Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Times UK: Meet the Food Bloggers: nordljus

From Times Online

June 23, 2009

Meet the Food Bloggers: nordljus

Keiko Oikawa uses her photography skills to bring to life the food she encounters on her travels

Nick Wyke

11. Blog: Nordljus

What inspires you to write a food blog?

I never considered myself particularly obsessed with food. Rather, I've always just loved cooking and appreciated good foodwith no fuss. So when I started my blog, it was more of a record of my cooking discoveries - I moved to the UK from Japan about ten years ago and living in Europe has let me explore the diversity of many different ingredients and cuisines. I got my first camera when I started my blog. It has inspired me just as much and I feel lucky to be starting a career as a photographer.

What sort of posting really gets your readers excited (good or bad)?

My blog isn't only about food - I like to share my other interests and experiences, especially travelling. I really enjoy shooting when I travel - it inspires me in every way and I think my readers enjoy sharing it through my eyes, too.

Which cookbook can you not do without and which chef is your hero/heroine?

I couldn't possibly choose one, but having lived in the UK for quite some time, my heart tends to go to British writers such as Diana Henry, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Skye Gyngell (I know she's Australian but I think her books can count as being British) who focus on simple recipes and seasonal ingredients. As well as the recipes themselves, I'm also inspired by the personal writing from these and other wonderful authors. Also, although he's not published in English, Japanese patissier Hidemi Sugino's book is great for reference.

Share a seasonal recipe with us...and a tip for a local restaurant?

I've just posted a couple of [ice-cream recipes: one with an Italian twist - hoping that we'll have a hot summer this year, and this elderflower dessert is lovely at this time of year, too.

Tell us something about food from your part of the world?

I'm from Japan, and, as you probably know, they are obsessed with food - with more exclusive food shops and restaurants than anywhere else in the world. The Japanese go to great lengths (and expense) to get the ultimate ingredients and authenticity of seemingly every cuisine. Such an attitude certainly has its downsides, but I'd like to think that being able to appreciate good food is generally a good thing. However, I think there is now an ethos of returning to traditional Japanese methods and ingredients which is great, and I'm hoping to share some of them on my blog sometime.

What would you eat for your last supper?

I'm very open and adaptable when it comes to food, but it would have to be either Zaru-soba (buckwheat noodles served cold with dipping sauce), or hot Udon noodles in a light broth. I do love any cuisine, but for me they are the ultimate comfort food and I never run out of them in my pantry.

Which other food blogs do you read regularly?

There are many inspiring blogs, but my recent favourite is White on Rice Couple - I fall in love with their stories and beautiful recipes every time I visit.

BTO: Spa treats

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

Spa treats

BT Weekend takes a look at spas that go the extra mile when it comes to treatments and service.

Auriga Spa 
Capella Singapore 
1 The Knolls, Sentosa Island 
Tel 6591-5023

THERE'S a belief that the moon has an effect on human behaviour, which is where you get the word lunatic. Horror novels and movies of course have humans turning into werewolves at full moon, while on more pedestrian terms, researchers have tried to prove that people do sillier, crazier things during full moon.

Well, the moon holds sway over the ocean's tides, so it's quite plausible that it would have some impact on our bodies - which comprises two thirds water - as well. That's the basis of the treatments at Capella Singapore's Auriga spa, the newest swanky spa to open in town.

It's this philosophy that sets it apart from other spas because the signature treatments are based on the phases of the moon. So there are specific treatments when it's a new moon, waxing moon, full moon or waning moon.

It's natural science, although new age as well. To the spa's credit though, it doesn't make it seem too airy-fairy. To bring you up to speed with the definitions of the different moons, the new moon is when the sun and moon are in conjunction. During this time, the moon doesn't reflect the light of the sun, and so cannot be seen. Holistic practitioners believe the new moon signals new beginnings, and a time of growing energy, rejuvenation, growth, renewal and hope. Meanwhile, the period of a waning moon leading up to a new moon is the best time for detoxifying the body - release all your toxins and refresh.

The full moon occurs on the 15th day after the new moon, and is a time of abundance and fullness. The waxing moon before the full moon is a time to replenish your skin with moisturisers and essential oil massages.

When I made my way to Auriga Spa last week, it was the period of the waning moon. So would you like a detoxifying treatment? Asked the spa manager. She notes that it's a perfect time for cleansing during this phase as it would be more effective and act on deeper levels, as what you do externally is aided by nature.

For the Waning Moon treatment, the 180 minute treatment involves a scrub, wrap, a massage and a mini facial. Of course, you won't be forced to pick a treatment based on the moon cycle, and the menu includes some lovely treatments designed by spa specialist A W Lake which incorporate ingredients like pomelo, rose, sandalwood oil etc.

Your journey begins by walking along the gently curved hallway - the building is shaped like a crescent - to your treatment room. Each room has glass doors which lead to a small garden space as well, so if you lie down with your head turned to face outwards, you'll see swaying Chinese bamboo against the sky.

A brief soak of the feet and massage with detoxifying oils prepares you for the treatment, after which you lie on the bed and the therapist makes gentle but brisk strokes up your body with her gloved Garshanas. The gloves are like raw silk, so this is a form of dry brushing, but because of the silk, is also quite warming. She then exfoliates with a seaweed-based scrub, after which you're wiped off with warm towels.

All this while, you're lying on the heated towel, and a warm purifying seaweed mud is then applied, and you're wrapped up for about 20 minutes - which is your cue to doze off, especially as the temperature of the heated blanket isn't so hot that you feel suffocated after 10 minutes.

A shower later, a lymphatic massage follows. The therapist uses strokes meant to detoxify so it's not long, smooth strokes that you find in Swedish or Indonesian massage styles. Instead, it'll feel as if the therapist is tuning your body - with firm finger strokes, then using her fingers or knuckles in either a sawing or chopping motion across your skin as if you were a (stringless) instrument.

