"In America, you can't get everything in one place," he says with a sigh. "It takes so much time to go shopping. But I'm young and I don't mind working."
When the larder is bare and the embossed invitations are in the mail, Singapore's ambassador, Heng-Chee Chan, and her cook of 13 years, Ludivina Abad, head to the Wheaton branch of Han Ah Reum Asian Mart. "I surveyed all the supermarkets in the beginning. But this is where I found the best vegetables and palm sugar and the brand of thick, dark soy sauce [Pearl Gold Bridge] that I'm used to," says Chan, as she grabs a handful of shallots and quickly moves on.
Singaporean ambassador Heng-Chee Chan, right, and her cook Ludivinia Abad shop for produce at Asian food marts in the Wheaton area.
(Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
The ambassador is proud of her organizational skills. "We make several lists, one for each dish we're serving. Then we split up and get the job done," says Chan, a no-nonsense university professor who was named ambassador in 1996. Her driver takes her to the Maine Avenue wharf in Southwest when the menu calls for rockfish, cod, sea bass or red snapper. Meats are purchased at Costco. "All the embassies shop there," she says.
The Singaporean embassy residence is a comfortable, Georgian-style mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park in Woodley Park. In a small breakfast room off the kitchen, she pages through Asian cookbooks looking for ideas. "You plan well and it works, balancing and arranging the tastes," says Chan as she enjoys a spicy-hot curry puff and a cup of tea. "You see, I'm the ambassador and the ambassador's wife rolled into one."
On the polished granite kitchen counter is a glass baking dish with three large slabs of pork belly marinating in a mixture of brown sugar, five spice powder and dark soy sauce. Abad, a native of the Philippines, plans to saute the slabs with garlic, shallots, star anise and cinnamon sticks, then slice the pork and stuff it into steamed Chinese buns. It will be Ambassador Chan's contribution to a potluck party.
The ambassador prefers seated dinners, sometimes formal, for 18 guests. As a reflection of Singapore's ethnic diversity, she serves Nonya cuisine -- a blend of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian ingredients and cooking techniques "with a little Thai and Indian thrown in."
A typical dinner might start with gado gado -- a vegetable salad with a spicy peanut dressing -- followed by a chicken soup accented with wolfberry,an herbal/berry-flavored fruit that is believed to have medicinal value. An Indian-influenced salmon curry and Chinese-style braised duck are served next. Dessert might be a cassava pudding, which in Singapore would be food-colored green. Here, Chan forgos the dye.
"We learned that green doesn't go down in Washington," she says. "Americans don't want that. They are so health-conscious."
Monica Bordon, wife of Argentine ambassador Jose Octavio Bordon, says her guests always anticipate the main course at the embassy residence near Dupont Circle. Whether it's a seated dinner in the magnificent dining salon of the French Renaissance-style embassy or a backyard, mixed grill asado barbecue, "People expect meat here," she says. With her chef, Maximo Togni, a native of Buenos Aries, "We make meals around meat because that is what Argentina is famous for."
But for Bordon, who arrived in September 2003, there is a problem. Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 devalued the country's peso considerably against the dollar. Meat is expensive, and the budget is tight. So Bordon and Togni do much of the shopping at the wholesale/retail Capital City Market warehouse district in Northeast. (Argentina's exports of fresh beef to the United States were suspended in 2001 after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.)
After pushing back the plastic-flap doorway of the U.S. Beef Inc. warehouse and minding which direction the forklifts are headed, Togni grabs bag after bag of chuck short ribs at $1.79 per pound. "Look at that price," says Bordon with a smile of approval. "We try to keep the ingredients to less than $10 per person, not including wines."
There is just enough room in Togni's outstretched arms for two frozen beef tongues. "We love tongue," says Bordon, following closely. "At parties in Argentina, it's very common to serve it marinated in a salad with onions, red bell pepper and olive oil."
Additional provisions, such as La Salteña empanada wrappers and Havanna brand condensed milk for making caramel-like, dulce de leche, are imported from Argentina and purchased at El Chaparral Meat Market in Arlington. Flaky empanadas stuffed with seasoned ground pork and beef are served at every gathering.
The two-level embassy kitchen, a warren of rooms that has a 1920s-era charm and the wear to go with it, is nippy on a recent afternoon, another consequence of budget restraints. Togni, 28, an admirer of avant-garde Spanish cuisine, prepares his signature entree.
After two years on the job, the unexpected solitude of this embassy kitchen is getting to him. "I can't believe it. But I've never even met another embassy chef," says Togni as he chops carrots and celery and tosses the pieces into a large roasting pan. "In a restaurant you are a team. There is noise and people. Here you feel alone."
On top of the vegetables go the short ribs. The chef pours on three bottles of Argentine Malbec wine from Mendoza, the region the Bordons call home.
After four to five hours in the oven, the tender rib meat falls away from the bone and the wine creates a terrific, rich sauce. Togni serves it alongside a stacked column of alternating slices of Granny Smith apple and blood sausage and a small tart made of sweetbreads. The finished plate is as elegant as you will find anywhere on Embassy Row.