Monday, 20 April 2015

Singaporean Love-Hate Relationship with Durian and the Psychology of Food

  City Icons of the World  
When a city loves a particular thing a lot, it would build an iconic structure to express that affinity. Sydney's love of sailing in their harbour results in the Sydney Opera House that resembles the sails of yachts.

Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House

Anyone who has been to Thailand or familiar with Thai culture knows how close is the bond between the Thai and elephants. Thai believes the map of their country looks like the head of an elephant.

Map of Thailand
What do you think? Can you see it?

So, one would expect one day a Thai would erect a building in Thailand that looks like an elephant. That happened in Bangkok in 1997 when the "Elephant Tower" - as it's dubbed - was opened.

The Elephant Tower, Bangkok, Thailand
Credit:  "Elephant tower" by Jarcje - Own work. 
Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons 

And in China where table tennis could be considered a national sport, you can expect buildings that's shaped like a ping-pong paddle and ball would be erected.

Well, it had been planned in 2011 where a hotel in the shape of the ping-pong paddle would be build inside a planned Olympic Park in the city of Huainan. Although we don't know if this project is going ahead. The point is, only Chinese architect would suggest a building like that.

Ping-pong Hotel, Huainan, China
Credit: the Huainan Municipal Bureau of Sports

What about Singapore? What would its iconic building look like? In other words, what preoccupies their mind? Sydney has yachting, Thai has their elephant, Chinese has table tennis, and what does Singapore obsess over? Well, what about Durian?

Durian, King of Fruits
Durians - King of Fruits

  Seeing Things  
Sydney has Sydney Opera House, and Singapore has Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay to honour the King of Fruits. One might argue that it may not be the intention of the architect to design the performance venue to be something that resembles a durian. Maybe it's the architect's intention. Maybe not. That's besides the point. What is important is that the citizen of Singapore sees it that way and calls it that.

In fact, if the architect has no intention of designing anything that resembles a durian, then it provides a strong case for the Singaporean love of durian because they see durian when it's not supposed to.

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore
Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. Better known to the locals as "The Durians"

I had seen the map of Thailand more than a few times before, but the head of an elephant never jumped out at me until a Thai friend pointed it out. For Thai people, seeing an elephant in the map of Thailand, in the cloud, in a burnt toast, is easy. A Catholic who fills his/her mind with Virgin Mary would see her everywhere including a fence post in Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia in 2003.

Coogee Beach fence post, Virgin Mary apparition
If you can see only fence post, and not Virgin Mary, you're probably not very 
familiar with the image of Virgin Mary or think about her a great deal

Similar vision of Virgin Mary was also seen in a knot of a tree trunk in New Jersey, USA in 2012.

Our brains trick us regularly (with optical illusions, perceptual distortion, false memories, etc). We should be on our toes all the times. Never mind self-denial or self-deception.

To put it even simpler, the image is inside our brains, not outside it. If you put it there. it's there. If you haven't, it's not there.

Just as those who had never seen, or have seen but not familiar with Virgin Mary wouldn't have seen anything supernatural, those who had never seen, or have seen but not familiar with the King of Fruit would likely to see the Esplanade for what it's, not durian. For a foreigner who never sees a durian, how can the Esplanade look like a durian? Some sees it as the eyes of a fly. Those who see that maybe people who're interested in biology, especially insects. Or somebody who had nightmare after watching The Fly (1986) the movie.

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore
View of  "The Durians" across the river

Does this building look like 2 durians or a pair of compound eyes of a fly to you? Are you a biologist or a durian lover? There's little doubt which of the category where majority of Singaporean fall into.

I guess the point is, you see what your mind seeks out the most, and that's what a Rorchach test tries to do. The test is just a inkblot with nonsensical random pattern. You tend to see pattern that occupies your mind. Through this test, psychologists try to read your mind by your reading of the random pattern.

In one episode of M*A*S*H*, Sherman T. Potter, who's a horse lover, says that "all inkblots look like horses to me". So if you show a Rorchach inkblot to Thai, they see elephants. Likewise, Singaporean will see durian.  Of course, I'm kidding. Kind of. I think you get my drift.