All that agitated activity on your body and skin is meant to stimulate the elimination of toxins, and encourage blood flow as well, explains the therapist.

You do get a moment of relaxation however towards the end, when the therapist gives a facial cleanse then a facial massage, then another massage of the shoulders and the working in of hair serum.

Auriga Spa uses British brand The Organic Pharmacy's products, and this is yet another label that also comes with oral supplements which you can opt to take at the beginning of the treatment.

As you walk out of the spa, you'll be following the flow of the silver fish mounted along the sandstone wall on your right, with a shallow moat of clear water on your left, and while you're feeling harmoniously in sync with the universe, don't forget to make a mental note to self: Time to drag out the Chinese calender and look out for the next full moon!

The waning moon treatment at Auriga spa, is 180 minutes, for $420.

Palais Renaissance, #B1-07 
Tel 6836-1863

AT Rest, no two treatments are ever the same. 'Different customers that walk in will have different problems, but even the returning customers will not have the requirements each time they come back,' says Jessica Loo, the principal consultant at the one month old day spa located at the basement of Palais Renaissance. 'The question is: how do we make sure that our treatments can address this issue?'

The solution that they came up with is a simple but effective one - customisation - which they achieved in two ways.

Firstly, a remarkably extensive treatment menu was developed for the spa. From a treatment as specific as a golf massage, to dedicated post-laser facials to face and body treatments created especially for teenagers, there will be pretty much something for everyone even though this means more work and education for the therapist.

Secondly, each treatment, be it for face or body, can and will be tweaked to suit each patron after an assessment which Ms Loo believes is Rest's biggest selling point.

'For example, a customer that walks in may request our Star Light Star Bright facial ($168) to brighten up their dull skin,' she explains. 'However, we might also notice that this patient has exceptionally bad dark circles so we might tweak the treatment by throwing in an extra eye serum into the mix or focus a bit more time massaging the eye area, all without additional charge.'

She insists that this is an important mantra for Rest because the place aims to be known as a problem solver: 'I'd like our customers to be able to walk in and say, 'This is my problem, how can you help me?' I don't think we'd be able to do that if we simply adhere to a cookie cutter model with regard to our treatments.

'Yes, there will people we won't be able to help in-house - such as those with chronic back problems who are better off seeing a chiropractor - but at the very least, we will do our job and guide them in the right direction. If you want to learn how to massage, we can organise lessons for you as well.'

While the proof is always in the pudding, it seems that the people at Rest do stick to this mantra even when it comes to the therapists themselves.

Although the Aromatherapy Botanical Body Massage ($138) was recommended as a base treatment for my sleep and stress related problems, the ingredients that went into the massage oil were handpicked and blended to target these issues. Furthermore, I was impressed when, upon noticing that I had a big bruise on my left shin, the therapist immediately suggested she do a lymphatic draining massage on my left leg to expedite its healing.

'All our therapists are trained to look out for these little details,' points out Ms Loo with pride.

As for the facial, I tried the Medi-Detox Facial ($238) that is said to help detoxify and promote elastic and healthy skin but an extra boost of Vit-C Serum (Vitamin C) was also added into the mix to plump up my skin. An eye cream designed to reduce the puffiness around the eye area was also applied which went a long way toward helping me look much fresher.

To up the ante on other spas in Singapore, Ms Loo reveals that all facials at Rest utilise a massage technique created by a physiologist that is not only relaxing but designed to help one's skin remain taut and firm.

Taking the idea of customisation one step further, Ms Loo adds that as far as possible, Rest will try to provide the best therapist for each job. This means that those who specialise in face therapy will usually only do facials and likewise for body therapists.

She concludes: 'I don't believe that anybody is perfect. Any therapist that goes for a course will be able to do basic facials and some types of body massage but some will be better with the former and others the latter but they are seldom if ever very good at both.

'Which is why, if possible, we will try to switch between therapists even when a client comes in to do both face and body treatments. Though this is more hassle for us, it will definitely mean better results for the customers, which is what Rest is all about.

Spa Furama 
Furama RiverFront, 405 Havelock Road 
Tel 6738-7733

THOSE familiar with Furama RiverFront would hardly think of it as a lifestyle destination. But although it was previously better known as a business hotel offering a simple bed and breakfast, the management behind the hotel - Furama Hotels International - is hoping to change that perception.

'Tourists in Singapore, business or otherwise are no longer content with just a place to rest,' muses its general manager Vincent Kerk. 'They also want the option of being able to come back to the hotel and relax with a massage as well.'

To cater to to these new demands, they have invested in a new spa that was officially launched at the end of last month. A hotel spa is nothing new, you might say, but Mr Kerk insists its presence will go some way in rebranding the Furama brand with a greater lifestyle cache.

Called Furama Spa, it is jointly managed by the hotel and Aramsa Tropical Spas but fully owned by the hotel.

'The reason why we didn't want to lease out the space to an external spa operator is so that we can have full control over the spa's operations and the flexibility in the way we market it,' says Mr Kerk.

'We can offer, for example, our spa customers free reign of the hotel's recreation facilities which differentiates us from other spas in Singapore. Owning the spa also allows us to offer special deals that include packaged rates for spa getaways two places for Singapore and say, Bali, where we own a resort, at one price.'

Mr Kerk adds that the launch of Furama Spa gives the hotel the ability to tap a growing group of Singaporean patrons looking for weekend getaways within the city itself.

The spa itself looks nothing like any other spa in Singapore. Instead of your typical Zen or Balinese concepts, its decor was inspired by the ideals of 'purity' and 'completeness', boasting a bright, white interior and round indoor treatment rooms although three three outdoor garden cabanas overlooking the pool are likewise available.

'We knew that we wanted a design that was unique to Spa Furama as a brand. Customers who come in tend to be shocked that the spa looks so unconventional but that is good because it helps them to remember us,' Mr Kerk says with a grin.

The treatment rooms have the added advantage of being designed such that they can be opened up or closed to create different sized treatment spaces that can be used for events like hen nights or even wedding solemnisations.

