Saturday, April 28, 2012

Food: A Comparison

Just a few days ago, I was talking to my mum on Skype, and she started telling me of yet another place I was to be brought to for good food. (All Singaporeans are, and this is our inalienable birthright, entitled to excellent food. We have boundless enthusiasm for it. Every man and woman is born a connoisseur of food. And every Singaporean has a mental list of great food places.) We hit upon the idea of constructing a list of places I was to visit in my month back home -- and that list stands at nearly 30 places now, and my mouth waters at thought of it. It does give me something to look forward to, after a year of exile in this culinary backwater.

This is, I hasten to add, a relative matter. (I do not say this only to avoid deportation.) The English must be commended for five (!) fields of achievements in food. The first is in the area of hearty stodge, which the English excel at. Pies, bangers and mash, stews and Sunday roasts are what I have in mind here. I would also include fish and chips, actually. The second is baked goods and puddings, and the list here is truly astonishing: bread and butter pudding, scones, Victoria sponge, banoffee pie, lemon meringue pie, Eton mess, Bakewell tart and sticky toffee pudding to name an illustrious few. The third is cheese. I've always found it a shame that the English consume so much continental cheese, when there is a truly bewildering variety of cheeses available within the United Kingdom. I won't bother naming many (Wikipedia has a list of them). But I won't forget my discovery of the utterly delicious Blacksticks Blue as I was staying over at Luke's last Easter. This island is a treasure trove of cheeses. The fourth is jams, preserves and spreads. Marmalade comes to mind. As does lemon curd. But really, my true love is marmite.  But that, as we know, is a divisive issue. And lastly, and this is the cornerstone of the English culinary experience, we have the great English Breakfast. A salve for a hangover, an orgy of grease, salt and meat and an essential part of English psyche -- and I stress to add -- even if one doesn't have it often. (Probably shouldn't or something.) W. Somerset Maugham was being unkind when he quipped that to eat well in England one had to have breakfast three times a day, but he hit upon a truth in his missing the mark. 

Yet the cuisine of a tiny island off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, housing a mere 5 million mortals, has a vibrancy and verve that will astound my English friends. The greatness of Singaporean food lies in the variety of cultures and races: Chinese, Malay, Indian and others.  It is also sustained by an institution not found in the West: that of the hawker centre. The hawker centre brings together many food stalls, each selling many different dishes, in a single place. Food is inexpensive, tasty and often an interesting social experience. But our love of food supports both the humble and sophisticated -- Singapore's casual and fine dining scenes are excellent too.  The English problem with food, and I've said this many times, is typified in a certain barbarism towards vegetables -- basically boiled to hell. You know you're dealing with a sophisticated culinary culture when even the vegetables are treated right -- and that's what happens in Singaporean food. There are simply too many individual delights to be named. (I kid you not: check out the wiki.) Let me try with some of them: take bak chor mee. Springy noodles with pork mince, sometimes served with fish balls or fishcake, tossed in a spicy, sour and salty sauce. Or laksa: rice noodles in an aromatic, rich broth of coconut milk, shrimps and spices, served with cockles, fishcake, egg and prawns. Or a breakfast of kaya toast: butter and kaya (a coconut and egg jam) over toast, served with a soft-boiled egg and cup of sweet, thick coffee. (Enough.) When I recall the dance of flavours that the food of my native city performs on my palate, I know that in my hearts of hearts that I am a Singaporean gourmand. And I will unabashedly champion and trumpet its superiority. 

This is a two-part post: the next (projected) post deals with food and memory. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's been a long day -- and will be for about four more weeks. My schedule has become increasingly monastic, as I move from library to library, poring over books. (By the way, the best and most exciting way to experience the monastic life is not to actually become a monk, but to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.) It's very hard to stop myself from singing psalms at the hour of Lauds, of course. (Eco assures me this is between 5 and 6 in the morning.) 

I bring up the monastic life because there is a certain discipline of mind and body required of the Finalist. One has to restrain the more wayward tendencies of the mind and body, to sustain a purity of thought and action throughout the period of study. This is why I complement study with going to the gym. (See my first post.) One has to keep calm, and purge the mind of absurd and unhelpful fears. One has to keep to a schedule, and resist the temptations. And if one wants to, one should pray, and pray often.

But monkish austerity will soon give way to the festival of carnival. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Collections (for non-Oxonians, these are simply pre-term tests) are over, and the sun and blue sky bring some tranquility into our Finals-troubled hearts. It is -- both the weather and this calm -- a brief respite, but one I am glad for. Another four weeks of slog, and I will be sitting what might just be the last significant examinations of my life. 

