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10 street foods you must try in Singapore

Chef Jon Ashton samples Singapore's street food © Jon Ashton

When Chef Jon Ashton landed in multicultural Singapore as part of his 5-week-long food tour of Southeast Asia, he had exactly 36 hours to eat his way through dozens of hawker stalls. “I did the most eating I’ve ever done in that time,” he said. “When you get food that is so bloody tasty, it hits your lips and it’s like the best kiss you’ve ever had in your life. You just want more.”

So how did he do it? “I am a clever eater and I wanted to try everything,” said the British-born chef of working his way through Singapore’s legendary street food sold from stalls that line huge food court-like emporiums. Armed with a notebook and his brother filming Jon’s interactions, Jon simply asked at each stand if he could watch them cook and take notes. “I told them I had many other hawker stalls to taste that day and they understood,” he said, managing to only consume a few bites of each dish.

Eating was not the only purpose of his trip. As chef contributor to Parade magazine, Crystal Cruises guest chef for the past nine years, and the host of hundreds of live cooking events around the country, Chef Jon wanted to better himself as a chef.

“I want to evolve and grow my portfolio,” he said. “I wanted to cook in villages with ingredients I’d never seen. I want to have that integrity in my work. If someone is watching me on television or taking time to read a recipe I’ve written, I want that person to trust me. Ingredients are often expensive, so if you buy them, I want you to trust that they will work for you,” he said.

“One of the most exciting things about that entire trip was seeing the food stalls and meeting the people behind them,” said Jon. “Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the most famous chefs in the world have restaurants there. But the inexpensive hawker stalls are where the excitement is; the food coming out of them is exceptional. You see the lady who is 90 years old who has probably been at that stall for most of her life.”

Always a fan of starting at the source, Jon urges one splurge while visiting the city-state island at the tip of the Malay peninsula: slipping into a seat at the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore Hotel to sip the national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, created right there in 1915. “It’s something you have to do, like going to Harry’s Bar in Venice,” says Jon.

What else shouldn’t you miss? Check out Jon’s list below, including tips on where to try most dishes.

See Jon in action at his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Hainanese Chicken Rice and Curry Mee © Jon Ashton

1 Chili crab

As the luxurious ambassador of Singaporean food, chili crab is the national star. Sweet crab is cracked into several pieces before being placed in a deep fryer. In the wok, a dizzying array of chilies, tomatoes, garlic and shallots sizzle over hot flames. Soy sauce, chicken stock and sugar syrup form an aromatic bouquet. Whisked egg and cornstarch slurry thicken the gravy with bands of silky ribbons. The savory marriage of the fleshy, satisfying crab, doused in thick sauce yields the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. The last bits of sauce are always best soaked up with soft, doughy Chinese rolls.

2 Hainanese chicken rice

Originating in Hainan, a tropical island off China’s southern coast, Hainanese chicken rice has become a culinary staple in Malaysian culture. Served simply on a lime green plastic plate, succulent boiled chicken is roughly chopped and delightfully served on top of a heap of the most fragrant rice ever tasted. Each grain had its own identity: fluffy, aromatic, distinctive. Best completed with drizzled soy and chili sauce, the tender, boneless chicken dish is perfectly complemented with a frosty mug of Tiger beer.

TRY IT: Join the long lines at Tian Tian Chicken Rice, located in the hawker food court Maxwell Food Centre, near Chinatown.

3 Pork soup dumplings

Sexy thin-skinned wrappers become small joyful parcels of pork filled with rich broth. Once slightly cooled and placed on a spoon, you can slurp the whole dumpling up in one mouthful.

TRY IT: Ji Ji Wanton Noodle Specialist in Maxwell Food Centre. (Added Jon: “Lovely man, excellent, yes!”)

4 Clay pot chicken

Decadent curry packed with chicken wings that add collagen, which emulsifies the fat into the sauce. Pillows of starchy potatoes swim across a burnt orange basin laden with idiosyncratic curry leaves.

5 Laksa (or curry mee)

Laksa is the happy marriage of Malay and Chinese influences. Spicy coconut curry drowned in gorgeous rice noodles.

