Scenes from a menu

30 03 2003

With less than ten days until I jump on a pneumonia-free (hopefully), cialis generic medicine tin can aeroplane and jet off to New York, doctor I now have time to explain the lateness of this Noos. See, unhealthy I’ve been traipsing around Singapore the last few weeks on a bit of a culinary adventure. A Makan (food) Pilgrimage, if you like. It has left me no time for writing. Until now.

See, I thought you might enjoy some Singapore chow—albeit sampled through the World Wide Web. And despite having just had a wisdom tooth rather unceremoniously extracted, I still managed to haul my gauzy grin and sore jaw along to many food courts, restaurants and hawker centres, just for you.

What follows is a list of ten things you must eat at least once when coming to Singapore. Yes, dear reader, even, no, ESPECIALLY the Durian. And every great odyssey starts with a first, tentative, opened-toed-sandal step. So here we go.

Does the phrase ‘passed through a sock’ trip your trigger? Well, traditionally, that’s how they made the Kopi (coffee). In fact, I saw a sign in a Kaya Toast joint somewhere that said “Forget the French Press, we’ve got the sock!” I’m not sure if that’s supposed to bump up the desire factor or not.

Crazy Val and I saunter down for a lazy breakfast at the Kaya Toast place about three minutes from my house. As per usual, it’s packed. It’s kind of a traditional thing to do for breakfast, if you can manage to elbow people off a table so you can sit down.

I order my usual—Set A: Kaya Buttered Toast Set (two runny eggs, kaya toast and kopi)—and settle down to read about Michael Jackson’s latest baby dangle in the National Enquirer. Val reads a serious paper, but I think it’s only ’cause I won’t let her see mine. I keep gasping in shock at the scandalous headlines, just to make her jealous. It’s a few months old, and I’ve paid $5 to read this tripe, but I love it.

Even though I’ve eaten this many times, I finally ask Val what kaya is. Val, the Patron Saint of Answering Noodle’s Endless Questions, patiently explains kaya is a coconut egg jam of sorts. Ok, so now imagine kaya and a square slab of butter. Now imagine the kaya and this square whacked between two slices of pretty tasty hot toast. Let the melt factor takes over and it’s “Hello taste buds, divine has arrived!” Consider yourself warned—like all good things it’s not terribly good for you.

On this day, I enjoy my Kopi so much I get up and grab some more. Kopi is a pretty strong coffee and sweetened with condensed milk. Val gets Kopi Peng. Peng is Hokkien for ice, so work it out. We then have to leave as people are hovering over our table like UFOs over a herd of cows at Roswell.

The first thing you’ll notice, if you’re Australian, is the distinct lack of icing. Second, the lack of carrots. Carrot cake is not a cake. It’s not a sweet. And it’s not made from carrots. It’s like a giant omelette really. Made of white radish, egg and garlic, fried and…well, glistening. Although Val is eating it this day while I have my Yong Tau Foo, I’ve had it before and found it to be great hangover food. If you can find a good one, you’ll love it always.

I do miss real carrot cake though. I mean the actual cake with the cream cheese icing.

No tofu for you? Well, you won’t like this one at all if you’re not into curd food. This is one of my Singapore staples ’cause it makes you feel like you’re being at least a bit healthy.

I line up and grab my bowl and tongs—it’s a self serve deal to start out with. In front of me, displayed in full tofu and ball-type rubbery glory, is a range of nibbly bits to throw into the bowl. Usually, you can put seven or eight things in for about $3.20. I go for the steamed tofu bits and try to stay away from the fried tofu. I always throw in a fish ball and a crab ball, some green stuff, seaweed, and another type of tofu which looks like a piece of brown cardboard before it gets wet.

For some reason I get some ridiculous satisfaction in chewing it. I think to myself, ‘this is how dogs must feel with one of those chew toys—just tremendously in love with the chewing’.

When you’ve filled your bowl, you head to the cashier to choose your accompanying noodle. Yong Tau Foo comes dry or with soup. Personally, I love the soup, though it’s just a plain broth and nothing to write home about. Anyway, when you hand over your bowl of bits, they boil them all really quickly, whack them back in the bowl with your noodles, give you some plum and chilli sauce to dip things in and ‘voila’, Bob’s your father’s brother!

You cannot come to Singapore and not try Chicken Rice. For the past year or so, several people have told me about a chicken rice purveyor near my place, but I’ve never ventured out to find it. Sometimes a few hundred metres is just too far for my poor little legs. This day, Crazy Val and I set out on foot to sniff out this Chicken Rice stall.

