Saturday, October 6, 2012

The good, the great and the grimy: 24 hours in Naples

Maintaining good neighbour relations is paramount in the Spanish Quarter if you want to avoid paying to dry your clothes at a laundromat.
Yes, Naples is a crazy busy, dirty and hectic city, but spending a day in its chaotic clutches makes you feel more alive than a year of nightly passeggiatas through any other Italian old town. There's nothing like stepping onto the road into a sea of speeding motor scooters, delivery vans and police cars with sirens blaring - it feels a bit like walking into a freezing cold ocean: you've just got to dive in; the rush will feel amazing once you've done it. This is probably the scariest thing about touring Naples (yes, parts of the city look far sketchier than most European cities, but don't judge a book by its cover etc.); but the consistently excellent pizza, OTT-friendly locals and stunning natural surrounds more than make up for the dirty streets and absence of road rules.

Awesome graffiti and paste-ups on display throughout the city's laneways
After having spent a month living an idyllic, borderline vegan lifestyle in the Puglian countryside (more posts to follow!) arriving in Naples was like going from 0 to 100km/hr in a matter of seconds - it was a psychological sugar rush, that's for sure. Not having had time to properly research our fleeting visit, we managed to stumble on some real gems which made our stay all the more memorable.

No caption needed, really: Le Due Sicilie has delicious cakes, all of which you want to eat.
Le Due Sicilie. This pasticceria at Corso Novara 1/D should be everyone's first stop when they arrive at the central train station (it's on the northern end of the piazza). Its speciality is the sfogliatelle, which hails from nearby Salerno - a clam-shaped confection with a crispy layered pastry shell, filled with flavoured ricotta. There's all manner of southern Italian cakes and pastries including canoli and rum babas. We polished off two each for breakfast and they tided us over until pizza at 3pm.

Hotel Ginevra. Yep, it's a hotel in the dodgy 'hood north of Piazza Garibaldi (and yes, the hotels are always dodgy closest to the train station). 'Hotel' is a bit of a loose term here: it occupies half a floor in a walk-up building, and it feels like somewhere you'd go to conduct an extra-marital affair in New York in the 1970s (complete with ash trays on the bed-side tables). But there's reliable wi-fi, it's much cheaper than a double room in a hostel, and you can wake to the sounds of the morning chaos on the streets below - no need to set an alarm. Plus, if you score one of the 'Ethnic'-themed rooms... well, let's just say that'll be a stay to remember.

Hosteria Toledo. There are tons of 'authentic' trattorias that locals frequent, where you can sample fresh seafood and typical Neopolitan dishes, but this one is a favourite for good reason, plus it's located a block off Toledo's main thoroughfare - these back streets are a great place to explore and escape the heat in the afternoon. Seafood primi piatti hover around 10 euros.

Pepiton Bar. Piazza San Giovanni Maggiore Pignatelli in Naple's historic centre has undergone somewhat of a clean-up in recent times; wander in there at night and the vibe is distinctly hipster-grimy rather than sketchy-grimy. Pepiton Bar has played a big role in this transformation; the bar's manager has been a mover and shaker in creating a safe and happenin' haven for young people to hang out in the heart of the old town. The staff certainly look out for their patrons; when we asked the nearest place to buy cigarettes we were escorted down a laneway to an old woman selling ciggies from her apartment - it's safe to say we wouldn't have found that on our own!

Pepiton Bar, in the piazza locals have nicknamed "Piazetta Orientale"
Perditempo. Thank goodness for this bookshop/wine bar/record shop; it singlehandedly reinstated our faith in southern Italy's arts and music scene. A big statement, perhaps, but let's just say we hadn't seen any Colin Stetson EPs on display, heard obscure noise bands on the stereo, or read any arts scene streetpress anywhere else during our month in Italy. It's on Via San Pietro a Maiella 8, a little street in the old town that occupies a bunch of other music-themed retailers. It's the kind of place to visit to find out about any underground cultural happenings in the city - the staff are friendly as can be. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Adventures in Puglia: Brewing wild plum liquor

One of the most charming qualities of rural Mediterranean life is the tradition of transforming anything remotely edible into surprising creations that become the life and soul of the party. These people have been championing the locavore and freegan way of life long before they were foodie buzzwords; sourcing food that’s in season and free – from the back paddock, or over the fence from the neighbour’s overflowing garden – is fundamental to their food culture.

