Food Trials (Singapore)

Continuing my experiments with food in the city famous for its street food.

Did you know Singaporeans don’t cook at home? Not just in today’s age of the fast pace world, but from a few decades, when the hawkers from the roads were cleared and given spaces to create food courts which have now mushroomed all over the country. From the poor to rich everyone eats out. Though not exactly community kitchens, but serving the same purpose, there are food courts less than 500 mtrs away from any residential space, which offers all the local cuisine cooked fresh and hygienically.

So after trying to cook at home for a while, doing the dirty dishes, spending more than 3 hours everyday in a previously unknown territory, I decided to try out something more adventurous.

The first couple of trials in the local food courts which are usually found in cheap government housing areas, catering to locals who are primarily non vegetarians, I found myself completely clueless and sometimes driven away when I asked for “no meat, no fish” variety. Not that I had any sentimental issue in not trying non-veg dishes, but the odor of most non-veg stalls would keep me away. Finally, in a shopping mall food court I was treated with a few options which I could try. This is what my 4.8 dollar meal (cheapest till then) looked like.

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Well, I think they try hard to make their food look like non-veg. Nonetheless, I managed to eat this stuff and even like some of it. Though I haven’t returned back to this stall since then!

Next, it was turn to try out more “western” and “cosmopolitan” options easily available. Something less alien to the tongue.

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This is soup in a bread bowl. Very satisfying and filling. Now soup, wine and pasta became my staple diet.

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But, the local cuisines were still to be tried. So many times I had seen locals having a big bowl with all veggies, meat and noodles in a soup. And so many times, hungry and tired, I had to run past those stalls, afraid that I feel nauseated. Finally I got my chance to try a Singaporean cuisine in a vegetarian restaurant. Would you believe the dish below is a vegetarian item?

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As it turned out that the vegetarian option simply meant replacing all meat with meat-like tofu, I was quite disappointed. Who had thought, I would now have to develop taste for veg food too! :) Though the spices and flavor of the soupy stuff were pretty good, but the rawness of veggies and meat-like texture of soy, plus the spoon evading noodles made this meal one of the toughest I had ever have!

But the good thing is that experimenting days are only on weekdays. Weekends are for indulgence. And Singapore can indulge you in a very best manner! Every Saturday, I have to have this “to-die-for” french toast in a nearby al fresco cafe by the river. For those few hours I feel I am on a Paris street savoring the best meal of the week. :)

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Next on trail are Chinese veg cuisines, nasi lemak being on the top of the list. Keeping my fingers crossed! But for now, the weekend is near. ;)

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From bookstore to library

In my first month of living in Singapore, I found myself in midst of European neighbours who would laze around near the swimming pool in our condo with a book or kindle in their hands, fruits and drinks on the table nearby. They would read, swim, eat, sun bathe and basically spend the entire day outside. Inspired, I rushed to the nearest book store and got myself a book before I bought myself a pillow!

The nearest book store belongs to a chain of Japanese book stores, Konikuniya, widely popular in the city. Our neighbour has all Japanese speciality stores for books, groceries, beauty and wellness.  It turns out a lot of Europeans, Americans, Australians have Japanese spouses in this locality. Konikuniya has a huge collection of comic books. It reminded me of the comic book store frequently visited by characters of The Big Bang Theory, with so many comic book titles I had never heard of, many coming from Japanese/Korean origin. More than two-thirds of the store was dedicated to Japanese books. In the English section I could hardly found few favourite authors such as Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh and only 1-2 titles by them. It was otherwise filled with usual merchandise of Jeffery Archer, Sidney Sheldon likes. Wonder who reads them now! I asked the manager at desk to search a Wodehouse for me, and there was none. An Enid Blyton, it wasn’t there either. To think of it, this island wasn’t really a British colony. It was really a port influenced by other regions as much as Britain. Hence, why should I expect to find the favourite English authors of colonized India?

I decided to look in the “local” authors’ section. I looked for a book which can to some extent answer these questions I have about this country. Who are Singaporeans? What are their traditions? Their history? Their local customs? So I picked up the book which talked about a period just after Singapore got independent from Malaysia and was at the first step of becoming “developed”. The author of the book was called something of a “revolutionary”.

