I wrote this in 2010 when we went to Singapore to watch Belle and Sebastian.
The first time I was in Singapore, I was not really in Singapore. It was a stop-over in Changi on my way to India that gave me my first taste of the first world Asian country that punishes gumchewers. Even then I was impressed by how such a massive structure filled with people can be so organized and orderly.
Last week, I was in Singapore for the first time for real. This time though, instead of the beautiful, huge and modern airport to welcome us, we touched down at the Budget terminal. Believe me when I say that nothing, not even Cebu Pacific’s cramped plane and uncomfortable seats and roving sari-sari store, can make you feel like your on a budget trip more than landing in Singapores budget terminal with Changi only a few hundred meters away. In fact, if the pilot had told us that we had just landed in Cebu, we wouldn’t have had any problems believing him. Except it was a cleaner Cebu terminal. A much much cleaner Cebu airport.
Clean. If I were asked to describe Singapore in just one word, clean would definitely be it. If I were given 100 words, I will use up 90 words to describe just how clean it is. And then somewhere in my last ten words, you would hear “amazing architecture,” “wonderful commuter-friendly transportation system,” and “quite expensive,” as well. An injustice, I know, to some very talented architects and engineers. But before anyone else, Singapore should hail as heroes the men and women who keep the city super duper clean. “Even my booger here is white cos its so clean,” said an utterly astonished Drach.
Perhaps because it’s a little too clean, or maybe because I grew up in a country that is a little too dirty and polluted, Singapore felt a little unreal to me – a little synthetic even. It felt like instead of going to a country, I visited a movie set of a first-world country where the citizens were really just actors following a character guide on how citizens of a first-world country should act. Be polite. Be accommodating. Not too friendly. Not too warm. Or else, lashings.
My friend, a Singapore resident for the past two years, said that they are not a very imaginative people. “Cannot” (pronounced keh-nuh) is as much a part of their vocabulary as “la”. Asking your server if you can get mashed potatoes instead of fries with your food will give you a very curt “keh-nuh” with a what-is-written-is-all-there-is-duh-don’t-you-know-that look.
Anyway, all that aside, let me categorically say that the soul of Singapore is in its cuisine. If you want to find personality in Singapore, you will find it on your plate or in a hot kitchen or, of course, a hawker center. To put it bluntly, a single order of that spicy and juicy stingray dish has more personality than 10 Singaporeans put together. And ultimately, that’s what you fall in love with when you visit Singapore. At least, that’s what I fell in love with, absolutely crazy in love with. Their food is so good it made me want to literally pull my hair out twice.
The first time was during dinner at Chinatown. Again, a very clean Chinatown. I know now that even if I have already forgotten the name of that stall and the name of the street where we found that stall, I will never forget that meal. My first stingray experience was nothing short of an OH. MY. GOD. moment. This stingray was not shy at all. It had no problem introducing itself to my taste buds. It was loud and dammit it was proud! And why the hell shouldn’t it be, it was as mind-blowing as the last 10 minutes of the LOST finale for me. The meat itself was tender and moist. Its texture was between that of crabmeat and fish. It was smothered with this spicy and robust paste (sambal is it?) that can drive your taste buds delirious. It comes with calamansi and a small serving of what looks like pickled onions but could very well be opium. That pickled onion was food schizophrenia at its best – spicy, sweet, and sour, makes you sweat and refreshes you at the same time. I was never as sad as I was that night that people only have one stomach. Lucky cows.
My second I-wanna-pull-my-hair-out experience came from a dish that was a little less bold than the stingray. A dish accepted as the national dish of Singapore. The humble yet sublime, the simple yet complex - chicken rice. More specifically, chicken rice from Tian-tian, Maxwell food center at Chinatown.
Several elements make up this dish, each one needs to be perfect on its own to create that delicious orgy in your mouth. The chicken itself has to be juicy and savory despite its pallid color. Each grain of rice, plump and coated with a gingery-oniony-fatty jus. The chili sauce has to be spicy enough to make you sweat but not too spicy to kill the delicate taste of the chicken. The broth has to be, how do I say it without being overly dramatic, well, it has to be the very essence of chicken in a liquid form at the perfect temperature, not one degree hotter or colder.
Until Singapore, I was under the impression that the ginger sauce that we normally get with our chicken rice here in the Philippines is a major component of chicken rice. It, apparently, is not. All you really need is a good chili sauce and you’re good to go.
So there. The two dishes that defined my Singaporean foodfest. It has to be said though that I was only there for 4 days. Not enough. Too short actually. Cramming the wide buffet of Singaporean food in 4 short days is impossible. It also didn’t help that in those four short days, I just had to do repeats of my favorites - chicken rice twice, stingray three times. Plus I even wasted a meal with a stupid chicken burger at Universal. There were several places that I wasn’t able to go to despite rave reviews like Chomp-chomp hawker center, chin-chin restaurant, little India, and Katong Laksa. I will get you next time I promise.
Singapore is a small place they say, and it is. There’s not a lot to do in Singapore they say, and there isn’t. Four days is enough they say, but its NOT. For people who are there to eat and pig out, four days in Singapore is NOT enough.