s interesting when he overdoes some of his r’s and turns it into a trill [0:33].

It’s a lovely touch that gives it a very folksy flavour, that I’ve heard sometimes older Malay Singaporeans do than younger ones. It’s not quite dissimilar in Japanese, where the flapped r can become a trilled r, called makijita (巻き舌 or rolled tongue), and it is sometimes associated with rural communities, and — interestingly — with the Yakuza and in war cries (“uorrrrrrryaa!”). Pay attention to how he pronounces his d’s, r’s, t’s, and k’s.

Hopefully this will help the TENG Ensemble and Inch Chua make a better second version of the song hitting all the right sounds of the wonderful Bahasa Melayu. After all, nobody wants to hear an ang-mor-cised version of our Chinese songs, do we?

 

(Woe…. da…. zheeeah.. gay woe! Eee shwaang zheeaan ding zhhh paaang….!!!)

Aftermath of a Singapore Election

The sun rose, as it always did, but one would not have noticed it. It hid behind a haze, some say the courtesy of Indonesia, but I know better. Hanging thick in the air was a calm that belied people’s true feelings from the frenzy of live tweets, climbing numbers, excitement and disappoint and clamour the night before.

An elderly Chinese man, pushing his bicycle along the foot of a HDB flat, walks up to an elderly Indian man. “Ehhh! PAP ar?” the Chinese man said, shaking the Indian man’s hand. “Ya,” replied the Indian man as they both shared a laughter, and then they parted ways.

The kopitiam was divided. Laughter and merriment rang from some tables, while nearby sullen tables glanced angry sidelong glares, with some shaking their heads.

Wa lau eh, why like that?” piped one.

Bo pian, what can we do?” said another, showing characteristic Singaporean spirit.

“Well, at least Lee Kuan Yew got what he wanted before the ghost gates closed. I guess his spirit can now return in peace.”

“Eh, I ask you ar, do you think his spirit went to heaven or to hell ah?”

Aiyoh, you think leh?”

“…aiyah my GRC no fight one lah! But then hor, I still voted opposition anyway just to show them what for!”

“I know it’s not going to make a difference, but I don’t want the PAP to become too complacent mah. They cannot keep on doing what they’re doing without answering to anyone right?”

“But even if you did that, got change anything meh?”

“So you stay up until how late last night?”

“I stay until 12 midnight, then I buay tahan liao. Anyway next day wake up see the results, see on the spot, also the same what.”

“So what you think? Who did you vote for?”

Aiyoh I tell you then still call elections for what?”

Nearby, an incense paper shop owner gave instructions on how to burn the offerings as the Hungry Ghost Festival drew to a close.

And Singapore lived through another General Elections.

The interview that never got published

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As some of you may know, I am currently writing for the International Business Times. On the day the snowstorm was supposed to hit, I pitched a story wondering how various cities in the United States Northeast were going to help the homeless. I got to go to the historic Bowery Mission in Manhattan, and the operations director Matt Krivich was kind enough to show me around. Beyond that, he helped with my request to talk to one of the homeless who was seeking shelter from the storm.

I got to interview Gerald Hudson, an African-American Vietnam War veteran. As much as I wished I could have written the interview as it was spoken to me, I had to quote Hudson as I would in an article; that is in the third person. Here is how the interview went as Hudson and I spoke.


Me: Are you keeping warm from this storm?

Gerald Hudson: I’m just trying my best, man.

Me: Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?

GH: Sure thing! I just want to let you know, thanks to this Mission, I have the warmest equipment around.

Me: What do you mean by “warmest equipment?”

GH: A jacket, man. This Mission gave me a jacket.

Me: Is that the one you’re wearing right now?

GH: No way. I only wear that specially when I go out. I ain’t gonna wear that in here. Do you want me to show you?

Me: Is that alright with you?

GH: Sure! Come, follow me!

(We walk to the chapel)

GH: I’m a grateful man, and I’m always grateful for what this Mission has done for me.

