Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The Great Wall and More

We left Shanghai, a vibrant, twitchy city sporting both imperial architecture from the early 20th century and provocative new skyscrapers from the 21st, with the iconic Pearl Tower as an unmistakable exclamation point.  At 23 million, it’s China’s largest city, with 6,000 people per square kilometer (New York has only 1,800 but Singapore is twice as dense at 11,100).

When we arrived in Beijing on the bullet train, we saw a slightly dowdy city (only 17 million, 5,000 per km/sq), a little run down, maybe even a little down on its luck. Not as clean as Singapore, not as stylish as Shanghai, not as noisy as New York.  And under grey skies.  Maybe it was just the weather system – probably not – but the sky was grey and low all the way from Shanghai to Beijing. It wasn’t yellow like Los Angeles, but it didn’t smell good or feel good in the throat, either.

After we arrived and unpacked, we met Sam, our new Beijing guide, for a trip to the roasted duck restaurant for Peking duck in Peking.  As we passed to our table, we saw a chef using a long stick to hang dozens of raw prepared ducks in a big oven with a big fire.  When they came out, they shone a beautiful deep golden brown.Image

The first challenge of ordering a Chinese dinner is deciding on the dishes.  Meats, cold dishes, hot dishes, dim sum, soup, variety, contrast, quantity, likes, dislikes, things to reject on principle (no snake, no intestines) all have to be considered.  And the menu is typically a book that has to be browsed front to back and again to understand the range of choices. What we invariably discover is that no matter what group, a group decision is just impossible.  Someone has to play the host, order for the group, and hope that it all works out.  In this case, even though we were only three (Nancy, Sam the Guide, and me), the rule held. Sam played host, but only until the check came, when it became my turn.  Dinner was: a duck, of course; a cold dish – needle mushrooms; two hot dishes – Chinese broccoli with tree fungus, and pumpkin with lily; rice – the one invariant for a Chinese dinner; and a bottle of Great Wall cabernet sauvignon, which, contrary to all reasonable expectations, worked out just fine.  Good, but Nancy and I agreed that we’d had better Peking duck years ago in Atlanta.

The next morning’s sky was grey and cheerless with a threat of rain.  Our driver and Sam picked us up to drive out of the city to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After an hour of passing through Beijing’s first through sixth circles (beltways, but might be described as circles of hell), we passed through countryside and finally stood at the foot of a steep hill of hawker stalls.  Everyone wanted to sell us a tee shirt and every other souvenir we wished for “only one dollar.” As we worked our way up the path, the rain started.  Slowly at first, but soon falling quite steadily.  Never mind, this might be our only chance to see the Wall, this section constructed in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, and renovated in the mid-1980s.  This section stands along the ridge of a very steep hill, so we rode a modern cable car to get to it. A twisting pathway, a climb up steep steps and then …

… we finally stepped, out of breath but thrilled, onto the Great Wall of China.

Now the rain turned into a steady downpour, with our small umbrellas becoming ever less effective.

While not entirely treacherous in the rain, the walking path on the wall rises and falls sharply; the steps are uneven with tiny tops, huge risers, and no hand rails in the most problematic sections.  We hiked to the first watchtower.  A cloud settled over the hill, so we could see only a short section of the Wall at a time.  I thought it was going to be a disaster for pictures, but, with the Wall going on and on into the cloud, some of them turned out to be quite atmospheric.

The rain fell harder, but we hiked on the to next watch tower.  The wall was strangely quiet in the rain—few tourists.  By now, my shirt was wet  More rain, more refuge in the maze of mall rooms in watchtowers, more steps with 12-inch rises, more wet clothes. By the fifth or sixth watchtower, we were pretty well soaked, but not miserable because the rain was not cold, and standing where centuries of ancient warriors had defended the empire was enthralling.