It was one of those outdoor jobbies on the footpath with rusty metal fans pointing at you to make sure hot air is circulated through every strand of your hair. We sat down and expressed our interest in breast meat and none of that scungy neck crap. I chose steamed and Val went for the roast—which basically meant mine would come with white skin and Val’s would come with brown. Then we waited. I sipped on my homemade barley drink. This would be the perfect time in this scene to play some muzak. Director’s note: The Girl from Ipanema.

Chicken Rice is one of the things you always hear about when you come to Singapore. It’s a national dish right next to famous Chilli Crab and Durian. It sounds plain because it is. It is literally rice with chicken. Sometimes the chicken is served on top of the rice, other times they’re on separate plates. Sometimes it’s served with a bowl of broth.

The secret is supposed to be in the rice itself, cooked as it is in chicken broth (I think in some places that should really read chicken fat, but in an effort to ignore the heart stopping health consequences of that, we’ll just say broth and feel better for it, eh?). Oh, and don’t forget the chilli. Everything comes with chilli.

It arrives. Finally. The glistening of the chicken fat started my heart a-fluttering, that’s for sure. The ol’ mind’s eye had visions of it creating what could only be termed a ’sticky aortic valve’. I’ll check the textbooks later and see if that’s what I think it is.

Now, being the conscientious fat objector that I am, I remove the chicken skin and tuck in. The chicken is tops! A real melt-in-the-mouth deal. It has a light soy sauce with it and there’s just something about the way it goes with the rice. Really, you can’t come to this town and not try it. Beware though; bad chicken rice is really bad. Ask a local where to find the best chicken rice stall and you’ll be right.

Although I’ve eaten it before, I’m going to pretend I haven’t. Last time I had it, I was tanked up on a trolley load of Guinness in Boat Quay and honestly, I can’t even remember if it tasted good. And Boat Quay is a tourist trap anyway. That’s not what Chilli Crab in Singapore is all about.

The lovely Loy (who prefers to be called King but I will not bow to pressure), suggested that we go to No Sign Board for a fantastically succulent dose of Chilli Crab. I thought that sounded smashing and invited a posse along. It was one of those outdoor local joints, and thank goodness Loy was there to speak the language because I would have just been pointing at pictures and hoping for the best. First priority—beer. Second priority—chilli crab. Sorted. Lovely.

When it arrives, I immediately lunge at a giant crab claw. Ignoring the searing pain as it burns my fingers. I seem unable to stop gorging. Later, I send an image to my pal Amelia of the claw—she enquires if the crab isn’t a leftover prop from a ‘Men in Black’ film. It’s a valid question. This blighter is huge!

Kids, Chilli Crab is definitely NOT ‘first date’ tucker. It ain’t pretty. And if you take a girl like me along, I don’t care how interesting you think you might be, I’ll be too busy sucking crab meat out of a claw to even listen to that terribly interesting story of your upbringing. Sorry. I’m getting old and crotchety. Don’t stand between me and my food.

This is a variation of Roti. More like a meat crepe I guess. We actually came looking for a Roti Prata stall, but this ended up being as close as we could get. I get chicken Murtabak. It comes with a bowl of curry gravy for either dipping the bits in or, if you’re like me, pouring over the Murtabak. I ignored the way the layer of oil above the curry winked at me as it sat placid in the bowl before I served it. I just waded in and forged ahead.

I ate it all. Val didn’t get a look in. I must say twas very good. I put down my fork and looked expectantly at Val still working away on her Fried Kway Teow—it has been noted that I eat fast.

“What next?” I asked. Which leads us to…

I decided to take the syrupy plunge into Ice Kachang territory while we were at Newton Circus Hawker Centre, known to be the most expensive hawker centre in Singapore. Val went and ordered it for me ’cause I have no idea what I’m doing. She came back with this rather impressive looking mountain of ice shavings, and explained that Malaysian Ice Kachang is better because you can get chocolate with it. I guess I’ll never find out now…

The brightly coloured syrups—green and red—soak into the ice nicely. It also has evaporated or condensed milk poured over it. Twas goodly and tasty. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the treasure trove of junk under the mountain in the bottom of the bowl. Personally, I think there’s only one place for red beans, and that’s on a taco. But not only were there red beans under this mountain, there were jelly cubes and the biggest weird shock, corn kernels. I liked everything in it except the corn, which was just a little too… I don’t know…wrong…for me. Verdict—sweet. Very sweet.

Addendum: When Crazy Val’s sister found out I’d tried Ice Kachang, she asked me if I’d also tried Chendol drink: “You know, with the green worms in it?”

