Dance in the FT

Last updated: October 6, 2012 12:09 am

Take on tradition

By Shoba Narayan

Akram Khan was ostracised when he first brought contemporary dance to India. Now, he’s treated like a rock star
Akram Khan dances in front of a group of musicians©Richard HoughtonCrossover: Akram Khan in ‘Gnosis’ on his recent tour of India

Akram Khan, one of Britain’s favourite and finest contemporary dancers, is back on stage at Sadler’s Wells, in London, after a prolonged period of inactivity due to a severe injury to his Achilles tendon in January. He was fit enough to appear with his eponymous dance company, which he formed in 2000, at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in July, and then set himself what was probably a greater challenge – a six-city tour of India as part of the Park’s New Festival.

Khan, who was born in Wimbledon to a Bangladeshi family, is acclaimed for his dynamic mixture of western contemporary styles with the north Indian kathaktradition, which he studied from the age of seven. But despite his international reputation, he is nervous about performing in India. Indian dance audiences are famously resistant to change and hugely protective of their traditions. There is a clear differentiation between the various regional styles of dance and little crossover.

 “It is terrifying to perform kathak in India because people keep taal here [a rhythmic clap to keep time in Indian classical music],” says Khan. “I can’t fool them because they know the music, they know the stories.”

I met him on a warm sunny day in September, by the poolside restaurant of the Park Hotel in Bangalore, when he had just delivered a bravura performance ofGnosis at the city’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall the previous night. Journalists and photographers waited in line as young kathak dancers came up to pay their respects.

But it has taken some time to gain this respect in India, and Khan is still tending the old wounds sustained after being ostracised by London’s Indian dance community when he switched from kathak to contemporary dance in the early 1990s.

“They made me feel like what I do is less than what the masters in India are doing,” he says.

“When I switched to contemporary, when I shaved my head, there was a huge backlash. They stopped coming to my shows.”

The same thing happened when Khan came to India with his company in 2003 to perform Kaash, his first full-length work. Mumbai’s dance critics tore into him, calling his work pretentious and stilted. “It was un­believable, what they were saying,” says Khan. “They think they know everything about contemporary dance but they don’t know shit.”

Things couldn’t have been more different during last month’s Indian tour of Gnosis. A mostly solo work, except for a section in which acclaimed Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu performs wearing a blindfold, it earned rapturous responses in all six Indian cities. Khan’s opening show in Chennai brought a standing ovation.

“Chennai was a very important place for me because if you can touch those people, who are hardcore classical [dance] people, with your contemporary work, then the work is not superficial.”

His performance in Mumbai earned him two curtain calls from a fawning audience, even though some among the well-travelled crowd had already seen Gnosis at Sadler’s Wells. “Indian audiences can no longer be taken for granted with respect to contemporary dance,” says Ranvir Shah, artistic director of the Park’s New Festival. “We travel abroad and see the shows. That said, Gnosis speaks to Indians because it is rooted in the [Sanskrit epic] Mahabharata.”

The Indian tour was almost like a homecoming for Khan. He got off the aeroplane in Calcutta and began speaking to the limousine driver in Bengali. “I am home,” he said. In Bangalore, his performance was like a rock concert, with young kathakdancers whooping and whistling every time he came on stage. One of that audience, Meghna Acharya, a 23-year-old kathak dancer who studies with Maya Rao, a leading teacher in Bangalore, said afterwards that she felt that “Akram Khan is amazing because he shows us what is possible with kathak and how to take tradition forward.”

Khan is in a good place. His company is touring the world; he is working withSlumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto on an Iranian film called Desert Dancer; talks are afoot to incorporate his dance with a world-class circus; he wants to make his latest work, Desh, into a movie.

After his tendon injury earlier this year rendered him essentially immobile, he says that “It took me four weeks to learn how to walk again. It was humiliating. But because my body stopped dancing, my mind was dancing. I want to work more and more with my mind as I get older.”

Khan also intends to perform more in Asia, particularly in India, spurred by a desire to prove himself in the birthplace of the kathak style that is so important to him. “When I am in London I feel Indian, but when I am in India or Bangladesh I feel like a foreigner because I am not doing kathak in the way that they do … I keep telling myself that it is the craft that is important and the craft will transcend everything, but you are never entirely sure.”

While in India, he met other dancers, visited schools, conducted workshops, and caught up with the trends. Indian contemporary dance has a long way to go, he says, because the pieces “are created from the surface; they are not embodied”.

More interesting to him are the Indian dancers he admires, such as Aditi Mangaldas and Priyadarshini Govind. “In order to transform [it], you have to go deeply into the centre of a tradition,” he says. “When a kathak dancer comes on stage, the audience knows the whole repertoire, starting with the invocation. That’s why someone like Aditi Mangaldas is so important, because she is transforming the kathak tradition from within.”

No matter how much fame Khan has achieved, it is easy to sense that kathak remains both his strength and his weakness. “I hope people consider me a kathak dancer even though the recognition is for the contemporary work,” he says. “Kathak is always there – mathematically, rhythmically, narratively, gesturally – but I am not interested in transforming it from within. That’s Aditi’s role. Maybe later I will do it, but right now I am fascinated by lots of other things. All I can do is remind people that there is so much advantage to holding on to tradition.”

