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. 

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