As for the treatments, the offerings are arguably typical Asian inspired options although little touches such as special exclusive oil blends and an in-house signature massage - the Furama Touch - a fusion concoction of Eastern meridian and Western techniques that was created just for them, make for charming touches.

The standout choices are the all-in-one Lavender Drizzle ($238 per person or $428 for two) that includes an oil prep, an exfoliation, the Furama Touch massage and facial which is a hit with time-strapped patrons and the Spa Furama Signature ($228 per person or $398 for two).

The latter includes a red wine and rice exfoliation, a Balinese Boreh body wrap, a relaxing scalp massage and the Furama Touch. The therapist says that it is a favourite of the customers because the traditional Boreh wrap with its mix of hot spices helps with detoxification, weight loss and sleep problems.

All in, the Spa Furama Signature is nothing fancy but it does the trick nonetheless. The hot wrap, which induces drowsiness is indeed an ideal prelude to a good night's sleep. But be warned to drink lots of water as it can be rather dehydrating and if possible, try to stay away from the office after. By the next day, you'll be fresh and rejuvenated for a good day's work.

By Melissa Lwee

BTO: Ready, set, fire

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009


Ready, set, fire

You can't smoke your way through barbecuing - there's an art to doing it right, says celebrity chef and barbecue-ologist Robert Rainford. By Audrey Phoon

BAKING. Dehydrating. Sauteing. Pureeing. One can readily understand how these cooking techniques contribute towards producing works of culinary art, but barbecuing? Many would consider that a primeval method of cooking, one simply involving slapping huge slabs of meat onto heated pits and firing the beejeesus out of them.

Barbecue-ologist and 'BBQ King' Robert Rainford, however, begs to differ. The celebrity chef of the Asian Food Channel's Licence to Grill programme, who was in Singapore last week to fire up the new Kamado barbecue grills at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore (the world-famous barbecuing machines will be introduced in the hotel's Town restaurant next month), believes 'there's a huge art' to turning out food on a barbecue. From cedar-planked salmon and chicken on a beer can to smoked pork belly, a barbecue is capable of a vast range of delicious dishes, he says - you just have to know the right techniques.

To begin with, if you are using a charcoal barbecue, start the fire with the help of some lighter fluid and paper, then build it substantially before you start cooking. 'What we want to do is get the charcoal from black to a really thick white ash before we start cooking,' says Rainford, a Canadian who prefers to use gas-operated barbecues himself because 'you can just turn some knobs and it's on right away'. He adds: 'Once the coals become this thick white ash, you're ready to cook.'

If you cook before the coals are white, he warns, you get 'an acrid smoke and that smoke is partially what's cancer-causing - so it's really important that you know how and when to start barbecuing when you work with charcoal'.

That done, adding different types of wood to your barbecue - whether it's into the flames in a charcoal barbecue or as a pouch of wood chips on a gas barbecue - will enhance the flavour of your food with a lovely smokiness. Just remember to consider the sort of produce you are cooking when choosing a type of wood to pair with it, says the chef.

'Mesquite and hickory are the two major types of wood that everyone uses, but they're so powerful in their taste that they can overpower food to a certain degree.' While those woods are fine if you are making barbecued pork ribs because 'pork is a naturally neutrally-flavoured item so you would want to introduce some big smoke into that', robust-flavoured foods (such as the beef ribs in the recipe here) do better with woods such as apple and cherry as they have more subtle flavours.

You can also marinade your food by 'throwing an oil and an acid together in combination with onions and garlic', suggests Rainford. 'It's the simplest of marinades but that will infuse flavour into meat, chicken, whatever.' For vegetables, he recommends a simple seasoning by placing them with a bit of olive oil and herbs in a plastic bag and just 'shaking them around'.

When it comes to barbecuing your food, there are basically two main techniques: high and fast, and low and slow. 'Things like chicken breast and chicken, veal or fish burgers are what you would cook fast and on high heat,' the chef says. 'But if I wanted to do ribs or some other type of cut that is very tough, I would use low and slow.'

What the latter method involves is cooking using indirect heat for between three and five hours (depending on what you are cooking), with the fire going only on one side of the barbecue. 'The side with no fire is where we put the meat, close the lid, and allow it to become what I would consider an oven,' explains Rainford, adding that this will help cook the food through without burning it.

Combining both the fast-and-high and low-and-slow techniques will give you the 'two-tiered heat approach' that the chef uses most frequently. He explains: 'I will put one side of my barbecue on high and the other on medium to medium-low. I will start cooking on high to get a crisp exterior and then shunt the food over towards the medium-low side, which gives me the slower heat that's needed to cook things through to the centre.'

This approach helps to prevent food from being cooked only on the outside, but even so cooks must 'look for markers to tell you when to take your food off', says Rainford. In the case of chicken wings, for example, 'when the joints move freely and the juices run clear, we know that cooking has hit the bone'.

Alternatively, if you are using a thermometer, don't put it on the bone; instead, stick it into the fattest part of the meat. An internal temperature reading of about 74 degrees Celsius will tell you that your food is cooked all the way through.

Of course, as with every cooking method, culinary art or not, there's the cleaning-up afterwards. To get rid of any residue on a barbecue grill, crank up the heat if you're using a gas machine, or light a fire and close the lid on a charcoal barbecue to heat it up as much as possible. The heat burns the residue, making it easier to scrape off with a wire brush instead of just smudging back and forth when the grill is cold.

'Proper maintenance is important,' emphasises the BBQ King. 'At least quarterly, take everything out and pressure wash it down, scrub it all nice and clean.'

Spicy grilled beef short ribs
Serves 4


4 beef short ribs, bone in 
1/3 cup five-spice powder 
1/3 cup brown sugar 
3 tbsp garlic salt 
3 tbsp celery salt 
3 cups wood chips (cherry or apple)


1. Combine all of the rub ingredients in a large bowl the day before you plan to serve them. Rub half of the rub mixture into the ribs and reserve the other half of the rub for use the next day. Place the ribs in a large plastic bag and into the fridge to marinate overnight.

