You Aren’t What You Eat – Singapore

You Aren’t What You Eat


The Singapore airport is almost perfect. It is a red carpet rolled out for the visitors to the country; any passenger without a huge smile on his face either has no soul or has suffered some kind of face-paralyzing stroke on the flight. While other immigration officials in other countries are busy scowling, the Singapore immigration officials smile and put out a bowl of candy. Other airports put up immediate signs of what you can do to incur the death penalty – Singapore puts up a duty-free advertisement that read “Don’t Forget Your Liquor Allowance!” (I for one did not even know I had a liquor allowance, nor was I sure exactly what it was, but I sure liked how those two words sounded together.)

No currency? No problem – you could use your credit card to complete any transaction in this airport, regardless how small. I imagine that the final test of the airport before cutting the red ribbon was to tape a credit card to a pigeon and see how many airport services it could take advantage of. If my own experience is any gauge, that pigeon probably ended up sporting a Hugo Boss blazer and burning through its liquor allowance.

I entered Singapore in the highest of spirits.

I was meeting a friend of my aunt’s in the center of town – Vivien, a Singaporean woman who had been raised in England, but had since returned to her native country, just as she was retiring. She picked me up from a local bus stop at 8 a.m. wearing tennis whites and a broad grin.

We hustled in side the market (I got the feeling she hustled everywhere) and joined her tennis buddies, a group of mostly retired men wearing satisfied smiles and drinking a hot reddish-beige liquid.

“It’s ginger tea – you want to try?” Vivien said, holding her glass to me.

“Sure, why not?” I said. I took a sip, then spent the time that is usually reserved for swallowing trying not to spew it all over her white Lycra top.

“What do you think?” she asked, studying my expression, which I took great pains to keep steady, but must have looked like somebody had just punched me in the nose. “No good, huh? Right. No good. Ok. Let’s get you some breakfast.”

We scooted around the food stalls as she pointed out what was what. “It is still breakfast time for you, right? So I suppose you will want noodles, rather than rice?”

This was a distinction I had not thought to make, but I nodded with what I hoped was a casually knowledgeable air. “Of course…noodles,” I said. I still had the remnants of the ginger tea corroding the inside of my mouth – I would have eaten a bowl of glue to get that taste out.

After a bowl of noodles and some fresh sugarcane juice, I was right as rain, ready for a stroll around downtown.

I had been told that Singapore was a city out of the future, and is it ever. The buildings were sleek and modern – they positively gleamed in the sunlight.

“You see that building? The older one?” Vivien asked, pointing a couple of blocks down the street.

I looked over and identified the one she meant. I wasn’t sure it was fair to call this building old – it simple looked normal, rather than futuristic.

“They’re going to tear that one down pretty soon,” she continued. “Too old.”

“Too old?” I repeated incredulously.

“Doesn’t fit with the rest of the modern architecture,” she clarified.

Most cities have zoning laws protecting historical sites, Singapore’s laws seemed designed to keep up the Flash Gordon appearance.

Singapore is a true city-state, an entire country based around one city. It contains no more than four and a half million people, all of them squeezed into a tiny country, and all of them looking down, walking briskly, and generally going about their business as if this were any American metropolis. It was the city that Consumerism built – fantastic glistening indoor malls line the main streets. Every once in a while you’ll come across a section of preserved traditional Asian architecture, beautiful in its construction and polished to a high shine, but for the most part it is just steel and glass. The signs are all in English. On the surface, this was Manhattan in 2050 – and that’s what people saw on a bus tour. It was easy to see what leads tourists and backpackers to say it has no personality, no soul, that there are no “sights” to see in the traditional sense.

But dig a little deeper, and you find that you are a long way from Manhattan, my friends.

Singapore is a city where the city government is also essentially the national government. What the city wants, the city gets. It is an economic powerhouse, built around electronics, manufacturing, and finance, and that means it can manipulate its minute environment in just about any way it pleases. It can afford to take decisions based on the needs of an urban population without worrying about a rural constituency. Vivien’s apartment complex, for example, used to be slums, low-income housing. That all changed in the 1960s when the government renovated it all, got rid of the slums, made it in to respectable housing for all, and turned complexes like Vivien’s into beautiful green communities. In fact, there is an effort now to make the city even greener, to turn the “Garden City” into a “City in a Garden,” joining the green spaces together to create a more country feel in the heart of a city. It sounded wonderful to me. But I still had a question.