Although we wanted to walk the mile to the end of this section, the rain cloud kept us from seeing any of the surrounding countryside, and after about 45 minutes, we turned back.  Most other visitors had done so as well; very few people remained on the Wall as we headed to the cable car for the trip down.  It was disappointment in the sense that we couldn’t see the whole, long, magnificent wall wind its way into the far horizon, nor could we see the forest that stretches toward the distant and once hostile plains.  On the other hand, most tourists had stayed away, and pictures of the Wall with no people are quite unusual.

We ran the gauntlet of hawkers on the way down, jumped into the car, and drove a little way down the mountain to a restaurant where, some time ago, a collection of heads of state ate dinner.  We thought that might mean over-priced and under-valued, but our roast fish (butterflied rainbow trout with a spicy dry rub roasted in an oven hot enough to crisp the skin), celery with lily, green beans with minced beef, and squash with lily was delightful and reasonable.  We said that this was a California Chinese dinner – a little meat and a lot of vegetables; Sam said that Chinese people typically do not eat much meat at a meal.

Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, Nancy asked Sam about a representative “Beijing” souvenir – I guess the hawkers had gotten her thinking.

“Silk, jade, and cloisonné,” he said, “but this is not a good place for jade.”

We’d already gotten silk in Shanghai, so off we went to the cloisonné factory. We stopped at a government-owned factory, a dozen and a half small rooms built around an antiquated central courtyard.  It looked like it had been built in the early 20th century and had not seen any refurbishment since then.

We watched artisans of each of the major cloisonné construction steps (except for the final glazing steps which we were told is secret), Wired, painted designs undergo weeks of preparation, layer after layer, before the objects are lowered into gas-flamed pits to be fired seven times.  Before the 1970s, the pits held coal fires.  We learned that all these craftsmen are now subsidized by the government to keep cloisonné making alive.   The work is tedious and only a few people older people still know and practice the art.

We ended at the showroom, of course, and saw a mixture of antique and new pieces—large and small.  It took a while to find our treasure, but we finally managed to provide some support to the Chinese artisan economy.


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Although the light was dimming into evening, the air was still sultry.  I walked around the corner to check on the tailor’s progress.  The Thai tailor worked differently from the Hong Kong tailor.  It was not a fitting suit that was ready for me, but the body of the actual jacket, cut from a piece of beautiful, deep blue silk with an elegant shimmer in the light.  Beau Brummel indeed!  I am truly getting spoiled (but at a price that is about the same, maybe a little less, than the typical department store price for an off-the-rack, medium quality, wool jacket.) It was a short visit, and the pins were soon set and the chalk marks done.

Anxious to find some treasures to bring home, I was off for more shopping.  Back into a tuk-tuk to race through the streets, this time to the famous Chiang Mai night market, where you can find everything from cheesy souvenirs to cheap clothes to interesting local crafts to antique (well, maybe antique, maybe “antique”) art.  And you can get your portrait painted too, if you have a bit of patience. The shops I visited had some quietly beautiful Buddhas, whether true antiques or not, but they were out of my price range, and they’d probably have to be smuggled out of Thailand anyway. (Happily, the prices kept me from being tempted to work out the transportation arrangements.) Nevertheless, there were some reproductions from Chiang Mai factories that caught my eye at a price I had budgeted.  I tried to remember and compare with what I had seen earlier in the afternoon and think how those pieces had compared in beauty and value.  Wandering through more shops, I found one with figures that were more contemporary  – very appealing, including some (not Buddhas) that I was sure would appeal to Nancy as being beautiful, unique, and precisely representative of the Thailand she remembers.

As the hour got later, the traffic diminished, so the tuk-tuk back to the hotel was a little speedier and slightly less nerve-wracking.  No problem, easy-peasy.  It doesn’t take long to become blasé.