Take for instance, their tradition of homemade liquor. For a culture that has a surprisingly moderate relationship to alcohol – sure, table wine is served at lunch and dinner, but no-one ever seems to get blotto – these guys will make liquor out of anything, no matter how tenuous the fruit or vegetable connection. Brewing liquor is just another seasonal domestic activity alongside bottling tomato salsa, making jam, and slaughtering a pig for cured meats (OK, so the last one might be more of a niche activity reserved for farming types, but you get the point).

If you’re lucky enough to experience a typical Pugliese family’s Sunday lunch – assuming you’ve not fallen into a white cheese coma after the scamorza and caciotta have been served – expect a variety of unintelligible homebrew liquors to appear once the espressi are distributed. Perhaps Alloro – flavoured with laurel, better known as bay leaves – or Amaretto, made from the stones in loquats, a small orange fruit that’s native to Japan but grown in temperate climates in both hemispheres.

Wild plums: they look like blueberries, but taste like a nasty, sour slap in the face

Currently, wild plums (prugne) are in season and can be found lining the stone walls throughout the Pugliese countryside. Once picked, the plums look similar to blueberries due to their similar size and dusty white skin, but you’d get a rude surprise if you confused the former for the latter. These plums are face-scrunchingly sour with a stone in the middle, so therefore clearly suited to brewing (i.e. apparently the last remaining option if you can’t eat them fresh, sun-dried, or in a jam).

The plums and alcohol need to soak in a glass vessel for 14 days, and then the sugar syrup step needs 24 hours to settle. The tiny plums impart a deep purple hue, and the finished product is predictably sweet and alcoholic (about 30-40%, but you can’t be too exact in home brewing), with a really delicious flavour – definitely more ‘wild’ and unique than the usual plum taste.

Our 2 x 1.5-litre bottles of wild plums and alcohol, marinating for 14 days

Obviously, you can increase the quantities depending on how much fruit and pure alcohol you can get your hands on – we made three times the recipe, which should keep a few households satiated for the next 12 months.

1kg wild plums
1 litre pure alcohol
(In Italy you can buy 95% alcohol on the supermarket shelf, with a 1-litre bottle costing about 11. In Australia or Britain, you might need a pharmacist’s certification to purchase equivalent-strength alcohol from a medical wholesaler. Can any antipodeans confirm or deny? We’re not sure – recommendations welcome!)
800gm sugar
800ml water
Note: the fruit and alcohol need to stay in a 1:1 ratio, as do the sugar and water, but you can adjust the sugar syrup quantity according to your sweet tooth and alcoholic preferences.

1.     When picking the plums, don’t be too worried about if stems and leaves are still attached – you’ll do quality control later on. Pick plenty more than you’ll think you’ll need so you can be choosy and only use fruit that’s free of insect marks.
2.     Spread out the fruit and foliage onto a tea towel on a tabletop, with a bowl to collect the good plums and a bowl (or compost bin) for rejects. Examine each plum to ensure there are no insect holes – solidified sap should be a warning sign – and look for just one mark on the skin where the stem has been removed.
3.     Once you’ve weighed out 1kg (or however much you’re making), transfer fruit into glass vessel (big 5-litre Italian wine cask is perfect), top with 1L (or equivalent) of alcohol, and seal so it’s air-tight (line the lid with cling film to be safe).
4.     Store in cool dark place for 14 days.
5.     To make sugar syrup, bring 800ml of water to the boil, add sugar, remove from heat and stir to dissolve. Leave to cool.
6.     Place a sheet of gauze over the mouth of the glass vessel and strain plum alcohol into another big jar or glass bottle (the plums might have burst whilst marinating, and you don’t want floaties in your finished product).
7.     Mix cool sugar syrup and plum alcohol in glass jar or bottle, seal, and leave to settle for 24 hours.
8.     Decanter into glass bottle(s) with airtight lids, and imbibe as required!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The non-initiated’s guide to Christianity and Catholicism

What’s the deal with middle-aged nuns in habits and hiking boots trekking the trails in Poland’s Tatra Mountains?* Why does nearly every village in southern Italy start with a saint’s name? Well, it’s because religion, specifically Catholicism, is part of the furniture in these pockets of the world, and deeply rooted to the countries’ history and national character. Travelling through countries where there’s a fine line between (Catholic) church and State must be quite strange for those unfamiliar with Jesus, Mary, the saints and the Sabbath – sometimes I forget that not everyone endured 15 years of Catholic education like I did. 