Identity and migration are important themes in his work and coming to the land of his ancestors has sparked many ideas for future projects, he says.

“Here, I have to work really hard with the classical, while in London I have to work hard with the contemporary,” he comments.

Does he consider himself an Indian-Bangladeshi or a British dancer? In response, Khan quotes Kumudini Lakhia, who taught many of today’s leading lights: “I hold no flags for any country. I need both hands free to dance.”


‘Desh’ is at Sadler’s Wells, London, until October 9


Moynat for FT

I love niche products that nobody has heard of.  Moynat fits the bill.  It retails only in Paris for now, and very few people have heard of this brand.  Below is a piece I wrote about Moynat for Financial Times which ran during Paris Fashion Week.

Moynat for FT: this is the edited version on the site.  Scroll down to the Leather Goods section.

Saris from Paris

About the Hermes Sari.  Appearing here in the Financial Times Weekend fashion pages and pasted below.

January 13, 2012 10:05 pm

Saris from Paris?

By Shoba Narayan

French label Hermès has launched a take on the traditional garment and sparked controversy among local designers in India
Saris by HermèsSaris by Hermès

At his flagship Calcutta store, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is extolling the glories of his new Kanjivaram collection to an adoring clientele. He pulls out silk brocade saris and points out complex weaves and disappearing flower motifs, raving about the nine exclusive weavers he employs in the ancient silk weaving centre of Kanjivaram, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Then a slim twentysomething woman walks in, dressed in a short Gucci dress, with Fendi sandals, Bulgari sunglasses and Prada bag. Her sari-clad mother wants to buy her a Kanjivaram sari, priced at about £1,800. The daughter refuses, saying that the “heavy silk weaves” will make her look fat. She prefers Mukherjee’s transparent “net saris”.

“Indians are moving away from our handmade textile traditions,” Mukherjee says, mournfully. “This is why a brand like Hermès has the audacity to come in here and sell a printed sari for £5,500. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy those Hermès saris but they will ignore our handcrafted weaves.”

Indeed, the launch in India of 28 limited-edition Hermès styles only two months ago has ignited an intense debate, with factions (traditional and non) facing off against one another. At issue: the fact that a French brand is selling a simple “bazaar-type sari”.

“I was so angry when I saw it,” says designer Deepika Govind, who specialises in organic, eco-friendly fabrics. “It is obnoxious to come and wave a simple printed sari in our faces and say, ‘We’ve done a sari.’ OK, but show us something we haven’t done.”

Traditional saris from the winter collection by Sabyasachi MukherjeeTraditional saris from the winter collection by Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Like Mukherjee, Govind speaks reverentially about difficult weaves such as the Patan patola (a reversible weave that appears luminous on both sides); the Bagh prints of Madhya Pradesh (intricate handblocked floral prints coloured with vege­table dyes); and the geometric, multilayered ajrakprints of Rajasthan. “We are sitting on a gold mine,” she says. “If a company can take a very basic design and release it worldwide for that outrageous price, it just shows that we don’t know how to market our products. If any fool were to buy this [Hermès] sari, if any Indian were to buy it! I cannot see a reason to own this product.”

Hermès, however, says that selling a sari in India is not taking coals to Newcastle. Rather, it wants to “connect with Indian tradition and elegance,” says Bertrand Michaud, president of Hermès India. And there is precedent, thanks to Hermès’ Marwari scarves (prints inspired by the rare horses of Jodhpur) and sari-dresses designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in spring 2008 when he was creative director of the brand. Those, however, were riffs; this is a more significant collection. “It is like Indians selling wine in France,” sniffs one Indian style expert. “To sell a sari in India takes Gallic gall.”

Michaud prefers to call it homage. “The idea of the saris was to honour Indian culture and offer an Hermès interpretation of this traditional garment,” he says. Indeed, the brand’s entry into India follows its successful Shang Xia brand in China, which blends home-grown products with Hermès sensibilities.

‘It is like Indians selling wine in France. To sell a sari in India takes Gallic gall,’ says one Indian style expert

Hermès is just one of the many luxury brands thronging the Indian retail space, drawn by the fact that the Indian luxury market, which was a mere $4.76bn in 2009, is expected to grow by 20-25 per cent annually to reach $14.7bn by 2015, according to a report from the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a textile designer who has worked with the Indian government on policy related to handicrafts, says: “A lot of Indian designers are critical of the Hermès sari but we have to focus instead on promoting the use of saris among the younger generation – and for more occasions than weddings and festivals.”

Saris have a complicated history in India, dating back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Had Hermès launched a range of dupattas or stoles, or any other garment, the brand would not have provoked so much emotion and ire. But saris, as Rta Kapur Chishti says in her book Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond, are part of the Indian identity and represent a culture in which the woven and unstitched garment was considered not just climatically appropriate but also “an act of greater purity and simplicity”.