View from the back of a tuk-tuk

But it was late and I hadn’t had dinner yet.  Restaurants in Chiang Mai don’t close early, but they don’t stay open really late, either, so I needed to figure out something soon.  Across the street from the hotel is a little restaurant, open-air, about a dozen tables, called “Thais That Bind”.  The first time I saw it, I dismissed it as a place with at cute but kitschy name; now, I was hungry and convenience was king. I crossed the street and sat down at a table. There was a light evening breeze so the air wasn’t as close as it had been earlier.  There were good aromas wafting from the kitchen and I felt hungry. Dinner was a spicy papaya and shrimp salad, a bowl of red curry, a dish of steamed rice, and a big bottle of Thai beer (Singha), for just about $10 US – an amazing bargain.  In Singapore, the beer alone would cost that much or more. All that and the staff was friendly and the service good.

Papaya salad was a surprise,but a good one.  I’ve never before had a salad that left my mouth and lips tingling for 10 minutes afterward.  Different from anything Western, and very Thai. After I finished the very good red curry, I was working on the last of the beer when there was a tap-tap-tap on the awning over the tables.  I looked up, wondering. The tap-tap quickly turned into a rat-a-tat-tat and then the rain poured down fast and furious. Although the hotel was just across the street, it was a soaking rain, and it threatened to last a lot longer than five minutes.  As I sat, looking a little lost and a little bewildered and wondered what I was going to do and how wet I would get, the restaurant owner offered an umbrella.

“Bring it back whenever you want,” she said.

Contrary to Japan, where a Westerner speaking a few words of Japanese is so unexpected that it’s funny, and unlike China, where a Westerner speaking a few words of Chinese is so unexpected that it’s not even heard, in Thailand, a few words of Thai, together with a smile and a wai, are taken for granted.  Offer a few words, and you’ll get a smile and maybe a little help with your accent.

“Bring it back whenever you want.”

“Kawp khun khrap,” I gratefully accepted

“Yindee kha.”

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A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to Mustafa’s in Little India.

The Mustafa Centre is an institution in Singapore. Begun in 1971 by Mustaq Ahmad as a small shop selling clothes, it moved to a larger space in a 900 square foot shophouse on Serangoon road,  but moved to Serangoon Plaza when the government acquired the Serangoon shophouses for conservation. When 40,000 square feet in Serangoon Plaza Serangoon Plazastarted to get crowded, Ahmad took over the shophouses on the adjoining Syed Alwi RoadSyed Alwi Road shophouses to create a total of  150,000 square feet of shopping displays, four floors, open 24 hours a day, with over 1200 employees. Bigger than Costco, bigger than Sam’s club.

Everybody in Singapore knows about Mustafa’s.  Groceries, clothes, jewelry, house wares, garden wares, car accessories, books, and who knows what else is on offer at Mustafa’s.  Take your choices to any of the cashier’s that are scattered throughout the store – literally throughout, not just at the exits – and they’ll take your money, put your purchase in a plastic bag, and close it securely with a zip tie.  You can buy things as you find them, or you can take everything to one cashier.

That is what Nancy and I wanted to explore one Sunday.  What we didn’t know is that on Sunday afternoon, the streets around Mustafa are packed, packed, packed with Indian construction workers who are doing their shopping and meeting their friends on their day off.  Dense crowd, all young men, shoulder to shoulder, visiting with each other, enjoying someplace other than a building site.  Nancy immediately noticed that there was no fair complexion, no blonde hair to be seen.  No other women, either.  Her grip on my arm tightened.

It was something of a push, shove, fight to get to the front door of the center.  Once inside, we found a warren of narrow paths through tall shelves and plenty of people wandering along.  It was difficult to explain what we were looking for – a dehumidifier – but we eventually discovered them (and decided they were too expensive for now).  We bought a few necessities (toothpaste) and experiments (pre-packaged spice for chicken masala) and then confronted the thought of trying to get out again.  Eventually, we decided to have dinner – quite a good curry – at the rooftop restaurant and hope that the crowd would dissipate in the meantime.  It did, but only a little, and Nancy decided that she did not need to go to Mustafa’s again.  Ever.

