Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Eating our way out of Singapore

There is some food that I'll never have again that I miss so much. My grandmother's homemade tomato soup for one, the light and perfect pancakes my grandpa used to make are another. I'm starting to feel this way about all the local food we eat here.

I know that Jeff will miss his canteen at work where he gets lunch every day from one of the many food stalls. I've never been, of course, but it sounds like an enormous food bazaar. He'll come home raving about one of the vendors, telling me little stories about them and the awesome food there. One day he insisted that we get a juicer when we get back, because he loves the fruit stall where he always stops to get a fresh fruit juice. Another time it was the loving way the old couple that runs the soup stall acts with each another as they serve the orders.

I don't have a personal attachment to any one place for my food, because in Singapore you're never far from a kopi tiam (coffeeshop), hawker center or food stall. When I first got here I discovered kaya, a marvelous coconut-egg jam that is so popular here that coffeehouses sell it on toast as a snack. In fact, McDonald's is trying to compete against them and has come out with the kaya bun, which just looks gross. I'm stocking up on jars of kaya to bring home because I'm afraid I'll never have it again.

Coffee here is amazing and just as complicated as ordering at Starbucks. There is kopi-O, kopi-C, long black and flat white, to name a few. My choice is the local coffee, or kopi-C, which is thick coffee with evaporated milk stirred in. But I usually stick to Chinese tea because sometimes I can't remember the difference between all the coffees.

Jeff and I love congee, a rice porridge, although I prefer to eat it for breakfast while Jeff likes it for dinner. It doesn't seem too hard to make so we'll be having it at home. But I'm not sure if I'll attempt laksa, a spicy rich soup of coconut milk, noodles and seafood. This was the dish that forced me to learn to eat like a local with chopsticks and a spoon. Meaning that you use both sets of utensils at the same time or else your food ends up splattered all down your front. It was either that or a bib.

Frankly, I rarely cook anymore because it's so cheap and easy to go out to eat. Food is always made from fresh ingredients, although I would bet I've ingested a healthy amount of MSG since I've been here. My favorite way to eat dinner and get more vegetables (surprisingly difficult) in my diet is to order nasi padang, which is simple home-style Indonesian/Malay food. You get a plate of coconut-steamed rice and then choose from an array of meat and vegetables. At first I liked that I could just point at the foods I wanted, because it saved me the embarrassment of having to ask what each thing was. Sometimes I'd get food that I'd never have ordered, if I'd known what they were. Now I usually get the chicken curry, chili-fried green beans, eggplant, and peanuts with sambal ikan billis (anchovies), with a big dollop of sambal chilli sauce on the side.

Singapore is the country that taught me that I could eat spicy food. I really used to be a wuss and make a fuss about anything that was remotely spicy. Now I love to have pickled jalapenos on the side of my Hainanese chicken rice and duck noodle and pour padi-chili flavored soya sauce on my steamed rice. But the real credit goes to the delicious and messy Chili Crab, one of the national dishes of Singapore that epitomizes finger-licking good. This dish is SO fiery, but SO good at the same time. You can't help but love it.

Aw, man. Now I've made myself hungry. Time to find something to eat.