SINGAPORE: One of the best experiences you can have while travelling to any country is being invited by locals to partake in an authentic home-cooked meal.
During a trip to Italy a few years back, my wife and I were invited by a family friend to stay at her family’s quaint farm house somewhere in Montefalco.
For two days, Rosie prepared excellent rustic cuisine that included asparagus frittata, mushroom quiche, truffle and zucchini pastas, apricot tart and wood-oven roasted chicken, which we heartily partook in as her husband Franco shared stories about life in rural Italia.
Our hosts’ meals and stories were the ultimate highlight of our trip, learning many things we couldn’t from a touristy jaunt through the streets of Florence or Rome.
These days, such authentic food experiences are quite easy to find on the Internet – the not-so-easy part is the travelling bit.
But there are some alternatives to getting that authentic country cuisine experience that doesn’t involve you taking leave or spending much on airfare – you could stay put here in Singapore.
Short of crossing your fingers and being invited by an expat who’s a friend of a friend of a friend, there are companies like BonAppetour and NOSHtrekker that providing some unusual dining experiences that let you experience places in a different way.
Both offer these home-cooked experiences in other countries. The former, for instance, has been nicknamed the “Airbnb of home dining” while the latter offers dining experiences in Brunei, Australia and South Africa.
But at the same time, they also have hosts right here in Singapore serving authentic food – and then some.
NOSHtrekker, for instance, hosts here who not only do Kashmir- and Kerala-style food experiences but also others offering unique twists on Singapore that will make you feel pleasantly like a tourist in your own backyard.
By the end of the month, it will also be launching “pre-trip” dining experiences – including one where an Italian food writer will be giving a crash course on Italian food in Singapore before your next trip.
So how do you eat the world without stepping foot outside of Singapore? Here are some options.
We can’t think of a better Italian food experience than a homecooked one – by two sisters. BonAppetour host Melissa and her sister Giovanna have been living together since they were 22 and love to do traditional Italian (although they’ve been experimenting with Italian-Spanish fusion, too).
And it’s a veritable trip across the country. Dishes might include cacciucco, a Tuscan seafood stew; risotta alla Milanese; trippa alla Romana, an ox tripe tomato stew; and pastiera Napoletana, a traditional Italian Easter cake. There’s also porchetta, bruschetta, and suppli, deep-fried risotto and mozzarella balls.
WHERE: THE PHILIPPINES
When it comes to Filipino food, there aren’t many options here (does Jollibee count?). But you can sign up for some comfort “Pinoy” food at BonAppetour. Homemaker Mylene Factora does brunch, afternoon snacks and dinner menus.
These include dishes such as: Arroz caldo, a type of congee; pancit palabok, a rice noodle dish with shrimp gravy and smoked fish flakes; meat and vegetable stews like kare-kare and kaldereta; and sweet desserts like Brazo de Mercedes, a cake made with custard filling and soft meringue, and halo-halo, which is basically a kind of ice kacang on sugar overdrive.
It might be a bit hard to pin down the cuisine, which has been influenced by Spanish, Chinese and more indigenous cooking style, but that’s okay. “The Philippines is an archipelago so food styles vary from each place,” said the mother-of-three, who is married to a Belgian.
Another plus point: They have a small garden, where she gets most of her herbs and plant ingredients, and even bananas so you can be sure they’re all fresh.
WHERE: INDIA (PART 1)
Long-time Singapore residents Priya and Aniruddha are the couple behind the supper club Bombay Howrah Dining Car. And what they offer at BonAppetour won’t be the type of Indian cuisine most people are familiar with – Bengali and Maharashtrian food. “Growing up in Mumbai, these is the food we grew up eating, but many people outside India rarely experience these cuisines,” said Priya (who also gives a shout out to other regional cuisines such as Parsi, Gujarati and Mughlai).
Their menu includes dishes such as sabudana vada, savoury sago patties; doi begun, an Indian babaganoush; Kolhapuri mutton chops, a spicy meat dish from interior Maharashtra; prawn malai Curry, a fragrant and creamy prawn dish from West Bengal; and bhapa doi, steamed yoghurt pudding. They can also do an all-vegetarian menu.