Would it be as bad on a Saturday morning? I decided to give it a try while Nancy is on a home visit.  No crowds – the construction workers are still busily building a new Singapore on Saturdays – but the same warren of paths, the same difficulty in trying to find anything.  I left with the decision that Mustafa’s is manageable, just, but maybe not worth the effort.

Leaving at lunch time, and being in Little India, I decided to have lunch there. Syed Alwi Road is packed with little restaurants across from Mustafa, and the street is packed with cars, and the sidewalk is full of vendors’ wares.  Walking requires some agility in moving from the covered sidewalk (out of the sun and the rain), down a steep step to the roadside, and sometimes out through the stalled traffic.  A little bit of Third World in Singapore. For no particular reason, I chose a restaurant and ordered the North Indian Platter:


It turned out to be vegetarian: a lightly curried paneer (a cottage cheese-like product, with the shape and consistency of tofu chunks) , some very nicely spiced kidney beans, some very nicely spiced potatoes, rice with herbs, a bowl of raita (yoghurt), a papadum (crisp), a nice bowl of naan, and a big slice of raw onion.  The top right compartment has one gulab jamun (deep fried fritter soaked in sugar syrup). Pretty good, but all carbs – not exactly Dr. Atkins friendly. My tray and a bottle of water set me back $9.10 (Sing) – a little more than hawker center prices, but I got some atmosphere with my lunch:

Vegetarian restaurant in Little India

And what did I bring home from this trip to Mustafa?  I found some tea and some warm-and-eat packaged Indian side dishes. And another Singapore adventure.

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Dinner in Tokyo

“Good evening.”

I walked up to the reception desk at the Imperial Tokyo and used my best, profoundly limited, Japanese, “Konichi wa.” The young woman at the desk, uniform crisp, hair very precise, looked up, smiled shyly, and giggled.  Apparently a foreigner with a bit of Japanese is quite amusing.  Or, I didn’t say “hello” as intended but made a slightly suggestive offer.

The night was cold, and an occasional gust of chilling wind said, “Get inside quickly.”  Life in tropical Singapore needs no winter clothing, and I had not brought any from the U.S.

Around the corner from the hotel, a long row of small, local restaurants sits under the train tracks.  After some searching, I found one that I’d visited on an earlier trip.  Small and friendly, serving  yakitori – small chunks of meat on a bamboo skewer, grilled over an indoor charcoal fire, minutely tended by the chef.  It’s a little like satay, without the peanut sauce.  I asked about dinner for one.  After a quick consultation amongst the various servers,  one said, “reservation.”  Unfortunately, the place was too full to squeeze me in, which put me back on the street to continue my search.

Many of the restaurants had signboards with pictures of the dishes available, but the names and descriptions were in Japanese.  Helpful, not informative, but at least I could get a hint of what was available.  I picked a place, based on a picture that looked appealing:  some kind of meat stew with an egg on top. The door had a sign that said “Enter” in English, and it slid open so noisily that I was sure my entrance was loudly announced to . . . a completely empty room. A long, U-shaped counter backed into a kitchen. Mushroom stools , seating maybe a dozen or 15 people, were spaced regularly along the counter.  All empty.  No customers.  No one to greet me.  I wondered if I had walked into the suspense scene of a science-fiction movie. But it was a clean, well-lighted place, and I decided to stay to see what would happen.

After an uncomfortable, 20-second wait, I was greeted in Japanese.  Since I obviously didn’t understand the system, I was pointed to the vending machine behind my back.   My greeter explained how things worked, but his explanation went well beyond my command of “hello,” “thank you,” and “yes,” so I had to work out a Sherlock Holmesian deduction:  put money in the machine, select the desired dish, and it would be delivered automat-style. No, Watson, it couldn’t work that way.

In fact, it didn’t matter very much, because the machine had no pictures, and I read even less Japanese than I speak.  (I might be able to recognize the sign for “man” in just one of the three scripts, which might be useful when searching for a rest room.)

The greeter spoke no English.

“Help, please?”

