Three Meals: Singapore

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Singapore. The tiny island nation that could; a mega mash-up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian influences; a blank canvas of sorts for the ultra wealthy and if you’re there on a lengthy layover, a foodie playground for vagabonds with fat kid tendencies.

When faced with less than 24 hours in Singapore, ditch the shitty must-see list you copy and pasted from Trip Advisor or elsewhere on the interwebs and focus your efforts on working your way through the diverse range of food offerings.

You won’t be able to try everything. There’s too much. Attempting to tackle it all too quickly could result in a mad dash from one district to the other with nothing to show for it besides a destroyed palate the bubble guts.

I scored two long layovers in Singapore on trip to Cambodia last summer (shoutout to Tiger Air) and like a chump, carefully plotted a route through several districts and several of Singapore’s famous hawker centers looking to get bent on shameless gluttony. This of course meant dragging my girlfriend around the island looking for “The Best” of everything, passing up plenty of local dankness along the way. No doubt there were a couple of meals that aren’t worth the digital space I pay WordPress for (shoutout to banana flavored Hi-Chews–BANANA), but once I kicked the idea of seeking out “The Best,” my search got a helluva lot less stressful and the food a helluva lot better.

Rather than jab you with a twenty-bulleted index of food-stuffs to go tramping around Singapore for, here’s three plates that I’d order again if given the chance and that can be found nearly anywhere on the island. Just look for the lines of locals. If everyone in the place looks just like you, chances are you might as well be eating at McDonalds.

Kaya Toast with Eggs

Original photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

Original Photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

On appearance, Singapore’s oft touted “national breakfast” looks more like dorm room slop. She may not be the prettiest, but she’ll take care of you in the morning and will most likely be there when your drunk ass comes stumbling onto the food court after a long night out. A healthy spread of kaya (a thick curd of coconut milk, eggs and sugar) sandwiched between crispy crustless toast and paired with two soft boiled eggs seasoned with salt, pepper and a few shakes of soy sauce; it’s straight crack, homes. If Singapore made it illegal, people would still sell it under bridges and in dark alleys. Expats and tourist would ask for it using code names. “Yo, you know where I can score some breakfast bricks and jelly beans?”

Throw in a hot cup of Kopi (coffee, typically served with sweetened condensed milk) and you’re set. I spotted plenty of locals dipping their toast in the egg yokes, but make sure you give the kaya its due respect by enjoying a solo piece.

We found ours at a small hawker center behind the Boon Keng MRT station, but you can get  kaya toast at pretty much any kopitiam (traditional coffee shop/cafe) in Singapore. Some ratchet up the swank more than others, but you should’t pay more than SGP $4.00-4.50 regardless of the establishment.

Wanton Mee (Wanton Noodles)

A cantonese classic gone global, wanton mee has about as many variations as there are countries in East Asia. Eaten as a soup or dry, Hong Kong serves it in steamy fish broth with shrimp and scallions, Thais take it with plenty of chili and sometimes a flick of sugar, Filipinos have a version with mung bean spouts. Similar to Malaysia, Singaporeans tend to serve the wantons in a soup completely separate from the noodles, but in Singapore you might come across a version that includes a thin chili sauce resting in the bottom of the bowl. Almost all are are accompanied with a few slices of char sieu (barbecued pork).

We’re in the middle of a to-eat-or-not-to-eat debate over durian when my girlfriend spots  a stall offering wanton mee just off Sims avenue in Geylang. “Isn’t that on your list?” She knows I already have a specific place in mind for wanton mee, but her tone is clear: drag me to another district for some damn noodles, and you’ll be dining alone.

We sit down and look over the menu options posted in front of the stall. There’s wanton mee dry, wanton mee soup, laksa and steamed pork wantons. I go for the dry and look on as the chef is painfully meticulous in preparing the dish, coating the bottom of the bowl with a deep red chili sauce, ridding the noodles of any moisture by hoisting the straining basket above his head several times before depositing it’s contents into the shallow red puddle along with the char sieu and leafy bits of cai xin. The side of wanton soup was nothing spectacular, but the noodles–in that sauce–crushed it. Enough spice that you’ll need periodic gulps of tea, but not so much that it robs you of the noodles and seared pork. It’ll run you SGP $4.00.

A hundred food blogs will tell you a hundred different places to find wanton mee in Singapore. I’d suggest letting that sexy red chili sauce be your guide. Anywhere you find it is worth sit down.

Claypot Frog and Porridge

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Photo: Kickerjean

 

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Photo: Kickerjean

I can’t knock a person’s reluctance to eat amphibians. I’ll hardly pretend that frogs, or salamanders are somehow more appealing proteins than chicken or pork because, if nothing else, frogs and salamanders have barely enough meat to justify the effort it takes to cook them. It’s for this reason that I couldn’t believe how wildly popular claypot frog is amongst native Singaporeans and and transplants alike. Many offbeat foods rose to delicacy status out of necessity: at some point in the past, due to poverty or famine, (usually both) people started eating weird shit because it was either that or starve. Singapore isn’t necessarily hurting for cash or good cuisine these days–haven’t been for a while, so that people still line up for butchered frog and rice porridge is either testament to how good it is or how far people will go to save a buck.