Still, not everyone is so critical of Hermès. Handloom researcher Uzra Bilgrami points out that for all their criticism of Hermès, Indian designers themselves don’t wear saris, choosing instead to “run around” in blue jeans. Bandana Tewari, fashion features director of Vogue India, who calls herself a big supporter of Indian handicrafts, says: “The Hermès sari is a nice modern print; completely anti-bling. It isn’t over the top or trying to compete with the textile artisans based in Rajasthan. Hermès is just doing what comes naturally to them,” – ie printed silk. However, though sometimes a sari is just a sari, it can also be a political hot potato.

New Zealand Food Tour for FT

Articles > Newspapers > Financial Times > New Zealand Food Tour
New Zealand Food Tour
– By Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in May 2005)
For being such an isolated faraway country, New Zealand is a veritable culinary cornucopia. There are olives for the pressing, berries for the picking and wines for the sampling all within a span of miles and sometimes within the same village. Happy sheep bound about the bucolic countryside feasting on the verdant meadows, all of which, no doubt, add flavor to New Zealand’s prized lamb. Salmon, trout and whitebait frisk and frolic in pristine lakes and rivers yielding meltingly fresh seafood that grace many a restaurant’s platter. Bluff oysters, Akaroa salmon, Nelson’s King scallops, West Coast whitebait and Kaikoura crayfish—these are the bounty of New Zealand’s waters. There is beef, ham and venison too from cattle reared on rolling hills and wide-open pastures. I’ve never seen such happy animals as I have in New Zealand and they all probably add to the taste of its cuisine.

This is an old land but a young country. The Maori chanced upon it in 1350 A.D. when they rowed across the Pacific from Hawaiiki. The Irish and English discovered it a mere two generations ago bringing with them a hardy ‘food as fuel’ philosophy that was reflected in hearty roasts, potatoes and dark ale. “Used to be that a big night out would be to Barry’s Bistro for Steak Diane and a big cask of Muller Thurgau,” laughs Debbie Baldook, executive chef of the Millbrook Resort in Queenstown. In the last ten years however, Kiwi cuisine has gone from being ‘roast of the day’ to dishes that are startlingly inventive or completely out-of-control depending on your point of view. Mussel soup with passionfruit mousse anyone?

Devoid of a culinary tradition—the Maori hangi feasts don’t seem to have made a dent in the current cooking scene—New Zealand as a country embraces innovation. Chefs are encouraged to experiment and come up with fusion-combinations that borrow from the cuisines of the Pacific Rim. The results can be incredible or inedible. One restaurant served up a giant flax leaf wrapped around a tiny bowl containing an infusion of some sort. I wasn’t sure if the foot-high flax leaf was a wrap or ornament. So I simply sent the dish back. As Chef Michael Maguire at the Lakes restaurant in Christchurch says, “Sometimes you end up paying $36 for what is essentially several layers of garnish.”

Maguire himself is wary of such histrionics. His food is as earthy and harmonious as the Canterbury countryside on which it is based. He scours the world for spices and condiments but uses them sparingly. His pan seared scallops with pineapple salsa and coconut sorbet is a fine reflection of his teenage years in Singapore and his apprenticeship with three-star Michelin chef Marco Russo in the UK. Like most chefs, Maguire has to please two sets of mutually exclusive diners— older Christchurch locals who are wary of spices and a younger, more worldly clientele that seeks nouvelle cuisine. “I run a very flexible kitchen,” says Maguire. “There is no grandstanding. Basically, we’ll cook whatever the customer wants.”

For being a medium-sized city with a population of 366,000, Christchurch has more cafes and bars per head than anywhere else in New Zealand. Moroccan, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Old English, you name it and they have it. Christchurch is also a city that pretends it is in old England with hedge-lined squares where boys in white play cricket and a Victorian tramway that ambles along cobblestone streets. Men in hats can take you on a ‘punt’ along the Avon River in traditional English flat-bottomed boats and Hagley Park is a picture of manicured perfection.

Christchurch’s café and bistro scene, however, is decidedly modern. Black-uniformed wait-staff briskly take your order and come back with sandwiches or paninis stuffed with ingredients that are sourced from around the world: hummus, tzatziki, couscous, kale, miso and curry are all proffered and accepted. Vegetarians and vegans are graciously accommodated without much fuss. And restaurants, even the finest ones resist brocaded stuffiness. The service at 50 on the Park at the George Hotel, one of the city’s oldest dining establishments, for instance, is formal yet friendly. Nathan Bates, the executive chef sources the world for his spices and inspirations and works with over 40 local suppliers including foragers, bakers and beekeepers for ingredients. The results show in his sparkling if pricey cuisine. A duo of Canterbury lamb cutlet and cut of loin costs $32 while mains at the seafood-focused Pescatore restaurant upstairs start at $41.

There is a reason for this high price and it is one that locals rue: the best lamb, seafood, wines and oils are exported. If local chefs want them, they have to pay export prices. Most chefs make do with the B-grade stuff which is quite good by global standards, while the chefs at top restaurants pass on the expense to their customers.

For those willing to pay the price, however, New Zealand offers a bounty of produce, dairy, seafood and meats in the most startling of places. At the tiny mountain village of Geraldine, en route to the glaciers of Mount Cook, I encountered some exceptional cheeses in a tiny store. Talbot Forest Cheese, they were called, and they were all produced locally. I sampled some perfectly ripe Chevre le Blanc—a camembert made from goat’s milk, some aged Gouda, a creamy brie called Canter-brie in a nod to the region, and a smoky Manuka before buying the whole lot for the road.

