A Tale of Two (or Three) Meals – Singapore and Bali Part 2
If New York City is the intimidating, rough-and-tumble, foul-mouthed, yet beloved, older brother, Singapore is the quirky, neon-loving, sweet and innocent tween sister who is constantly checking in on Facebook from the mall and posting exotic food pics on Instagram. Seriously. This city is made for shopping and eating. It also has a bit of an identity crisis. It’s utterly and beautifully cosmopolitan catering to the urban sophisticate, but also has natural green space to rival Central Park many, many times over, as well as the thriving Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods.
Though the name Singapore comes from the Malay words “singa” meaning “lion” and “pura” meaning “city”, the story behind the meaning of the nickname, and the city’s mascot, a mash up of the head and neck of a lion and the body of a fish called a Merlion, are fairytail fodder for debate.
Lore has it that, in 1299, a Prince Sang Nila Utama from the Srivijya empire landed on the island and, while hunting, saw a gorgeous unknown beast, which he was told was a lion, though it’s generally acknowledged that it was most likely a Malay tiger. He believed this a good omen, so he settled the city, established diplomatic ties with China, and subsequently ruled for 48 years. The merlion mascot is a nod to the “lion” seen by Prince Sang and the city’s first incarnation as a fishing village.
But back to food. One of the paradoxes of traveling is that I never feel more American than when I am overseas, especially when it comes to dining. Sometimes I am (accidentally) the “silly little American girl” tourist, and sometimes I am the American glaring at the “ugly American” tourist. Exhibits A and B to come.
On the third night, I take a left instead of a right (Thanks for the tip, Bugs) and stumble upon what would have happened if Dr Seuss had built a riverwalk spanning 5 action-packed blocks where adults can eat and drink while kids play in a central splash pad. This hub is awash in bright, pastel colored buildings, neon signs, and tons of restaurants/bars with choice patio seating. Called Clarke Quay, it’s arguably the younger, hipper of the three quays, a top destination for locals and tourists, and a must-do in Singapore.
I settle on a place with live music (covers of 90s songs, anyone?) and order up some edamame and one of Singapore’s signature dishes – chicken satay, which is a fancy way of saying yummy roasted chicken on a stick. The satay is fantastic, as is the atmosphere of the general public having a grand time in a wonderfully civilized and courteous manner. The minor blight is the American gent a few tables away who decided to turn the band’s cover of 500 Miles by The Proclaimers into his own personal karaoke moment at decibel level 8 out of 10 and proceeds to shout – I wish I were joking – “Freebird!” after the song. Sigh. This is why we can’t have nice things.
The next day, I’m determined to take on Chinatown and experience another Singaporean must-do: the hawker food stalls of Chinatown. I exit the Metro at the Chinatown station and get that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling, but I’m excited. I also take it as a good omen that, as my eyes adjust to the light, the first thing one sees emerging from the station are the elaborate and massive decorations about 5 traffic lanes wide by 3 blocks long. The Chinese New Year is approaching, and it’s the Year of the Rooster, so at the center of the decorations is a gigantic, ornate, well, you know. Ah themes, and timing.
But, back to food. Rows and rows of narrow food stalls, but I have taste buds set on a specific one: a food stall that, in 2016, received a Michelin star rating where the entrees are under $4 called Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. There is a short line to queue, but that is easily survived by drooling over the delicious-looking rotisserie chickens hanging just above the cashier. Making our way inside, the solo gentleman in front of me pauses to selfie in front of the sign. I smile. He notices that I’m smiling, nods, and smiles back. It’s an event. I get the chicken rice, another signature Singaporean dish. The chicken is fall-of-the-bone amazing, and the rice is sticky with a hint of sweet. Food: $3.60. Experience: priceless.
That night, I return to Clarke Quay, drawn to a place called Ramen Keisure Lobster King. Suddenly craving some fried rice and goya, I queue up and am quickly seated at a community table. I slowly glance around, trying to take gauge my surroundings. I notice that I definitely, at least at this moment, am the only blonde around. Cool. I order fried rice, 2 orders of Goya, and ask if they have Sapporo beer because when in Rome. “Of course,” the waiter answers. “Great,” I say, “a pint of Sapporo.” It’s not until my beer arrives I learn that here, a pint can mean ½ liter, or almost 17oz. Whoops.
As I devour the scrumptious rice and goya, I hear the same male voices bust out in some kind of jovial, incomprehensible to me, toast every so often. It’s by no means too loud, but it does fill the restaurant for a few seconds each time. The bill paid, I go to leave when the source of the periodic jubilation is revealed: the whole staff is bidding each table a goodbye as they exit. One foot out the door, I turn my head to return the good bye and promptly catch my other foot on door. Thanks, Sapporo. Fried Rice/Goya/Sapporo: $35. Lesson in ordering beer like a local: priceless.
To be continued.