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Well, the book started off well with stories about two very different youths starting their careers on different paths: one pragmatic and another idealistic, with different visions of what their country needs. However, there is a lot of mention about the role religion (Christianity in this case) plays on the protagonist which I simply couldn’t relate to. I never thought Singaporeans to be religious people. Nonetheless, while reading the book I realized that at least a part of the youth at some time in their history, had exactly the same concerns regarding family approval, job security, development of their newly found country like we had/have. At one point, while reading the book I almost forgot that it was based out of Singapore and not India. I guess most of the countries which found freedom during the last 40-50 years would have faced the same concerns.

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I didn’t go back to the bookstore again, instead found myself a library nearby. There is reasonably priced annual membership if you wish to borrow books. However, they open their different floors for studying and browsing reference materials to absolutely anyone & completely free of charge! It is remarkable how the facility is spotlessly clean, with a great view of outside, free access to wifi, equipped with vending machines that throw out freshly toasted sandwiches and an open terrace with tree and benches. The best part about the library is that unlike any other library I have been to (only the college ones in India), this one has visitors who are actually interested in learning and I see them slogging hard on their notebooks and laptops.

My Experiments with Food

Food was one of the main aspect of life which I wanted to change when I changed the country. Among other things, last two months have been about experimenting with eateries, food courts, cooking, cheap and expensive dining options in a tiny country with more than 7000 Food & Beverage establishments. 

Robertson Quay

This is a quiet khau-galli adjacent to the river right across our home. All the restaurants have outdoor seating, mostly facing the river with food from all over the world. So you can choose from over 150 types of Belgium beer to along with spicy mussels, or watch a match while munching on wood-oven baked thick crust Australian pizza, take home delicious French bakeries, or quickly pass by the pungent smelling Japanese restaurant or simply have an Aglio Olio in one of the Italian joints. For me, the best experience was to try out mussels cooked in Italian sauce which tasted nothing like regular non-veg (read chicken). Born in a vegetarian family, developing a taste for non-vegetarian food actually means developing a taste for chewing. From this context, mussels were a welcomed change. They are not chewy, they can be cooked in spicy sauces and they are a fun to eat (you need to do more than just chewing).

(This is not my picture since with the food in front of me, I can barely think of a camera. All the pictures in this post are from google, expect from the last one.)

Clarke Quay

Well, Clarke Quay is my second choice of place to eat out in Singapore. It is my first choice of place for usual hang out in Singapore. Oh I just love the energy in this heaven of food, music, pubs, belly dancers, ice-cream-seller-cum-magicians, young n sexy people. When I am feeling really low, a walk to Clarke Quay is all I need to feel refreshed! 

The first meal I ever had in Clarke Quay was a pizza (thin crust) at Mad for Garlic which was completely out of this world. After that I have had Indian, Italian, Mexican, Kebabs, Lebanese, and well what is called Continental. I must say I loved the kebabs I had at Marrakesh. However, the high point in experimentation was trying out the grilled fish at TCC. I guess it was the first time I had grilled fish and am absolutely no connoisseur to be able to judge a good continental meal. However, the fish we had was absolutely amazing, fresh, soft, came with a sauce which went perfectly well with it. I am quite elated to have developed taste for different cuisines as I exchanged my order for mushroom and olive pasta with my husband’s order of grilled fish!

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Clarke Quay is a real fun place to spend your evening. You will get all the varieties of wine here, but god forsake, try and find a bowl of soup here! In a place with over 100 restaurants, there was none which can offer us a bowl of soup! 

 

The healthy vegetarian option

Well, when I came to Singapore I was pretty sure I would be able to quickly adapt to innumerable eating options available throughout the city and make a take out plan for myself which would include all healthy options. So I tried many different salad n soup bars. 

Soup spoon 

In the early days in the city, I had to ‘literally’ hunt for the food. Hunting in today’s jungle is hunting in the shopping malls of course. Soup spoon was the first stop. I would describe the place as “value for money”. Very filling, nice options, friendly staff and good taste. The only negative point is the seating arrangement which somehow gives you a feel of a prison. I generally don’t like eating alone in Singapore malls. People are glued to their smartphones and tablets and its a very gloomy environment. However, the take away option from this place is pretty expensive, almost doubling the price! 

Salad Stop!

I love salad. I crave for it. Hence there was no way that I would not have tried Salad Stop. Even if it meant reaching 2 mins before the ballet performance begins in Esplanade! I liked the idea of adding boiled kidney beans to the salad to enhance the protein factor. However, for amateurs like myself in the world of salad, having so many options in front of you to make a salad bowl, and to choose a sauce of your choice without having heard of any of them, it is quite a unnerving experience. If I had to make my own salad, I can do that in my kitchen! The whole idea of going to a restaurant is to get recommendations on what to eat and get pleasantly surprised! 