Right next door, Barker’s Berry barn offered a variety of jams, preserves and chutneys neatly lined up in bottles alongside free samples for tasting. The apricot, boysenberry and blackcurrant jams were fresh and tasty as were the wildberry and orange preserves. But what caught my eye were the chutneys: capsicum and apricot, green tomato and jalapeno, tamarillo and plum and spiced beetroot. I can’t say that I liked all of them but the interesting and sometimes outrageous combinations typified New Zealand’s culinary sensibility.

After fifteen days of driving around the South Island, we realized that the climate and scenery seemed to encourage artisanal products. In obscure small towns, we found chocolatiers, cheese-mongers, herb and lavender farmers, butchers, bakers and icecream-makers practicing and perfecting their craft. Beesonline mixes vinegar and honey and sells its ‘honeygars’ nationwide. Prenzel Distilling Company sells apricot, peach and sour apple schnapps with butterscotch cream at the Grape Escape gourmet outlet in Nelson. Kinaki Wild Herbs sells herbs that the Maori used such as koru, pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa, all of which can be infused into native avocado oil to give an instant Kiwi flavor to dishes. Pacific Harvest company promotes kelp and seaweed. And Salumeria Fontana seasons sausages with Sicilian sea salt, black pepper, Southland elephant garlic and Italian wine. Organic vineyards such as Sunset Valley in Nelson follow biodynamic sustainable viticultural practices.

Outside Queenstown, we found a line of berry and fruit orchards lining the road and stopped to pick cherries and sun-ripened strawberries. We sampled extra virgin olive oil at numerous presses all over the country, a legacy of the late Israeli horticulturist Gideon Blumenfeld who planted his first olive trees in 1985 and is now considered the godfather of New Zealand’s burgeoning olive oil industry. Athena Olive oil serves up some wonderfully fruity lemon-infused olive oil that are stocked in the Canterbury region. Up near Nelson, we stopped in at the Stafford Lane Estate, which grows olive and native fejoia trees beside its vineyards. I bought a peppery picholine olive oil which worked well for the Indian cuisine I cooked. As for the fejoia jam, all I have to say is that it is an acquired taste. Stafford Lane also stocked Dukkah, which is an spice-mix made of hazelnuts, coriander, cumin and sesame, somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli Za’atar. But all these were expensive. A small bottle of olive oil was $12.95.

Bread is booming in New Zealand perfected in family-owned bakeries that have, in some cases, carried sourdough starters from the old country. Rachel Scott breads have a cult following around Christchurch, while Redwood Bakkerij specializes in moist ‘half-baked’ baguettes. A minor revolution is the widespread availability of savory scones, pies and muffins. Unlike the US where muffins are cloyingly sweet, New Zealand has mastered the savory counterpart. At the Founder’s Organic Brewery in Nelson, where I sampled pints of micro-brewed beer with chirpy names like Tall Blonde, Redhead and Long Black, the in-house café sold a delicious feta cheese and sundried tomato muffin. At the Riverside Café which is part of the Riverside Community that “promotes peace through cooperative and sustainable living,” we wolfed down some savory spice-encrusted muffins while waiting for our lunch. When our crisp French fries and thin pizzas finally arrived, we could barely do justice to them. At the Hislops café in the whale-watching crayfish-eating haven that is Kaikoura township, we became smarter and lunched on a tasty burger along with some onion and cheese muffins, all washed down with a few glasses of sauvignon blanc.

Wineries are of course a major driver of the food revolution in New Zealand. After all, when the quality of the wine improves, you need food to go with it. Many wineries have in-house cafes and restaurants that serve to showcase their product. The in-house restaurant at the Pegasus Bay winery takes its cuisine very seriously and was in fact shortlisted for one of the top ten restaurants in New Zealand by Cuisine, New Zealand’s foodie magazine. The food at Pegasus Bay was deep on flavor and a perfect foil for their wines. We walked in without reservations and were told that there was a 45-minute wait. The same was true at the Carrick Winery restaurant near Queenstown. After a while, we got the message: if you want to lunch at these immensely popular winery restaurants, you’d do best to call ahead. At Pegasus Bay, our wait was rewarded with a cool apple and celery soup with truffle scented Athena oil and a handmade pumpkin and marjoram tortellini with a summer vegetable nage, all washed down with Pegasus Bay Reisling.

The Gibbston Valley winery goes one step further. In addition to the wine-tasting and full-service restaurant, there is an in-house cheesery that sells a variety of homegrown cheeses. We sampled their cheese board that offered its washed-rind cheese called ‘Monk’s Gold,’ its savory cheddar and soft brie.