TRY IT: Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa, on the second floor of the Hong Lim Market & Food Centre.
Clay Pot Chicken, Pork Soup Dumplings, and Chili Crab © Jon Ashton

6 Char kuay teow

Broad rice noodles fried with black soya sauce, fish cake, Chinese sausage and clams. Singapore noodles can go up against the Italian noodle, with a nice bite to them. The wok heat gives them a smoky taste.

TRY IT: Marina South Delicious Food, stall 35, at Maxwell Food Centre.

7 Hokkien prawn mee

Flat egg noodles with a medley of chicken, pork, squid, and prawns.

TRY IT: Lor Mee, stall 178, at Tiong Bahru Market.

8 Chicken satay

What’s better than skewered, grilled chicken in a bath of peanut sauce, with a side of cold cumber relish? Delightful.

TRY IT: Multiple stalls at Satay by the Bay put their spin on these tasty skewers.

9 Roti prata & teh tarik

Buttery, flaky flat bread stretched and cooked on a griddle, usually dipped in a rich curry, serves as a wonderful breakfast washed down by a cup of Teh Tarik or “pulled tea.” Pulled tea requires great skill as the hot liquid, combined with sweetened condensed milk, is transferred in a sweeping motion from one cup to the other until properly frothy and delicious.

10 Half boiled egg with kaya toast

Breakfast staple with a soft centered yolky egg blanketed with light soy sauce and white pepper powder. Dish is served with toasted bread smeared with sweet coconut jam.

TRY IT: Kaya toast is so popular it’s part of the coffee house staple, from Ya Kun—in business since 1944—to the chain Killiney Kopitaim, with roots back to the oldest Hainanese coffee shop in Singapore. In other words, where there’s coffee, there’s kaya toast.

For your own delicious taste of Singapore, check out our variety of adventures to the city state.

Jon on his food tour © Jon Ashton

Explore Ireland through its literature

Ireland by the book  © Tourism Ireland
Long before I tumbled into travel and began exploring the world for real, I did plenty of imaginary exploring through the eyes of my favorite authors, particularly the Irish. It would be many years between the time I discovered the poetic magic of WB Yeates and his stunning County Sligo, or James Joyce’s complex and magical Dublin, before I actually got to visit these places myself. Seeing Ireland with my own eyes clarified for me the lyrical beauty of its literature, which comes, in part, from the magnificent scenic landscapes everywhere you go. While there’s plenty of culture, music, history and nature throughout the Emerald Isle, the literary heritage of the country is part and parcel of the experience.

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The Way of Tea in Japan

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.

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First time to South Africa? Expect the unexpected.

If you are heading to South Africa for the first time, consider yourself warned. Expect to be blown away. Expect to have your soul stirred. And expect to have your expectations shattered and rearranged beyond your imagination. Here are seven experiences I wasn’t expecting on my visit to South Africa.

Zulu warriors

1 Hundreds of Languages are Spoken in South Africa

Though there are 11 official languages recognized in South Africa, hundreds more are spoken by its people, most of whom speak more than one language. Visitors will most often encounter English, yet it is spoken by fewer than 10% of the population. Make it a point to ask the people you meet along your travels about the languages they speak and you will be surprised, and even heart-warmed, by the efforts of many who are learning a new language to better be able to speak to more of their brothers and sisters.

Pay attention. You never know when your hotel receptionist might effortlessly switch from English to Zulu, or when the guide and ranger team on your safari might share stories about how they are teaching each other’s families English and Xhosa (respectively).

You’ll also quickly realize that though English is often spoken, South Africans have a wide array of slang words that will confuse Americans. To brush up on your South African slang, check out this post of terms compiled by our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa.

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An Intro to South African Slang

School girls with painted faces
Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. One very helpful tip: learn to speak a few words of the country’s language. For Americans visiting South Africa, you can check this ‘to-do’ off your list! Though South Africa actually has 11 different national languages, you’ll find that English is widely spoken. But like English speakers in other parts of the world, South Africans have their own slang words that might leave Americans scratching their heads.

