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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


"Never journey without something to eat in your pocket. If only to throw to dogs when attacked."

— E. S. Bates

May 19, Saturday morning

It's just past 8:00 in the morning and my thermometer already registers 96°F. But with the sun still low and the faintest of breezes tickling the palm trees, it actually feels cool.

I'm not sure what happened to Friday. I left San Francisco at midnight on Tuesday and flew over the Pacific Ocean, through Hong Kong and past Wednesday, to land at Changi Airport Thursday morning. These last two days have been a blur of heat, humidity, monsoon rains, and jet lag.

Today, though, promises to be the perfect Singapore day. No rain forecasted and lunch slated at a hawker food center. Moses Chua, my friend from those foie gras days in Perigueux, will take me to the newly re-opened Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown. After closing last autumn for renovations, it opened unofficially just a few days ago. The official celebratory opening won't happen for another two weeks, but most of the stalls are apparently already serving—and selling out by noon.


Saturday evening

Old Maxwell was originally a wet market that, when converted to a hawker center, still retained some of its old roughness. Local critics think the new Maxwell too bright and sterile—plastic tables scream neon, the new tile floor stays dry, and there's not a rat in sight—but this doesn't seem to stop the crowds. It's hard to find "authentic" character in uber-clean Singapore, where renovation often means tearing down historic buildings to erect replicas. One concession to the hawker atmosphere is open (read hot) air dining. No air-con means real food.

Just one of three corridors. Over one hundred stalls means I can eat for a year at Maxwell and still not make my way through all the specialties.

The line in front of much-loved Tian Tian's Hainanese Chicken Rice was too long for this hungry girl, so I headed over to Tip Top instead. The standards here are very high, because I was more than content with the poached chicken and flavorful rice. I didn't know the words for dark meat, and pointing at my thigh seems rather improper, so I accepted the plate of sliced white meat. I shouldn't have worried: the breast is amazingly tender.

Moses and I staked out two chairs at a table with a family enjoying a deluxe plate of chicken rice. They ask me the price on my economy plate (S$2.50 for one person [S$1.8 = US$1] ) and seem very happy that prices have not gone up.

If poached chicken seems underwhelming to you, then you must head over to Chris Yeo's Straits Cafe on Geary Street (for those of you in San Francisco) for his version of this utterly, elegantly simple dish. The secret is a happy chicken gently cooked; ginger-chile sauce with just the right balance of piquancy, sweetness, and heat; clear broth with a sprinkle of aromatics; and, of course, the right touch of chicken fat in the rice. Back to basics.

Mr. Chok rolls out dough while a customer fries his own snack.

At Hum Jin Pang (stall 28), 70-year old Lee Chok kneads and rolls dough while loyal customers wait up to an hour to fry their own crispy puffs. With only his daughter to help out and 25kg of flour a day to work through, Mr. Chok decided to let folks fry their own ham chen ping. These tasty treats are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Two versions—one infused with five-spice and the other filled with sweet red bean paste—have some customers frying well over 50 per order. They're S$1 per seven, an excellent price considering the entertainment added value.


May 20, Sunday morning

Moses' mother made me a batch of tau sen, a dessert of split mung beans eaten with crispy yow ja gwai, "oil stick" pastry. Tau sen, or "green bean," refers to the skin of unpolished mung beans. It was still warm when he delivered it. I ate the homemade treat for breakfast.


Still warm tau sen made by Mrs. Chua and kindly delivered to my flat by her Son No 2. Ever helpful Moses even included a little plastic soup spoon for me.

Sunday afternoon

I decided to dedicate today to Little India. It is, in fact, about as old world Singapore as you can honestly get. Many blocks are being renovated, but there's still a worn, dusty patina to the buildings and a vibrant feel to the neighborhood that hasn't been glossified. Yet.

The "five-foot" walkways of Serangoon Road, the main strip of Little India, are packed from shop to street with hawkers and bargain hunters.