Artisanal cheeses are being perfected all over the country ranging from the venerable and large Kapiti cheeses from the North Island too smaller producers like Whitestone, Talbot and others. With milk and butter being so abundant, cheese is only the natural next step. Most New Zealand cheesemakers go for the more straightforward cheeses however, rather than the more obscure ‘smelly’ European cheeses. They seem content perfect a smooth brie instead of attempting a complex gruyere. And why not? This after all is most definitely not a nation with 536 varieites of cheeses. New Zealand has 53,000 sheep and for the Kiwis, perfecting a few world-class sheep’s milk cheese is just as satisfying as trying their hand at the tricky ones. In his website, Kapiti cheese’s chairman says,
So there you have it, two culinary trends running parallel to each other. On the one hand, the Kiwi inclination towards self-effacement, restraint and quietitude and yet, on the other, this inventive playfulness, this constant innovation towards extreme-cuisine as it were from a nation that invented bungy-jumping and thrives on extreme-sports. The taciturn mountaineer a la Edmund Hillary, the national icon is just as much a Kiwi stereotype as is the voluble adrenaline-junkie Prime Minister Helen Clark who didn’t know about the Asian tsunami disaster because she was heli-skiing in Norway over Boxing Day. The question for the future is which will win out—extreme cuisine or restrained roasts.

Debbie Baldook, executive chef at the Millbrook Resort thinks that her country is over fusion, Pacific Rim and incessant invention. “Now it is all about putting clean, clear flavors on the plate,” she said while at the same time appealing to the ever-growing sophistication of the Kiwi palate. Perhaps because they are so isolated, New Zealanders are more attuned to global goings-on than other countries. They travel the world and sample its wares. They are open-minded and accepting of new things, be it spices or flavors. Baldook for instance, offers tahini sauce with her veal tenderloin and none of her clients—local or tourist—bat an eyelid, she says.
“New Zealanders are much more innovative than, say in the UK,” says Alan Hibberts, originally from London. “They are open to new flavors in a way that the English aren’t.”

“We are a shy people,” says Richard Tanner, chef-owner of Malabar, an Asian fusion restaurant in the alpine spa-outpost of Hamner Springs where vacationers come to take in the waters at the region’s hot and thermal springs. Tanner has lived and cooked in 88 countries across the globe including New York, London, Spain, India and Thailand. Originally from Hanmer Springs, he came back home to roost and roast here. His cuisine reflects his global travels and Kiwi moorings.

Chefs such as Tanner reflect the new Kiwi: world-travelled, sophisticated, open-minded, blessed with a bounty of ingredients and finally knowing what to do with them. “For the first time, I think we aren’t looking to Europe or America or Asia for inspiration,” says Bates. “We aren’t look inward. We are figuring out what we as New Zealanders can cook and eat.”

And my, what a feast that will be.
This article originally appeared in may 2005.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Manila Beauty Trail for FT

Articles > Newspapers > Financial Times > Manila Beauty Trail
Manila Beauty Trail
– By Shoba Narayan

Want a top end massage for a budget price? Head to the Philippines, says Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in November 2004)
Manila is an unlikely spa destination but recently several high-end spas have made inroads into this gray congested capital of the Philippine archipelago, fueled in part by a wealthy minority that demands world-class services. The general public too does not lag behind in terms of consumerism. Filipinos are a people with a Malay body, Spanish heart and a Catholic soul that abhors birth control. This has resulted in a burgeoning young population that lives for the moment and believes that tomorrow will take care of itself. The multitudes of young women who take the jeepney to metropolitan Makati every morning may not have enough to cover their mortgage but they certainly have enough for a manicure.

I traveled to the Philippines at the insistence of several spa-junkie friends, who claimed that spas in and around Manila offered some of the best value for money. Given the strength of most Western currencies against the Philippine peso, I have to agree. Body massages that would cost a couple of hundred bucks elsewhere in the world can be had for half or even quarter that amount in the Philippines.

The Farm at San Benito is not strictly a spa. Rather, it bills itself as a Hippocrates Health Resort. Owned by a German man married to a Filipino woman, the Farm is set on hundreds of acres of lush farmland just outside Lipa City– two hours by car from Manila. I was interested in visiting the Farm for one specific reason– it only served raw food. Now, raw food is the latest food trend to sweep America, thanks to Roxanne’s restaurant in California. Raw foodies claim that heating and cooking destroy the beneficial enzymes that help digest food. So they fashion raw ingredients to resemble cooked food using dehydrators and human ingenuity. Raw food in sunny California was all very well. But raw food in pork-loving meat-eating Philippines! It boggled the mind.

It was well past lunchtime when we drove up to the Farm. We dropped our bags in the charming tree-house-like cottage allocated to us and immediately made tracks for the restaurant. The set lunch and dinner menu usually offers an appetizer, a salad, soup, a raw main course or a cooked one, and dessert. We began with dehydrated coconut and flaxseed crackers served with tabouli and mango salsa. To my surprise, the mango salsa was outstanding and the crackers were addictive. The red bell pepper soup with a chiffonade of basil wasn’t bad either. It was served warm rather than hot in keeping with raw food principles. The raw main course was a nut taco filled with a spicy sauce. As we kept eating, my husband and I stared at each other in wonder. The food wasn’t bad– it really wasn’t. I am not sure if I can eat such food for more than a couple of days, but in terms of the taste test– it passed. Desserts was a refreshing tropical icecream, a gelato really since dairy is not used in this vegan restaurant (did I mention that it was vegan in addition to being raw food?). The ‘icecream’ was served with some wonderfully chewy lemon balls.