2. A half-hour before you plan to put the ribs on the grill, take them out from the fridge. Remove them from the plastic bag and apply the remaining rub, leaving approximately two tablespoons to sprinkle on the ribs while they smoke.

3. Let the ribs stand for half an hour to come to room temperature. This will ensure that they cook evenly on the grill.

4. Place 1 cup of the wood chips in cold water to soak for 30 minutes.

5. If your grill has several grates, remove one on the end and set it aside. Preheat the grill to high heat (approximately 200 to 225 degrees Celsius).

6. Squeeze the excess water from the soaking woodchips and place in the centre of a large piece of aluminium foil. Add the remaining two cups of dry wood chips. Fold the aluminium foil around the chips to create a sealed pouch. Using a fork, poke holes in the package on both sides to allow smoke to filter through.

7. Place the pouch directly over the flame on the side where the grate has been removed. Close the lid and wait for smoke to start building in the barbecue.

8. Once smoking has begun, lower the heat under the pouch of wood chips and turn the heat off on the other portions of the grill. Wait for the temperature to reach approximately 100 degrees Celsius.

9. Place the ribs on the grates where the heat is off. Close the lid and leave to smoke with indirect heat for approximately four hours. After 11/2 to 2 hours, flip the ribs and sprinkle with the remaining rub mixture.

10. After four hours, the ribs should have a crispy delicious rub exterior and the meat should be almost falling off the bone.

BTO: FUKUOKA: Foodie haven

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

FUKUOKA: Foodie haven

From street stalls to shirako, Fukuoka offers a gastronomic tour of Japan. By Edwin Soon

AMONGST the sister cities of Oakland, Bordeaux and Auckland, Fukuoka in the prefecture of Kyushu, Japan, with a population of 1.3 million, is closest to Singapore. The urban and cosmopolitan Fukuoka city centre is a scant 10 minutes taxi ride from the airport. Here, gastronomic delights await food lovers; from the ubiquitous steaming bowl of noodles to sushi omakase.

Fukuoka's yatai or street stalls offer a taste of local flavour. Born from the ashes of WWII, these cramped box-carts still serve up typical fare like drinks, hot food and camaraderie - to salarymen and the curious tourist.

By day, the yatai are nowhere to be found. At sunset however, dozens of lantern-lit yatai stalls are wheeled out, to line and illuminate a canal, or a side street of the Tenjin, Nagahama and Nakasu districts - and a little food city has miraculously emerged for the evening. The 150 yatai open air food stands offer varied dishes from yakiniku to tempura but it is tonkatsu ramen - noodles in boiled pork bone soup, that is the must-try.

Another local speciality is mentaiko or marinated fish ovum. Inspired by Korean cuisine (Korea is a mere 200 km. away), mentaiko, or Pollock (cod family) roe is a recent delicacy introduced to Fukuoka after WWII by a Busan-born Japanese man. Thanks to a chilli pepper marinade, Fukuoka's mentaiko is spicy, and is a favourite snack of sake and beer drinkers. Many, though, will enjoy mentaiko with rice or as a pasta or pizza topping. Devotees head to special shops just to purchase their hoard - the best versions will be a single mass of unbroken eggs, surrounded by a thin, elastic membrane and is pink to dark red in colour.

But what of the finer aspects of dining out? From oyster bars to the experimental kitchen of Japan's Martha Stewart, there's something for everyone.

First-timers to Japan probably head out for steak, Japanese-style. Fukuoka's finest meats served sukiyaki or shabu-shabu style can arguably be found at Chinya - a restaurant located on several floors of a nondescript building, across from a car wash. The butcher's display of prime cuts of marbled steaks of various grades at street level confirms you are at the right place. For years, Chinya chefs have cooked at the tables of countless diners who have experienced fragrant beef that melts in your mouth whilst seated on tatami mats. You'll get smoked here too, but you won't regret it.

Those seeking fresh seafood should look no further than Chikae. However the food is not for the faint-hearted. Huge sunken tanks and ponds that contain all manner of seafood are the centrepiece of this brightly lit large restaurant. Whilst there are many cooked dishes, the highlights are the squid and fish, netted from the tanks and prepared as sashimi. As you savor the raw flesh of your seafood, admire the exquisite artistry of the carcass presented alongside. The fish tail and fins will wag whilst the squid eyes toggle at you as you literally devour your seafood alive. Welcome to Japan.

Purists will seek out Sushi Takao. Adobe-like walls and completely unadorned - this eight-seater restaurant is minimal and stark. In this cavern-like interior, everything points to every successive morsel of sushi that is presented before you. The sushi rice is not seasoned with vinegar but is a blank canvas - more so for you to taste the freshness of the seafood. A signature starter is the shirako - creamy and rich. Available as part of the kaiseiki only.

If you can spare a few hours for lunch, head to Umenohana. Located in a hotel, it is a traditional restaurant that takes inspiration from Buddhist cuisine. That is, a tofu multi-course kaiseiki, interspersed with meat, cooked seafood and sashimi. Here dishes are lovingly prepared and served on beautiful tableware. Tofu is presented in endless versions including a fried vegetarian 'fish' ball. Not to be missed is the opportunity to make your own tofu skin at the table - Zen-like patience is required as the tofu simmers and hardens, one layer at a time.

Cookbook author and TV celebrity homemaker Harumi Kurihara has been called many things - from the 'Delia Smith of Japan' to the 'Rising Sun's Martha Stewart'. Having sold more than 7 million cookery books and over 5 million copies of her magazine, Suteki Recipes (Lovely Recipes), she freely shares recipes at her restaurant. As each dish exits the kitchen to the buffet table, it is announced. If you like it, there are recipe cards that you can take home with you. This is true Japanese fusion - dishes include macrobiotic rice, Mulligatawny soup, burdock noodles, seaweed salad, Goan fish curry, mashed sweet potato, gratin - 30 dishes in all. The tofu panacotta with caramel sauce is a delectable dessert.