Young south Indian men gather in groups wherever shade can be found, socializing and enjoying the scene on their one day off. Women shop for jewelry at gold stores, wedding sets lining the walls. Flower vendors string fresh marigolds, jasmine, and orchids into fragrant garlands.

On quieter Kerbau Street, the fine tile work of the walkway is visible.

A wedding had just begun when I arrived at the Hindu temple of Sri Veeramakaliamman, dedicated to the Goddess Kali.

The Tamil groom and Chinese bride were in full regalia. Surrounding me were women in saris of sapphire, vermilion, emerald, violet, azure, all shimmering with gold thread. With the insistence of the drumming, the weight of sari, jewels and flowers, the lack of moving air inside the temple, the many gestures required, and the general nervousness of such a special day, the bride and groom seemed to hold up quite well. Watching the ceremony, I wished that I understood the significance of the many rituals. The couple themselves were directed with not-so-discreet whispers and nudges, following their elders obediently.

Before entering Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, devotees crack open coconuts, symbolizing the breaking of egos to reveal a pure and kind inner awareness.

A few long blocks to the north lies the Sakya Muni Budha Gaya Temple, where one thousand lights flicker in a halo around the giant Buddha with every donation. The local Chinese community requested that a statue of Ganesha be installed in a corner just behind the Lord Buddha. As the remover of obstacles and dedicated to good food, the elephant-headed Hindu god appealed to the pragmatism of the Chinese. It doesn't hurt to hedge your bets.

Chinese worshippers offer cans of full cream to Ganesha.

My only mission today is to find and enjoy fish head curry. Race Course Road is home to several restaurants that specialize in this traditional dish. When I arrive at Muthu's Curry Restaurant, there is a line out front, with people waiting even in this heat to eat inside. The noontime sun is too much for me, even for fish head curry. So I head off to yet another of Little India's temples.

Candy of all kind sweeten the smiles of these child-gods.

It must be the 15th day of the lunar month, for at the Leong San Temple ("Dragon Mountain"), dedicated to Quen Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, the sound of chanting echoes out and down the street. I enter and make my way back gratefully to the coolness of the inner vestibule. Twelve nuns and six monks chant to the rhythm of drums and chimes. Behind them, in vast glass alcoves, red and gold markers rise floor to ceiling in memory of deceased monks.

Near the entrance of Leong San Temple, two diminutive statues clad in red silk sit atop a donation box. He He, or "box of harmony," symbolizes marital bliss and family harmony. Those who have recently quarreled with loved ones come with offerings. He He will help them resolve disagreements quickly and peacefully.

On Upper Dickson Road, I gazed into the curious office of a computer distributor. When the owner discovered my San Francisco ties, he revealed that he has been desperately trying to set up a link to the Bay Area. If any of you know where to find lots of used computer equipment ("any brand, any kind, broken or not broken") then please contact him at sindhaka@pacific.net.sg or fax (65) 295-3482. He needs two or three containers of CPUs, monitors, and disk drives shipped to Singapore every month for export to Jakarta, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Feel free to send contacts his way.

Neatly stacked monitors at Sindhaka Enterprise Pte. Ltd. await shipment.

At Zhujiao Centre (named "the foot of bamboo shoots" after the trees that once grew here) a wet market occupies the floor above a parking lot. It's still called K. K. Market by the locals, for the Kandong Kerbau Market that once occupied this plot. Malay for "cattle pen," kandong kerbau refers to the neighborhood's previous incarnation as a cattle-rearing and butchering area.

As I wandered the back aisles of the fish stalls, I'm glad my "Tropical Travel" pants were hemmed a little too short. But even here among the scales and fins, an assertive scent of mutton emanates from the halal meat vendors.

Exploring Zhujiao Centre

Muslim butchers chop and weigh hefty chunks of mutton. Just to their right sits a spice grinder, ready to mix a custom blend.

Coconuts are peeled and cracked in preparation for a fresh, fine grind.

