On the epicurean express

If I have to use one word to describe being on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok, that would be it.

We were travelling last week with British celebrity chef and TV host Jonathan Phang, who was in Asia to promote the second season of his food show, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains.

Currently airing on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub Ch 435) on Wednesdays at 10pm, the series features him embarking on gastronomic adventures around the world on some of the most luxurious trains, as he relives old-world glamour and indulges in fine dining experiences.

So what is the "gourmet train" experience like?

Imagine checking into a five-star hotel with top-notch service, except it's on wheels.

Once on board, you are ushered to your personal cabin, a cosy 5 sq m space that is home for the next three days.

There is a small en suite bathroom and it Is fully equipped with fresh linen and branded toiletries.

An attentive cabin steward stopped by to check if I was doing fine, and served me a complimentary two-tier tea set of cakes and pastries shortly after the train departed from Woodlands.

Riding on the Eastern & Oriental Express with no Wi-Fi and connection to the outside world makes you feel like you're trapped in a bubble.

In a good way, of course.

You start to lose track of time, as the minutes slowly turn into hours, and the hours into days.

The 150 passengers on board were mostly Caucasian couples from Europe and the US in their late 40s to 60s, who were enjoying a romantic getaway in Asia.

As for me, I found there is something strangely hypnotic and calming about seeing the world whizz past outside the window, from a comfortable sofa, which is converted into a bed by the cabin steward in the evening.

You can also go to the Observation Deck at the rear of the train and take photos of the picturesque scenery.

We stopped over for a few hours at Kuala Kangsar in Perak, Malaysia, on the second morning, where guests followed Phang on a wet market tour.

On the third and final day, passengers disembarked at the River Kwai in Thailand, and were given a historical tour of the area.

THE MEAL

But the highlight of the gourmet getaway was the scrumptious five-course meals served in the three dining cars, all lavishly decorated with elm, rosewood and teak panelling.

The soft warm glow of the table lamps added to the ambience, along with the exquisite table settings of specially designed china and crystalware. Guests spared no effort in dressing up, with the men showing up in suits and the ladies in beautiful dresses.

At a special dinner prepared by Phang, the press and contest winners got to try his signature Caribbean cuisine.

The appetiser was breaded cod fillet - crisp on the outside but fresh and tender on the inside. The spicy creamy red pepper mayonnaise on the side added a flavourful kick, while the mango salsa provided a refreshing reprieve from the spices.

A bowl of hot piping spiced pumpkin and seafood soup was placed on the table next - a velvety smooth concoction that slid down the throat.

For the main course, I chose the beef pepperpot, a Caribbean dish that Phang said is close to his heart. The tender beef was paired with a dark sweet gravy, complementing the spicy curry and fragrant long grain rice perfectly.

When asked what was the biggest challenge in cooking on a train, he told M: "The chefs that work on trains really love the challenge of a small cramped kitchen.

"They get very excited by it and they feel very excited by the end of a service because they go like, 'Look, what have we done? We have done two services back to back'.

"It looks great on the chefs but to me, it's a horror. I can barely walk in the kitchen, so cooking in it is not something that I relish.

"I am up for the challenge, but I am very nervous about it to be honest... because I am cooking for Singaporeans and Malaysians, and these people love food. They eat all the time and they have high standards."

Phang needn't have worried, as the spread was unlike anything I had tried before, and its unique taste left me wanting more.

And if all those mouth-watering dishes weren't enough, dessert came in the form of a thick slab of coconut and pineapple cake with ice cream.

Researcher Kenneth Kwok, 50, the Singaporean winner of the Asian Food Channel TV contest who won a trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express, told M: "Jonathan's cuisine is very different from what we usually eat. It's flavourful, and I enjoyed it a lot.

"He is very personable and charming, and interacting with him added to the fun of the train ride."

When the sun set and the darkness of the night took over, passengers made their way to the piano bar, where we sipped on cocktails and socialised while listening to the soothing tunes by resident pianist Peter - the perfect way to end a magical evening.

'There's a part of me in my cuisine'

Jonathan Phang, 48, started out as a photography agent, and went on to become a highly sought-after fashion industry expert before landing the role of a judge on reality TV series Britain's Next Top Model, which kickstarted his TV career.

But now, he's happiest doing what he loves most - cooking food that people can relate to.

Born in a Chinese-Caribbean household in London, where food was the family's main focus, Phang learnt to cook delectable dishes full of spices and intense flavours inspired by his mum's cooking.

His heritage became the inspiration of his cooking show Jonathan Phang's Caribbean Cookbook, in which he explored the global influences of the region's cooking, as well as his best-selling cookbook, The Pepperpot Club: A Celebration Of Caribbean Cuisine.

The host of culinary travelogue Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains spoke with M while we were on the Eastern & Oriental Express.

You've been to so many different destinations on trains. Which has been your most unforgettable experience?

Machu Picchu. It's so unlike anything else. I am a bit of a pain unfortunately. Wherever I last (go), I want to move there at the end of it.

I thought Canada was extraordinarily beautiful, the people there are extremely nice, and I felt that Vancouver could be a city I could live in. It has a lot to offer - there's lots of great fusion food and the natural beauty surrounding it is great."

What do you like best and dislike most about travelling on trains?

I can't sleep very well on them but I think it's a perfectly reasonable sacrifice to make for all the things it offers you. It's really nice to take a long journey, because you go through all sorts of emotions.

There are moments when you are very contemplative, moments you spend alone where you sort of just gaze outside the window, and I think it's really important to give yourself time and space. In real life, when we are working, we don't have time to do that.

You also get to socialise with people because you meet people in the bar, or talk to someone sitting next to you at dinner.

You jumped from fashion to cooking. What is it about cooking that excites you?

The only thing that excites me about cooking is the food I produce. The dishes that I like cooking, they relate to people I love, so I feel good doing it. There's a part of me in my cuisine.

Food is a means of communication for me and the only skills I have are communicative. I don't have scientific skills or IT skills, so I can offer something nice to eat.

Do you have a favourite Singapore dish?

Char siew wonton noodles. I love all the lovely fruit juices. I love prata bomb. I love seafood and you always get great seafood in Singapore.

How do you feel about the current durian season?

I am perfectly happy with it. But if I have to choose one piece of fruit on a dish, it wouldn't be my first choice because I love dragonfruit. I thought I wasn't going to like durian because everyone makes this big fuss about it, but I think it's lovely and I think it's a nice flavour for ice cream too.


This article was first published on July 29, 2015.
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