Adding claypot frog to the list of food to tackle while in Singapore seemed like a good idea in theory as I sat in my living room, in Taiwan, munching on Doritos while hustling the internet for food tips. Look how cultured I am!, I thought, wiping bright orange tortilla dust on the couch pillows. However, when the clay pot was finally placed on the table–right under my nose–it took a solid dose of self coaching, a la trying-everything-at-least-once, before I could take the first spoonful.

Tender bits of bone-in frog meat swirl in a rich, dark soy sauce with green onions and (at least in the spicy version) dried red chilies. I peek at the many tables around us to see how others were eating their frogs. Do I toss a few pieces into the rice porridge and scoop it all out together? Do I go at it bones-in-hand like chicken wings, using the steamy porridge as filler in between bites? should I use chopsticks or a fork? Did that woman just order lemonade?

While similar in taste to dark meat chicken, the texture is closer to what you might expect from clams or mussels. That’s not a slam. I’m game for clams and mussels any day of the week. I had a difficult time, however, convincing myself–despite being solid tasting meal–that all those tiny bones nestled in the pot didn’t matter. Which is to say that I had a difficult time convincing myself the frogs I was eating weren’t the same slimy creatures I used to collect in buckets and store under my bed when I was eight years old. Cultured traveler or not, mind trumped matter on this one.

Would I order claypot frog again? Sure. Would I absolutely crave it next time I’m in Singapore? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Without a doubt. We hit Geylang Lor 9 Fresh Frog Porridge (SGP $8/$16/$22, plus $2-$4 for rice porriage) and had to grab a table at the back of a crowded alley full of diners, but there’s some dispute amongst foodie netizens over rather it’s them or the one of several other places in Geylang that churn out the best frog.

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Philippine Omens: Morse Code

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El Nido, Palawan  Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

El Nido, Palawan
Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

I’m often amused by the varying standards of airport security around the world.

In the U.S. you could easily find yourself locked in a dimly lit interrogation room with a husky TSA officer for answering your cellphone in the customs line; while in Thailand, the four-inch hunting knife and sandwich bag of valium you forgot about in your carry-on after last month’s bender in Bangkok easily make it aboard your outbound flight to Malaysia.

In Dubai, A dildo tucked into the abyss of your checked luggage might get you put on “the list” while the the nugget of hash your scored in Morocco somehow finds its way back to Wisconsin via the pocket of your cargo shorts. Whoops.

The varying degrees of scrutiny do nothing for me in terms of airport safety, but I appreciate the sense of relief and triumph tied to unknowingly breaking the rules–that feeling you get when you discover the lighter in your camera bag right before take-off or when the flight attendant fails to notice that your iPhone is indeed NOT on airplane mode. Take that, Luthfansa.

This is what I’m thinking as the security official is clawing through my bag In Manila. Supposedly the extendable monopod in my pack has raised suspicion. “Sir, may I check your bag?” He asks as if I have a choice in the matter. I imagine myself saying no and being hauled off–hands bound by zip ties.

He pulls out the camera pole for inspection, checking its heft by swinging it through the air a few times. “Sir, this is not allowed on the plane…” I try to look confused as if I hadn’t already been told this at the airport back in Kaohsiung, where it took ten minutes to first find a box and then have it checked in.

“…but I’ll let you bring it. Your hair is cool, like Bob Marley.”

At first I’m slightly disappointed. There could’ve been anything hidden in that camera pole; a knife, liquid explosives, miniature bottles of vodka. Then I realize this is one of the only positive omens I’ve had on what is surely a final attempt to enjoy a relaxing vacation amongst Palawan’s scattered islands, the first one being that we’re even able to find a flight going to Palawan after so many failed attempts.

Rather fortuitously, the same typhoon that kept us from departing by ferry and grounded the morning flight to Palawan also kept the Tao Expedition vessels from taking to the sea. Should we be able to make it from Puerto Princessa to El Nido by the following morning, the company will allow us to take the tour from the opposite direction and we won’t need to charter a private boat to catch up with the rest of the group.

There’s a shit ton of “ifs” in the equation, but after dealing with an airport security official who likens me to Bob Marley, I like our chances.