Ask any local what their favourite meat is and they will tell you it's chicken. The quintessential chicken restaurant is Hanamidori and it serves Mizutaki (chicken broth hotpot). According to the 100 year-old Fukuoka tradition, a broth is made with pieces of chicken. The meat is removed, dipped in a signature vinegar sauce and eaten. Then chicken innards are cooked in the broth followed by minced chicken balls and finally vegetables. In this highly concentrated broth, some water is added together with rice and a beaten egg - the result, a delectable chicken porridge.

As if attesting to Fukuoka's reputation, the Yanagibashi Fresh Food market beckons - even to those who do not cook. Here you will find butchers, fishmongers, vegetable suppliers, locals coming to market or looking for a quick bite. Living up to its nickname 'Fukuoka's Kitchen', the Yanagibashi Fresh Food Market is hectic, colourful and comes with a fish market (complete with all manner of live, wiggling catch-of-the-day), meat sellers and vendors selling every conceivable type of cookware, vegetable shops and more. For a economical and delightful lunch, make your way to the heart of the market for some local flavour.

3-7-4 Nakasu Hakata-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-291-5560 Price per person S$100.

Chikae 2-2-17 Daimyo Chuou-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-721-4624 Price per person: S$200

Sushi Takao 
5-15-4 Watanabedori Chuou-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-711-7711 Price per person: S$280

B1F, Canal Grand Plaza, 1-2 Sumiyoshi Hakata-ku, Fukuoka. Tel 092-263-1711

Hakata Excel Hotel Tokyu 2F, 4-6-7 Nakasu, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi Tel 092-262-3777

Five branches across Fukuoka.
Tel 092-263-0322, 092-737-9696, 092-273-1219, 092-432-1801, 092-523-6622

Yanagibashi Market 
1-1-10 Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka 
Tel 092-761-1811. Closed Sundays and holidays

Visiting in January? Head for the Salon du Chocolat - Every year, during the last week of January, a chocolate fair takes place in Fukuoka - at the Iwataya departmental store. Chocolate aficionados typically get to taste creations by chocolatiers and 40 pastry chefs from around the world such as Bernachon, Decluc and a host of other exhibitors from 15 countries, covering 60 brands. Visitors can choose to taste and then 'eat in' with a hot drink accompanied by a selection of three chocolates (1,000 Yen) , or take away tasting boxes of a dozen different chocolates within special themes - from 3,600 Yen.

BTO: The good Earth

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

The good Earth

Perfectionist farmers and chefs turn out amazing flavour from superfresh produce in bountiful Hokkaido. By Jaime Ee

YOU say 'puh-tay-to', I say 'poh-tay-to' but Taku Umemura says, 'Try spending 20 years researching and developing the perfect hybrid before you can really call this a potato, mister.'

Okay, so he doesn't really say that but in his own Japanese perfectionist way, he might as well have. Farmer Umemura's late father was an agri-scientist obsessed with the perfect potato, spending a good 20 years researching different varieties of spuds before hitting paydirt with two variants said to be superior even to the Danshoku potato, Hokkaido's reigning king of starch.

Continuing his father's legacy is what drives Umemura to tend his tiny 4.8 hectare farm (1/20th the size of a regular farm) in Chitose with his wife, growing high quality potatoes, pumpkins, sweetcorn and crisp salad vegetables and herbs that are sought after by over 100 restaurants around Japan. His mission? To grow the best-tasting vegetables ever and do his father proud in his life-long quest for plant perfection.

Fierce passion may ooze from every pore of his tanned, weather-beaten skin, but Umemura is not alone in his quest. He is just one of many farmers in Hokkaido - not to mention the rest of Japan - for whom hard work and pride in their produce seem to be hard-wired into their genes. Be it a humble potato, a crisp white asparagus or a sugar-sweet strawberry - the obsession with creating the best is what makes Hokkaido one of the most bountiful gardens on earth.

In fact, one bite into Farm Umemura's Kita Akari potato - with its smooth mellow flesh - or the pale orange Inka no Mezane with its surreal chestnut-like sweetness is enough to make any overseas visitor want to buy up a bagful and take it on the next flight home - a reaction that is exactly what Hokkaido wants, says Yoshiyasu Imazu, chief director of the local branch of Jetro - Japan External Trade Organisation.

So gung ho are they about ramping up their food exports that Jetro Japan invited importers from around the world - particularly Asia - to a major food exhibition in Sapporo last week, where 300 Hokkaido food companies convened for that crucial introduction to new markets.

Agriculture is a key growth area for Hokkaido besides tourism, says Seiroku Takizawa, chairman of the Hokkaido International Business Centre. 'This is the 25th event we've organised and this year's is the biggest in the whole of Japan,' he adds. With traditional industries like coal and copper mining dying out after World War II, the prefecture has since looked to its fertile lands - it has close to one-fourth of Japan's total arable land - to literally grow its economy.

'We grow everything from wheat, corn, potatoes, strawberries, melons and we have the largest dairy community,' says Mr Seiroku. But what we need is to grow our exports, especially to Asia, where we think the demand is.'

At the same time, the task at hand is to 'get local producers to look beyond Japan and increase production for export,' says Jetro Hokkaido's Mr Yoshiyasu. 'The focus is on premium quality - as people become more affluent, the demand for such products increases and Hokkaido is in a prime position to meet that demand.'

Julie Haw certainly agrees. The general manager of Frosts Food and Beverage Pte Ltd was one of the Singapore importers invited to Sapporo and is looking to import frozen seafood like scallops and dairy products. 'We were very impressed with the quality of the products and amazed by the way the Japanese seem to 'redefine' familiar products. If you think you know what caramel pudding tastes like - well, think again. They do that with their fruits too. Melons, grapes, strawberries and persimmons from Japan never fail to amaze me.'

