Becky Wiggins sets sail on a culinary adventure from the Philippines to Singapore as part of a Silversea Southeast Asia cruise and discovers the allure of travelling deeper.
There’s a teeny tiny burger on my plate. I’m told to pop it straight in my mouth and, surprisingly, it melts immediately. It’s not a burger at all, but a tomato-scented meringue filling my mouth with tantalising flavours: it’s sweet but salty, tart and acidic, then earthy… I’m in foodie heaven on my SIlversea Southeast Asia cruise.
We’re experiencing a multi-course tasting menu at a restaurant in Manila. Course after course of incredibly creative flavour combinations are placed in front of us, all created with diverse local ingredients: a cassava chip with delicate sea urchin and sweet potato; a tiny squid stuffed with hot, mustardy rice and glazed with ginger, onion, garlic and tomato; mackerel cured with coconut vinegar, served with zingy pickled cucumber. Dessert is a smoked coconut cream with reduced coconut vinegar, candied cashews and mango. This Silversea culinary journey has started on a high.
I’m on board Silversea’s Silver Muse to experience a preview of the cruise line’s brand new culinary experience programme, .S.A.L.T. (Sea And Land Taste), which will debut on their brand new ship Silver Moon in August 2020.
After an exhilarating drive through the crazy Manila traffic, we finally spot our ship nestled serenely in glittering Manila Bay. We’re welcomed with chilled Champagne and I’m shown to my elegant suite by a butler in tails, where we discuss my choice of toiletries (Ortigia), my favourite tipple (gin), and even whether I’d like him to unpack my suitcase.
There’s a large bathroom with a full-sized bath and generous corner shower, a dressing room with plenty of drawer and hanging space and a bedroom with a huge mirror masquerading cleverly as a TV screen. A quick flump on the bed reveals it to be one of the comfiest I’ve ever experienced. There’s also a lounge area with a sofa, dressing table space and a table with a bucket of chilled Champagne on ice. The décor is muted coffee and cream with jade green accents, and outside on the balcony there are loungers and views across the bay. I think I’m going to like it here.
That evening we dine in opulent, Asian-fusion eatery Indochine, one of eight restaurants on board, where local Filipino dishes have been added to the menu, including spicy sinigang soup, and fragrant, vinegary chicken adobo. Guests on board Silver Moon (and Silver Dawn, coming in 2021) will be able to dip in and out of an array of specially curated .S.A.L.T. experiences, from market trips, winery visits and local dining to onboard cookery demonstrations.
Next morning we arrive at the beautiful island of Coron and are dazzled by the otherworldly
jade-coloured water, out of which rises dramatic limestone cliffs covered in lush vegetation. We join our first guest host, Filipino food expert and New York restaurateur Nicole Ponseca, and our local guide, Clang, to climb on board a fleet of colourful jeepneys, military vehicles abandoned by the US army after the war and appropriated and adapted into the cutest form of transport by the locals.
Our jeepneys take us through the streets to the harbour where we climb on board incredible local ‘banca’ outrigger boats, and after a few technical difficulties (ours refuses to start) we’re soon skimming the turquoise waters over to Balangay Lajala where we receive a warm welcome from the children of the Tagbanwa tribe, descended from the original inhabitants of the Philippines.
We’re treated to a show, tell and taste of the foods that the Tagbanwa live on, including the most fragrant mango I’ve ever eaten alongside the weirdly astringent fruit of the cashew, which magically seems to suck every last bit of moisture from your mouth, while still managing to taste delicious. The children are fascinated by us. When we finally leave, they run along beside us, waving us goodbye and shouting “bye, love you,” from the dock. I feel like I leave a little piece of my heart there, such is the warmth of their hospitality.
Back on our bancas, we sail among the incredible rock formations and into a hidden cove where the water seems even more luminous. We buy fresh coconuts before hiking up steep stone steps and down the other side. By this stage, our calves are screaming, but it’s worth it when the most beautiful, crystal clear body of water comes into view, Kayangan Lake. We cool off in the clear water and take endless photos, if only to prove that a lake this colour really does exist.
Our last stop comes courtesy of wonderful little motorcycle and sidecar taxis. We zip up into the mountains to a local restaurant, the Funny Lion, for an incredible Kamayan feast: the whole table is groaning with mountains of food: stuffed squid, local fish, roast chicken, huge shrimp, sticky rice, salted eggs, and local seaweed that’s like teeny green bunches of grapes. Nicole gives us a quick lesson on eating with your fingers (it’s not as straightforward as you’d think) and we tuck in. On our way back to the ship, luck isn’t on our side as our motorcycle again breaks down, but Nicole, following behind, helps out and we make it back in time, four of us squished into one vehicle.
We spend the next day getting to know Nicole listening to her lecture on the cultural influences on Filipino food (everything from Spanish to British, Chinese, Greek, Indian and of course American) along with insights into her own upbringing. We learn how the staples of Filipino food are acidity, fat and spice with a fermented element that Nicole calls ‘funk’. We taste different vinegars and fermented shrimp and fish pastes, and watch as Nicole cooks a fermented fish and rice dish called kinilaw (bit of an acquired taste, this one) and a moreish classic Filipino adobo. It’s laid back, interactive and fun, and we all feel we’ve learned lots of new information.