“So what happened to the slums?” I asked Vivien.

“The slums? They’re gone. Renovated into complexes like mine.”

“But…what about the homeless? The unemployed? The poor people?” I asked, confused.

“Singapore doesn’t really have much of that anymore. The government has taken care of everybody.”

And it really did seem like this was the case. In the middle of town, a parking lot had been converted back into an old-style food market, because people asked for it. At a nearby construction site, Vivien informed me that the site had previously been an area where kids liked to skateboard. And so of course, they had to tear it up. But this was Singapore, so what were they building? Not another Starbucks or office building – they were building a proper youth center.

“What will that include?”

“They don’t actually know yet,” Vivien answered thoughtfully. “They’re still asking the young people what they want.”

Common sense, right? But you’d be amazed how few municipalities think of asking the youth what they might want in their center.

Taking care of its citizens must sometimes be a difficult job – consider, Singapore imports a tremendous number of workers from abroad to fill manual labor jobs. Those people come from all over Asia. Already, there are four official languages in Singapore. That means that all signs on the bus, for example, must be written in English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Those are not similar languages, either written or spoken. It turns a simple thing like an “Emergency Exit” sign into a work of art, with lines of unusual alphabets leading a peaceful co-existence, the gentle circles of the Tamil language lying on a bed of sharp Chinese characters. Still, it is strange to be in a place where you can be sure that most everybody will speak English. Even stranger is to see these ethic Asians speaking English to each other in their own country. It is like being suddenly blessed with the ability to understand the local language.

For me, it was the food that made Singapore one of the most memorable places on my trip so far, and I had Vivien to thank for that. I’m not a person that goes crazy for food, but I do like to try new things. And in Singapore, everything was new. Not new as in “Oooh, that’s an unusual spice – let me guess…coriander?” but rather new as “Christ, is that a reptile, or what? What the hell is it doing in the vegetable section? Screw that, you’re so damn curious – you pick it up!”

Even as we walked past these glistening malls filled with fine brand name clothes that for me, at least, seem to belong to a former life on this year-long trip, there was a world below them all that I would never have noticed if Vivien had not brought me there. In the basement level of these massive houses of riches were simple Asian food courts, filled with two- and three-dollar meals of the most imaginative variety.

I had already gotten a taste of Singapore cuisine, of course, even after the breakfast noodles. We had been strolling along, when my attention was snagged by a sign that read “Pork Floss.” Vivien saw me stop.

“You want to try it?” she asked.

“Pork floss?” I said, seeing if it sounded as ridiculous when I said it out loud. “People really eat it?”

“Eat it? People queue for it!”

And I had to admit, my friends, it was as if a genie had suddenly appeared at my side and suggested a wish I had never even thought of. It sounded amazing. It was the best word combination I’d encountered since “liquor allowance.”

I tried some pork floss; it was pretty much what you might expect from pork floss. It was tasty salted meat. It was also a touch expensive for my budget, so it was on to the underground food court. There were probably nine or ten stalls down there, all serving up steaming cuisine.

“What are you in the mood for?” asked Vivien, waving a magnanimous hand across the hall.

I took a closer look at the name of the stands. It was not difficult to select a place by simple process of elimination. “Malay Indian Cuisine” sounded fine, for example, as did “Yong Tau Foo”, though I had no idea what that was. “Noodles” was too vague, while “Pig Organ Herbal Soup” wasn’t vague enough. I went with some kind of tofu and rice thing. That was fine. But where things really got interesting was at dessert.

I had bought Vivien lunch to thank her for her help, and she insisted on buying dessert. I noticed she did not ask me what I wanted – rather, she asked me if I trusted her to get something good. I did, of course.