Choose between conveniently picked or handily bundled rambutan fruit.

Yard-long "drumstick" vegetables imported all the way from southern India. They're sold from their box, to show the authenticating export label of Chennai.

With the lunch crowd finally waning and my head blurry from hunger and heat, I circled back toward Race Course Road, so famished that I imagined finishing up a cauldron of curry myself. Inside Muthu's at last, I settled at a cool, quiet table. The restaurant was almost empty, with only a playful family of six and an earnest couple to occupy the waiter. The cover of the menu showed a group of lovely, sari-clad ladies presenting a tray with a large, shining fish head to a beautiful, bejeweled, rather well-endowed young woman—the seductive powers of fish head curry unquestioned.

I ordered the requisite house special, a huge fish head swimming in thick, spicy sauce with tender "lady fingers" of okra. On a lark, I slipped in a plate of deep-fried fish eggs. And if one of you had been with me, I'd have tried the crabs from Sri Lanka and the mutton with cashews. As it was, I knew the curry, enough for two, would be a challenge to finish. While I waited, icy cold, mercifully unsweetened watermelon juice revived me. A boy brought me a cool, perfumed cloth. The food hadn't even arrived yet, but I already sensed that this would be the highlight of my day.

A clean banana leaf, a generous dollop of rice, cabbage with mustard seeds, spicy potatoes, crisp pappadum, and a big bowl of curry....my feast begins.

For one person, I did a good job on the fish head. The fried roe tasted like chicken nuggets, only drier and spicier. I left them, concentrating on getting to the second cheek of the fish—a red snapper I think—and the last okra pod. Finally mastering my fingertip skills, I managed to mix and scoop and eat with only my hand.

For a long time, I sat and enjoyed my full belly.


May 21, Monday morning

I call Mr. Peter Wee of the Katong Antique House, a noted expert on Peranakan history and culture. Mr. Wee is of Straits Chinese heritage himself, and his shop on East Coast Road is near the heart of the Malay community. My second important call is to Su Quek's mother. Su, a friend in San Francisco, always takes pictures of her food and her mother loves to cook. A family after my own heart.

The rest of the afternoon will be spent on more mundane tasks. Only my fifth day in Singapore, and already I have a long checklist of things to do.

Soon...a report on food courts, wine clubs, and the art of spooning noodles.


May 23, Wednesday night

I've been immersed in Peranakan Culture all day. This morning, I headed to the Katong Antique House, a little nervous about interviewing a noted expert on Peranakan history and culture. But by the end of the afternoon, I'd been recruited as a hair model for traditional hair pinning demonstrations (part of a museum festival this weekend at Bugis Junction). The Nyonyas traditionally wrapped their long hair tightly in a distinctive bun held in place with special pins and flower combs. With all the short, stylish haircuts in Singapore these days, Mr. Wee's been having a hard time finding heads with long locks for the demos. He's been practicing on a fake ponytail tied to one of his dining room chairs. I can't wait until he does the real thing with my hair, especially because he picked out a baju pajang long coat, batik sarong, and finely beaded kasot manek manek slippers from his own special collection for me to wear. I'll even sport big, sparkly earrings!

My quest later for Peranakan cuisine had me walking back and forth on River Valley Road until I finally realized the acclaimed "Nonya and Baba Restaurant" on my To Eat List was actually that noisy construction site with boarded up windows and a renovation notice. Fortunately, only fifty yards away, a half dozen "Comfort" taxi cabs were parked in front of an unassuming stall serving nasi padang, or Indonesian Muslim cooking. Walking as nonchalantly as I could past all the curious taxi drivers, I asked for a bowl of soto ayam. I had little idea what I was ordering and the woman knew it. Happily, she gave me a bowl of soft rice cake cubes in a golden broth with chicken shreds, bean sprouts, and a patty of ground meat and potatoes—all sprinkled with the ubiquitous fried shallots and chiles. Yum.

More Singapore >

May 2001