I was never really good at examinations, until the only time it mattered -- my IB  (International Baccalaureate) finals. Before that, I had serially underperformed. That memory is all but wiped-out in the minds of my family and friends, but I remember it well. I was nearly last in class when it came to my PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations, for my non-Singaporean readers). I didn't even come close to topping the class for anything in secondary school. The reason for this, and I don't want to sound too much like a revolutionary here, was that I had realised early on that I wasn't very interested in the school syllabus. I much preferred reading whatever else I could get my hands on. In those days, that truly meant anything: I recall being enthralled by the immunology chapter of a secondary school biology textbook when I was still in primary school. (And I still have a strange fascination for immunology now. As I say to many people, it's simply warfare!) Forcing the Lord of the Rings into as many essays as I could was another notable achievement -- much more interesting than whatever malformed piece of writing we were meant to contemplate.  This (to others) inexplicable inability to deliver expected results didn't trouble me, and (god bless them) didn't trouble my parents either. As others sprinted ahead, acquiring marks in the 80s and 90s, I swung between the low 60s and the surprising 70s. (Of course, by Oxford standards that's perfectly fine...) I don't remember caring much -- but perhaps I'm downplaying those feelings with the leveling gaze that the present projects towards the past.

It was well worth it. My wayward interest in things outside the curriculum, and my refusal to learn the syllabus, has paid off richly, in great and bountiful dividends. And it is a method of study I recommend to all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

List of Things I'd Rather Be Doing Instead of Revising for Finals

1. Learning Italian, Latin or German.
2. Reading any of these books on my reading list: a biography of Dante; Ellman's biography of Joyce; a biography of LBJ (by the acclaimed Robert Caro); a biography of Stephen Tennant, Money, by Martin Amis; a study of the American presidency; Hart Crane; Walt Whitman; Robert Graves's collection of the Greek myths; a history of Jesuit missionaries in China; novels by Christopher Isherwood; novels by Gilbert Adair; novels by Alan Hollinghurst; writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; a monograph on Pico; essays of Francis Bacon.
3. Pub on a sunny summer day, or a long, long lunch. The Trout comes to mind.
4. Using up that £20 drink tab at the Union a team of friends and I won at the Union pub quiz
5. Visiting parts of this country that I've not been to (which is everywhere outside of London, Oxford, Cambridge and bits of Lancashire and the Lake District). Devon/Cornwall, Manchester, Scotland (soon not to be, perhaps) in particular.
6. Punting.
7. Shouting poetry at passers-by
8. Having a cocktail, at the Duke of Cambridge. Or Brown's.
9. Going for a long country walk.
10. Cooking, and baking a bread and butter pud.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

0th week, Sunday

For my non-Oxonian readers, let me first explain that we have, like most British universities, three terms. The Autumn/Winter term is Michaelmas, named after the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. The Winter/Spring term is Hilary, after the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers. And the Spring/Summer term -- which is just upon us -- is Trinity, after Trinity Sunday. Each of these terms has eight, very intense weeks. Each week starts on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday (unlike in Cambridge, where they start on Thursdays and end on Wednesdays). But undergraduates usually arrive a week before the start of term, and we call this week noughth (0th) week. (Pronunciation trap there.) At the end of noughth week, many of us will have collections -- tests about last term's work. Typically, lots of groovy stuff also happens during the week after term ends -- or 9th week. As for me, being an international student, I always stick all for the holidays, except for Summer. Readers will be led (well, you don't really have a choice now, do you?) to reflect on how these divisions of the year are still very closely tied to the liturgical calendar, and the feasts and celebrations of the Anglican Church.

So much for that. I hope we're all on the same page when I declare that it is now the first day -- Sunday -- of 0th week. This is significant for several reasons. It is the beginning of the last term in Oxford for us Finalists. In a few weeks, terms of (hopefully) hard work will be judged in essays produced in mere hours (by comparison). One scents the end, and is led to dully contemplate the possible permutations of the clich├ęs expressing (and regretting) the brevity of one's apprenticeship at this ancient institution.

I imagine, when my mind is no longer full of quibbles about Dante's vision of providential history (or the political Augustinianism of Giles of Rome, or the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius' conception of hierarchy on Aquinas' metaphyics, or ... I'll stop now), that I'll be led to reflect more deeply on the end of an era. But let me mark the moment with this preliminary placeholder of a post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I hate to admit that I really enjoying going to the gym, but I've said it. Despite the distinctly postlapsarian tinge the Iffley Road gym has -- and one would think one of the world's leading universities would have better facilities -- I do enjoy channelling the infinite amount of pent-up aggression and frustration that I seem to possess into a brutal gym sesh. And verily, the gym has all the signs of Satan about it: the constant blasting of vile chart singles, courtesy of MTV; the body-obsessed, muscle-bound men (and women) that frequent it (cf. the Coens' Burn After Reading); and the smell -- oh the smell -- of putrid, potent sweat.

And yet.

And yet.

There is something heroic and noble about physical endeavour. Christopher Isherwood (Chris Ish, as I like to call him) knows what I'm talking about:

'... the uncomplicated relaxed happy mood which is nearly always produced by a workout at the gym. It is so good to feel the body's satisfaction and gratitude; no matter how much it may protest, it likes being forced to perform these tasks.' (A Single Man, p. 87)
The warrior civilisations knew it. And I find myself ready to think and live again, after a heroic exertion of this mortal frame.