Street performers outside the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral - destination of the famous Catholic pilgrimage in Spain. Impersonating Jesus Christ - for financial gain, no less - is that not the ultimate sacrilege? (To think I used to get scolded for trying to wear rosary beads as a fashion accessory...) 

As I’ve noted at the past couple of Catholic weddings I’ve attended, most people can’t naturally navigate the stand/sit/kneel/bow heads/genuflect routine – in fact, it completely bewilders them. I guess I’d call myself a lapsed Catholic (fastest growing religion in the world today – BAM!) but try to crack an off-colour joke about priests in front of me – by golly, you’ll wish you hadn’t. That loyalty runs deep. Ditto for Irish jokes. The more I explain the intricacies my inherited religion to friends with different backgrounds, the more I realise it’s pretty bloody complicated. So without further adieu, here’s a very patchy and largely inappropriate summary of Christianity and the Catholic church.

Christians worship Jesus Christ – he of Christmas (“the son of God was born on this day”) and Easter (“he rose from the dead after being crucified on a cross”) fame.

Gratuitous photo of my baking skills. Hot cross buns – more appropriately termed “Jesus cakes” by my Israeli buddy – are meant to be eaten on the Friday before Easter to commemorate the not-so-Good occasion of Jesus being killed via crucifixion on a cross. If that’s not bad taste, I don’t know what is… 
Jesus was actually born and raised Jewish, so he would have had “the snip” as a bebe, and observed the usual holidays like Passover. The Bible (Christians’ go-to/how-to guide) is split into Old and New sections, and the Old part is pretty much identical to the Torah, the Jews’ bible equivalent. So given Christianity was born out of Judaism, there’s really no need for all that anti-Semitism, is there? The only analogy I can think of to illustrate this point is with celebrity chefs. Gordon Ramsey apprenticed under Marco Pierre White, slagged him off ever since, and they both seem like douchebags who cook similar food and overstretch their empires with sub-par restaurant chains. Ok, here’s a better one. Imagine if Jamie Oliver started slamming pared-back Italian cooking (à la The River Café, where he apprenticed) as soon as became the Naked Chef? We’d be all like, ‘Psst! Jamie you tool – we all know the pasta and risotto section of your excellent debut cookbook pays a fat debt to Rose Gray and Ruth Roger’s signature style’. Respect where respect’s due, and all that, right?

Artist Duccio di Buoninsegna depicting a visit Jesus made to his disciples, following his resurrection. Appearance Behind Locked Doors (1308-11), tempera on wood, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena, Italy. 
Anyway, back to Jesus. During his Earth period, he famously led a posse of a dozen men around Jerusalem and impressed the masses with supernatural powers. Before he died/rose from the dead/ascended into Heaven, he passed the baton to his second-in-charge, Peter. Peter is generally accepted as the first Pope – you may have heard of his rather elaborate commemorative digs in Rome (St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, a.k.a. Catholic mecca). The current Pope – the 265th successor of St Peter – is a Bavarian priest and theology professor, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI. He remains the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI: Best known for sporting red Prada loafers with his Papal robes, an unfortunate aptitude for creepy close-up photos, and being a member of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s (hardly evidence of any present-day anti-Semitism though; Hitler Youth was pretty much Boy Scouts in those years, right?)
From the middle ages right up until recent centuries, the Church was the brains trust and socio-political big daddy across Europe and Great Britain (all formerly Papal states at various points), not to mention the dominant arts patron – hey, those fancy church altars weren’t going to paint themselves – which is why art-loving tourists find themselves visiting so many churches to see Medieval and Renaissance masterpieces. (This also means that if you’ve had more than a decade of Catholic education, you’ll totally cruise through any university Art History courses on illuminated manuscripts, since you’ll already be fluent in the language of religious iconography. Trust me on this. I got 90% on my final paper and the Professor taking the course was a nun!)