  Durian, Durian Everywhere  
The Singaporean loves durian favour as much as Japanese loves their matcha (finely milled green tea powder). Japanese put matcha in every imaginable types of food from cake, ice-cream, candies to cappuccino (which I tried because I'm very adventurous and I like green tea. But it wasn't my cup of tea or coffee). I'm not a Japanese, and so I didn't grow up with Japanese palate who would find matcha naturally palatable.

Matcha cappuccino
Matcha cappuccino.

You will find quite a number of shops in Singapore specialising in food that contains durian.

Coffee shop with durian cake and desserts
Coffee shops specialising many durian flavoured cakes and desserts in Jurong Point mall

The coffee shop durian mascot
The coffee shop durian mascot

If eating durian isn't enough, why not go on a overseas durian tour? In America, the King refers to Elvis Plesley. In Singapore (actually Malayan Peninsula), durian is the king.

"A Date with the King" tour.
(click to enlarge)

If durian is such a big thing in Singapore, it makes sense for the visitors to buy it as a souvenir because in most countries of the world, such a shop would be as rare as hen's teeth.

Durian specialty shop at T2 of Changi Airport.
Durian specialty shop at T2 of Changi Airport.
Buy some unique Singapore product before leaving the country.

  Public Space Enemy Number One  
This is the love part, but where's the hate part? In most public venues, such as public transports, hotels, etc, durians are banned. This is because while it tastes like heaven, it smells like hell. The King of Fruit is both the Beauty and the Beast. It's beautiful inside, but the outside is a shell with beastly hard thorns that could really peel off your skin if you accidentally rubbing your skin against it. So it wasn't only the powerful smell that they're banned in public transport.

Durians on rack
Durian outer hard thorny shells on a rack

These days, there're fewer and fewer places selling durian with the thorny shells. My Malaysian friend used to show me how to open a durian with a spoon. Expect bloody fingers before succeeding opening one. It's harder to open than Ali Baba's cave. That's why they're usually sold without the shells, these days.

Durian flesh that were removed from its shells
Durian flesh that were removed from its shells

Durian flesh in polystyrene wrapping
Durian flesh in polystyrene wrapping for freshness and more importantly to trap 
its smell from leaking. Yes, the look can also be off-putting as well.

In Singapore MRT stations, you will often see this sign.

Warning sign in MRT station, Singapore
Warning sign in MRT station

While there's a "no drinking and eating" sign, there's also a "no durians" sign. Since durian is a food, the "no drinking and eating" sign implies no durians. I guess the King of Fruits deserves a separate warning, right? Okay, the warning suggests that no durians are allowed even if they're not being eaten. Interestingly though, there's no fine indicated. I guess it isn't illegal, but it's not recommended.

I guess if you bring a durian onto a MRT train, passengers will look at you like you're a farter (some argue it smells like fart, or worse than that). So the dirty looks you get from others should be an enough penalty in itself. So maybe below the "no durians" warning, there should be the words "Fine Dirty Look$" is printed.

This no durian sign is found on a bus, Singapore
This "No Durian" sign is found on a bus. You will find it on all buses.

And you can expect most hotels in Singapore would carry "No Durian" signs alongside with other signs.

Overall, there's a lot more love for durian than hate (and that's too strong a word).

  Taste is in the Mouth of the Connoisseur  
The aroma of durian is a bit like stinky tofu that's favourite for many Chinese. The stinkier it smells, the better it tastes. I guess the French will never be outdone by the Chinese when it comes to food. They have their smelly cheeses to boast. Just like French Pont l'Eveque, the more stinky it smells, the better it tastes. So the French cheese connoisseurs will tell you.

Pont L'Éveque cheese

While I don't particular like Pont l'Eveque, I regularly enjoy Camembert, which is also considered quite smelly.

Camembert cheese
Camembert - my fave French cheese

Fortunately for the SE Asian, durians are readily available and quite affordable, unlike the French smelly cheeses. having said that, because of their love of durians, some of them are actually quite comparable in prices with the expensive smelly French cheeses.

