A quest to research on Southeast Asian food, and to network with those in the food and beverage industry took American Stephen Black and his partner, Sayuri Okayama who is originally from Japan, away from their home base in Singapore since February 2017. Their journey of culinary discoveries has so far taken them to neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Thailand and, of course, Malaysia.
In Malaysia, the couple made stops at Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, and are currently in Ipoh, into their second month. “The people that we met in KL spoke highly of the food in Ipoh, so we decided to come over out of curiosity and a sense of adventure. I haven’t visited Ipoh before, though I have heard much about the city living in Singapore, so there couldn’t have been a better time than now,” Black said.
After illustrious careers as an artist, television producer, photographer, game maker and writer with eight book titles to his name, Black, who graduated in photography and videography, is currently focused on his startup company devoted to augmented reality (AR). The symbol of these AR efforts is in the form of Bubiko Foodtour, a fictional female character dubbed AR’s first superstar.
Inspired by a Thai doll, Bubiko Foodtour is supposedly a chef from Thailand. She has a personality that is a mix of her own unique charm and the perceived personalities of Charlie Chaplin, Hello Kitty and Anthony Bourdain, all rolled into one.
Black randomly named her ‘Bubiko’ from the first syllables that came to his mind. As for the fictitious surname of ‘Foodtour’, not only does it sound like a real name, it is descriptive of her career as well.
Bubiko Foodtour, who likes food and research, lets people discover about food and their origin easily, in an entertaining way. Once Bubiko is officially introduced to the world, other characters will follow suit. Already in the pipeline are Doughbots and Secret Donut World.
“Talking about AR now draws many blank stares. Most people do not understand what it is all about or its concept. It is like discussing about the Global Positioning System (GPS) before it was available to the masses but now it is in our smartphones. It won’t be long when AR will also play a major part in our daily lives and we won’t think twice using it. It will become second nature,” predicted Black.
Having lived in Asia most of his adult life and based in Singapore since 2002, Black is no stranger to the food in Ipoh due to the similarities. “Ipoh is very much an undiscovered gem for me but I am somehow reminded of Singapore; not only by the food but also the people, familiar architecture and British influences. However, the heat can make life quite difficult,” he added laughingly.
Black and Okayama’s time in Ipoh is spent checking out popular local fare, from egg tarts to cendol and yong tau foo. “We are putting up at Abby Hotel just by the Kinta River Bridge, conveniently in the middle of Old Town and New Town. Most of the eateries are within walking distance, though exploring further requires a taxi ride,” he said.
Food captures history. It is a representation of culture. Documenting these food with Black’s Apple iPhone has resulted in a soft copy book titled ‘IPOH: 88 iPhone photographs Bubiko Foodtour’ which is available for download on Amazon.com.
In Ipoh, Black also made time for an experimental project, where he went live on the internet for 72 consecutive hours. During his first broadcast, which was operated out of Abby Hotel, Black spoke on a broad range of topics including photography, videography, books, music, art, virtual reality, augmented reality, Southeast Asian food, and Bubiko Foodtour, among others.
Black said, “The live broadcast also saw me going to the streets and visiting interesting shops, rain or shine, adding local flavour to my programme for my international audience. I have no idea what would come out of that but it was all in good fun.”
“His next broadcast will be shorter but packed with even more local content. After this experience, we are wiser,” Okayama quipped.
Indeed, in the second Facebook Live broadcast shortly after that, this time from Symphony Suites Hotel, Black in a similar experimental approach, combined the concepts of artist-in-residence, in-house photographer/videographer and content creator. Most of all, Black did not forget his role as a tourist, exploring the other side of Ipoh, and live broadcasting his new discoveries to his audience.
According to Okayama, at the end of this extended research tour of Ipoh, they plan to head to Penang, where they will research the city’s famed street food, starting with Penang asam laksa.
Note: An edited version of this article [Food crawl across Southeast Asia] was published on 25th November 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.