Monday, December 30, 2013

Singapore food pron

Lau Pa Sat satay. Via.
Woke up in the middle of the night with a blogger anxiety dream, I suppose engendered by the way I've neglected the site over the course of the Asian Vacasian, which is partly a function of various technical challenges, especially marshaling enough power points for sufficient time-periods to charge all our various devices and keeping track of where my reading glasses are. That and the power point issue are at least somewhat resolved at the moment.

It took a form like that of an indexing dream, where you toss and turn over an imaginary term that you might have spelled wrong, worrying that you'll lose it before you get to work: something I was determined to blog about but wouldn't have sufficient information [jump]
to Google, the story of a Malay aristocrat of the colonial period who agitated to have pumpkin pie (or a local variant perhaps of Dutch-Melaka origin?) declared a national treasure in Singapore, or product of the intangible cultural heritage, or something like that, with a name as far as I can remember sounding something like "purslane", perhaps a cross between C.S. Lewis's lion-Jesus Aslan and the Parameśvara from Sumatra who founded the half-mythical 14th-century settlement on Singapore Island—obvious by the time I was really awake that I was being trolled by my own unconscious in a big way, because the whole thing doesn't even make comical sense, although it may turn out to have some ideological meaning.
Bunga kantan. Image from Malaysian Wikipedia.
Spent the day eating, as usual, this time with a crew of the helpmeet's relatives all more prosperous than they were 20-odd years ago, as is not exactly the case with us, or my Singaporean brother-in-law; which hasn't made them obnoxious or anything like that but has caused them to adopt new and unsettling eating habits, consuming high-end versions of the humble fare we used to have back when, in luxurious air conditioning.

At lunchtime it was a Cantonese restaurant with the paternal aunt-matriarch, now close to 80, newly slim, and diabetic, and mountains of dim sum plus century-egg porridge. The porridge had ostentatiously large pieces of pork that tended to spill out of your spoon instead of the traditional fragments of minced meat, but the whole experience was gastronomically pretty gratifying, Cantonese cuisine being really a cuisine, with upper-class roots, in the first place, so that most things were just a bit better than they'd be in the working-class coffee shop, spicy braised chicken feet of remarkable tenderness, melt-in-your-mouth yam dumplings, delicately flavored radish cake without the gumminess that sometimes compromises it. Silly Shanghai soup dumplings our 12-year-old nephew earnestly explained under the (hilariously false) impression that they were a native Singapore fashion item that we wouldn't have been able to see anywhere before.

In the evening, the aunt-matriarch's offspring took us to one of the island's private clubs, the golf-free kind where eating is more of a focus, and a feast of upscaled street foods, basically so that the number two daughter could fulfill her own whim of having rojak, an elaboration of the ancient Javanese tossing of green fruits with thick sweet soya sauce that has over the years gotten dominated by pineapple, cucumber, cuttlefish, and pieces of fried dough or youtiao ("oil stick"), and a turkey club with potato chips, both at the same meal.
Rojak ingredients form Lao Hong Ser, Dunmore Road. Photo by Dr. Leslie Tay.

Here nothing was quite right. The lamb on the satay sticks was issued in huge shashlik-sized chunks instead of tiny threads of meat, and had been broiled under a salamander instead of tended over an agonizingly slow charcoal grill, so it was not very tender. My bowl of Hokkien shrimp noodles was full of squid, really beautifully cooked, but not part of its presentation in the ordinary world. Everything seemed to be missing a particular street fragrance: the rojak itself lacking the bunga kantan or torch ginger flower that is supposed to mark the home-elegant version, while the sambal blacan (dipping chili of bird chilis, kalamansi lime, and the stinky sun-fermented tiny shrimp paste called blacan) had no blacan. The satay sauce was without lengkuas or galangal, the intoxicating ginger-like rhizome that makes what is basically hot peanut butter worth putting under your nose; and the sago pudding sweet that we call gula melaka after the Melaka-made brown palm sugar syrup that flavors it hardly had any gula melaka, though it did have sliced bananas and a hugely superfluous scoop of vanilla ice cream. But another sweet had far more smell than it needed: ice kachang, a shaved-ice concoction with red beans that I've never much liked, came with the most famous local fragrance of all in the shape of a scoop of durian ice cream, a senseless gilding of an already seriously over-freighted lily. The whole feast was all very edible, too, in every respect; just overdone, overgenerous, and not quite nostalgic.

The dream, I guess, was an id-effort at satire of the way the club kitchen aims at nostalgia for its yuppy customers, bombarding them with foodie floating signifiers without understanding the complexity from which the nostalgia can arise, the importance of the heat, an unsteady four-legged stool, and the smell of road dust.

Fried Hokkien mee by Thye Chua at the Food Republic Beer Garden; photo by The Yumyums.

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