Friday, May 04, 2007

Shiok!

Shiok: Singapore slang for “great/excellent/superb.”

I’m whole again, thanks for the superhuman, make that supercorporate, efforts of Sony Singapore. I spilled beer on my laptop on Monday night, brought it in for repair on Tuesday morning (a national holiday, no less) and picked it up – complete with a shiny new keyboard – on Thursday afternoon. In my experience computer repair takes a minimum of one millennium; a 53-hour turnaround boggles my mind. Pinch me. Customer service departments of the world, take note.

But I'm not in Singapore to talk about customer service. I'm here to eat. And eating is what I've been about this week, with both Makansutra and a few locals as guides. I’m not going to chronologically rehash everything I’ve shoveled into my maw. Highlights will have to suffice.

I wrote last weekend about an attempt to track down Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, only to discover that the hawker stall had decamped for a week for a trip to New York. Tian Tian is back, and the chicken rice was worth the wait. Some cooks just have a knack for blending ingredients, lulling diners into a flavor-fueled trance. A huge plate of Tian Tian chicken rice disappeared as I scooped mouthful after mouthful into my face. I snapped out it in time to recognize that I was about to eat the last bite, paused for dramatic effect, said thanks to the food gods and closed the book on my Singapore chicken rice experience. I’ve paid homage to the dish with a Packmonkey banner, above. The complete meal is picture below.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice

Food experiences are great. Shared food experiences are better. I’d been talking at length at my hostel about my love for the local cuisine, and the folks who work there were happy to throw out recommendations. I was intrigued by something Karen said I must try: Steamboat. Is this the name of a dish or a type of cuisine? Do I need to be in a boat to eat it? Will it fog up my glasses? She offered to lead a steamboat expedition the following night. Trusting that I would not be led into the heart of darkness, I quickly signed on.

Makansutra explains steamboat: “Cook-it-yourself hotpot, with a whole spread of raw sliced meats, vegetables, eggs, vermicelli, seafood, etc. The broth takes on the essence of all the ingredients and is at its richest at the end of the meal.”

Four of us met Karen the next night, where she led us to a sprawling, outdoor complex by the harbor. A propane tank under each table delivered heat to a hotpot filled with water and an outer ring for tabletop grilling. A large buffet in the center of the restaurant was piled with raw seafood, marinated meats and raw vegetables. I was able to identify most of the offerings; I accept the mystery surrounding everything else.

Karen handed out plates and assignments. I was to gather seafood, Paul from Australia would collect the meat and a pair of Englishmen, Mat and Tom, were sent for vegetables. We each returned with plates piled high. The next 90 minutes were spent boiling, grilling and eating. There was nothing spectacular about the food; it’s the communal steamboat experience that made the meal memorable. Once we’d stuffed ourselves, Karen took off to pick up some ice cream. She returned with three flavors: durian, red bean and sweet corn. I chose the sweet corn. It should be called creamed corn from a can ice cream. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve eaten on this trip, worse than Vegemite. Worse even than the diesel fumes I choked down at the Yogyakarta bus station. The poo-poo aftertaste of the durian ice cream provided a pleasant alternative.

Sweet Corn Ice Cream... Yuck

Like Holden Caulfield on a quest for the truth, I continued my Singapore eating spree. I ate fragrant biryani at the Tekka Centre in Little India, where stall after stall serves up Muslim and Indian food. Off the beaten track, in a housing complex in Bedok, I tried Char Kway Teow, a heavy, fried noodle dish sprinkled with briny cockles and chewy Chinese sausage. I washed down meals with fresh soursop juice (move over mangosteen, soursop's the new sheriff in town).

The Indonesian dessert Chendol was an intriguing blend of coconut and caramel – dulce de leche in a cup! – but the green slivers of rice jelly kept rising through my straw and reminding me or worms (ok, maggots) and I threw it out. On a lark, I tried a prawn vadai, a fried donut with an unshelled prawn embedded in the center, a fresh green chili providing a contrast to the lump of greasy dough.

Before arriving in Singapore I’d been told I had to try stingray. I was immediately intrigued. Perhaps I was still hooked on Australia and was seeking a little revenge for the death of Steve Irwin. Again, the crew at the Inn Crowd hostel came through. Karen was busy, but she enlisted Marcus as my guide and translator.

Satay at East Coast Lagoon

Marcus took me out of the city center to East Coast Lagoon, a food center on the eastern side of the island. The east coast is an upscale district, and the food center was built to resemble a tropical food court, complete with palm trees and thatched roofs. The proximity to the shore, even if the view was of dozens of cargo ships anchored in the channel, allowed me to accept this fabrication. The clientele included many smiling ex pats, all of them looking like they put in some hard hours at banks and other financial institutions.

Marcus led me around the food center, explaining the choices and answering some lingering questions about Singapore cuisine. From one stall we ordered stingray grilled on a banana leaf. From another, tiger prawn imported from Thailand. We added a plate of steamed green vegetables called kang kong, hallow stalks with attached leafy greens, and a plate of rojak, assorted wedges – tofu, fried flour bits called yew tiao, turnip, pineapple and cucumber – covered in a sweet black sauce and chopped peanuts. We ordered a few glasses of fresh sugar cane juice to wash it all down. The stingray, prawn and kang kong were served with thick and pungent chili sauce called sambal. The whole meal cost about U.S.$20, on the steep side for Singapore. But you get what you pay for. Everything was delicious except the rojak, which tasted fishy to me and which Marcus confirmed was “off.”

Grilled Stingray

It’s now Friday afternoon. I’ve been in Singapore almost two full weeks and don’t feel like moving on. There’s still plenty of food to taste – laksa has been on my list for a week – but I know there’s much more to Southeast Asia. I expect I’ll leave on Monday or Tuesday, either for Kuala Lumpur or direct to Borneo. A friend says I cannot miss Penang, where, he swears, the food is even better than in Singapore. Some research is in order. Any suggestions? Send them my way.

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