(We walk to the pews where Hudson has his stuff. He lifts his bag off the pews, and hidden underneath is a nice brown jacket)

Me: That’s a very nice jacket.

GH: Yeah, it keeps me warm when I go out.

Me: So how did you know to come in here for the storm? Did someone tell you?

GH: No, I’ve been here for two weeks.

Me: Oh, so you didn’t just come in for the storm?

GH: Nah, I’ve been here for two weeks. But trust me I’m trying to get a place to live. The last time before that was six months ago.

Me: I’m sorry?

GH: I don’t want to be here too much. I’ve been here for two weeks, and the last time I had to be here was six months ago.

Me: Oh, Where were you during the time you were not here. Did you have a place to stay?

GH: Yea, kind of.

Me: What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?

GH: Bad things happened, violence and stuff. I’m just trying to get a permanent place to stay, you know that? But I’m just waiting for the right time for that to happen.

Me: I’m sure that will work out for you one day.

GH: I’m a vet, you know that? Vietnam War.

Me: I’m grateful for what you’ve done for the country, as I’m sure many others are.

GH: I came back, and I had a hard time. I’m at the epitome of… of… (can’t remember what he said here)

Me: Are you a religious man?

GH: I’m a believer, I’m a believer in God, in the Father, and that he will take care of me.

Me: Well I hope things work out for you.

GH: I hope so too. Hey man you know I gotta try, but would you by any chance…? (hand gestures) But I don’t think you can right?

Me: I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to give anything. I wish you all the best.

GH: Alright you take care too, God bless.

Singapore’s obsession with “tsap”

These four have something in common: "tsap".

These four have something in common: “tsap”.

Many of Singapore’s many iconic dishes: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), chilli crab, Hokkien prawn mee, to name a few, tend to have a commonality — more often than not, they all have “tsap” (汁) or sauce/gravy in them. No matter Malay, Indian, or Chinese, Singapore dishes are sauce-heavy and gravy-generous. Singapore’s love for sauces and gravy doesn’t stop at local dishes, but extends its saucy reach to foreign cuisines localised in the country. It is hardly ever talked about, but even in “tsap” can we tease out what it means for a dish to be “truly Singaporean”.

How does Singapore’s love affair with “tsap” contribute to establishing identity? The answer lies with how we localise foreign food. Cuisine localisation anywhere in the world takes into consideration local preferences, and modifies the dish accordingly. For example, mapo tofu in the United States is generally always saltier and less spicy than its Asian counterparts (true can be said for most Chinese food in the U.S. really).

Now in Singapore, discussion of food localisation usually surrounds taste: food is usually made less salty, less greasy, etc. But modification of texture to imported cuisines goes unnoticed, because something as simple as sauce is so basic to a dish that we forget it exists, just as we don’t think about how we breathe and taste. That does not mean we cannot learn something about our psyche and approach towards food from “tsap”.

Case in point: carbonara pasta and pasta with marinara sauce. Carbonara in Singapore is usually heavy on the cream sauce — Singaporeans want to see their pasta sitting in a pool of it, and one of Singapore’s biggest pasta chain Pastamania serves their pasta carbonara swimming in sauce.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore's largest pasta chains.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore’s largest pasta chains.

However, real carbonara is actually pretty dry. Be it in the United States or in Europe, most of the carbonara I’ve had outside of Singapore tend to not drown the noodles in “tsap”.

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Proper carbonara lightly clings to the pasta. Not only just with carbonara, but Pastamania’s marinara dishes are akin to soup.

Pastamania's marinara vs. some other country's marinara

Pastamania’s marinara vs. some other country’s marinara

Of course, one can say that Pastamania, as a chain restaurant, isn’t representative of how the food is supposed to be served and that they serve bad pasta, but that is besides the point. What we’re looking at is how these companies think Singaporeans would like these foreign cuisine best, and their verdict: swimming in a lot of “tsap”. In my experience, not only Pastamania, but many other local pasta establishments, from chain restaurants to slightly fancy “atas” restaurants tend to be heavy-handed on the sauces.