After lunch, I was whisked away to the resident doctor who performed a live blood-cell analysis on me. She said that my blood showed that I had difficulty digesting proteins and so I should consider a raw food diet, at least on some days. No surprise there.

The next morning, I went for my massage. The spa is located at the end of the stunning property. There are manmade lakes, flowing waterfalls, pebbled sidewalks, humming birds, landscaped grounds and a profusion of flowers– Eastern aesthetic married with German discipline.

The spa itself was just as good if not better than any I have experienced in North America, Europe and other parts of Asia. White uniformed masseuses guided me to the large well-appointed treatment rooms and performed a deep-tissue ‘relaxation massage’ with care and competence. The outdoor shower with ylang-ylang scented water was a wonderful treat after my massage. I ended with a homemade foot rub containing peppermint and coconut oil which left my gnarled ankles as soft as a baby’s.

The Oriental Spa at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manila contrasted to the Farm in the same way that an urban city contrasts to the rambling countryside. When I got off the lift, I discovered that the whole floor was scented. So I followed my nose to the spa and was greeted by a smiling attendant who offered me a refreshing cup of iced tea, took off my shoes and handed me some slippers. With dark wood and carved Thai figurines on the wall, the spa reflects an ambience which I call haute-Bali. I was scheduled to have an East-West aromatherapy treatment, which combined elements from Thai massage with Swedish. Fifteen minutes later, I felt all the knots caused by sitting in clogged traffic reduce. By the end of my treatment, I had forgotten I was in Manila. I had fallen fast asleep.

Emphasis is where wealthy, trendy Filipinas go to get their haircuts, beauty and spa treatments. Named by Philippine Tatler magazine as the best beauty salon in the city, it is owned by Mr. Teng Roma, a Filipino man who has been in the beauty business for over 25 years. At Emphasis, I wanted to try the Indonesian Lulur body scrub and massage. An Indonesian massage is not a pleasant experience; indeed, it was rather painful as my gentle masseuse with iron fingers squeezed and stroked my tight shoulder muscles into soft submission. Eastern folk prefer strength to subtlety when it comes to massage– they feel they are getting more value for the money if the masseuse squeezes harder. Chinese tui na is painful and so was my Indonesian massage. But the positive effects of such a massage last longer than, say, a Swedish one. By the time my masseuse got done with pinching and stroking my cellulite away, I felt like I had dropped to dress sizes. And walked taller too.

1. The Oriental Spa, 18th Floor, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Makati Avenue, Makati City 1226. Telephone: (632) 867-4461. Fax: (632) 810-6582. Email: Website: Contact: Doris Prema Sinnathurai, Spa Consultant. I was a guest at the hotel for one night.

2. The Farm at San Benito, P.O. Box 39676, 119 Barangay Tipakan, Lipa City, Batangas, Philippines. Telephone: (02) 696-3175. Fax: (02) 696-3795. Email: Website: Contact: Rudolf Studer, Operations Consultant. I was a guest at The Farm for one night.

3. Emphasis Salon, Rockwell Information Center, Estrella Corner, Amanpola Street, Makati City 1200. Telephone: (632) 898-0818/898-0819. Fax: (632) 7296742. Email:
This article originally appeared in November 2004.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Asian Fusion for FT

Articles > Newspapers > Financial Times > Asian Fusion
Asian Fusion
– By Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in January 2003)
Asian fusion in all but name

Shoba Narayan finds a Singapore four that can blend with the best site; Jan 23, 2004
Asian Fusion has become a bad word in Singapore’s culinary lexicon, a somewhat strange occurrence given that this island-state is home to three of Asia’s great cuisines – Indian, Chinese and Malay.

Fusion comes naturally to Singaporeans. Where else can you find the humble English toast slathered with fillings ranging from eggs to coconut custard and sold as kaya toast sandwiches in kopitiams (coffee houses)? Singaporean cooks borrow spices and satays, techniques and curries from their Asian neighbours and blend them with an inventiveness that might be better used elsewhere.

In the past decade, several high-end restaurants used the term Asian fusion as an excuse to serve appallingly bad food. Not surprisingly, they closed. The net result is that Singapore chefs shy away from the term even if they practice it. Here are four restaurants which do, even if a couple of them say they don’t.

My Humble House, in spite of its old-fashioned name, is one of the most exciting Chinese restaurants in Singapore with billowing yellow and purple curtains, minimalist wood furniture, flickering candles, and a rose-petal lined private dining room. The young office-going crowd that frequents this place takes full advantage of the communal tables and open kitchen. Owner Andrew Tjoie is not afraid of the word fusion and his influence is obvious in the kitchen. Japan and Italy have little in common but my tempura enoki mushroom appetizer in a sweet basil pesto successfully married this unlikely pair.

Most Chinese restaurants serve dim sum with all the grace of an assembly line, and most patrons shovel them in with the speed of a cement-mixer. But the chef’s dim sum trio stood like three little soldiers in the white landscaped plate and forced me to pay attention to their flavours.

Executive chef Thomas Chai is not afraid to take risks even if it means alienating his traditional Chinese clients. His braised shark fin, crabmeat and roe with steamed crab claw in a consommé is a tasty but unorthodox preparation.

