Saturday, June 16, 2007

Places I've Been... Singapore

At 8:30 on a tropical morning in 1989, I stood waiting at a small corner shop while an Indian man prepared my breakfast.

The shop was opened up in such a way that its front walls seemed to have been removed; the fresh air fill the shaded room. The white tile floor was smooth and cool as I waited in cheap sandals.

rotiI watched as the Indian man repetitively stretched dough into wide thin sheets, folded the dough back up into something the size of a pancake, and then smacked it flat with his fist or the palm of his hand. It was mechanical. The old Indian man was so expressionless that he looked as though his body was uninhabited as he went through the motions of making my breakfast. His eyes were blood shot enough that I guessed that he had yet to sleep in his 50 or so years of life...

Eventually the roti (pronounced row-tea) was placed on a griddle (an old 55 gallon drum which had been adapted for the purpose) and fried. The resulting bread pastry was among my favorite foods in Singapore. I came here three or four times a week for roti prata - the pastry and an accompanying curry made with goat meat and peppers. The spicy dish was thought of locally as breakfast and impossible to get after about noon.

Some of the best Indian food came on a banana leaf and you ate it with your fingers...I paid the smiling owner about $2 U.S. and said "nandri" - Tamil for "thank you," the only word I knew in their langauge at that time. I was one of the few white people he'd ever heard say anything in Tamil.

I left and walked the two tree-lined blocks to the building where my flat was, on Balertier Road, while I listened to the morning traffic of Singapore.

Food: Singapore had it. Few spots on earth offer the variety of culinary temptations that can be found in the Lion City. Chinese, Malay, Indian, or European - the huge range of choices are made even more appealing by the fact that eating in Singapore can be extremely inexpensive.

SatayAmericans usually have no idea how Americanized Chinese food in the U.S. has become. For the 2 years I lived in Singapore, char kway teow (fried rice noodles) was perhaps my favorite meal. To my knowledge, it is unobtainable in the U.S. outside of Chinatowns in major U.S. cities. But I still crave the wok fried noodles with bamboo, greens, pork, squid, onions, and small chunks of crisp fried pork fat.

If I ever grew tired of kway teow, the street hawkers and food stalls of Singapore provided a rich array of delicacies at bargain prices. The Malay dishes stand out in my mind: the satay, skewers of marinaided and grilled lamb or chicken, served with a peanut and red pepper sauce; the fragrant rice, brightened up with saffron or other food colorings; and gado-gado, the green bean and cucumber salad with peanut sauce.

Much of Singapore's food industry was focused on either a take-home market or set up around outdoor eating areas where a number of vendors shared a few dozen tables and chairs.

Wonton SoupNot that you couldn't find atmosphere in a restaurant when I was in Singapore. If you wanted pomp and history, the historical district had it. Or there was the luxury of high tea while looking out of a 43rd floor window over the harbor in one of the city's upper crust hotels.

The Chinese restaurants in America that are often just a step above fast food (or a step down from a Ryans) rarely have steamboat on the menu. Steamboat was one of my favorite restaurant meals in Singapore. To the locals, a steamboat meal was a social event. Steamboat is a type of seafood buffet. Usually you are seated at a table for eight. A pot of water boils in the middle of the table; the pot is divided so that each person at the table has a small area where they can deposit fresh prawns (shrimp almost the size of chicken legs), mussels, crabs, etc. For the seafood lovers, it can be a meal beyond compare. The cost? At the time it was about $7-10 U.S.

And Western Food was not neglected in the city. One of the best places to go when I was in Singpoare was a hotel restuarant called Chateaubriand. Their Sunday lunch buffet included champagne, cavier and all the smoked salmon you could eat for under $20 U.S. Italian, Greek, Prime Rib, Kosher, African -- you could find it all if you needed a break for the local flavors. But those local flavors made Singapore worth the trip...

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