She brought back a selection of dishes, which according to the sign, included such delightfully puzzling names as Chendoi with Chick Pea, Rice Jelly with Tadpole, Grass Jelly, and Yam Paste with Ginko Nut. What those things were, I cannot tell you. It was all kind of colorful, textured, and sometimes mushy; it felt like dessert on a different planet. The texture of one nut in particular tasted remarkably how I might imagine one’s testicle might taste. I didn’t ask what that one was. (Mostly out of fear that it might be, in fact, one’s testicle).

I was so taken with all these new foods that Vivien took me to a local grocery store to get a sampling of everything to take home and try. For the most part, this consisted of fruit. (Though I was more than tempted to take home a box I saw in the frozen food section: it was obviously some kind of bird, like a chicken, but I wasn’t sure exactly. I was about to ask Vivien, when I saw on the side of the box a dialogue bubble, the kind of circle you see used in comic strips when people talk, coming out of the box. And what this thing inside the box was saying, anticipating my question, was: “I’m a Spatchcock!” And all I could think was: “Buddy…you were a Spatchcock.” Whatever the hell a Spatchcock was.)

The fruit in the produce section of the grocery store looked like it had been replaced with those bizarre squeaky toys you give a dog. Everything was such an otherworldly shape and color; I couldn’t stop staring. There were chikus, kiwanos, dragon fruit, and one of my favorites, long beans, which may seem normal, but I’m tellin’ ya folks – they were long beans. Vivien picked up one of each for us to try at home.

We went home so I could take a much-needed nap; a few hours later we headed out again around dusk to get dinner. As usual, the bus we took into town had TV on it, which was showing strange cartoons that nobody seemed to be watching. This time, we went to the historic district, where the old parliament and other such buildings stood, beautifully restored. In keeping with its pledge to make Singapore a city devoted to arts and culture, some of these old buildings were being used for the performing arts.
We passed countless western restaurants, but I was still enjoying this other-worldly Asian cuisine, if not always for the taste, at least for the novelty of eating something that looked like a set piece from Return of the Jedi. So we went down to Chinatown to eat as the locals eat.

I was on a budget, of course, so we looked for a cheap, authentic place. And we found just the spot – a large open place on the corner, crowded with locals. We sat down at a cold metal table, and Vivien offered to go and order. She asked again what I felt like. I again told her to just get whatever – I trusted her. A slight smile crossed her face, and she was off.

She reappeared a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that, a young woman brought over a tray of steaming bowls and began setting them down. With the last bowl, the young woman hesitated slightly, until Vivien indicated that she should place it in front of me.

“The main course,” smiled Vivien as she pulled the top off the bowl.

If the food I’d eaten earlier that day looked like set pieces out of Star Wars, this looked right out of Dickens. It was a white gruel.

“And what do we have here, Vivien?” I asked politely.

“This is the house specialty. It’s what most people in here are eating.”

“…which is?”

“Frog porridge.”

Frog porridge. Hmmm. I opened my mouth to ask another question, but I didn’t really need any more clarification. The name pretty much said it all. The name said that there were people in this world who ate frog porridge. The name said that at some point in history, a guy was sitting at a table eating a bowl of porridge, saw a frog go hopping past, and thought to himself, “You know what might be pretty tasty? If I killed that frog and put it in my porridge.”

Vivien saw my hesitation and chuckled. “Go on, try it. People say it tastes like chicken.”

“I don’t want chicken in my porridge either,” I responded. “I want cinnamon. I want honey.”

“Honey?” she asked surprised, as if I had just suggested putting something completely disgusting in my porridge. (For example, a frog.) “This is dinnertime, sweetie, you can’t have honey! Go on, give it a try.”

So I did – I tried it.

And I don’t think I want to eat frogs anymore. Or porridge, for that matter. Or pork floss, or vegetables that looked like amphibians. No, I was ready to leave – I had seen it all. I was ready to wish a fond farewell and offer my eternal gratitude to a still smiling Vivien, the woman who showed me the personality of this city, the wonderful madness hidden under a gleaming façade. I was ready to head back to the airport, where Singapore is fresh squeezed orange juice, award-winning cactus gardens, and free candy just for showing your passport.

Check out Conor’s RTW blog at How Conor Is Spending All His Money.

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