Has anyone ever stopped to think “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?” Many will quickly point out that spiciness is an aspect. But just as Singaporeans can be pointed out in a crowd in a foreign country purely by accent alone, “tsap-heavy” food is idiosyncratic to Singapore and is an identifying element when local dishes are compared internationally. An example of “what makes X food so identifiably X?” would be Japanese dishes and their philosophy of preserving the natural flavours of the ingredients, so much so that they serve individual dishes on separate serving dishes so as not to mix flavours.

A reason, I suspect, why Singaporeans love gravy so much could be our mantra of being kiasu, or the fear of losing out. The idea that “more is better” sticks very close to our heart — why would you have less gravy when you can have more? Singaporeans get ecstatic when their dishes come more liao (料), or toppings, and having extra “tsap” comes close. Just think of how people advice when ordering cai png (economic rice) to never forget to ask the server to drizzle/drench the food with sauces, curry, and gravy in hopes of getting extra food morsels. Our desire for value (or fear of losing it) manifests itself in extra “tsap”, so much so that the gravy is sometimes as much the dining experience as the entrée itself.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

Another possible reason could be that Singaporeans are culturally averse to eating anything that is purely dry. Compare eating a baguette with eating a baguette dipped in chilli crab sauce or curry. Compare eating a plain roti prata with roti prata drowned in curry. Think about how even when we eat Khong Guan biscuits, there is a desire to dip it in hot Milo or kopi. I wonder if the heavy usage of steam and moisture in many of our cooking have led us culturally to prefer hot and moist food. Many Americans I know have no qualms about eating cold pizza (gag). In the Chinese language, hot food can be described as re pen pen (热喷喷), literally hot and spewing, and I imagine it is spewing steam; an element of moisture. I guess in English there is “piping hot”, but it conveys less the image of moisture as it does purely heat. I cannot speak for the other major languages in Singapore whether they have similar food adjectives. Gravy and “tsap” do have excellent heat-retaining properties, and are pretty wet too.

What does this say about us as a culture and the way we like our food — which is hot and wet? Well, not much, except that we like our food hot and wet. It is possible to extrapolate and say that philosophically hot food to Singaporeans is a source of comfort, and that gravy on our food not only adds flavour but serves additional soothing properties, but that is a bit of a stretch. However, simply being able to distil what makes Singaporean food so Singaporean is an exercise that can be applied to many other aspects of our lives — what makes Singaporean writing so Singaporean, or Singaporean English so Singaporean, etc etc?

So the next time someone asks “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?”, the answer is: If we love it, we lin (淋) a lot of tsap on it.

Unicorns on a unicycle at UNICON 17 (Part 1)

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I went up to witness UNICON for the first time. For those who do not know what UNICON is, it is a unicycle convention, kind of like the equivalent of the Olympics for unicycling. For the first time, UNICON is held in a location that is financially accessible to me, and it would be remiss of me to miss it again.

And so it was a trek to Montreal to attend UNICON 17, where some other Singaporeans would also be attending. Going up would also mean that the Masticating Bunnies From Hell from Ride the Lobster would be reunited for the first time in six years.

However that reunion would be tardy because Jiahui, one of the team members, would be so exhaustively busy traipsing all around Montreal visiting friends while we friendless people huddle around and twiddle thumbs.

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I’m surprised my well-worn and falling apart bicycle bag has held it together for so long after all these years. It last saw use on my trip back to Singapore in January, and with each subsequent use, it falls apart bit by bit. A zipper pull fell out previously (the zipper itself was still intact) and I wonder what else would break on this trip to Montreal.

And of course, it had to rain on my way to Penn Station. I brought an umbrella along with me, and holding on to one bag of two unicycles, a plastic bag with some food to last the 11-hour train journey, an overstuffed backpack, and an umbrella should probably be a Cirque du Soleil act of its own.

I got to the train station an hour early and I was like “Great! Maybe I’ll get a chance to snag an early seat.” I totally forgot one had to check in luggage from States-side, and because I didn’t do so, when the train opened for boarding, I had to go check in, and ended up being the last to board.