While theirs is a slightly contemporary take on the food, Priya assures it’s all authentic. “Our dishes are based on family or traditional recipes and there are a few ingredients we need to get from India,” she said.
Want to dine like a true Parisian? BonAppetour host Agathe and her husband will take care of you. They’ve got a range of dining options from a cosy family meal to a full-on romantic candlelit dinner setting.
Their three-course meal may include any of these: L'escargot d'ail (land snail), pissaladiere (a pizza-like dish from Nice) for starters; poulet de Provencal, ratatouille or veal roast blanquette for mains; and clafoutis (baked fruit dessert) and chocolate religieuse pastry for dessert.
And since this is about dining the French way, yes, you end the whole thing sipping wine.
WHERE: INDIA (PART 2)
Here’s another Indian cuisine you might not be familiar with: Food by the Bohra Muslim community, who are said to have migrated from Yemen to Gujarat.
BonAppetour host Lamya will prep a 45-minute meal – where you’ll have to do it the Bohra way, which is to set on the floor and do some double-dipping (she’ll prepare separate bowls if that’s not really your thing).
The menu will comprise Bohri delicacies – and you start with dessert! Specifically, sodanu, which is sweetened rice that has auspicious meanings. The traditional meal usual alternate between savoury (kharaas) and sweet (mithaas) dishes, so you’ll get another sweet dish, a meat dish such as kebabs or samosas, followed by another sweet course, then a meat main – before ending with a rice dish. Salads and spicy chutneys will also be served.
Why stick to the present when you can travel to the past, in a manner of speaking. NOSHtrekker’s Plantation Table experience takes you to a time when Singapore was part of the British empire in Malaya.
Host Indra Rani taps into both her Ceylonese heritage as well as the region’s plantation past. Her specialty is Jaffna cuisine (with recipes from her mother and grandmother) but expect dishes that were cooked by the different domestic help that had worked for her family.
Among these could be Kerabu Jantong Pisang, a Sulawesi-influenced appetiser with a bit of influence from Indra’s own Melaka Chitty nanny, and a nod to the Malays that once lived in the old fruit plantations of Kampong Binjai and Kampong Chantek near MacRitchie Reservoir.
Railway Goat Curry, meanwhile, is a goat curry developed by chefs on the old colonial Federated Malay States Railways. Story goes the dish was created after a stray goat had been hit by the train and chefs decided to cook it for the “Tuan Besar” on inspection duty!
WHERE: PULAU UBIN
This one does entail a bit of travelling – but hey, it’s just Pulau Ubin.
Sisters Kemariah and Samsiah Abdullah host NOSHtrekker’s aptly-titled Rendang In The Kampong experience at their family’s traditional wooden house, which dates back more than a century. They both already live in the mainland but have maintained the house for travelers who want to know what island life (and old Singapore) was like back in the day.
As guests munch on food, which include kuehs and Malay faves like roti jala, the sisters regale them with stories of kampong life. They’ll even take you on a tour around the premises, pointing out flora used for traditional medicine. Take a peek under the house and you’ll see their great-grandfather’s old lime-green fishing boat, too.
WHERE: URBAN SINGAPORE
Yes, you’ve explored Singapore’s food culture – but NOSHtrekker’s Gastrogeography Of Singapore offers a different twist. First presented at the Singapore Biennale 2016, the experience created by Laletha Nithiyanandan and Steve Chua allows guests to get up close to local produce found in urban Singapore. They’ve been cataloguing the different spices, fruits, flowers and roots found around the city, which they then use to create their own dishes.
They clarify it’s not “foraging” per se – they get their produce from urban farmers or from Laletha’s own garden and whip up new creations that are paired with a cocktail and some interesting historical backstories.
For example, there’s the belimbing salsa with turmeric tempeh/fish. The belimbing is a common fruit but many have forgotten all about it – the two have turned it into a salsa with jalapeno peppers, coriander and calamansi. They then pair it with a pineapple turmeric passionfruit vodka cocktail.