All other churches, sects and cults considered under the umbrella of “Christianity” technically stem from these origins – Jesus and the Popes, that is – though they have their own church leaders. A big sub-category is Protestantism, which pretty much covers all Christian denominations that aren’t Catholic, or Orthodox (i.e. Greek, Coptic, Russian). Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk – not to be confused with 20th century civil rights activist, and no, they weren’t related) initiated a split in Christianity in the 16th century (if you have a spare 14 hours, for further reading, Wikipedia “the Reformation”), urging a back-to-basics approach that was like, uh, about praying and spirituality and actual religious stuff. In those days, the Catholic church was about as corrupt as a GDR Olympics squad, the Enron board, and the News of the World combined. Remember the creepy and morally-corrupt Bishop from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves? Yeah. You could literally buy a ticket to Heaven in those days.

Pope Alexander VI – as portrayed by Jeremy Irons, above, in 2011 miniseries The Borgias - famously fathered four illegitimate children within Italy’s most powerful family dynasty in the 1500s. Hmmm... slight conflict of interest, perhaps?
Everyone from the Lutherans and the Presbyterians to the Amish and the Mormons have their roots in post-Reformation Christianity. I’m kinda glad I’m Catholic so I don’t have to learn too much about all the religious wars and excommunications that happened in this period. Remember all the Aaron Spelling-produced spin-offs from Beverly Hills 90210 in the 1990s? It’s like a million times more complicated than that.

Another notable split from Catholicism was the Church of England. King Henry VIII cracked it in the 1530s when Pope Clement VII wouldn’t authorise his divorce and remarriage (still a bit of a sore point in the Catholic church, despite being such a staunch advocate of the shotgun wedding), so he broke away, proclaiming himself Pope-equivalent of his own church and the citizens of his empire his faithful congregation. Great-great-[not sure how many]-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II is currently the supreme head of the Anglican Church.

So, if Roman Catholics can trace their pure pedigree back to J.C. himself, and for centuries ruled most of the world with a (theoretically celibate and humble) workforce who enjoyed more perks than a drug baron’s personal chauffeur, why is it that – in English-speaking countries, at least – “Catholic” has become a byword for poor, overpopulated, potato-eating and provincial? Well, that would be due to the Irish Catholic factor. Alongside their natural talent for breeding, boozing, and general merriment, they’ve exported communities throughout the English-speaking world (FYI – if you try to insult me with hilarious references to my convict origins, given I’m Australian and all that, you’ll receive a detailed summary of my respectable Irish roots).

St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who also managed the feat of banishing snakes from the Emerald Isle. Leprechauns did not play any role in the evolution of Catholicism in Ireland, FYI.
Consistently England’s most unwilling colony up until its independence in 1919, the Irish’s steadfast refusal to trade Catholicism for the Church of England (and green for orange, and the Pope for the Queen etc.) was inextricably tied to such miseries as the 19th century Potato Famine, and the Troubles (the years of IRA terrorist activity in Britain and Northern Ireland – see also: In the Name of the Father).

Irish comedians Rubber Bandits take a bit more creative license with their explanation of the Irish Republican Army and the religious warfare:

So there you have it. The Catholic church's auspicious origins, questionable Renaissance-era practices, and present-day cultural significance summarised for your convenience. We'll leave the discussions on women's reproductive rights and homosexuality for another day.

*The Pope before our current one was Pope John Paul II, from Krakow in Poland. His election to office in 1978 was a huge deal in his homeland, and the overthrow of Communism in 1989 “was as much a victory of the Church as it was for democracy” (thanks, Lonely Planet).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

TANK GIRL: Some thoughts on a 90s icon

Here's an opinion piece that I wrote for the first issue of DERZEIT during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin last week. You can download all previous issues here.

It seems the mid-1990s is the new epoch for mining and reviving pop culture icons and trends: Absolutely Fabulous fashionistas Eddie and Patsy came out of retirement with new episodes this year, and a Spice Girls musical is slated for London’s West End. So I should feel on-trend for my obsession with the outré stylings of a certain 90s movie heroine, right? I don’t mean Winona Ryder’s grungy waif in Reality Bites, or Uma Thurman with her Rouge Noir-manicure in Pulp Fiction. I’m talking about Tank Girl, the protagonist of a cheesy, sci-fi action comedy that bombed at the box office in 1995. (Lead actor Lori Petty’s career apparently nosedived after this role, too.)

