Three friends and the food they love


May 2017

An Immigrant to the World of Food.

More than a decade ago, when circumstances brought me to the city of Singapore, all I knew was that it was a clean, efficient gateway to the world with glitzy malls and a superb airport. The years have flown by and as I have my eaten my way through the passage of time, Singapore has rewarded me with food experiences that will remain an integral part of my life for a very long time. Along the way, my food horizons have expanded significantly.

Sitting on a Singapore Airlines flight in 2003, I may have predicted a few events and gotten them mostly wrong. But I would not have predicted craving a morning breakfast of Kaya Toast (Kaya is a local jam made with coconut, eggs, pandan and love) dipped in runny soft boiled eggs, spiced up with pepper and soy sauce and washed down with Kopi (the local coffee with its own set of alphabetical suffixes, Kopi – C, Kopi –O. Almost like vitamins, only more nourishing). I would not have thought that poached chicken with rice prepared in chicken broth with dollops of garlic and chilli sauce could set right a hectic morning at work. And not in my wildest imagination would I have thought that craving for late supper would mean Ba Kut Teh (a peppery pork rib soup that is accompanied with salted vegetables, rice and chilies) on Balestier Road.

Yes, the city is a global ‘hub’ of anything and everything. That reflects even in the sheer variety of cuisine available in the restaurants ranging in affordability from astonishing value for money to eye-wateringly expensive. But if you are the sort who loves a local meal, Singapore could reward you with a different meal every day of the year and have a fair bit to spare. In a city of immigrants, what is local is difficult to define. But there is something unique about being an immigrant in Singapore. You feel like a local not by what you do or how you speak. You feel local by how you eat. The day you stand in queue at a hawker centre and order your first plate of prawn noodles, have it served to you in minutes, help yourself to the sambal in the sauce pot, queue again to order a fresh fruit juice or a cold barley, and then train your eyes to spot an empty seat –you’ve settled in. You start having favourite hawker stalls, because the prawns are good, because the aunty gives you a familiar smile and knows your preference, you think nothing of selecting dried tofu skin and extra fish balls for your yong tau fu as if you have done it all your life. There is no easier way to settling in. It helps if you are ready to eat anything. It helps if anything is mostly delicious local food that is an amalgamation of centuries of different cultures, carried to its shores by commerce and conquest.

I used to be a regular at the Serangoon Gardens Hawker centre in Singapore. It’s a large, bright hawker centre that offers a wide variety of fare. Lunch hour brings out office workers in droves to sample the many delights dotted all over Serangoon Gardens. As I walked around, I would contemplate my choices. I could opt for a plate of fried Ipoh Hor Fun (flat rice noodles with some greens and fried dumplings), or maybe some Nasi Lemak (Malay-style rice served with a selection of meat, vegetables and dried anchovies). Ultimately, I may settle for a Black Carrot Cake (made entirely of radish and eggs with chilies and dark soy sauce) and washed it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice.

Continue reading “An Immigrant to the World of Food.”

On Track to Food Nirvana

It’s summer. This is when so many of us use the holiday season to criss-cross the country back to visiting our favorite (and not-so-favorite) relatives. The oft-repeated saying at the airline terminals across the country nowadays is that the queues have started resembling ‘railway stations’. For those of us of an earlier vintage, we know exactly what that means. Growing up distinctly middle class in a Socialist era with one airline meant that I took my first flight at the age of 10. By that age, I had already journeyed thousands of kilometers across the length and breadth of the country carried by the railways. There was the annual summer 40-hour dash across Central India from Pune to West Bengal, a whole tour of Southern India undertaken mostly by train and a few train rides on the magically named Deccan Queen and the ordinarily named Deccan Express. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than sticking my face against the window grill trying to catch sight of the locomotive, as the snaking train approached a bridge over a mighty river. And there is no shortage of mighty rivers in the country.

The mightiest river in the country is undoubtedly the Ganga. By the time, it reaches the town of Allahabad, it is a swollen body of water, prayer and myth. The journey to West Bengal was always undertaken on the ‘Howrah Mail (via Allahabad)’. The train number was never important. Allahabad was an extremely important pit stop on the second night. As the train thundered over the iron bridge, you could hear tiny metallic sounds as people threw coins from the train windows as an offering to the river, also a goddess. For me, as a young, excited, train-loving kid, it was also the time to look forward to dinner. It would be hunger, the experience of eating something other than home-cooked food, and it could be that the taste of chicken curry and rice served at Allahabad railway station stands out in memory: An annual food experience from 30 years ago still imprinted in memory.

Continue reading “On Track to Food Nirvana”

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