She'll certainly have a willing market awaiting her products too. For the past week at Isetan Scotts, Japanese food-obsessed Singaporeans have been swarming its supermarket, turned into a bustling marketplace complete with some 30 export-savvy Hokkaido traders personally flying in to ply their ice cream, seafood and candy to eager Singaporeans ready to draw their wallets at the first sight of free samples.

Of all the different Japanese food fairs that Isetan organises, the Hokkaido ones do the best business, says public relations manager Gerard Goh. The store has done 11 Hokkaido fairs and this one is the biggest - not just in Singapore but outside of Japan, he adds. The best part is - the traders are hungry to break into the local market, so things are priced almost the same as they are in Japan, or even cheaper.

Despite the variety offered, it's just skimming the surface of what Hokkaido has to offer. A lack of store space means there's a limit to what can be brought in, says Mr Goh. Which means that what gets imported would have to be mainstream products with popular appeal and price, rather than niche artisanal products like say, Mr Umemura's chestnut-flavoured potatoes.

As Ms Haw puts it: 'Importers assess products based on the price-quality-shelf-life proposition, i.e. what is the potential market size and acceptance of the product. Small farmers tend to sell on quality and traceability - if their prices are uncompetitive, they will have to wait for our market to mature to the stage where we're willing to pay for what they stand for.' Unless of course you're talking about very unique products like Yubari melons or Hokkaido strawberries, which people are more inclined to pay a premium for. But 'for 'conceptual' products like organic produce, any serious difference in cost would be harder for the practical Singaporean consumer to accept.'

That being the case, what's a die-hard foodie to do? Rent a car with English GPS, or hire a driver and interpreter and trawl the countryside of Hokkaido in search of freshness at its peak.

Stop #1

Sakurai Orchards 
Yoyama 203, Minami-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 011-596-2292

When was the last time you picked a ripe strawberry off its vine and popped it into your mouth without washing it or shuddering as its sharp acidicity makes you curse whoever created the strawberry's image as a sweet luscious fruit?

If never, then it will be an eye-opener to eat a strawberry at Sakurai Orchards, where an entire patch is dedicated to visitors who can either pluck and eat as much as they can then and there, or pay to bring the fruit home with them. Farmer Mayama Mizuyuki is also there to watch with pride as you marvel at how sweet his Kentaro strawberries are, and how they are virtually pesticide-free (apart from a brief spraying when the berries just start to form).

Cherries come out later in July, while green asparagus is harvested from early May to the end of June. Once they start popping out of the earth, they have to be quickly harvested as they can grow 5cm to 6cm a day. The farm is so small that only 20kg of asparagus is picked a day but that means prime quality, pesticide-free greens for the super-picky Japanese consumer or visitor lucky enough to grab a few packs from the farm shop that also sells jams and free-range eggs.

Stop #2

Kobayashi Shuzo 
109, Nishiki 3-chome, Kuriyama-cho, Yubari-gun 
Tel 0123-72-1001


The slowdown of the mining industry and changing tastes have led to a dampened demand for sake, but the tradition continues at Kobayashi Shuzo sake brewery where soft Hokkaido water and locally-grown rice are brewed into the prefecture's signature light sake. Chief brewer Seiya Wakita says that Osaka used to be prime sake area, but of late Hokkaido has been gaining a foothold in the quality stakes. Still, production isn't quite what it used to be, much to the chagrin of pickle manufacturers which depend on sake lees (the dregs remaining after the sake is filtered) to make their pickles. 'They don't want the sake, they just want the lees,' he smiles.

While you can tour the premises and buy some of its award-winning sake at its retail shop, the real draw is the brewery's in-house soba restaurant that's housed in a cute wooden house just across the street from the brewery. The restaurant - run by kindly Japanese ladies in aprons - serves up soba noodles made with water used for making sake. It's hard to tell how that makes a difference, but the noodles are deliciously chewy-tender and served with perfectly made tempura that could put local tempura joint Tenshin to shame (it must be the water they use for the tempura batter). Even if you're not into sake, the soba - and the charming eatery - is worth a visit.

Stop #3

ZcCot Patisserie 
2-20, Minami 4 Nishi 22, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 050-7532-7300

Hokkaido is a pastry chef's heaven, especially when you're working with rich, decadent milk, cheese and cream from the island's pampered dairy community. Add the talent of chef Kazuya Wakayama and you get pastries like his light-as-air creamy cheese mousse on a biscuit base stuffed with a tart Hascap (local berry) marshmallow and coated in a red berry flavoured gelatine. The cake won him the top prize in the local Sapporo Sweets Grand Prix - where top pastry chefs across the island vie to create the best pastry using only local produce. He well deserves the award for his clever blending of blue, cream and camembert cheese and sour cream with the tart berry and crisp cookie base. Check out too his fresh caramels studded with bitter cocoa nibs and range of fresh cream cakes which are seriously dreamy. He also has a store at Daimaru's food hall in Sapporo station, which is good for those who can't get to the shop per se. If you want to check out what previous winning pastries taste like, the Prince Hotel's Pikake Cafe sells a range, identified by a little chocolate Sapporo flag on top. But if you have to choose, stick to chef Kazuya's confections and you won't go wrong.

Stop #4

Asken Co Ltd 
2-31 Oiwake-honcho, Abira-cho 
Tel 0145-26-6870

White asparagus may be a European import but Hokkaido asparagus is gaining a following for its lower price and sweetness, says Ms Yagi, the feisty lady owner of Asken farm, the largest asparagus producer on the island. The season is very short, lasting just the month of June. An unseasonably cool summer (temperatures hovering around 14C ) also means a smaller crop because white asparagus grow best underground in earth that's around 20C.