Perched high above the South China Sea on Sentosa Island, The Cliff is one of Singapore’s most dramatic settings. Chef de cuisine Shawn Armstrong, originally from Texas, revels in the plethora of ingredients available to him. In spite of serving several dishes that bring together Asian and western elements, such as the warm sesame crusted brie de meaux with an Asian pear and ginger jam and garlic confit, Armstrong prefers to call his menu “seafood-inspired” rather than fusion. Among the appetisers, oyster six ways is a hot seller – it serves oysters with six different pairings including champagne granita, truffled scrambled eggs and cucumber jelly.

Chef Miland Sovani insists that the dishes he serves up at Rang Mahal and Vansh, Singapore’s best Indian restaurants, aren’t fusion – and perhaps they aren’t. But he does present traditional Indian dishes in surprising ways – a spinach roll that looks like sushi but is set in a spicy tomato sauce. Other dishes like the Panchratni Dal, which uses five different lentils, are rare but authentic Indian preparations. The lunch buffet includes the usual suspects such as Palak Paneer, lamb vindaloo and tandoori chicken, but also a wonderfully rich seafood-laced Samndari Biriyani. Desserts, thankfully, are light and go easy on the sugar – an anomaly for Indian restaurants.

Samia Ahad, owner of Coriander Leaf, is Pakistani by origin and New Yorker by sensibility. She attended culinary school in the Big Apple. She uses both to good effect while teaching busy executives to chop salads and slice salmon at her cooking school-cum-corporate bonding exercise.

Her repertoire is dizzying – everything from Burmese to Turkish. Her speciality is Persian food, and hers is possibly the only restaurant in Singapore that serves Vietnamese rice paper rolls alongside green apple rosti and Persian eggplant and yogurt dip. Her Singaporean chef throws the best naans this side of Tashkent, and her Thai-inspired barramundi was truly uplifting. Such an extensive menu is bound to pay a price, however, and there are some mediocre dishes such as the anise flavoured crispy duck. Desserts include a wonderful poached pear in wine and also the warm Vahlrona chocolate cake.

This article originally appeared in August 1999.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Financial Times Weekend: Singapore’s New Cuisine

This piece appeared some time ago but I forgot to post it. Friends visiting Singapore reminded me of it.
Click here to read the piece in FT.

A new cuisine style is transforming Singapore
By Shoba Narayan
Published: August 22 2009 02:51 | Last updated: August 22 2009 02:51

It is usually after the hickory-smoked wagyu beef cheeks with truffle-mashed potatoes that diners at Iggy’s in Singapore demand to meet the chef. By then, they have been dazzled by the savoury crab-meat soufflé, the cauliflower mousse, and the foie gras crème brûlée. Then, Akmal Anuar comes out. A local boy, he serves dishes that would not seem out of place in New York, Paris or London.

After the Miele Guide and Restaurant magazine anointed Iggy’s the best restaurant in Asia last year, ahead of Joel Robuchon’s Hong Kong outpost, this cosy European eatery at the Regent hotel has had its share of carping. Critics dismiss its truffle overload; and, honestly, does a wagyu beefburger require a white-truffle sabayon? But in this wealthy island-state with its abundance of good restaurants, few walk the tightrope between innovation and excess with as much finesse as Iggy’s.

Singapore’s high-end restaurants used to import chefs from Europe, Australia or Hong Kong to run their kitchens. This resulted in some good, albeit tortured, food as French chefs tried to duplicate winter dishes like beef au poivre in Singapore’s tropical climate. Anthony Bourdain joked that the soul of Singaporean cuisine lay in its hawker stalls and rojak (mixed up) food.

Not any more. Quietly and without much fanfare, Singapore has experienced a culinary renaissance of sorts. Gifted Singaporean chefs – such as Galvin Lim at Au Jardin, Christina Ee at Broth, Yong Bing Ngen of The Majestic, Jusman So at Sage, Sebastian Ng at Ember, Michael Han of 53, or Devagi Sanmugam at Spice Queen — have blossomed on their own turf.

Arguably, the big daddy of them all is cookbook author and TV personality Sam Leong. I meet Leong at My Humble House, a stunning restaurant near the Esplanade complex that serves modern Chinese food. While the menu descriptions are over the top – pan-seared fillet of giant grouper with ginger reduction is called “Sauntering among the Golden Leaves” – the food, mercifully, is simple and flavourful. “Traditional Chinese dishes are presented in a mess,” says Leong as dessert appears. It looks like a Chinese watercolour painting. There is a bonsai-type cliff surrounded by dry-ice engineered mist.

In a previous job at the Four Seasons, Singapore, Leong began innovating. “Everyone hated it,” he says. “The staff hated it because plating dishes was more work than serving family-style. Worst of all, the diners hated it. I would take such pains to debone and present the fish and they’d scream, ‘Where’s the head, where’s the tail?’ They thought I was cheating them.”

Milind Sovani hopes to do for Indian food what Leong has done for Chinese. A Brahmin who eats “everything from frog’s legs to crocodile meat”, Sovani, 45, created exciting Indian dishes as executive chef of sister establishments Rang Mahal and Vansh. He now runs his own restaurant, Song of India, set in a renovated black-and-white mansion near Orchard Road.

