Raffles Hotel – Tigers and Singapore Sling

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Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Early one morning on 13 August 1902, an escaped circus tiger bounded under the Raffles Hotel Billiard Room, which was built on stilts. Charles Phillips, principal of Raffles Institution and a member of Singapore’s rifle team, was urgently called to the hotel. Rushing over in his pyjamas, he saw the eyes of the tiger gleaming in the half-light under the building, took aim, and killed it. A python and a wild boar have also visited the hotel in the days before Singapore became an urban jungle but no stories tell of their demise.

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Apart from the wildlife, Raffles is known for its Singapore Sling, created at the Long Bar between 1910-15 by the Hainanese–Chinese bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon. It has been popular ever since as a good antidote to tiger sightings. Sitting in rattan chairs under twirling fans in the hot, moist atmosphere of Singapore, any drink is welcome. In the early days, guests could sit on the verandah to catch the cooling sea breezes and see five miles of shipping from all over the world bobbing at anchor. The hotel still stands on Beach Road but so much land has been reclaimed that the beach is now out of sight. The following recipe was jotted on a bar chit by a visitor in 1936.

SINGAPORE SLING

2 measures of gin

1 measure of cherry brandy

1 measure of fresh orange, lemon, lime and pineapple juice

Drop of Cointreau

Dash of Angostura Bitters

Garnish with a slice of pineapple and a cherry

Shake well with ice and serve in a tall glass. Don’t forget the umbrella.

Raffles Hotel was established by the Armenian Sarkies brothers and named after Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. They leased the 10-room colonial bungalow on Beach Road from an Arab trader, Syed Mohamed Alsagoff, on 1 December 1887. The glorious main building of Raffles Hotel was completed in 1899, designed by architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren. Over the years a verandah, wings, ballroom, and a bar and billiards room were added.

Raffles is known not only for tigers and slings but for its famous guests. Somerset Maugham visited in the 1920-30s and wrote every morning under a frangipani tree in the Palm Court. He noted that Raffles Hotel “stands for all the fables of the exotic East.”

Raffles Hotel has featured in many films, including the BBC’s Tenko, which recreated the experiences of British, Australian an Dutch women captured after the fall of Singapore (February 1942). The film Paradise Road tells the story of the same camp. The women were held in internment camps on Sumatra until 1945, when they were repatriated to Singapore. Raffles Hotel acted as the clearinghouse for news. A woman who had been in the same camp as my father’s first wife recognised him from her description, told him of her death a few months before and handed back her wedding ring, which he wore for the rest of his life.

Afternoon Tea, Anyone?

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Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have started afternoon tea in 1830. She complained about “a sinking feeling” between lunch and dinner and began having tea with bread and butter served mid-afternoon. Teatime became more elaborate as she invited her friends and the dishes increased: crustless sandwiches, pastries, crumpets, and scones with jam. It wasn’t until the price of tea came down that everyone began drinking it and it became part of the working class high tea, or supper, a meal served with eggs and ham around 6 pm.

We associate tea with scones and jam, but Devonshire cream teas may have started centuries before tea was introduced to Britain. As far as we know, scones, jam and clotted cream originated in Tavistock, Devon in the early 11th century. Monks served scones to the labourers who helped them restore the monastery after a Viking raid in 997 AD. Apparently they had no difficulty finding volunteers!

This recipe makes 8 scones (no raisins originally):

225g / 9oz flour

4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

50g / 2oz butter

25g / 1oz caster (berry) sugar

150ml (1/2 cup) milk

1 medium egg
Preheat oven to 450°F. Grease baking tray.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter to breadcrumb texture.

Stir in sugar. Add milk. Mix lightly into a soft dough.

Scoop dough onto a floured board and knead briefly.

Roll dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut into circles. Put on baking tray.

Brush the tops with beaten egg.

Bake for 7-10 minutes or until well-risen and golden brown.

Cool on wire rack.

Tea was drunk only by the wealthy in the 1600s and it was highly taxed. Even in the early 1800s ships could take a year to transport loose tea from China to Europe, making transport expensive. The East India Company had a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832 and began to reduce the journey by building light, fast ships called clippers. We now use the expression “at a good clip,” which comes from the ships. They were streamlined square-riggers and could make 15-22 knots under full sail. The most famous was the Cutty Sark, built in 1868. It made the tea run only eight times (clippers rarely lasted 20 years) and can be seen at Greenwich, London.

We use tea bags without thinking, but they were invented only about 100 years ago. The first tea bags were hand-sewn silk-muslin sample bags. By 1904, Thomas Sullivan of New York was shipping tea bags around the world. A machine was soon invented to replace the hand sewing.

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC, used to serve tea and crumpets with honey for 35 cents but even that price became too high during the Depression, when many of the Empress residents lost fortunes in the crash. One lady made economies by ordering hot water at teatime because it was free. She then slipped a teabag surreptitiously into the pot while the staff looked the other way.