Our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa, has compiled a list of South African slang words and their ‘American’ translations. Take this list along so you can preempt any confusion and even impress your new South African friends with your knowledge of what’s in.

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The epic love story that built the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?

Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

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3 KonMari-Inspired Tips for Tidy Travel

Packing can actually be a pleasure

You know how it goes before you leave on a trip. You swear you’ll have your loose ends tied up. Get a good night’s sleep. Drink lots of water and eat healthfully. Then you find yourself packing at 11 p.m. the night before and frantically asking around for someone to check on the cats while you’re gone.

Chances are it’ll play out the same way for the next trip—but what if we brought a little “KonMari” to it?

I recently delighted in a wonderful little book called “Spark Joy” by Marie Kondo whose Zen-like “KonMari” approach to tidying up and holding on to only those things that bring us joy and appreciation has inspired people around the globe to see their “stuff” a little differently.

One such person is Brooke Booth, a professional organizer in Detroit who’s in the process of becoming a certified KonMari consultant and bringing Kondo’s methods to her own clientele.

When it comes to packing and prepping for a trip, says Booth, some of the stress we feel comes from the fact we’re not clear what really sparks joy, whether it’s the things we’re packing (a wrinkle-free shirt we think we should bring) or even how we pack (throwing it all in the bag and hoping for the best).

If you haven’t already KonMari’d your home and surrounded yourself only with things you love, packing your suitcase offers an opportunity to do just that.

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Tapas

Tapas are small savory dishes often served as a side dish to drinks, and they are ubiquitous in Spain. On our Discover Spain tour, we’ve built wine and tapas tasting into the itinerary. But you’ll also have free time on the main tour, as well as on our Barcelona extension, when you may want to venture out and try tapas on your own.

There are several theories as to the origin of tapas. The first is that the thirteenth century Spanish King, Alfonso X, was ill and had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his health. After he recovered, he passed this practice as law to maintain the health of his kingdom. Perhaps a more practical genesis lies in the practice of farm workers eating small snacks during the day to tide them over between meals. Although most likely, the practice of tapas has a highly practical purpose. Throughout Spain’s history, bread or small plates of olives or pork were used to cover drinks and prevent insects from getting in, and this food was then eaten. The word ‘tapas’ literally translates to ‘lid’.

Whatever the origin, tapas are now a social mainstay of Spanish culture and a must-try for any visit to Spain. So we’ve compiled these three videos, courtesy of the Spanish Tourism office in America, to help you navigate some of the Do’s and Don’ts of tapas etiquette.

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7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:

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UPDATE: Miracles from pennies: the Trailblazer story

In early June, we brought to your attention the Trailblazer Foundation and their mission: building wells to bring poor villages in Cambodia clean, drinkable water. The Foundation is in dire need of a new truck so they can continue to deliver well building materials to outlying villages.

Their fundraising campaign to raise $7500 is coming to an end on Sunday, August 7th. Trailblazer was actually able to sell their old truck for $1500 and put the money towards the campaign. They now only need $1830 to reach their goal. That’s only 92 people donating $20! Once Trailblazer reaches their goal, we will match a final $2500 so they can purchase a brand new truck and continue serving the poor of Cambodia. If you would like to help us and Trailblazer reach the goal, you can donate any amount to their campaign on IndieGoGo.

And if you haven’t already, read below to learn more about Trailblazer and their amazing work.

Scott & Chris Coats (2nd & 3rd from right) of the Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia

Meet Chris Coats, co-founder with her husband, Scott, of The Trailblazer Foundation. Friendly Planet has supported Trailblazer since 2007, when we first discovered we could pay to dig wells in the Siem Reap area and help provide clean, potable water for the villagers surrounding the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat—a site that we visit on our tours. We’re proud to support the Trailblazer Foundation, and through our own Friendly Planet Foundation, we look forward to working together to help improve the lives of the villagers of Siem Reap who so graciously welcome us into their communities. The Trailblazer Foundation is currently running a fundraising campaign to help buy an equipment delivery truck, which they desperately need to continue their mission. To help raise awareness of the campaign, Chris took some time to tell us a little bit about herself and her husband, and why they started Trailblazer. She said:

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