Sovani borrows freely from various cultures, turning naan bread into mini-pizzas and spiking foie gras with star anise. Lobster with lemon-chilli marinade comes with Kerala’s coconut milk-based moily sauce – a combination to make Keralite and Punjabi matrons frown but is somehow delicious.

Well-travelled Singaporeans who enjoyed the food and wine culture abroad wanted it back home, and it helps that Singapore is open to imports. The Les Amis group of restaurants ships in Parma ham, wagyu beef and Australian wine for its 12 high-end restaurants in the city. Having dined at all of its outlets, I am partial to Au Jardin inside the Botanical Gardens and La Strada, which is headed by one of Singapore’s few female chefs, How Poh Poh.

But the restaurant I am most excited about is Les Amis’ latest venture, 53. Chef Michael Han interned at The Fat Duck and L’Enclume in the UK. Located in a pre-war building on Armenian Street, 53 has dishes that sing: Han’s poached chicken breast glazed with apple-parsnip foam, served on a pinenut and peanut puree as a nod to local satays, is reason enough to get on a flight to Singapore, wherever you happen to live.

Samosas for Financial Times Weekend

Searching for the best Indian snacks
By Shoba Narayan
Published: June 6 2009 02:22 | Last updated: June 6 2009 02:22

For your last meal on earth, what dish would you pick? Caviar, foie gras, fish and chips, pasta … I’ve heard it all. Faced with such a difficult choice, my answer is unequivocal: the humble samosa.

Samosas, for those who don’t know, are a much-loved Indian snack. Triangular and deep-fried, the parcels usually have a savoury filling. But this bald description does them no justice.

Samosas are sublime, though among its many fans opinions vary enormously about what constitutes a good one. Singaporeans love “Chinese” samosas with their chow mein fillings, whereas I detest them. Every samosa should contain potatoes. There are cauliflower (gobi) samosas but I hate those too. As for the shredded beetroot and cabbage samosas that haute Indian restaurants serve as if they were spring rolls, I feel like marching towards the chef and demanding my money back. At Zaika in London, I almost spat out a “chocolate samosa”, to my mind an oxymoron.

My Bengali friends swear by the shingara, which I grudgingly admit to the samosa family, except for the raisins in the recipe. If the shingara could lose its sweetness, its delicate filling of diced potatoes and cauliflower – not mashed together but left as a medley – could give any samosa a run for its money.

Samosas, which probably came to India from Arabia, are not a health food. They ought to be deep-fried, if possible in ghee. And don’t even think of substituting potatoes with sweet potatoes like one Australian restaurant once did. A good samosa ought to contain a few ingredients (mostly potatoes) with restrained spices – cumin, salt, and maybe a dash of fresh ginger – all encased in a thin shell of dough. No fancy puff pastry; no fudging with carrots or celery; and, above all, no messing with the shape.

In my opinion, the best samosas outside India can be found in the UK and in Toronto. In Britain, I routinely pick up samosas from food halls – I prefer Marks and Spencer’s version. My brother lived in west London, for many years and every time I visited him, we would scour the East End, Southall and Tooting in the south for samosas, sometimes with chilled beer and sometimes without. Our Pakistani friends swore by Lahore Karahi’s meat samosas. I prefer Pooja Sweets and Savouries on Upper Tooting Road. Their rustic samosas have enough heft and girth and don’t ooze oil.

Toronto is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is the very good Samosa King On the other, there is Sultan of Samosas, which serves a version filled with “fresh-cut spinach with feta and mozzarella in an oregano and basil dressing.” Just reading the description put me off samosas during my trip to Canada.

Even though I lived in the New York area for nearly 20 years, for good samosas, the West Coast is better. I usually start at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley, which serves decent samosas in an atmosphere that conjures up India. At a place that’s a cross between a high-ceilinged warehouse and a hole-in-the-wall, you wait in line before coming away with a plate of hot Indian food.

After trawling the globe, I have come up with a tip that I am rather proud of. If you want to get a halfway decent samosa anywhere in the world, don’t go to any place that calls itself an Indian “restaurant”. Choose instead the ones that say “sweets”. If the sign says, “Sweets and … ” even better. It’s no coincidence, then, that the two places where I’ve attained samosa nirvana are called Pooja Sweets and Savouries in Tooting and Rajjot Sweets and Snacks in Sunnyvale, near San Jose, California.

Shoba Narayan is the author of ‘Monsoon Diary: Reveries and Recipes from South India’


Where to go

Lahore Karahi,
1 Tooting High Street, London, tel: +44 (0)208767 2477
Pooja Sweets and Savouries
168170 Upper Tooting Road, London, tel: +44 (0)208672 4523;
Samosa King
5210 Finch Avenue East, Scarborough, Toronto, tel: +1 (416) 332 0944
Sultan of Samosas
251 Bartley Drive, Unit 1, Toronto, tel: +1 416 285 6565
Vik’s Chaat Corner
726 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA, tel: +1 510 644 4432;
Rajjot Sweets and Snacks
1234 South Wolfe Road, Sunnyvale, CA, tel: +1 408 730 5510