Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Singapore Spree, Burger Time and a Chili Crab

I arrived in Singapore with a shopping list and the knowledge that this may be my last chance to choose among a variety of goods and services for a few months. At the top of the list was a new backpack. My 50-liter Kelty was fine for ten days in Ireland and held up for the first two months of Australia. But the zippers started acting up and it just wasn’t big enough to carry everything. Despite my best intentions to travel light, I needed more space.

Also on the list were a pair of shorts, swimming trunks, new books and a few small items like a padlock and a tube of toothpaste.

Singapore is a shopper's paradise, especially a long stretch called Orchard Road. Orchard road is comprised of mall after mall after mall. You don’t just walk down the street and enter one mall after another. The area is a complex collection of escalators, underground passageways, staircases, elevators and elevated walkways. One mall leads to another, or to a movie theater, or a food court or an outdoor café. You could spend an eternity on Orchard Road and never see daylight.

Orchard Road Shopping Mall

As I was walking from one mall to another, with food on my mind, I was stopped in my tracks by the site of a Japanese fast food chain called MOS Burger (Mountain Ocean Sun Burger, very Japanese).

Before I explain the significance of this discovery, I have to admit that I made a promise to a friend in New York that I had to break. On one of my last nights in Brooklyn, I was eating dinner with my upstairs neighbors, Michael and Carmiya, and discussing the food in Asia. The conversation somehow turned to the fact that there are McDonald’s and KFCs everywhere. I promised Carmiya that I would abstain from eating any fast food while on the road.

I’ve been good to my word, using fast food restaurants only for their restrooms. But a MOS Burger turned me into a liar.

When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, my girlfriend Rachel and I would make regular trip to MOS Burger for generous helpings of MOS Spicy Burgers and fries. The burgers are topped with a watery chili, diced onion and a thick slice of tomato. There's also a mysterious white sauce that binds it all together into a sticky goo. They provided a taste of the west while preserving our Asian lifestyle. We loved MOS Burger, and when I left Japan I thought I’d never have another for as long as I live.

Who knew Singapore had MOS Burger too? So I apologized to Carmiya, stepped up to the counter and placed an order. My burger arrived soon after I chose a seat. How was it after all these years? The Coke was syrupy sweet, the fries undercooked and the burger as void of nutrition as it was full of tasty goodness. Empty calories never tasted so good.

MOS Burger Menu

My belly full of crap, I returned to shopping. If everything under the sun is available on Orchard Road, why did I have to look high and low for a new backpack? After a frustrating search, I found an Osprey Atmos 65 at a store on the fifth floor of Lucky Plaza. Or was it Golden Plaza? Lucky Village? Golden Lucky Village Plaza?

Obtaining a new pair of shorts was just as difficult. I brought a pair of cargo shorts from the U.S., a beloved olive green number from J. Crew. The pants started to fray at the end of my trip through Outback Australia. In Indonesia, I twice resorted to needle and thread to keep the seams from ripping. By the time I arrived in Singapore, they were soft and ultra-comfy, but on the verge of showing more than the Singaporean government allows in public.

I’ve want to believe I’ve never been choosy about my clothing (not true at all, so I’m delusional). Since hitting the road, however, I’ve become a huge fan of cargo pants. The more pockets the better. And I found a winner. My new pair sports not the usual four pockets, nor six, but a total of ten pockets for all the assorted items I carry on a daily basis. From lens cap and notepad to extra cash, a pen and complimentary city map, I’ve got it covered.

Where did I buy this magical pair of pantaloons? I’m almost embarrassed to say. Ok, I traveled halfway around the world to buy a pair of shorts at The Gap. Sue me.

Singapore is also known for it’s food, which I’m happy to report is of a much higher quality and offers more variation than MOS Burger. While buying a polarized filter for my camera, I was told that for a real Singapore delicacy I should go to a place called Jumbo Seafood for the chili crab. I also had to make sure to get some little buns on the side to dip into the sauce.

I assumed Jumbo Seafood was a ramshackle outfit on the waterside where I would sit at a creaky table with a paper napkin stuffed into my shirt. Well, Jumbo Seafood is a proper restaurant across from one of the main tourist areas of the city. My cheapo crab dinner was going to cost me considerably more than I had assumed. But I’m here for experience and a few extra Singapore dollars weren’t going to keep me from digging into some crab.

The extra cash was worth it. A two-pound crab arrived at my table, steaming in a read chili sauce. I looked around at the well-dressed crowd, down at the crab, back and the crowd, and said “whatever.” There was no way to eat this bad boy but with my hands. The crab was cooked just right, not one bit chewy, retaining all it’s flavor without tasting fishy. The chili sauce packed the perfect amount of heat, never overpowering the crab or overwhelming the palate.

Jumbo Seafood

I spent the next thirty minutes cracking, sucking, picking and slurping, my fingers as pruned as if I'd spent an hour at the local swimming pool. That poor little crab never had a chance. I left nothing but splinters of empty shell amid broken legs and shattered claws. The buns were the finishing touch, small nuggets of dough deep-fried to a golden perfection and suitable for eating on their own, but even better when dipped in the chili sauce. I washed it all down with a Tiger beer (unremarkable but local and cold). It was the best meal I’ve had in a while. And it was easily the best crab I’ve had in my life.

When traveling, listen to the locals. Rachael Ray says it all the time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend Kristy, a regular reader of your blog and someone you met at one of our Shabbat meals, said I should check out your site today. INDEED. So, I accept your apology, and I no longer hold you to your promise. Especially when you already have a connection to a fast-food joint from your past. I hope it was tasty!

4:39 AM  

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