I need a briq!

Hotel Majestic, Tunis

Where’s my briq?

The Hotel Majestic is a French colonial hotel on the Avenue de Paris in Tunis, past its glory days but a treasure for the nostalgic traveller. It was built in 1914 with Art Nouveau architecture,  a white façade, blue shutters, and gently curved corners. The hotel has a terrace overlooking the Jardin Habib Thameur.

I had come up in the world. On the right side of the tram tracks at last. I had been staying at a beautifully tiled hotel in the Arab quarter at first. I turned the garbage bin over the smelly hole in the bathroom floor. Had to pay in advance in cash. Woken up by the muezzin. In the morning I  went up to the breakfast room controlled by Omar and had a reasonable breakfast with the TV glowering the CNN news at me. Then Omar sidled over to my table and decided to teach me to count in Arabic. He needed my fingers of course and he had to sit close. Then he told me his name meant “Amour.” Despite the golden rays of the sun streaming through the coloured glass, I felt a chill.

My self-adopted minder, he of the sky blue puffy jacket (it was 18 degrees Celsius in January), Mohammed, insisted that I move to the Majestic in the colonial area of Tunis. This is where I had briq for breakfast. In the Arab quarter I had scouted around for food, as one does, not knowing which local “delicacies” to try. I’d spotted a Pizza Hut (which I don’t go to in real life) and thought it would at least be a known quantity and reasonably clean. Got to the door. Found it was monopolized by Arab men who seemed to live there, so I ordered a take out. I wandered off to the market and bought sackfuls of the best mandarins I’ve ever eaten, and lived off pizza and mandarins for several days, praying I wouldn’t get food poisoning.

The Hotel Majestic had a real restaurant. Controlled by Mohammed II. It had tablecloths and nice old-fashioned meals. A few expats. Maitre de Mohammed was the soul of politesse. No Arabic numbers. His name did not mean Amour. But an opportunity was not to be wasted. He insisted if I was alone in a strange city I could visit him after 9 pm when he stopped work. Un vrai gentilhomme! Nevertheless, I walked up the grand staircase to my room. I couldn’t prevent myself from using the shoe-brushing machine in the hall, which cleaned the dust off infidels’ shoes. A wise precaution.

I  had a wonderfully royal blue room above the disco. Miles of space and a big window over the garden and tram tracks. A tiled bathroom, but with boring white tiles. The room was situated above the disco, which wasn’t apparent during the day. I dropped off to sleep, finally, with Arabic trills and innuendos influencing my heartbeat. My consciousness expanded to the rhythm of an ancient universe and I melted into the royal blue bedcover.

 The next morning, compensation for the disco music was a breakfast of briq. They tell me it’s the Tunisian tradition that the bride-to-be’s mother makes a briq for the bridegroom. If the bridegroom eats it without spilling any of the egg yolk, he may marry the bride. The best test I’ve ever heard of.

 Briq or Brik or Brick (pronounced breek) is a Tunisian version of the borek. Non! you say. Impossible! C’est vrai? It consists of thin warka pastry around a filling that is usually deep-fried. Not warka too! Tres magnifique. The best-known version is the egg brik, a whole egg in a triangular pastry pocket with chopped onion, tuna, harissa (hot chilli sauce) and parsley. Of course you knew that.

Brik pastry is made by slapping a sticky lump of dough onto a hot non-stick surface in overlapping circles to produce the desired size, and cooked for a minute or two.

It’s your choice, but regular fillings include tuna, ground meat, chopped boiled egg, chicken, or anchovies garnished with a fried egg and harissa, capers or cheese. Do with it what you will.

 BRIQ

For 4 servings use 4 eggs

4 sheets of malsouka or briq pastry (phyllo). Where did the warka go? That was the best bit.

1 small can of tuna in olive oil

Handful of capers

1 onion

1 Tbsp.  parsley, chopped with intention

Salt and pepper, comme d’habitude

Vegetable oil for frying

1 lemon, sliced

Chop the onion finely, please.

Mash the tuna on a plate with a fork and with gusto!

Cook the onion over medium heat with a little water until tender and translucent.

Turn off the heat and add the parsley in dainty sprinkles.

Place the mixture in a bowl and add the tuna and capers or what you fancy.

Place a circle of the filling in the centre of each sheet of briq.

Fold the 4 edges in to form a square.

Add the whole egg (white and yolk) to the middle of the filling, adding a pinch of salt and pepper, comme d’habitude.

Fold the sheet in half diagonally to form a triangle – could be teaching a geometry class here.

Drop into hot oil, being careful not to pierce the briq or yourself.

Immediately baste the top of the briq with hot oil, using a fork or spoon to stick the two edges of the triangle together.

Carefully remove the pastry from the oil with a spatula and drain on paper towel. Gosh, it’s hot!

Serve hot with lemon wedges. Ta da! Comme ca!