I pointed to a couple of pictures on the wall chart opposite the vending machine. He gestured to the slot in the machine that takes money. I did a quick mental calculation and hoped that 1000 yen would be enough. Money inserted and accepted, he punched several buttons on the machine.  The machine printed two tickets and dropped them into the tray along with several coins.  Elementary. The greeter took the tickets, scooped up the change and gave it to me (for which I held out two hands), and took the tickets into the kitchen.  I sat down to wait and wonder what I ordered.

Soon he re-appeared with a bowl of soup, full of noodles, very thinly sliced meat, and an egg – a raw egg, in the shell, sitting in its own small bowl. After a quick moment of consternation, I mimed breaking the egg into the soup.  “Hai,” he said.  Yes.  And returned to the kitchen.  The soup was a very dark, rich beef soup, full of spaghetti-like noodles, covered with a finely chopped green herb ( I’d guess parsley, but it’s Japan and everything is different), and, now, a raw egg swimming in it. To eat, I had chopsticks and a ladle-like spoon with a long handle and a very flat bowl.  I could handle the noodles with the chopsticks just fine, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the ladle.

A couple of men walked in from the street, bought their tickets, sat down, and handed them over. They knew the system. It was their dinner time, and they were hungry.  And now I really didn’t want to embarrass myself with the mysterious spoon. By chance and good fortune, one of them ordered something that came with the same spoon.  I continued to work my noodles but watched surreptitiously.  Chopsticks in one hand, ladle in the other, the man dug in, slurping soup out of the spoon with gusto.  I joined in.  Just a couple of men in Tokyo, slurping their soup from the vending machine.

By now, my gyoza had also been delivered.  I don’t know whether they had a meat or vegetable filling, but they were warm and good. My soup was hearty, warming, and filling.  When I finished, I walked back to the kitchen, rubbed my stomach in what I hoped is the universal gesture of “mmm … mmm … good,” smiled, and used my other word.

“Arigato.”  Thank you.  Big smiles from the waiter and the cook.  The foreigner might be ok after all.

Outside, the wind was blowing cold, and an icy snow started to fall.

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Sunday is generally our day to restock the pantry.  We alternate between the big store called Carrefour (here called a “hypermart” because, in addition to groceries, it has all kinds of other things – clothes, electronics, small appliances, cookware, etc., etc., etc. – vaguely like a Walmart) and a smaller grocery store in a nearby mall. Today, it was our turn to visit Carrefour.

Singapore has two Carrefours.  One is in Plaza Singapura, which is a big mall.  The other is in Suntec City, a giant mall spread across four or five or six – it’s easy to lose count – giant towers.  And today, we decided to visit the Suntec Carrefour for the first time.  By the time we got there, it was way past lunch time, so finding something to eat was our first order of business.  Food in Singapore is sometimes a bit of a contradiction.  Places to eat are literally everywhere.  But it can sometimes be tricky to find one – especially a specific kind – when you want it.

Happily for us, the Suntec hawker center was the first thing we encountered.

“Is this all Asian food? Does everything have rice or noodles?” Nancy asked. We hadn’t had the best luck ordering lunch at yesterday’s restaurant.  Hong Kong style curry, with a big mound of rice.  Plain rice isn’t her favorite (“I’m avoiding useless carbs”), and the curry was spicier than normal. At the hawker center food stalls, it is all Asian, ranging from Chinese through Indian and  Vietnamese to Singaporean and on to Malaysian, Indonesian, and Phillipino.  All including rice or noodles, with just a few exceptions: kaya toast.  Prata – a Singaporean / Indian crepe, sometimes served with a bowl of curry sauce for breakfast.  Chinese steamed dumplings.

We settled on a lunch of roast duck breast with soup, long thin noodles (for long life!), and a stem of lightly cooked yu choi.  Delicious and only S$10 apiece.  We took chopsticks but no forks.  I could only see metal, western spoons to use for the soup.  While I was standing in line at the drinks stall, Mr. Duck came out with Chinese spoons and took away the western spoons we had.  He wanted us to enjoy his cooking with the proper utensils!

