On Saturday we arranged to meet the work acquaintance of a friend of ours from Boise. Jim (in the U.S.) suggested that we contact Felix (here in Singapore), as they had met one another during one of Jim's business trips. Both Jim and Felix work for Key Technology, which is a manufacturer of production scanning and sorting equipment used in the food processing industry. Although we contacted Felix soon after our arrival in Singapore, our unexpected month back in the U.S., getting settled in, and Chinese New Years seemed to hinder our ability to find a compatible day to get together. However, we finally were able to meet. Felix met us Saturday morning, and treated us to a Kaya Toast and coffee breakfast, which is a local breakfast tradition. Felix is one of those people that you are comfortable with within five minutes of meeting him, and feel like you've known forever. We had a wonderful day visiting with him, and he graciously gave us a tour of a ceramics outlet in North Singapore, which I describe below. It was wonderful to have someone who knows the Chinese culture, and was able to explain to us what we were seeing. We are are pleased to have met a new friend, and hopeful that we will be able to get together again soon.
Felix, our kaya toast host and ceramics "tour guide"
Kaya Toast and Coffee
If you like sweets, butter, and coffee, then you will want to try kaya toast. Kaya is a sweet jam or spread made from coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, and flavored with leaves of the pandan, a fruit indigenous to the region. (Danger!-- this fruit looks suspiciously like durian, but apparently is not the same.) Kaya is the Malay word for "rich", so you know you are on a good track. The spread that we had was a light green color, although apparently it can have an amber color, depending upon the mix of the pandan in it. The kaya is spread between two very thin bread slices that have been toasted, along with a generous slice of butter, to form a kaya-butter toast sandwich. With butter, what's not to like? In addition to the toast, a soft-boiled egg, in a small bowl is served. Now, in my opinion S.B. eggs are only slightly less Neanderthal than eating them raw, but as it turns out they compliment very well with the kaya toast. So, how do you eat it? Here's the process:
- If you like, a little white pepper on your soft-boiled eggs, and some soya sauce, either the dark heavy type or the lighter variety, to suit your tastes.
- Stir this up to mix the egg, soya sauce (and pepper). This also makes you forget that it is soft boiled.
- Take a piece of the kaya toast and dip into the egg mix, and eat.
The flavors of the sweet kaya spread, butter, and the rich savory tastes of the eggs mix together and is really wonderful.
A cup of coffee with this, and you have a remarkable breakfast. The local coffee here is different than what is served in the U.S. U.S. coffee (and perhaps Europe-- I don't know) uses a process where the coffee beans are roasted dry, and are 100% coffee beans. Blending of bean varieties and roasts provide for differing flavors. Chicory is apparently a common additive in U.S. coffee, particularly in the South, although not my preference. I also place "flavored" coffees, with mint, chocolate, sassafras, raspberry, or whatever in its own category.
The local coffee is grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Java regions, and uses a "wet" process for the beans where the beans are not roasted. The mix is not 100% coffee either, although I don't know what else is added. Some coffee that we we purchased looked like it had little sticks or twigs of something in it-- don't ask. It was also sticky, and gummed up the coffee grinder a bit. However, the taste is very similar to a roasted coffee, but in my opinion less acidic and smoother-- it was good. It also turns your teeth slightly brown, which means you shouldn't get far from your toothbrush.
If this is not for you, Starbucks has a strong presence here (very popular, and available everywhere, just as in other cities. There are two of them in our local shopping mall.), and you can have a little piece of Seattle right here in Singapore for about S$7.50 for a Tall.
The Thow Kwant Ceramics Center
After the kaya toast breakfast, Felix drove us north to visit a ceramics center. The center is located in an industrial area of the city (Jurong), and it is likely you would never find this place on your own, maybe even if you knew it existed. Apparently they do not advertise, and it's existence is only by word of mouth. The center is in the back of a wooded area, and is located at the site of an old wood fired ceramic "dragon" kiln, built in the 1940's (no longer in use). The center is primarily an outlet for ceramics from China and S.E. Asia (e.g. Thailand), but also offers classes on ceramics. In addition, there are some gardens and ponds on the property.