White asparagus cost more than double that of green ones because of the labour intensive harvesting methods. While green ones grow above ground and can be machine harvested, workers have to go out early in the morning to the white asparagus fields where the precious spears break through the surface of the raised earth mounds that they grow in. Using metal trowels, workers dig into the earth and ease out each spear one by one.

Each morning, 10 workers harvest 300 kg of asparagus, racing to get them before the spears poke out of the earth and get exposed to sunlight which turns their tips a faint purple. The harvest is then brought to a selection area and packed into boxes for their trip to French and Italian restaurants across the country. If you're more familiar with softer, mellower tasting white asparagus, the Hokkaido version will surprise you with its sheer fresh flavour. Because the asparagus here is a different species from the European variety, biting into a raw, freshly picked spear results in a clean, almost apple-like sweetness and crunch.

It was no mean feat convincing European restaurants in Tokyo to use Hokkaido white asparagus and Ms Yagi is proud to confirm that they are now seeking out the local asparagus. Maybe one day, Singapore importers will seek her out too.

Stop #5

Muminsha Ltd 
141 Hayakita-omachi, Abira-cho 
Tel 0145-22-2439

If you like cheese but your taste buds lean neither to processed cheddar nor ripe French cheeses that can make your toes curl, then Hokkaido cheese offers a happy compromise. Muminsha is an award-winning maker of camembert, mozzarella and blue cheese, all carefully made in super-sterile surroundings

Local milk is mixed with enzymes until it separates into whey and curds which they then filter and turn into the different kinds of cheese. The flavours are very mild, although the smoked camembert has an odd metallic tang that not everybody will like. But no matter, there's lots of variety to choose from at its retail shop-restaurant (which serves pork from whey-fed pigs) - and make sure you sample the pillowy soft cheese ice cream.

Stop #6 Hokkaido Hakone Farm Higashioka 1201, Chitose 0123-21-3066 A place for families, this is the only working ranch in Japan that rears Mediterranean water buffalo and makes mozzarella cheese from their milk. There's a farmhouse restaurant that serves organic vegetables grown there and home made sausages. Kids (and adults) can get a kick out of churning their own butter or making fresh caramel candy by cooking milk jam, cream and sugar into a toffee-like paste. There's also a modified tractor that takes you on a tour of the farm, past a cow with swollen udders that you can milk, corn and pumpkin fields and meet the resident farm dogs and their puppies. Touristy, but nice clean fun.

Stop #7

Farm Umemura Neshikoshi 
2596-4, Chitose 
Tel 01233-28-1030

It's nothing to look at really, but farmer Taku Umemura will happily tell you about the precious potatoes developed by his late father. They really are a must-try and if you can't buy any, head to La Sante restaurant in town and ask them to serve it.

Stop #8

Farmers Japan Co Ltd 
102, Kitakashiwagicho 3-chome, Eniwa 
Tel 0123-32-1555

Unless they get accredited by the AVA, chances of tasting these additive-free sausages and hams are pretty slim, so eat your fill here. Beef and pork products are made with just fresh meat and spices, with no chemical preservatives found in other processed meat brands. The company also has farms which rear free range animals so they can ensure the quality of the meat. The result? Plump and juicy ham, garlic and herb sausages and miso marinated kurobuta pork. It's hard to believe how frozen food can taste so fresh.

Stop #9

La Sante Restaurant 
1 1-6 Miyanomori, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 011-612-9003.

The piece de resistance of any trip to Hokkaido. The best that the island has to offer, cooked for you by chef Takahashi Takeshi. About 85 per cent of the ingredients used by chef Takahashi are sourced locally. It could be seafood like sweet botan shrimp tartare, or white asparagus done three ways - with crunchy hoki clam and scallop; in a mushroom and uni sauce; wrapped in bamboo leaves and baked in a salt crustbaked in a salt. Early corn is turned into a delicate soup served with home made bread made from local wheat, potatoes from Farm Umemura are served fried and mashed, while lamb - a rare animal in Japan - is sourced from an area called Tokachi, beyond the mountains of Hokkaido. Finish off with selected home grown cheeses and delicious Hokkaido dessert wine. What could be better? Bringing all this freshness home with you. If only.

BTO: Drawn to nature

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009


Drawn to nature

The Laus took three years to build their dream home, and the result is a two-storey house which is in tune with the tropics - open, airy and comfortable, yet modern and practical. By Geoffrey Eu

WHEN C C Lau was building a dream house for himself in the mid-1990s, he was adamant about getting it right so he took his time with the details, working closely with the project architect on almost every aspect of the design. Because he has a strong affinity for Mother Nature, he was particularly attentive to factors such as wind direction, the way certain rooms faced and how the house would interact with its surroundings.

It took almost three years, including more than a year when he lived at the site - in a quiet residential district off Holland Road - before he could finally demolish the existing one-storey bungalow and begin construction. His chosen design was inspired by black-and-white bungalows from the colonial past as well as his love of the outdoors. The result was a two-storey house that is in tune with the tropics - open, airy and comfortable, yet also modern and practical. Lau, an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist in private practice, was so involved with the construction that he discussed starting a design business with the architect who worked on the house, and even considered using one section of the house as an office for that purpose.

Just as the house was being completed however, he met and married his wife Cynthia, whose Australian upbringing and gregarious personality was perfectly suited to his lifestyle as well as the house. She arrived in time to introduce him to the benefits of a saltwater swimming pool, and the pool has been a focus of family life ever since. The Laus, including daughters Ysien, 11 and Ywen, 9, spend much of their leisure time at poolside.

Naturally, the garden, which is almost entirely shielded from neighbours and was landscaped in part by workers from Bali, plays a significant role in the Laus' lifestyle. Thanks to the layout of the living areas - the entrance foyer, and living and dining rooms are all open to the garden - there is an almost total sense of integration between the indoors and outdoors.

Additional features include a large pavilion on one end of the property as well as a more informal structure - essentially an open-sided hut - at the bottom of the garden, beside the swimming pool. This is Lau's favourite spot, where he loves to lounge, read and watch his children play. 'I also like to do my thinking there, with a glass of wine,' he says. Cynthia, meanwhile, prefers to read or relax from an upstairs corner of the master bedroom, which has a view over the whole garden.