 Food Brainwashing 
Since I grew up in Vietnam, naturally I liked durian. If I didn't, I wouldn't pay the price of painful bloody fingers to learn the art of prying open a durian. This was in the 1980s in Malaysia where durian were sold with the shells.

I remembered there was a stall at the side of KL street. It had about a dozen or so durian on its rack. Jerry, my Malay friend, said I needed to buy many to master the art of opening its shells. So we decided to buy everything in the whole stall. The 6 of us managed to finish all 12 durians. We had our fill for the following 10 years.

Having lived in Sydney for decades, I suddenly have an aversion to durian (i should say "gradually", not "suddenly"). Dunno why. Is it the cold weather (relative to SE Asia) that makes my nose unbearable to the smell of durian? Or simply a natural change of taste? Or being influenced by all the negative reactions from people who aren't unaccustomed to the scent of durian? I think is the last one. Because I heard people commenting repetitively that durian is terribly smelly, I have developed an aversion for something that I once loved.  In other words, I have been "brainwashed" by the league of anti-durian Australian public over an extended period (of course, there's no such an official body exist. It's all in my head). "Brainwash" is probably too strong, it's more like another word for mental conditioning. I'm nothing but a Pavlov's Dog; just like everyone else. In a sense, this is the opposite of Pavlova phenomenon, that is, instead of making me drooling with food, it also works in reverse.

It's interesting how much psychology is involved in food.

Maybe I need to aquaint with it once again. If I can eventually acclimatise to Singapore weather, and more importantly surrounded by positive durian reinforcement, surely I can fall in love with durian again?

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Jurong Bird Park: 1st Visit

I have thought about going to Jurong Bird Park for awhile, but it isn't on the top of my wish list. JBP's SG50 promotion had kicked it up a few places in the list. One ticket for unlimited entry for the year. So this sick bird can visit the park a 1/3 of a day at a time, and go there 3x. I can go more than that, but I don't want to take advantage of JBP.

Entrance, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
The front of JBP

Singapore GDP from 1970 to 2014
(click to enlarge)

JBP is Singapore very 1st zoo, opened in 1971. Singapore economy in the late 1960s were far far small than it is today, and because bird park is so much cheaper to own and operate than animal zoo. Birds are so much cheaper than lions and tigers. Bird seeds are so much more affordable than meat. Of course, the JBP had expanded considerably since and became the largest bird park in the world in terms of bird numbers (and 2nd largest in terms of bird species). And Singapore have built a great number of zoos (and museums, parks, etc) in the last decades as its GDP rocketed to give locals places for leisure and as a nice bonus, also gave tourism a boost.

Right after the entrance is a cave like enclosure. I could feel the nice cool air as I approached it. Once inside, I was greeted by polar birds. I didn't expect it. Some of these so called polar birds actually live in quite temperate climate zone. I'm talking about Fairy Penguins (that's what the Aussies call them, the Kiwis (the people, not the birds) call them Little Blue Penguins), these cutest of all penguins could be seen in Manly Beach in Sydney (not that I ever did. The biologist keep their dwelling a secret to stop too many prying eyes disturbing their natural habitats). In fact, they live much further north of Sydney all the way to Queensland, and it's within a spitting distance of the Tropic of Capricorn).

Tourist operators in Melbourne Australia setup tours for visitors to watch the famous Fairy Penguin Parade in Philip Island where these cute penguins make their daily march from the ocean back towards their home at dusk after daily catches. I attended one of those tours decades back when the tourist crowded wasn't so big (before the internet).

But then there're also the African Penguins (they're related to the Humboldt Penguins). How cold can Africa get?

Signboard, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Signboard, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

According to the exhibit signboard above, the exhibits supposedly include Fairy Penguins. I looked back at my photos, and couldn't see any. Maybe they're so small that they escape the cross-hair of my camera (nope, my camera doesn't have cross-hair. But I can do cross-eyes). This gives me another reason to go back and check them out in my next visit.

The closest penguins (in terms of size and appearance) that I could find are the Humboldt Penguins. The following 4 photos are Humboldt Penguins that are identified by their black arches across their breasts. The arches grow larger as they age.