Among other new tastes on tongue, we tried ham on pizza, fried chicken, anchovies to quote a few. However, the most interesting taste was of the rolls (I like to call them vegetarian sushi) we tried in Bali. All I can say about the dish is, its different! 

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Singapore Diaries

In every personality test, which usually consists of predictable multiple choice questions, I answer that I seek change. I like disturbing the status quo. This claim was put to test recently. 

Living in a different culture/country/society was a dream for me from a long long time. I wasn’t sure if the experience would be good or bad, but I was always sure that it would teach me a lot. Various trips to different countries have taught me a lot, have influenced my priorities quite a bit. Hence, shifting to Singapore was a welcomed change, if nothing else, then for the adventure it would be!  

We packed two suitcases each and moved here. The status quo changed. In every possible sense. Except for a very important aspect that it happened for two of us together. Every change brings with it a progression of crossroads, plenty of chances to make decisions – both wrong and right, plenty of opportunities to try new bold things and plenty of escape routes to quickly find comfort in old familiar things. Every change takes you away from the loved ones who once knew the way you were before and at the same time closer to those who understand the changes that happened to you. 

Now that I am in midst of being both overwhelmed by the new opportunities this country has to offer me and at the same time having created a tiny space of comfort around myself, I begin to write this post. 

Let me start with describing an experience which was truly great in every aspect. The Swan Lake by Bolshoi Ballet. 

(Photo courtsey: http://www.dansfestival.com/series/2013/swan-lake-by-bolshoi-ballet/)

Watching a Russian ballet was a dream since I was a little girl and had watched a lot of movies including Nutcracker on TV. The grace, the beauty, the defiance of physics laws, and above all the captivating music. It was all magical. I always searched for such a performance on our trips to Europe. Never could see one. And my first week in Singapore, I found this event was coming up!! Imagine my joy when I realized I could finally watch a performance of life time, and imagine my disappointment when I realized all the shows are completely booked.  However, it was our anniversary luck and the universe conspired for us to be able to watch the most amazing show ever! 

This was probably the best the city could have offered me. There were many experiences which left me enriched. From figuring out where to eat, where to buy groceries from, how to travel around the city, getting sim card for phone, finding agents for house hunting, getting prepaid internet access on laptop to finding out groups and like minded people to hike with, dance with, spend time with. When you are new in a city, you tend to seek suggestions from the more experienced ones. That is what we find ourselves doing most of the times. And then end up not following them! 

The excitement of figuring out new things and getting things done kind of compensates the uneasiness a new place gives you. For me, its not the architecture or the cleanliness which makes a city great or bad. Its the people and their friendliness. In the initial few days here I felt a strong sense of unfriendliness in the city. Like a taxi driver shooing you off from his taxi. People in the food court hurrying you to decide your order. Not a person on the road to ask the directions from. Maybe it was the language or something else, but there was coldness in the attitude of people. It stuck me most when everyone in public transport would be glued to their smartphones and tablets, busy watching videos. This was so opposite to Europe where people acknowledge each other on road and definitely in the public transport. Where saying “hello” to strangers is the norm. I was highly disappointed when I realized that this city treats both strangers and neighbors as strangers. This is a challenge which I still haven’t figured out yet. However, I realize this city consists of self-pitying locals for whom expats are a threat, and expats for whom the city is a temporary transit station. Tough combo to create great culture! 

But this is just a beginning and I still have a lot to learn. In these last 30 days I am reminded of this very true proverb: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”!

 

Dancing away..

Don’t have time to write a detailed blog about this experience – which I have to do one of these days. But just so that I capture this one of the most important experiences of my life on my blog, I need to jot down a few lines about it.

I started learning Bharatnatyam from the second week of my coming to Ahmedabad. Learning this particular dance form is something I have always pined for. I used to dream of dancing on stage beautifully at a time when my kids can be in the audience – that means I always thought I would do this when I am more settled with loads of time on hand. But around an year back, thanks to Mumbai life, I began to lose faith in my body. I used to look at the dance and felt that I can never do this. It required too much flexibility.