The main house includes four bedrooms, a family room, a library and a music room, plus indoor and outdoor dining areas and two patios. There is an extensive kitchen area as Lau is also a serious amateur cook, and the wet kitchen is equipped with an industrial strength gas burner for Chinese cooking. He has also installed a pizza oven, imported from Italy, in one corner of the garden. An antique island counter in the main kitchen is actually a wooden reception counter from a railway station, while the round dining table is a family relic that once belonged in a seaside house in Katong. It was later given by a friend to Lau's mother.

The family is also actively doing its bit to preserve the environment by minimising energy use. 'Many houses are not built correctly and do not take energy conservation into account,' says Lau, who is a strong advocate for alternative sources of energy.

He adds, 'We shouldn't be killing the Earth and should build more houses with this in mind. We try not to use air-conditioning, and we have stopped using hot water for bathing unless it is a cold and rainy day - it saves a lot of energy. If everybody in Singapore would stop using hot water to bathe on hot days, think of the amount of energy we could save.'

Lau says that since the family became more energy conscious, the electricity bill for the house has gone down by almost a third. A new house he is building will employ the use of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity. 'Hopefully we will have more power than we need and can sell the excess electricity,' says Lau, only partially in jest. There is an appealingly lived-in and comfortable feel to the house, which by no coincidence is called Aman Domba to reflect the mood of its residents (both Lau and Cynthia were born in the Year of the Sheep, or domba in Bahasa Indonesia, while Aman is the Sanskrit word for peace).

The interiors are filled with furniture, antiques and decorative items that add to the well-lived, well-loved sense of home. 'It's quiet and nice - we enjoy the peace here and we have a lot of privacy,' says Lau. 'The house was intentionally built in the front of the plot so that the garden is virtually screened off from everyone.' After 15 years, the Balinese-style garden is beautifully mature and the sound of nature is also everywhere - supplemented by calls from the family's pet birds, including a white cockatoo that greets visitors with a jovial 'Hello!'

Says Cynthia, 'Of course, one of the reasons the house is so nice is because of the kids' influence - they really enjoy it here. This is not a show house, it's really lived in and we make use of every corner.' Aman Domba is bright, breezy, and captures the essence of a relaxed tropical lifestyle. It is also full of energy in more ways than one - which makes this house a proper home.

BTO: Property investors eye China, Australia

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

Property investors eye China, Australia


CHINA and Australia are seen as good bets in the Asia-Pacific for real estate investments, according to two recent reports.

A survey of 73 investors, fund managers and fund of funds managers showed that they rank China, Australia and Japan as the three most appealing locations.

Singapore, on the other hand, was ranked last among seven places in terms of preferred location - after China, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and India. The survey was conducted by the Asian Real Estate Association (AREA) together with its partners.

Investors were especially bullish on the residential and retail sectors in China, as well as the Australian office market.

In the same vein, property firm DTZ said in a report that it expects continued weakness in property markets across the region through 2009 and into 2010, but a divergent profile of recovery - with Australia and China ahead of other key markets.

While total returns are forecast to be negative in 2009 across the region, China and Australia will be back in positive territory in 2010, ahead of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, DTZ's June 24 report predicted.

'2009 will continue to be a difficult year for investor and occupier markets,' said David Green-Morgan, head of Asia-Pacific research at DTZ. 'We see fair-value opportunities emerging in Australia and China towards the end of 2009 and 2010 as the two economies embark on a period of recovery.'

In 2008, the Asia-Pacific felt the full effects of the global downturn - and property markets were not spared.

'The value of the invested real estate stock in the Asia-Pacific declined in 2008, for the first time since 2001,' DTZ said. The fall in value amounted to 8 per cent in local currency terms, but a more moderate one per cent in US dollar terms.

Transaction volumes almost halved in 2008 from 2007.

AREA's survey, conducted in April this year, also showed a downturn in sentiment over the past 12 months. In the 2008 survey, all respondents - institutional investors, fund managers and fund of funds managers - indicated that they wanted to increase their activity in Asian non-listed real estate.

Since then, there has been a big drop in the number of investors who intend to allocate funds to Asian non-listed real estate in the short term. The percentage has fallen from 88 per cent of respondents in 2008 to just 24 per cent in the latest survey.

However, the respondents are more upbeat about mid-term prospects for Asian real estate. Twice as many intend to increase allocations to non-listed real estate over the medium term - three to five years - versus the short term. This is consistent with most investors' expectations of a market recovery in 2010.

DTZ reckons that things are beginning to look up for the key property markets in the Asia-Pacific. Opportunistic deals are continuing to occur across the region and a broad 'hunting season' should emerge over the next 12-18 months. Looking at specific markets, Sydney is expected to reach 'fair value' in the second half of 2009, followed by Shanghai in early 2010.

However, some concerns remain. 'While we will start to see value returning to markets in the Asia-Pacific, funding remains a concern, and may become a bottleneck for the recovery of activity in the commercial property markets both in Asia-Pacific and worldwide,' said DTZ's Mr Green-Morgan.

Investors should not lose sight of the fact that economic growth across the region is expected to be lower in 2009 and still below trend growth in 2010, DTZ warned. 'The implications for property markets, through below-trend occupational demand and, in some cases, the required clearing of excess supply, will translate into continued weakness in the near-term,' it said.

Likewise, in the AREA survey, respondents said that obstacles remain when it comes to investing in Asian non-listed real estate funds. Market conditions were identified as the top challenge faced. This was followed by 'transparency and market information on non-listed vehicles' and 'availability of suitable products'.

DTZ also said that it may be too soon to call a bottom as research shows that the historic series is volatile. 'We need to see a few more quarters of data before we can call the bottom of the market,' Mr Green-Morgan said.