Like dogs, they open their mouths to cool themselves. Pointing their mouths skywards would increase heat dissipation.

Humbodt Penguins, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Humbodt Penguins, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Humbodt Penguins, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Humbodt Penguins, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

According to this police line-up picture that ranks the usual suspects according to size, the Little or Fairy Penguins are the smallest (and thus the cutest. Although Giant Panda is pretty cute too).

Penguin Coast ExhibitHumbodt Penguins, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Penguins ranked by sizes

Right next to the Penguin Coast Exhibit are the parrot exhibit. Seems like parrots - unlike penguins -don't like the cold, and aren't native to the colder geography of N. America, Europe, and North Asia. Well, these feathered friends will find Singapore climate right at home. Yeah birdies.

Sun Parakee, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Sun parakeet (S. American native) getting a drink
Blue and Yellow Macaw, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Blue and Yellow (or Gold) macaw. Another S. American natives

Scarlet Macaw, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Scarlet macaw (obviously quite closely related to the Blue and Gold macaw)
The macaw face markings while look the same to us are in fact as unique as our fingerprints (and our fingerprints do look very similar to each other).

Park map, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Click to enlarge

After the visit to the Penguin Coast and the Parrot Exhibits, I realised it was 2:50pm, and the High Flyers Show was on in the Pools Amphitheatre at 3pm. It was quite close to the park entrance, and so I flew there like a bird.

Some audience participation in the High Flyers Show. Viewers quickly posed like scarecrows because the birds like to land on them (no crows in the show).

High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

Oriental Pied Hornbill, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Oriental Pied Hornbill's "housing inspection".
Looks at the hole. likes it, occupies it. Although
it's more accurately to call it a bachelor pad.
(click to enlarge)
Oriental Pied Hornbill, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Scarlet macaw flew through a small hoop. Note how large its wingspan is relative to the hoop.

High Flyers Show, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
This Aussie is a money grabber. It snatched a S$2 bill from the visitor's hand.
The Yellow-crested cockatoo is very common in Australia.
At least in Sydney where they can be seen in many places outside the zoos, and can be quite loud.

Of course, I've NEVER passed up a chance to share the time showing on a sundial when I come across one. My mission - if I choose to accept it - is to find the most accurate sundial, and then buy it. I'll wear it on my wrist.

Sundial, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
 This sundial is located just outside the Pools Amphitheatre.
Sundial, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

The time on this sundial shows 3:35pm while the timestamp on my photo says 3:30pm. It's only off by 5 mins. This is just about the most accurate sundial I've came across thus far (at this time of the year. Other time may be more or less accurate). Looks way cooler than a chronometer watch. The only trouble is, should I wear it on my left or right wrist? Should I hang a "Do Not Touch" sign? All difficult decisions.

Scarlet Ibis, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Scarlet Ibis, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore
Scarlet Ibis, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Scarlet Ibis, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

These series of 4 photos give scientific evidence (let's call them Exhibit "A") that Hokkien people aren't the only ones who enjoy fish heads or tails (in their beehoon soups), the scarlet ibis also likes it too (they just don't bother with beehoon). They even fight for it as the photo below clearly shows (Exhibit "B").

Scarlet Ibis, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

I told myself I'm going to visit this place 3 or 4 times. And so I was going to see only 1/3 of this park today, but I ended up seeing about 1/2 of it. Damn my cursed efficiency (which I only have Singaporean to blame as I become Singaporeanised: punctual and efficient).

I'll promise myself I'll be a lot more laid back (less efficient and more procrastinate) in my next visit, seeing only the restaurant in the park, spending more time nibbling on kaya toast, sipping teh C kosong, and then maybe, I'll have a look at a couple of bird exhibits after wiping the crumbs off my mouth slowly. I'll take a disciplined and efficient approach towards the spirit of laid-back. Peace man...

Early bird gets the worms, but I don't eat worms (but I'll certainly like to try it if there's a restaurant in Singapore serving it in my favourite sauce. I probably has to go to Thailand for that).