It feels so wonderful when you are proved wrong about something negative you had imagined about yourself! Thats exactly how I feel right now. My calf muscles, thigh muscles all are tighter.. with lot of flab ‘danced away’! Obviously I am and have been in a LOT OF PAIN. It almost feels like that mountain we used to climb.. wishing the trek would get over sooooooon. Only here you feel like this over an extended period of time – not for just a day or two of trek!
But today in the class, when I was starting to get mad at the teacher for teaching us at such a fast pace and making us move on and on without a pause and a rest, he suddenly declared, we will finish year-1 steps by May. I was like woah! Really? I have heard people learn dance for like 7-8 years.. I am gonna finish one milestone so soon! And I sworn to myself that by eow (end of the week) I will for surely master all the steps I have been taught so far. Which probably means getting a pseudo master outside classroom – but I think I can manage. Its a ‘high’ feeling which can drive a person to any extend. I hope to preserve this feeling for long! Its really intoxicating!

:)

Need of a vacation

I finally did it today. Stepped over my weakness to get fast respite for stress, loneliness, acute need to talk to someone, basically the-end-of-the-day syndrome. First of all, I can’t switch on the TV. A friend is trying to write up a 40% weightage assignment. Secondly, I m too tired to get up from the floor to go to the next room to call up shoulders-to-cry-on. Thirdly, I am now >1.75 yrs old in the company. Hence, the office work can wait. Still out of 5 tabs, 3 are work-related. puh!

Thank to the lord, I am finally writing today.

On my favourite topic.

The colleague who sits next to me, usually had her headphones on and occasionally sings along today was watching me carefully when she asked me what was it that I was singing. And I told her sheepishly, its the title song of The Sound of Music. I had spent at least 2 hrs searching for a “hill station” near Mumbai. There is none. I have finally found the last and final reason to dislike this city. Its too far from Himalayas. Actually Western Ghats are very pretty. In fact when I went to Kashmir right after going to 3-4 treks near Mumbai in monsoons, I couldn’t appreciate the so-called paradise on earth. But after running through their lives Mumbaikars don’t know how to relax. Their vacations are also a chase to the top. Also, fortunately or unfortunately they completely erased all colonial signs (if there were any). So there aren’t any gorgeous churches like the one in Shimla, or dak bunglows like the one in Dalhousie, or queen of lakes like Nanital. There are just lots and lots and lots of Shivaji’s forts! Too much violence if you ask me!

I have nothing against treks. But don’t you sometimes just want to wander off in hills with no destination in mind. Just to go where your feet take you. Where a bright sunshine greets you along with chilly winds. You don’t have to soak to death to have fun! You don’t need to carefully take your next step on the moss-laden-steps. You can just run freely on the fresh green grass. You don’t have to find spaces to be able to walk with your group, because there are around 5-6 other groups each with at least 20 members! Where you can buy a few trinkets to carry home, which you know you would never wear but would love to add to your junk box. The junk box that has  all such souvenirs. The necklace from Goa, the earrings from Rishikesh, some-junk from Manali (which I don’t even know how to describe).

Yes, people blame the north that it is too commercialized. What they don’t understand is that North Indians love that! In north, people just love to travel the easy way. Travelling means to sit back and do nothing. At the max it means driving down to your favourite spot. But mostly, it just means putting on weight! Why, walking half a km means you treat yourself to either hot maggi or a softy cone. Or you can take a novel and sit in a cafe, order snacks, enjoy the view and your book. This is what you do for vacation. For “adventure” you trek. Even rafting, where you hardly row is counted under “adventure”. But I love those old labels. It gives such a lift to anything mundane such as a walk also! Walk 5 kms, bhai trek ho gaya! Bahut mehnat ker li! But the point is, after bahut mehnat you relax like a king. The good part is, you are treated like a king! You don’t have to satisfy your hunger on kanda-bhujiya, you can nibble on paneer pakore, gobhi pakore, mirchi pakore.. while playing cards late into the night. You don’t see horse shit on streets, because there are plenty of forests for horses to disappear into. Yes, there won’t be many waterfalls to jump into. But you wouldn’t like to get soaked either. The temperature can dip quite low, you want to keep the heat in your body. Then of course, there would always be those ever-white mountain peaks. There would always be the murmur of river audible only deep in the night.

Yes, yes I am on the memory trip again. But I would definitely make a real trip too in the Northern mountains. Thanks to the folks at home – they are shifting back to Delhi!

