Not just a meal ...
by Larry Colen

20-21 jan 99

Singapore, where it's not just a meal it's an adventure.

Today was a long one. First of all this was my third new year in about as many months. First was Rosh Hashana, then Jan 1, and today was Hari Raya which is the Muslim New Year. In four weeks, it will be Chineses new year.

In the United States, most holidays are viewed as opportunities for retail businesses and restaurants to get extra business from everyone who has the day off. In Singapore most businesses, except those in the touristy parts of town, seem to close up on public holidays. I didn't really appreciate this until I arrived at the MRT station next to my dance class, about an hour before class, and very hungry. Despite it being in a rather downtown area, I had a hard time finding anyplace open. I had expected that if nothing else was open, I could grab a bite at Burger King. I was wrong.

Eventually I found a rather seedy looking cafe / karaoke bar. I figured that if all else failed, I could come back, it really did not pique any interest at the time. A few minutes later, I found a fairly nice looking buffet at the Copthorne hotel. At $24 (US$16), it was a bit pricey, but I had been having a hankering for a sitdown meal in a real restaurant.

Since it was before the dinner rush, I was quickly shown a table and pointed to the food. I grabbed a plate and the first thing I noticed was while these prawns, unlike the ones on my second night here, were indeed dead, they were also not cooked. Neither was any of the other food on that side of the buffet table. In addition to seafood they also offered beef, pork and chicken so I was pretty certain that I had not found a sashimi buffet. I figured that a means of getting the food cooked would become apparent, so I started collecting an assortment of items that seemed like they would go well together. When I started looking around for said means, the hot pot (or steamboat) of broth on my table was pointed out to me.

While I was attempting to patiently wait for the broth to come up to temperature so that I could cook my meal (what do they say about watched steam boats?), the busboy told me that there was food that was already cooked and that I should get some of that while I was waiting.

The dinner was quite tasty, and I intend to go back sometime, especially now that I know what to expect. It was not just the food that made the meal so memorable, but the whole adventure of it. To start out, I was hungry, under a time limit, in a strange part of town, in a country 8500 miles from home, and almost all of the restaurants were closed. Then I found myself in a restarant that was nice enough that even I realized that a certain level of decorum was expected, and I didn't even know how I was supposed to feed myself, much less being entirely sure what foods were supposed to go together, or for that matter which ones needed to be cooked rather than eaten as served. Another thing that I realized once my food was cooking was, perhaps due to my somewhat kosher upbringing, I had no idea of how to cook prawns. I am sufficiently lapsed about such things that if I am attacked with a plate of cooked prawns, I can, and will defend myself. But, I had never before cooked them and had no idea of how to tell when they were cooked.

In retrospect, I do have one bit of advice for other people, when in a restaurant in a foreign land and faced with food that they aren't sure how to turn into a meal. Ask. The staff really aren't going to taunt you and laugh as you collapse into a hypoglycemic heap on the floor. On the other hand, it was fun in it's own way to observe the other people and figure out the process for myself.

I did try one thing that I doubt that I will go out of my way to eat again. It looked like okra and I belive that it was called bitter gauht. It was not quite as bitter as I remember bitter melon to be, but did have the same sort of astrinent bitterness.

Last modified 01/23/98

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