I’d have more street cred if I’d collected the British comics that spawned the Hollywood adaptation; they were penned by Jamie Hewlett who later co-created virtual band Gorillaz. Like the movie, they chronicle Tank Girl’s outlaw adventures on the fringe of post-apocalyptic, dystopian society – it’s 2033, the Earth’s a desert, and water is the world’s most valuable commodity. Think Mad Max, but with a wisecracking anarchist punk who steals military vehicles and sticks it to ‘the man’ with bravado and balderdash. (Add to that a mutant species of kangaroo-humans, who live underground and to whom Tank Girl’s boyfriend belongs.)

In pop music circles, 1995 marked the breakthrough point for Gwen Stefani’s glammed-up skater style – her band No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom that year – and the Spice Girls hadn’t yet consumed pop culture with their cartoon take on “girl power”. Ergo, here we see an outrageous female lead who’s strong and capable, willful and wily, and sports a constant rotation of action-appropriate outfits – it’s combat boots over platform stilettos, every time. Tank Girl’s styling – overseen by Madonna’s long-time collaborator, Arianne Phillips – is true to the frenetic comic book aesthetic. Forget about Sex and the City’s revolving designer wardrobe – Tank Girl manages 18 different hairstyles in the film’s 104 minutes, and there’s certainly no water available for a blow wave. It’s truly styling porn for DIY fashion lovers. 

Make no mistake, it’s camp, junk-food cinema. Stylistically, it’s very “busy” – that’s putting it nicely – meshing action and comedy with music video direction, animation, and even an old-Hollywood song and dance number. But whether you’re an awkward tween or a 30-something rollerderby enthusiast, Tank Girl is pure, positive escapism… and a shining reminder of the value of utilitarian fashion accessories.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Helsinki FRESH Exhibition: Direktorenhaus, Berlin until July 8, 2012

Here's a design review that I wrote for Berlin fashion newspaper DERZEIT... Stay tuned for more in the lead up to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin.

Helsinki FRESH: 25 Young Creatives is the book accompanying the exhibition

It’s no secret amongst design trendsetters: Helsinki is so hot right now. It’s the 2012 World Design Capital, design bible Monocle named it the world’s most liveable city, and now Berliners can view Helsinki’s freshest design talents without journeying beyond the U-bahn.

Arts co-operative Helsinki FRESH has taken over Berlin’s Direktorenhaus with installations from 25 creatives featured in its recent publication (launched last month and on-sale in the exhibition’s pop-up shop). It’s the first Berlin event staged by the creative agency, which was founded to promote cultural exchange between the two design-conscious cities. The exhibition is fashion-focused – incorporating textile design, illustration and photography – but the participants have customized their allocated spaces in diverse ways, and with varying degrees of success.

We’re suckers for Marimekko, the Finnish company whose bold, retro prints defined Modernist textile design, so we loved Jenni Tuominen’s lounging area of oversized, screen-printed objects. The Pattern Bakery, a studio specializing in patterned designs and illustrations, showcased their work on the panels of giant origami paper cranes – the Direktorenhaus’ wooden ceiling installation proved to the perfect setting for these guys (it even smelt like a Nordic pine forest!). 

The Pattern Bakery's Miia Pöytälaakso does fine tuning for height of origami birds
Photo: Heidi Uutela
Design Forum Finland has a pop-up shop at the exhibition, and the products show that leather craft and eco-friendly materials and processes – as well as textile design – are common strengths amongst this bunch.

Helsinki FRESH runs until 8th July, and is throwing a Finnish Midsummer Party on 22nd June including food, drinks, music and sauna.

Friday, June 8, 2012

DMY International Design Festival: Tempelhof Airport, June 6-10

Here's a design review that I wrote for Berlin fashion newspaper DERZEIT... Stay tuned for more articles in the lead up to Mercedes-Benz Berlin Fashion Week.

Exhibitor stands at DMY International Design Festival
Whether you’re looking for slick one-offs to furnish your Kreuzberg altbau, or have a thing for creatives who know their way around Auto CAD, the DMY International Design Festival’s central exhibition at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport will be epicentre for design types until June 10.

Spread across four of the former airport’s gigantic hanger spaces, the western end houses most of the independent design firms’ stands and, at least on opening night yesterday evening, attracted a lot of the action (read: designer networking, schmoozing, beer drinking and Tischlaufen tournaments).