Well, I can proudly say I have now tried it. The green worms are actually made from green beans and flour, while the drink is made from coconut milk and gula melaka (brown sugar, water and pandan leaves). Sweet as me, but you can’t take too much of it… also just like me. It also had red beans in the bottom. Not a taco in sight.

The last time I had this was two days after arriving in Singapore, which was almost exactly two years ago. Just go down Orchard Road and look for the little guys with the silver push carts. I went hunting for one that had pink or radioactive yellow bread (real pain for retinas with the yellow), but could only find green bread with a swirl of pink. And I walked to three guys to find one I liked.

You might rebel against the thought of ice cream and bread, but honestly, it’s good and worth a try at least once. Though I can’t imagine the yellow of the yellow bread is a colour that occurs naturally in nature… but I think that about tandoori too, so what do I know?

If ever there was a food the word pungent was devised for, it’s the durian. Some people would say pungent is too pretty, too frilly, too nice. That ‘reeking’ is better. ‘Rotting’. Reeking and rotting. In fact, I think it was in the Lonely Planet that I read some people describe the stench as similar to rotting flesh. You want to eat one now, don’t you!

Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it stinks of rotting meat. It is distinct, I’ll give it that. They do have no Durian signs—just like ‘no smoking’ signs but with a picture of a bumpy durian—on buses and the MRT for a reason.

So, I decided that rather than settling for smelling one from a distance, I’d eat one. And by one, I mean one nibble of a segment. But if I liked it, maybe two nibbles.

Let me just say this, no matter what you think you might know from looking at one or by smelling one, it doesn’t prepare you for the texture of the flesh, the feel in your mouth, the assault on the nostrils, and the weird-arse taste. It’s a taste unlike any thing that I have ever tasted before—which is exactly why you should try it. Val says there are two types—bitter and sweet—and that durians are given grades to indicate their quality.

When I got the durian home, I had to open the windows in the house to let the smell out—it was pretty whiffy in there. I picked up the pieces to put them on a plate to photograph. Hmm, interesting, slick feel about them. I’m pretty sure my nose was a bit wrinkled up, but it was one of those unconscious reactions. Now for the taste test.

I picked off a bit of the flesh, which was surprisingly creamy, and placed it tentatively on my tongue. I did this a couple of times because I couldn’t decide if it was ok or really, really awful. I kept looking at Val to see if she could help me decide what I was feeling. Then I realised I was erring on the ‘don’t like’ side… Then I got it—nope, don’t like it. Val ate some, but then I threw the rest away. Luckily, I bought an emergency mango as backup in case it was really awful. And it’s not that it was awful, I just didn’t like it. And at least I can say that’s an opinion is based on experience.

Now, you might think it’s a chick drink, and you wouldn’t be far off because it is very pink. But it’s still worth a try. Oh, but only if you have $30 to spare for what is quite frankly, not even a pint. But I might just be obsessed by pints. You can also pay a bit extra and get to keep the glass as a souvenir.

I’m not recommending you try one because it tastes great—because I don’t actually like them—but it’s just something you have to do in Singapore. Go to Raffles. Go to the Long Bar. Shell and eat peanuts sitting in the huge cane chairs, admire the funky fans, and throw the peanut shells directly on to the floor, as is the tradition. You’ll love wading through them later on when you’re tanked up and hoping they’re not cockroaches you’re treading on. And hey, order a ridiculous beer that comes in half a yard glass, complete with stand. It makes for a wicked photo!

And for the history buffs, the Singapore Sling was first thrown together in 1915 by a Hainanese-Chinese bartender called Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon. Now get to the drinks cabinet and follow the Official Raffles Hotel Long Bar recipe! You can imagine you’re in Singapore as you drink it:

* 30 ml Gin
* 15 ml Cherry Brandy
* 120 ml Pineapple Juice
* 15 ml Lime Juice
* 7.5 ml Cointreau
* 7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
* 10 ml Grenadine
* A dash of Angostura Bitters
* Garnish with a slice of Pineapple & Cherry

Mix and drink, mix and drink, mix and drink. Fall over.

Ok, so that’s 10. You should also try Roti Prata, and go to a Sunday Brunch at one of the hotels. My final meal in Singapore will be Sunday Brunch at the Fullerton Hotel. Stuffed to the gills with food and free Moet champagne I will stumble on to my flight. Goodbye Singapore. I barely knew ya!

Toodle-Noo. Here endeth the missive


©Janeen McCrae 2003



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