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- PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA BREEN

Frequent Buyers

Ever wonder what savvy foodies pack home from their trips? Tay Suan Chiang and Avanti Nim sniff out the gourmet goodies.
Oct 15, 2016 5:50 AM

THERE are two kinds of rabid food-souvenir shoppers in Singapore: those who raid Haneda's duty-free shops for strawberry cheesecake Kit Kat and limited edition Jagabee potato sticks - and those who don't. Peek into the latter's luggage - if they let you - and you might find new harvest rice nestled among socks, freshly shaved bonito flakes from a wholesaler in Tsukiji or even a slab of preservative-free corned beef made from Omi wagyu squashed beside a toiletries case.

If the world is your oyster, these people will have a dozen of them carefully cushioned in netting and sleeping in the airplane's chiller until touchdown at Changi. Savvy food lovers know better than to pay a formidable premium for exotic imported ingredients, especially when frequent travel and an empty suitcase means you can cart home food that is cheaper, fresher and of better quality.

You certainly won't catch Grace Yip jostling for Kit Kat or Tokyo Banana at Haneda. "That's too touristy," muses the COO of group human resources at a local bank. Her gourmet haul? A 3kg slab of A3 wagyu strip loin, and seasonal fruit such as peaches, tomatoes and strawberries from Tokyo.

Tsukiji market is her go-to grocer. While it's famed for tuna auctions and cheap sushi, the handful of butcher shops there are worth a second look. "I went to Tsukiji on the last morning of my stay, bought the beef, and headed back to my serviced apartment to pack," she says.

Like her fellow gourmet travellers, she is always well-prepared. She never leaves home without an empty cabin-sized suitcase, four air-tight plastic containers, freezer blocks and cooler packs. She opts for a serviced apartment over a hotel as it usually has a proper refrigerator, where food can be kept chilled till it's time to head to the airport. If not, most hotels will keep bulky items in their chillers for you even beyond checkout time, especially if yours is a late night flight.

Most butcher shops will pack your meat in ice in a styrofoam box for travel, but if not, Ms Yip has the wagyu wrapped in newspaper, sandwiches it between two freezer blocks, cling wraps it, wraps it in newspaper and another layer of cling wrap, before securing it in a plastic container.

"For fruit, buy the whole box rather than loose pieces," she adds, because they've already been packed to withstand transportation from the farm.

Everything goes into her suitcase, which is checked-in. "They stay chilled in the cargo hold area," she says. Everything arrived intact, save for one bruised peach.

Japan is not her only food stop. In London, Ms Yip always stops by La Fromagerie in Marylebone for her soft cheese fix. "The guy did warn me that they wouldn't survive the flight back to Singapore, but he didn't know about my containers," she laughs.

In Barcelona, she stocks up on salami and jamon iberico. She gets the butcher to slice and vacuum-pack the meats into smaller portions. "Each packet is about 100g, and I end up with 20 flat packs, which make it easy to fit into the suitcase," she explains. "It makes for easier serving too."

Speaking of serving, her overseas supermarket jaunts usually end up in an elaborate theme party for family and friends. "It could be a Spanish charcuterie platter, or a Japanese dinner."

With all the frequent travelling she does as managing director of The Hour Glass, Wong Mei Ling know exactly what to buy and where. In Geneva, she gets vanilla pods, white truffle oil and dried porcini mushrooms, even if they're not indigenous. "They are generally cheaper and fresher, and since I'm already in Europe, why not?"

She is a fan of French artisanal butter Le Beurre Bordier from Brittany, which she buys in Provence, along with aged balsamic vinegar and Merlot sea salt. In Beijing, her picks are Szechuan pepper oil and Huang Fei Hong spicy peanuts.

"I buy them because I can't find them in Singapore or it's something I've tasted and like," says Ms Wong, who swears by the aged balsamico from Olivier + Co in Provence. "The taste is so balanced, there is no need to add any sweetness. I was pleasantly surprised to find a store in New York, so I pick up a bottle whenever I'm there."

Marketing consultant Mika Tomiyama has been food shopping overseas for the past 20 years, a habit she picked up from parents. "It's the best way to see how people in different countries live," says the Singapore-based Norwegian-Japanese.

Her shopping list includes olive oil, cheese and bacalao from Norway, where her parents still reside. Bacalao, or dried salted cod, cannot be found in Singapore.

"It's easy to bring back because it's dried and it keeps for a long time." She soaks it in water for cooking in stews."

For wine distributor Emil Teo, kippers from London are his vice. "They're not the highest form of gastronomy, but I love them because they bring back memories of our family trips to Malacca when I was younger. I especially like the ones from the Isle of Man because they're a little smaller and more succulent than the ones we get here," he says. Saucisson (thick, dry cured pork sausage) from France is another favourite buy.

Although he regularly throws dinner parties with his spoils, he's not in the habit of shopping for friends. "I'm not a tompang service," he quips.


What our foodies buy

JAPAN

Kobe beef Mouriya Restaurant in Tokyo

Rice Akomeya Tokyo

Soya sauce, vinegar, dashi Kayanoya Tokyo

Seasonal fruit Meidi-ya, Hiroo Plaza, Tokyo

Hokkaido milk bread Mont-Thabor Bakery

USA

Piedmontese beef bone in ribeye Fairwaypacking.com, Detroit

USDA prime beef Lobel's, New York

Seasonal fruit and vegetables Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, San Francisco

ITALY

Olive oil and bone-in rib steak Peck, Milan

HONG KONG

Dry aged ribeye The Butcher's Club, Wan Chai

Chinese waxed sausage Yung Kee, Central

Century egg Soon Hing Hung, Sheung Wan