Fortified with lunch, we continued our quest to find the giant Carrefour.

In the last few weeks, Nancy has come to the conclusion that we need a vacuum.  Mopping the floors with a swifter – even a wet swifter – just wasn’t doing the job.  So job one at Carrefour was to find the vacuums.  They’re different from those we’re used to seeing.  No stand-up, tilt handle, Dyson power, miles and miles of cord, vacuums here.  They’re almost all tiny canisters that roll behind you on two big wheels.  They’re rated in watts: 1600, 1800, 2000, 2100.  More watts, more powerful motor, better dirt sucking.  We looked for a good half hour, then got some attention from a very helpful clerk.  She demonstrated the way these vacuums work (and she was probably thinking, what’s wrong with these foreigners?  Haven’t they ever seen a vacuum cleaner?  And why don’t they have their maid with them anyway???)

We came home with our groceries, a couple bottles of wine, and a brand new French- made vacuum (don’t get the other model; it’s made in China – yes, that’s exactly what our Chinese clerk said).  When it’s turned on, it sounds like a small jet plane winding up for takeoff. But it’s a glorious red (not disgusting purple like on the box) – a lucky color for Chinese New Year and for all the year!

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Chinese New Year 101

This morning I went to more cultural training—Lo Hei Traditions—in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year while Mike winged his way to Hong Kong.

Because eighty percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, CNY is huge here—15 days of organized celebrations, including two public holidays.  As soon as Christmas decorations come down (Jan 2), CNY banners and lights start going up.

To prepare for the holidays, Chinese people do spring cleaning, buy special foods, and decorate with distinctive plants like tinted pussy willows, yellow chrysanthemums, and fully-fruited kumquat trees (sometimes going for S$800-1200!).  They decorate door frames with red banners and hang a pair of pineapple lanterns on either side.  Special foods include black moss seaweed, dried oysters, whole fish, abalone, and hog knuckles or trotters.  All of these items and colors—especially red and gold—hold symbolic meanings:  generally prosperity, wealth, and good luck.  Red is especially auspicious because it also keeps away demons, so we’ve seen red lanterns hanging from trees, over streets, and in malls all over the city.

Then there’s the gift giving.  If we visit Chinese friends during these holidays, we’re supposed to bring oranges for good luck (preferably easy-peel, tangerine style)—but only in even numbers (two or six, but not four, which is unlucky.)  When we leave, they will give us oranges back!  Yes, I do think that people just check their supply of gift oranges in the kitchen and just swap them around.

Another great tradition is favored by children:  Married people must give red envelopes with cash to all unmarried persons (good luck, prosperity again).  You give more to your own children plus nieces and nephews and parents, but even a few dollars to each unmarried family friend—yes, even 30 and 40 year olds—along with a gentle nudge . . . “and when will you be getting married?”  A young Christmas dinner guest had told us that she collects several hundred dollars each year.  Other Chinese parents have said the red envelopes can cost them up to to S$1000 each year!

Finally we got to the “Lo Hei Tradition” part (tossing up good fortune), and this involved eating!  On the 7th day of CNY, the family or party group jointly tosses a big salad of 10 special ingredients, each with symbolic meanings:

  1. raw fish = abundance throughout the year
  2. pomelo (like grapefruit) = good luck and smooth sailing
  3. pepper = attract wealth and treasures
  4. oil = make 10xs profit with capital
  5. carrots = good luck is approaching
  6. green radish = stay forever young
  7. white radish = reach higher level with each step
  8. peanut crumbs = household filled with gold and silver
  9. sesame seeds = prosperity for the business
  10. deep fried flour crisps (golden pillows) = floor covered with gold

It can include other spices and flavorings (cinnamon, nutmeg) and ingredients also, and was surprising delicious!  The higher you toss, the better the luck.  It makes for a very messy table, but the main meaning should leap out from the ingredients!  This “Prosperity Salad” is unique to Singapore, but has gained popularity so that the practice is spreading to Malaysia and Hong Kong.