Our next stop is Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Piling into mini vans, we head to the Heng Sing Coffee Shop, a local institution, for a traditional breakfast: spicy Sabah tom yum, laksa made with evaporated milk, fried noodles with rice wine and kon lo mee with roasted pork and egg rolls. It’s the most delicious feast and such fun to sit among the locals as they chat over their breakfast. Just across the road is the local fish market, and we wander the stalls, marvelling at the huge blue shrimp and multicoloured fish, then cross to the spice market and watch coconuts being grated in a machine that very much looks like it could relieve you of a few fingers if you weren’t careful.
Our next stop is high in the mountains, and the engines in our little vans strain as we wind through the lush hillside to Kokol Haven, a stunning resort where we’re warmly welcomed with lemongrass juice and… aprons. After a fascinating demonstration of a local curry dish, rich with coconut milk, garlic and curry leaves, we’re set to work making traditional local dishes: fragrant pumpkin with cucumber shoots, cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with dried, crushed shrimp; a delicious shrimp dish cooked with tamarind and turmeric that leaves us all stained orange; and a tangy spiced fish dish.
After all our hard work, we’re treated to a feast, with both the dishes that we’ve cooked and more traditional local food, including a sago pudding in coconut milk, sweetened with palm sugar. It’s all blissful, and as we chat and eat, there’s a collective fear that we haven’t packed enough clothes with elasticated waistbands.
Evening sees us boarding a luxury yacht and sailing out into the South China Sea towards the most stunning sunset. It’s a proper pinch me moment, and the surprises don’t end there as soon we’re docking at Manukan Island, part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, and scene of a picture perfect dinner that’s been set up for us on the beach. A team of chefs prepare a delicious barbecue, and we dine on rich, aromatic gado gado, grilled fresh fish and chicken satay with a punchy peanut sauce, all washed down with a pleasantly throat-burning ginger beer.
As Silver Muse powers on to Singapore, we’re joined by our next host, food writer and owner of supper club FatFuku (literally translated as ‘fat luck’) Annette Tan in teppanyaki restaurant Kaiseki for a chat about Singaporean food and a demonstration of her family’s own Peranakan chicken curry, often eaten with chunks of baguette, which is popular througout Singapore, along with delicate, lacy roti jala and fried bee hoon: noodles with spongy sliced fishcakes cooked up by hawkers across the city-state.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultural influences, informed by its colonial past (hence the popularity of afternoon tea), and later, Annette introduces us to some sweet treats: kueh bingka made with cassava, chiffon cake infused with pandan leaves and kueh ko swee, a little like squares of sweet green blancmange covered in coconut. It’s all delicious.
Listening to Annette’s brilliant talks mean that when we dock in Singapore, we understand the background to the hawker centres (created after food vendors were removed from the streets to a regulated, covered area, they’re so popular in Singapore, there’s one every two square miles) and know exactly what to expect and what to look for. We know all about ‘chope’, the system of bagging a seat while you’re queuing with anything from a pack of tissues to a mobile phone or wallet (‘nothing is stolen here,’ remarks Annette, ‘it’s why Singaporeans make such terrible travellers’).
We spend the day with Annette and another local guide, exploring the fascinating Redhill Market hawker centre. We sniff coffee beans ground with margarine and sugar, and taste the resulting rich kopi peng, iced coffee served with condensed milk. We wander the stalls of noodles and rice and can’t leave without trying the Hainanese chicken rice which we’ve heard so much about from Annette. It’s divine, poached in a flavourful broth with spring onion and ginger and served with deliciously savoury rice and a gingery chilli sauce.
Finally, we head to Allspice, a professional cooking school where we’re welcomed with heavenly scented fresh jasmine garlands. After a tour of the spice garden, our cookery class makes nasi ulam, a fresh rice salad with local herbs, coconut, lemongrass, fresh turmeric and torch ginger. Our final lunch, on a beautifully dressed table, features local lamb satay with pineapple sauce, traditional Peranakan duck soup, our nasi ulam and ayam buah keluak, a classic dish cooked with chicken and a poisonous seed that can kill if not prepared correctly.
I board the plane home carrying a few extra pounds along with my hand luggage, an understanding of the culture and cuisine of the areas that we’ve visited and an arsenal of recipes to try at home, plus, of course, some wonderful memories. Sometimes with cruises, there’s a sense that you’ve only skimmed the surface of a destination, but with a sprinkling of .S.A.L.T., Silversea Cruises have shown that it’s possible to really get under the skin of a destination. From now on, I’ll insist on travelling deeper.
An 11-day all-inclusive Silversea .S.A.L.T voyage, departing on 06 August 2020, from Trieste to Rome, starts from £5,490 per person, including flights and transfers. For further details,
call 0844 251 0837 or visit silversea.com.