How am I gonna be wed

All those who know me a bit, know how I despise Indian traditional weddings. All those who know me well, know how much I am scared of getting married in that style. One thing is for sure, if I am gonna get married before 30, it will be in this year. So I have start changing my opinion sooner or later. As in, I have to do something about this fear factor. The mantra “darr ke aage jeet hai” doesn’t work here. Coz those who know me at all, know I despise the patriarchal structure which is embedded in our society deep within. So life after marriage – nah! thats not a piece of cake either!

Well, I have decided to take it step by step. I will only focus on “how my wedding is gonna be” to start with. Later part will be handled after this big hurdle is cleared. Thanks to Vidula, my colleague at work place who is also a youtube addict, I stumbled upon this video – Jill and Kevin wedding dance. Please take a look for I am sure you would not have seen something like this before!

I am so inspired by this video that I am not scared of weddings anymore! I got an idea now! I know, even if I have to get married in typical North Indian style, I would make my own space in the whole drama and have fun! This is my plan –

1. I would not take part in any other ceremony except that which takes place on wedding night. (Mehndi etc would be a household affair.)

2. For wedding night – there are two main things in North Indian weddings – first you have varmala (which is just something we have adapted from Kshtriya weddings/swayamvars – maybe to add pomp and style like they have had). There you have the bride coming to the stage where groom is waiting, with a garland in her hand. If you have seen the video above, you can guess what my plan is! :) Add the masala from Dev-D and you know exactly how it is gonna look like! Song abhi tak decided nahi hai – but no matter what, I am gonna dance my soul away on the way to stage.

3. After we exchange our garlands, I am gonna say my vows in my language on the stage (with a mic attached to me – would like everyone to witness – especially if they have cared enough to come to the wedding). I seriously can’t get married without even making any promises which I really mean. I mean isn’t marriage just a big promise? I can’t imagine a wedding where a pandit dictates me what to say to my future husband!! But a girl’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. So I will make my peace with the pandit if I have to. However, this will be my only wedding (hopefully!). So I will also say my vows written by mean and something which I really really mean. Hope my groom says his vows too! If he doesn’t – I would be prepared to say his vows too! :D Sometimes there are no choices… you gotta do everything by yourself!

4. After we have taken our vows – the bride is gonna kiss the groom! And I will pronounce us – husband and wife (though not publically yet!) After that I am gonna proceed to the most lavish dinner of my life. I am surely not gonna sit like a monkey on stage. So I have decided to wear a designer saree for varmala. So that I can easily roam around in the crowd – and of course eat a lot. I have decided to taste each and every item in my wedding. I have always attended weddings in which bride and groom never get to real enjoy their first meal together! That’s not gonna happen in my case for sure.

5. Since it would be a traditional wedding, most likely the phere ceremony would be fixed for some obscenely early morning hour. So I have decided to take a nap between the dinner and the early hour rituals. Also the phere wali saree would be a traditional one. Since I have sit for a while the traditional stuff would be a better choice. So basically my wedding would be 2 days and 1 night long. It would start in evening. Then you take a nap break. Wake up really early like you do when you have to catch an early morning flight. Rush to the phere (airport). Take the flight (do the phere). And reach the destination (say goodbye to folks) and whoa! You are done! You reach office – or whatever the next plan is.

Now I don’t feel that scary at all! It would be like just another catch a flight after an awesome previous night party. Now the issue is – how am I gonna survive the office!!! :D

Surbhi

She died few years back. I don’t keep track of time passed in this while. Had always told myself she is still alive. Only I have lost touch with her. Like with many other ….

But these days whenever I feel lonely, her face comes to my mind. I don’t know why. And it forces me to accept the fact that she has ceased to live. Though I still can’t say that she is dead. She is very much alive in my mind. Nevertheless, I know Surbhi is not there any more – she is not studying nor working, she doesnt have a boyfriend or a husband, she is not ill or well, she is not going to grow old, she doesnt have any remorses nor any memories.. she is herself a memory… 

I miss her a lot. 

She was one of my best friends. An amazing person. Full of energy, curiosity, enthusiasm and love. 

She threw the best party ever thrown for me.

We talked for hours the days we spent together trying to study for competitive exams! I found out so many things about myself while talking to her. She was the first one to ask me sincerely about my dreams. What I wanted to do in life. Sounds very trivial now when it has become a cliched topic. But in teenage, it means a lot to dream.

I just wish I could meet her once again. Just once more to bid good bye.