The quantity of the stock of ceramics is daunting-- the place goes on and on, with something new to be discovered at every turn. Everything is in outdoor (covered) sheds, much like a garden center. In addition to the pottery, they also have plants and garden items for sale.
We purchased two items-- a hand-painted bowl (to be used as a fruit bowl) and small bowl (its function is TBD-- likely will be to collect dust in a cabinet). See below. Felix has brought other U.S. visitors here before, which made me ask him if he was on commission from the center. He says unfortunately he is not.
Entrance to the ceramics center. The buildings were simply open-air covered sheds, such as these shown
The Dragon Kiln. Dragon kilns originated in china, and utilize a slope design which drafts the heat along its length. This kiln is built on a hill, and extends up the hill for 40 meters. There are 17 stoke holes on the side, where operators would stoke the heating fires. The kiln was built in 1940, but is no longer used. The Jurong area, where this kiln is located, has a rich deposit of clay, and as many as nine dragon kilns were built and utilized in the area for firing ceramics.
Inside the dragon kiln
Elaine viewing some of the elephant ceramics. This area had many large clay pots to be used for large plantings or small fish ponds
An aquatic planting. Felix indicated this is duck weed, a type of aquatic plant that is used as duck fodder. The plants are floating on the surface water in this clay pot.
Big ones-- could also be used as a small hot tub, or a cannibal kettle.
These are hand painted vases, quite tall. There were others here that stood nearly two meters (i.e. about 5 ft). One artistic guest couple that Felix had brought to this center purchased one of these large vases, proceeded to break it into many pieces and then reconstruct it. (Or perhaps it wouldn't fit in the boot for the ride home?)
Hand painted vase. The colors and style of pottery is representative of various dynasty periods of China. However, I will need to enroll in one of the ceramics classes (or an art-history class) to be able to speak anything to that.
"No, no. No thanks. I don't care to have any durian"
These are Chinese deities, and these were available in a number of sizes. They come in sets of three. The deity on the left represents wisdom (note that he is older, white beard, always bald), the center deity represents prosperity (thus he is well dressed, with gold jewelry, etc.-- looks like someone from marketing) and the deity on the right represents knowledge (note the scroll-- I don't see a pocket protector though).
In addition to ceramics, there were many of these ornate wood carvings (from drift wood or tree stumps). These are Chinese tea tables. Each of the areas of the table have a purpose, although some of the tables were not as complex as this one.
One of the items we have seen in some of the furniture stores we have visited, and at this ceramic center are these large carved panels. (These are incredible!). This one has a large ceramic center tile with fish-- there are nine fish, which represent family and prosperity. The panels are often used at the entry of larger homes to screen the entrance from the room beyond-- this is the first thing you would see upon entering the house.
We have also seen elaborate carved panels, doors and doorways, or window shutters-- must have taken months to create these works of art.
Some of the works were wood carvings, perhaps for a quiet area of the garden, or a corner of the room...
...or something to put in the den to frighten off small children.
"Hmmm... now what was it that I was supposed to do today...."
One of our purchases-- a hand painted bowl. There are three animal scenes around it, with the pair of foxes (?) shown here. The other two are squirrels, and a cat.
The second purchase-- this bowl is an example of "eggshell porcelain". You have to heft it appreciate what it is. The sides are incredibly thin, and translucent. (There were other pieces at the shop, made of eggshell porcelain , which were to be used as small lamp shades.) Because the ceramic is so thin, it is also extremely light-- it feels as if the bowl were made from plastic-- or an egg shell. I'm nearly afraid to pick it up, as it seems very fragile.
So, How Do They Do It? The plants in the pots in back are bougainvillea, but note that each plant has about ten different colors of flowers coming from one trunk. I suspect grafting. A nice ornamental plant for those of us that can't decide on a single color.