It was a
long flight. Nine hours. I whiled away time productively – watched three films,
caught 80 winks, even indulged in my favourite in-flight daydream -
overpowering suave hijackers with high-tech weapons. I was glad though when the
twinkling lights of Singapore appeared below. The first thing that struck me
when the wheels of my flight kissed the tarmac at Changi was that it’s dinnertime. But
Murphy was also on the same flight. And as usual he had other plans. First, he caused confusion at the immigration counters by causing a system
break down. So, everybody had to wait for the erstwhile relatively simple act
of putting stamp on paper. Stern looking immigration officials glared at
everybody. As if it was a virus unleashed by one of the waiting souls. Next
Murphy decided to make my only piece of luggage appear on a different conveyor
belt instead of the allocated one. Forget the usual efficient 15-20 minutes; it
took more than an hour to extricate myself from the clutches of Changi. By the
time, I collected my luggage, grabbed a taxi and reached my hotel, it was
almost 11. My partner (who had reached a day before) was in a state of euphoria
after having sampled the enticing wares of a nearby Hawkers Centre (Singaporean
for food court). She had though very thoughtfully packed six pieces of sushi
for me as a midnight treat. She had assumed that the airline would provide
dinner. Which, in the time-tested manner of most assumptions, was wrong. After
reading so much about the superlative street food culture of Singapore, I
definitely didn’t think that my first Singaporean meal would comprise of six forlorn
looking pieces of sushi on a white Thermocol plate. I almost shed a tear.
|Head to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel for views of this former swamp.|
I woke up
next morning, bleary-eyed, straggly-tailed, and a stomach growling in
anticipation. We had
a day devoted to all things grilled, steamed, fried, etc.
There was not a moment to lose. First stop was the National University of Singapore
where my bro-in-law was studying. Probably the most beautiful campus, I’ve been
to. Varying shades of soothing green. Stately buildings. Even a corridor where
apparently things go bump in the night. And of course, the buzzing food court.
Correction. Quiet-as-a-library food court. It was a Sunday. And hence, closed.
But Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, heard my anguished pleas, and
conjured up a canteen a short walk away from the main campus.
almost 16 hours of being in Singapore, I got the opportunity to unleash my
appetite. Vietnamese Meat Balls in a spicy broth. Diced intestines of some
animal fried with chilies. A first. Delicious. Singaporean fried rice with
chicken. A staple favourite of the residents. Everything washed down with
freshly squeezed lemon juice. This time, I almost wept with joy.
|National University of Singapore. Green and full of character.|
|Ice-cream bread. Tastes as good as it looks.|
Later in the
afternoon, we decided to do what most residents of Singapore do in the weekends – head to Clarke Quay, a smorgasbord of restaurants, museums,
bars, clubs, etc. built along Singapore river. We walked the entire length of
Clarke Quay almost to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. An exercise that helped in
digesting lunch and more importantly envision a strategy for dinner. It also gave us the opportunity to sample
‘ice-cream bread’. It is what the name suggests. A generous slab of ice cream
wedged in between two slices of bread. A refreshing respite from the muggy
weather. You can enjoy this break gawking at the colourful boats going up and
down the river. I waved out to the tourists in these boats. They waved back
thinking its some friendly Singaporean. And just like that I did my bit to
enhance a nation’s reputation while enjoying a well-deserved break.
|The serious business of eating. A favourite pastime of Singaporeans.|
Our next destination was one of Singapore’s famous food courts in Chinatown – Maxwell Food
Centre – where it was refreshing to see that instead of smartphones, food act as
conversation stoppers. As far as my eyes could see, well, about a 100-odd
metres or so, I found myself staring at jaws champing rhythmically,
occasionally stopping to imbibe frothy beverages. A long row of stalls took centerstage while people milled around them in the manner of ants around a picnic basket.
|To whet appetites, watch the chefs cook.|
It was a
gastronomic version of Alladin’s cave. Chefs and their assistants bustled about
with the efficiency of a well-trained army. Woks didn’t get a moment’s respite.
Flames leapt around playfully as steaming heaps of noodles or rice or meat was
tossed into them. One chef diced onions in a blur while another sliced
succulent pieces of duck hanging from a hook with the delicate precision of a
surgeon. Each of these char-grilled pieces falling softly atop a bed of steaming
Singaporean fried rice or noodles.
|If you are on a diet, you might want to avoid coming here.|
At another stall, a man with an expression full of intent was conjuring up plates of Singapore Chili Crab in the manner of a production line in a
factory. One plate served. He tapped a little bell. It got whisked away.
Another plate served. Another gentle ‘ting’ of the bell. It was a sensory overload. Besides these food stalls, there were
older, established restaurants. Some boast of 1000-year-old recipes, while
others carry endorsements of connoisseurs. The Tian Tian stall’s Hainanese
Chicken Rice made Anthony Bourdain incoherent with joy. A photograph bears testimony to this fact. Most of these restaurants have regulars flocking to them. Eating out is a national pastime of Singaporeans. So, business is
always good. In fact, it’s so good that in a country where owning a car is akin
to a king’s ransom, most of the stall owners have a Merc or a BMW parked just
down the road.
|Yes, it's a 'spoilt for choice' scenario here.|
diners holding bowls and plates heaped with delectable food floated past me, I
panicked a bit. I was not sure if I’d be able to do justice to these culinary
masterpieces. I didn’t even know where to start. I then took a deep breath and decided
to let my sense of vision and olfactory glands guide me. In short, whatever
looked good and had an appetizing aroma found its way to my plate. I headed back to my hotel with a happy song in my heart playing in a continuous loop.