My life has been fairly busy for the last couple of months, and as a consequence, I have not managed to report on this blog the results of my “Anyone in Singapore want to meet up?” request, from December. This is a shame, because thanks have been order to a Samizdata reader and commenter whose response ensured that things turned out very well. However, better late than never.
What happened was that long time Samizdata commenter The Wobbly Guy offered to take me out for crab at Mellben seafood restaurant in Ang Mo Kio, which, as he put it, “is noted for its crab”. Australians such as myself are also fond of crab, but we tend to eat it more simply than the Singaporeans. Australians tend to eat crab boiled with relatively few embelishments. Singaporeans tend to eat it with more spices and chilis. However, when we talk about past visits to one another’s countries, people of both nationalities will tend to say things like “Mmmmmm. Great seafood”.
As it happened though, on my last day in Singapore I made something close to a terrible mistake. Wandering along Geylang road at about 2pm I discovered that I was hungry, and I therefore walked into one of many street restaurants in that area that offer an “unlimited Steamboat buffet” for about $S15. (About £5 or US$10). The restaurant was full of local people having long lunches, and in such a restaurant (in which you cook meat, seafood, vegetables, and goodness knows what else in a bowl of boiling soup in the middle of your table) it is possible to have a very long lunch.
When I walked through the door, the very kind lady running the restaurant thoughtfully enquired as to just how spicy I like my soup, got me a large bottle of Tiger beer, gave me one of those “Go for it” expressions and gestured towards the buffet. I got myself a modest selection of seafood and meats, and sat down to cook and eat it. It was good. Repeat until fade.
On about my third trip to the buffet, the kind lady saw me tentatively placing a modest portion of crab on my plate, and decided it was time to put me to rights. She gave me one of those “You poor, pathetic westerner. You truly have no idea, do you?” looks, and proceeded to pile my plate high with crab for me. Chastened by this, I took the seafood back to my table and my soup, and got myself another bottle of beer. I was slowly getting there, but the guys at the next table clearly were not having any such problems.
Thus, after intending to have a quick lunch, I stumbled back out onto the street two and a half hours later after engorging vast amounts of food.
So thus, when The Wobbly Guy very kindly picked me up from my hotel after I had rushed off to the centre of town topick up the custom suits I had ordered a couple of days earlier, I was perhaps not ideally prepared. It wasn’t quite as bad as attempting a six star day in Donostia, but it was perhaps heading that way.
Somewhat to my relief I had a further opportunity to digest my lunch before moving onto dinner, as the combination of a public holiday and a very popular restaurant meant that we had to queue. Several restaurants nearby lacked such queues – presumably they cater to the “people who are willing to eat less good food but are in a hurry” crowd. In addition, this gave us a chance both to chat and to watch another of these kind but formidable Singaporean restaurant women removing the alive and active crabs from the large styrofoam boxes marked “Singapore Airlines” in which the crabs had apparently just been flown in from Sri Lanka.
As she did this, she watched by some cute as a button children, some of who were probably determined to grow up to be kind but formidable Singaporean restaurant women themselves.
As we waited, The Wobbly Guy and I were able to compare our national culinary cultures. I am still not sure if either the “sand crabs” and “mud crabs” we get in Australia are the same species to those eaten in Singapore. Clearly more research is in order. I did explain that the two culinary things in Australia that Singapore is known for are chili crab and “Singapore Noodles”. The Wobbly Guy was slightly perplexed by the second of these dishes. Yellow Hokkien noodles known as “Singapore Noddles” are available in just every Chinese or Malaysian or Thai restaurant in Australia under this name, but nobody in Singapore has ever heard of them. In the midst of this, a butter crab was ordered and I took a peek at the kitchen. This was clearly a serious crab restaurant.
I really must try the chili crab next time.
The butter crab was a good choice, though. By the time we sat down I was just about able to eat again, and the crab was succulent, in a lovely soup, and delicately spiced. I did properly discover what “noted for its crab” meant. As we ate, The Wobbly Guy told me a few things about Singapore: about compulsory military service. (All adult males in Singapore are required to be reserve members of the armed forces. All members of the armed forces are required to be fighting fit. Hence, in Singapore it is an offence on pain of court-martial for an adult male to be unfit); about language (which dialects of Chinese are taught and spoken in Singapore, and how use of Chinese in Singapore compares with use of English); and such things as road pricing and properfy development. But good as the conversation was, it was overshadowed by the food, which was wonderful. Food in Singapore is just about invariably wonderful. But even by the standards of the country, this was good
After a while, I reached one of those states of holiday contentment that one gets too occasionally. It had been a good day. It was my last day in Singapore. The Wobbly Guy refused to let me pay for dinner, and then insisted on driving me to the airport for me to catch my flight to Sydney. The hospitality was most kind. Thanks JT. The chili crab is on me next time.