After a quick google search, we find a blog that mentions a bus company–Roro–that makes the seven hour trip from Puerto Princesa to El Nido overnight. There’s also mention that during peak season seats tend to sell out fast but neither phone numbers for Roro work so we turn up blindly at the San Jose Bus Terminal, a shoddy looking structure resembling an abandoned fruit market about a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from the airport. There’s mud everywhere and the electricity is out. Across the road there’s a small food stand serving typical Filipino fare out of varied pots and pans laid out for display on a long candle-lit table. Additional food stands selling pork rinds, bottles of water and beer are tucked in between the terminal boarding gates. I have no doubt that during the day this bus terminal looks like just about any other bus terminal you’d find in small town Southeast Asia, but at eight o’clock at night and with no electricity, it looks more like the perfect place to hold a satanic seance, or maybe snuggle up with a serial rapist.

Along with Roro another bus company–Cherry–also offers the overnight trip to El Nido. There’s seats available on both, but Cherry leaves at nine, an hour earlier than Roro. We purchase tickets from the bus driver and chat with one of the teenage boys milling about the terminal. He mentions that the bus will arrive in El Nido around 4:30 in the morning, but because the the driver and porter won’t be returning until the following night, they’ll allow us to sleep on the bus until we can check-in at the Tao Expeditions office. I float the idea of buying some pot before the bus leaves, but he either doesn’t care to point me in the right direction, or he’s more inclined to discuss my thoughts on the NBA.

“Kobe Bryant is best player, right?”

“Actually Kobe Bryant is old and I hate the Lakers.”

“But he’s best, right?”

“No.”

“So who is best player?”

“Right now? Maybe Lebron James, but I hate Miami.”

“What about Michael Jordan?”

“Michael Jordan doesn’t play anymore.”

“Hmm…So Kobe is best.”

I just about go into a rant about how big-money basketball is depleting the entertainment value of the NBA, but instead ask him where the bathroom is.

Before the bus departs I grab a bag of pork rinds and we board the half-empty bus joined by five or six flip-flopped twenty-somethings from France who I peg as gap year kids on the backpacker circuit. I’d like to say that I wasn’t nervous about being annoyed for seven hours by our French busmates, but experience has taught me that–much like cats–young Frenchman have a tendency to hiss and moan until someone acknowledges their existence, at which point they turn up their tails and tell you to fuck off.

The route from Puerto Princesa to El Nido is best described as morse code: dashes of jaw rattling gravel road dotted with quarter-mile sections of paved asphalt. Throughout the journey I manage to fall asleep during the short paved sections, only to be awaken by a barrage of rocks and dirt bouncing around under the bus as we rip through the gravel sections. Having a full bladder only makes it worse. Three hours into the ride I give up on sleep and hone in my frustrations on the French delegation in the back of the bus loudly discussing matters of who gives a shit.

By four a.m. our bus is making it’s way down the nearly vertical hill that drops into El Nido after dispelling most of the other passengers just outside of town. The sun is starting to come up over the green crusted limestone karsts and we catch a glimpse of the beach before descending into town.

The porter gives a quick demonstration on how to make a small bed out of the bus’s seat cushions and I’m hoping we’ll be able to sleep for a few hours and maybe get some breakfast before checking-in with Tao Expeditions.

Stretched out over the prickly cushions, I don’t know if I’m more relieved about our trip finally coming to fruition, or finally being able to get some sleep.

I’m just about to dose off when the porter–laying atop a mountain of seat cushions–whips out his cellphone and launches into a Christian sing-a-long session comprised of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” on repeat. Fists clenched, eyes closed, veins protruding from his neck, he belts out every verse and crescendos on the chorus. I sit up to shoot our karaoke comrade a scowl that will convey “shut that shit up,” but he’s too entrenched in the music to notice.

The driver–on his own mound of cushions–is completely passed out, seemingly unaware of the performance happening just a few feet from his face. It gives me the impression that this is a regular occurrence; a religious ceremony perhaps: arrive safely in El Nido or Puerto Princesa and thank the savior above for not allowing the bus to careen off the scantly paved road. For that matter maybe I should be singing as well.

Eventually we’re able to rest for a couple of hours before sauntering into El Nido’s maze of beachside narrow lanes. The town is just waking up and Tao’s office isn’t open yet so we settle into a small restaurant nearby that looks to be recovering from a long night. It’s raining and I’m staring at my corned beef hash over rice, looking up between bites to take in the beach with its stray dogs and rubbish.

After what it took to get here, I’m fully preparing myself to be told that due to unforeseen circumstances, our idyllic boat excursion has been postponed or otherwise cancelled.

*Authors Note: This is part II of a three part series about a two week trip to The Philippines for Chinese New Year. Read Part I here.

Links:

Ironwulf En Route has done a fine job reviewing both Cherry and Roro bus companies that offer service between Puerto Princessa and El Nido.  Tickets can be bought directly from the driver. From the the airport, it will take about 30 min. by tuk-tuk to get to the San Jose bus terminal. Walk just outside the airport gates and haggle for better rates.

Cebu Pacific– apparently lax on security if you have the right hairstyle, they offer regular flights from Manila to Puerto Princessa

Tao Expeditions– Open itinerary, multi-day island tours in Northern Palawan.