Tischlaufen on an exhibitor stand
In the DMY International Design Festival’s 10-year history, this is the third consecutive year that Tempelhof has hosted the central exhibition, and for the first time this year visitors can view the nominees for the 2012 German Design Prize (the winners aren’t announced for a few months yet). It’s worth picking up an exhibition catalogue or at least sussing out the curated group exhibitions and various design competition nominees before tackling the show. The festival’s judging panel has already earmarked 10 nominees for the 2012 DMY Award – these aren’t highlighted on their respective stands – and include the blue foam Imagination Playground by architect David Rockwell (designed for children, but utterly appealing to grown-ups), and Joland van der Wiel’s Gravity Stool which uses magnetic fields to create freaky, organic forms. Vienna design studio Chmara.Rosinke’s mobile kitchen and dining cart is a great example of many exhibitors’ concern with sustainable living solutions for collective interactivity.

The Rockwell Group's Imagination Playground
Gravity Stools by Joland van der Wiel
The “Instant Stories” exhibit, curated for Milan’s Salone del Mobile in April by local designers Werner Aisslinger, Fabien Dumas and DMY Berlin, provides a who’s who of Berlin product and industrial design. Each designer was allocated a crate space to present their project and story within a still-life scenario.

“Connecting Concepts”, a travelling exhibition from The Netherlands, addresses the notion of Dutch design as a recognizable style, and aims to initiate a dialogue with its host’s design culture. The curated exhibition showcases new materials and production techniques, such as denim label Gluejeans’ use of glue instead of conventional cotton stitching and rivets, and Tjeerd Veenhoven’s DIY model for building a low-cost carbon fibre bike frame from old, discarded parts.

Furniture and product design dominates the field of independent designers, studios and institutions exhibiting at the event. For many independent designers, such as locals Sigurd Larson, Stiks’ Joachim Frost, and Robert Hoffman (sharing a stand with Hamburg designer Markus Krauss), the DMY exhibition provides the opportunity to show prototypes and network with peers, as well as – ideally – making sales. While somewhat overwhelming for a first-time design show visitor, the event at Tempelhof is still a lot more low-key and casual compared to Milan’s annual furniture fair. However, if you’re struck down with design overload – or “gallery backache” after three hours on your feet – the bar and dining area in the central hall provides some respite (alternatively, just go straight for retail therapy at concept store Voo’s stand at the main entrance).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Singapore: Eat, shop and be sweaty

Fried carrot cake - hot and spicy comfort food at its best - from Bukit Timah Hawkers Market, Singapore

What was ostensibly a break on the long-haul journey between Melbourne and Frankfurt turned out to be the greatest mini-break in years. I’d planned a stopover in Singapore last month to catch up with another ex-London Rollergirl, Ecchi Killer, now living in the island city-state, but could never have imagined how much eating, shopping and sweating was possible in three days. The beauty of Singapore is that it’s a melting pot of cultures, and a model exponent of globalisation – all that’s good (and bad) about the West encroaching on the East, all wrapped up in a mostly clean, happy, shiny package. You’ll see those completely unremarkable mall regulars from around the globe – Aussie sewing shop Spotlight, American eatery Applebees, and British institution Marks and Spencers – sitting side-by-side and somehow looking classier and more sophisticated than you ever remembered them in their home nations. I found my favourite M&S knickers with a 20% discount, and they were gift wrapped in tissue paper like in a high-end department store. It's safe to say I never received that level of service at the Brixton outpost.

By and large, the city centre is safe to the point of being ridiculous – would you leave your iPad on an outdoor café table to reserve it, while you went inside to order? However, despite the international perception that the Government keeps a firm control on the media and an even tighter rule over its citizens – we’ve all heard the warnings about chewing gum and spitting in public – pockets of society, especially online communities, are pretty progressive and certainly have a global outlook. Drawing on the ever-reliable evidence of roller derby statistics – wanna learn about a city? Go talk to some rollergirls! – it’s interesting to note that Singapore’s Chilli Padi Rollergirls boasts the highest proportion of locals of any Asian league – most leagues in these parts are dominated by Western expats. So if the locals dig roller derby, it must be a pretty cool place, right?