So what year are we entering?  I’ve just started learning all these traditions, many that seem superstitious to Westerners—like the Chinese Zodiac.  By tradition, Buddha invited all the animals to visit him in the forest, but only 12 accepted—monkey, rat, tiger, ox, snake, etc.  We’re just coming off the year of the rabbit (2011), and we should all be celebrating the fact that we are entering 2012, the year of the DRAGON—the most powerful of the 12 animals.  Under that auspicious sign, this should be a good year for getting married, being born, or making major decisions and transitions—and for all lucky enough to have been born under the sign of the dragon.  If you wish to do a quick birth sign check:   http://www.chinesezodiac.com/calculator.php

Tomorrow is a “Chinatown Walking Tour” for this trailing spouse—what I think of as my continuing education here.  This tour could be my CNY 102 course!

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A Night Out in Chinatown

Singapore has three great pleasures.

Shopping (I’ve told Nancy on several occassions that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting at least one shopping mall.)

Eating (That same swing will net somewhere between two and five eating places. And, against all odds, they’re good.  All of them.)

Friends (Lunch isn’t lunch without company.  Calendars for lunch are booked weeks in advance.  Good friends are as important as eating and shopping.)

Tonight we combined two of the three. Before the Christmas holiday, my colleague, Bharat, (the other guy from Singapore) suggested a night out during the slow week between Christmas and New Year (that is, the Western New Year.  Here, we celebrate New Year twice, once Western style and once Chinese style). Part of the joy of going out is being able to look forward to it; we enjoyed that anticipation for over a week.

Singaporeans are justifiably proud of their city / country, and they delight in introducing their foreign friends to wonderful Singaporean food.  Tonight was an excursion into Chinatown. Chinese dinner, ordered in conversation with the waitress without benefit of a menu.  Rice, noodles, clay pot chicken, beef with bitter melon, steamed fish, prawns, Chinese spinach, sweet and sour pork.  Tiger beer and Chinese tea (black, never green tea which would be Japanese). It’s important to have many people around the table because that justifies many dishes and many tastes.  Good food, good conversation, many laughs.

Here we are after we demolished dinner:

Brian, Pat, Paul, Bharat, Nancy, and Mike behind the camera as usual.

The restaurant focused on the food, not the atmosphere.  The walls were shiny white tile.  The lights were bright.  The rest rooms were – let’s say they were traditional. Not the kind of place that gets noticed in the Fodor’s or Frommer’s.  Not the kind of place that the average Westerner would casually wander in and sit down. But the food was wonderful and the place had won awards (see the certificates on the wall above Bharat).

After dinner, we went even deeper into Chinatown to a dessert shop.  No chocolate ice cream or petit fours here.  This was more serious Singapore Chinese eating. Mei Heong Yuen Dessert Shop, to be precise.  Please order in Chinese, or just point to pictures on the menu. Walnut paste, which is warm, very slightly sweet, somewhat soupy, and vaguely walnut flavored.  Chendol – coconut milk in shaved ice, red beans, and gelatinous green noodles; almost like ice cream. Mango, pomelo, and sago – chilled mixed fruit in a syrup.  Good – maybe even very good – but not quite delicious to Western trained palates. Probably an acquired taste.  Except chendol, which has left a delightful memory on my tongue. And, interestingly, everyone around the table described it to us as “very sweet”.  Pleasantly so, but not what I would call overpowering.

A thousand thanks to Brian and Bharat for giving us this introduction.  A thousand thanks to Pat for introducing me earlier in the week to prata (originally from Southern India, and adopted as a Singapore staple – a flat, crepe-like pancake, often served with a bowl of curry and eaten for breakfast, accompanied by teh tarik, or warm, sweet, milk tea, Singapore style. Get it from the street restaurants).  Good friends sharing delightful good food.  How lucky we are to be here!

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