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Thankfully there was a backward-facing wheelchair-reserved seat available. I was feeling pretty much handicapped by that point, and I had the right number of wheels (big ones, at least), and there were no real wheelchair people in need, so I took it. It wasn’t too bad, I got stretch out, as I hurtled backwards all the way towards Montreal.

So, I was supposed to meet some of the Singaporeans at the college, where some of the events are held. Interestingly, no one bothered to tell me the instructions on getting there, only providing me with a street address. Well, I don’t have wireless internet on my phone, but thank goodness for being old-fashioned, and I had to ask three people how to get there. The first older station attendant didn’t speak much English (why is he working at the information kiosk at the main train station then?) but I understood enough to get to Berri-Uqam. There, I asked a younger English-speaking lad who told me to get to Pie-IX (pronounced “pea-neuf”), which I retrospectively probably remember the older station attendant mentioning something like that, but “pea-neuf” and “Pie-IX” didn’t connect as being the same thing in my mind because je ne parle pas français. Anyway at Pie-IX some teenager told me to just go down a road, at which point I took out my 20″ unicycle, shouldered my 29″ uni, my backpack, and my umbrella, and finally made it to the college.

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I think UNICON 17 already kicked off two days ago. But on my first night, it was apparently Naked Bike Ride day, and the unicyclist were planning on crashing it. So many unicyclists went, it was a pleasant surprise. I believe the number of unicyclists matched the bicyclists head for head. Males also outnumbered females maybe four to one. And there were definitely more naked unicyclists than there were naked bicyclists, as a lot more bicyclists kept more pieces of clothing on. Perhaps as the UNICON attenders were from another country, they didn’t have to worry about maintaining some sort of professional credibility in Montreal as many of the bikers did. Or maybe Europeans just like getting naked a lot more.

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As I was not registered to participate competitively, there was very little I could actually do at UNICON. I felt like making friends was an uphill endeavour, when many already had their circles of friends either from having attended UNICON before, got to know each other by virtue of participating in the same event, or were basically from the same country.

One morning, I sat myself down at a random table, and introduced myself to the table. It comprised Americans, a Canadian, and some Germans. I eventually got to see them over the next couple days and even got to hang out with them once or twice.

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Some of them (the Canadian and the Germans) went up to Mont Royal, and I joined them. One of them played the piano while I unicycle-danced in the background. It was all fun and games, until the experts showed up. Then they proceeded to defy gravity and jumped all over the place, and us mere mortals of lesser skill just stopped.

I got to see the UNICON events, of course. I was mostly there for the freestyle, and it met my expectations of what I thought it to be. Slightly dismaying was to see six to nine year olds completely outclassing me with freestyle, as the leapt onto their unis with a stand-up leg-up glide like physics was optional.

Freestyle expert solo was OK, and the first place winner went to USA Matt Sindelar, who did a Western cowboy themed routine using that very well-known tune from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, gun sounds and all.

Japan’s freestyle male expert solo entry Kaito Shoji was slightly less than what I expected, compared to last year’s winner. But he was still pretty good, and had great synchronicity with the music at the beginning.

Thomas Tiercy from Switzerland had one of the more interesting routines, though he didn’t place in top three. Perhaps it was because his routine was less about unicycling and more about object manipulation, but I felt it deserved a place on the pedestal because it was so different from the rest. It was also more show-sy than the others, which I appreciated a lot.

Shoji’s pair entry with Natsume Yamamoto was definitely much better, and the performance was more enjoyable. It featured great chemistry between the unicyclists, and felt less like a run-through of tricks, and more like a performance.

Here are some of the photos from Freestyle Solo and Pair.

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While Street really isn’t my thing, here are also pictures from the competition. I have no idea who these people are, but the UNICON list says these people are: Christian Huriwai (New Zealand), Maxwell Schulze (USA), Raphael Pöham (Austria), Josef Sjönneby (Sweden), Jack Sebben (Canada), and Casper van Tielraden (Netherlands).

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I’m breaking up this post because it’s getting too long. More to come in part 2!