Eat like your life depends on it

If your idea of foodie heaven is being spoilt for choice, eating with the locals, and challenging your tastebuds with dishes where you’ve no clue as to the ingredients or cooking process, then Singapore is the place for you. The fact that its history comes from the combination of Chinese, Indonesian and Malay cultures gives some indication of the mouth-wateringly diverse options. A hawkers market is kind of like an open-air food court of carts and huts where locals eat morning, noon and night. If you’re looking for quintessential Singaporean dishes, bypass the city centre and go somewhere suburban like the Bikut Timah Hawkers Market, where you’ll find the most authentic tastes and cheapest prices.

Furnished with Ecchi Killer's map of the neighbourhood's non-touristy attractions, I was ready to take on Singapore

My innocent chat with Terry from the laksa stall about “asian hot” versus “Western hot” – he was hesitant to give me extra chilli with my order – quickly evolved into a private tour of the hawkers market, and clear instructions on what dishes to try to get a true taste of Singapore. He’s been honing his laksa recipe for years – “every bowl is made by hand with love and passion” – and his two stalls (stall #02-194 in Bukit Timah hawker centre, and #02-194 at Chinatown Complex at 335 Smith Street) are regularly listed amongst the city’s best. His recipe is a world away from the greasy heartburn-in-a-bowl laksas that prompt lifetime aversions to coconut cream. We’re talking rice noodles in a delicate, spicy gravy as opposed to coconut soup, studded with prawns and cockles, and free of corner-cutting ingredients like MSG, sugar, evaporated milk, pork and lard.

Terry Katong serves up some of Singapore's most renowned laksa

Fried carrot cake, or Chai Tau Kway, was next on the menu (Seng Kee, stall #2182, see photo at top). This is in no way related to the sweet dessert; it’s a bubble and squeak-type dish of gelatinous rice cake cubes, egg, radish and chilli. I can’t think of a more effective comfort food (read: hangover cure) – it’s dangerously moreish, and packed with starch, grease, salt and heat.

On Terry Katong’s recommendation, we headed to Chinatown to sample chilli crab (or, if you can find it, black pepper or salted egg crab): “The food’s not good there, but it’s good for people like you,” was Terry's earnest advice. Crabs tend to start around $25-30 and go up to $40, depending on their size; $25 bought a completely indulgent meal for one, with no need for sides, other than a bowl of rice on the plate to soak up the sauce (normal people would probably split a crab between two, but who wants to share when you’re on holidays?). Ours was sweet, sticky, salty, packed with heat and succulent white flesh, and easily the tastiest crustacean ever sampled.

Aftermath of chilli crab in typical Smith Street restaurant (yep - forgot the name) in Singapore's Chinatown

Sample city for opportunistic foodies

Everyone knows Friday mornings are the internationally designated time for free samples in supermarkets. Not so in Singapore. In the lead up to Chinese new year, you can fill your belly to bursting point any time of the day just by wandering through a supermarket, where you’ll be plied with generous-sized samples (we’re talking entire cookies, not just crumbly portions). Chinatown at nightfall takes this to another level, with stallholders haranguing shoppers with all manner of cookies, sweets, and dried fruit nuts in the hope of making some sales.

Chinatown’s also worth a wander if you’re looking for locally-made clothes that look remarkably similar to hideously overpriced European designer threads. You could pay $1500 for a HervéLéger bandage dress on Net-a-porter, or you could pay $145 for a no-name body-con dress to which noone at your cousin’s wedding will know the difference (we’re not talking about vinyl-masquerading-as-leather handbags; there’s literally no difference between the fabric and construction of these frocks).

Explore the jungle 12km from the city

Travel by bus around the island and, once you’re off the freeways and away from the ‘downtown’ area, Singapore’s past life as an island jungle is still abundantly obvious. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is the biggest patch of unadulterated, protected rainforest in Singapore and, while fairly small by Australian standards – measuring 1.64 square kilometres – it includes some extremely hilly hiking trails, and is home to more flora and fauna than you could poke a stick at (most notably, giant trees, tonnes of macaques, and creepy chirping insects).

Once inside under the rainforest canopy, Singapore’s humidity becomes much more bearable – dare we say almost refreshing – but don’t be alarmed if you can wring the sweat out of your shirt after an hour or so. Legend has it that the Bukit Timah Monkey Man – a Singaporean yeti, if you will – resides in the park, which no doubt keeps many locals from exploring the park after dark.

Tame and tourist-friendly macaques chilling outside Bukit Timah Nature Reserve