Its all anticipation, worry, wonder and packing, consumes me for days before I travel, packed too much, to little? (In fact too much since I arrived back with the bottom half of a small travel case completely untouched including, one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts along with sundry T shirts). Open the case and take it all out, discard some, add others, try and decide what I will be doing, meeting who, eating what and where. How should I cope with climate, its hot, steamy and occasionally stormy, but not cold, then I remember, always cold on aircraft. Why do they do that, sort of pop you into a refrigerator for a bit, chill you down, stasis, in cold storage. There will be a valid reason for it, bet its been researched and found to have some benefit for the airline, maybe you eat less when you are chilled down, sleep more, consume more/less air. I love a good cardigan, open, closed, half open, on the shoulders, tied around your waist/neck there is a million ways. Its hard to beat a cardigan.

And of course there is the question of toiletries, and specially the worry of having my toiletries thrown in the bin because the officials at Changi airport are deeply neurotic about any bottle that is over 100 mil If you are carrying it in your luggage, no worries. Was I going to go free from the bother of a splash of cologne. I did, but then as I wondered through the departure area, I relented. There goes my chance of not having to put luggage in the hold… At least I will not smell!

How to pack a suitcase

Am I as good traveller? Not bad, but by no means an expert, I have a few international kilometres under my belt, but lots of my travel was done in a different time, other rules, less people and back in those days I smoked and for some reason, a long haul flight always seemed to go better when you could light up a ciggie and contemplate the woes/joys of the world. I have turned my back on budget travel (in the early days it was hippy travel) and now enjoy the comforts afforded in the second section of the aircraft.

My final confusion is a throw back to my Imelda Marcos days, I have been unkindly told that my shoe fetish is almost as bad as hers, on the other hand I claim that my shoes, for reasons of their own, just do not wear out, hence I have a wardrobe of shoes that are almost as good as the day they were bought. And since I limit myself to three pairs for travel, a final decision must be made.

Singapore Airline is renowned for its efficiency and of course we left on time, no one would dare hold it up and you are barely in the air before being fed and watered… cups of tea and glasses of champagne should you be silly enough.

The first meal was slices with fig confit, poached snapper with linguini and whole baby tomato, desert – don’t know, three cheeses, wine for me was a decent French red,. Not Bad. And yet it still seems to me that airlines are caught in the grip of one too many celebrity chef who has sat down and devised a menu that sounds great… read sliced duck with fig jam, snapper on a bed of pasta… does not sound the same. Yet, of all the airline meals I have eaten over the years, a flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu where they served duck with pickled ginger has to remain a memorable experience.

The next question is… why do they feel the need to stuff you full of food again… or try, perhaps its the Singapore custom of never not eating for any longer than an hour or two, but to be offered a bowl of pasta or a Balinese fried rice at 3 pm, just 35 minutes before landing struck me as odd… in fact I would have preferred a sandwich, but it seems to me that the art of the ‘uncomplicated’ and yet delicious sandwich seems lost forever under the onslaught of layering. What happened to a good cheese sandwich, maybe egg or even a tuna. Seems impossible or, is it a question of snobbishness and a simple approach considering the cost of airfares is not possible.

Dinner was a quick bite at the hotel, the buffet was set up for locals and visitors who were there to celebrate Chinese New Year and for them, there was a lot of significance to the food. I was not all that hungry and so had a small ‘angus’ hamburger.. its what you do when you have flown all that way to one of the great foodie destinations in Asia. I was tired and somewhat over filled.

I have stayed in this hotel before, its convenient and close to everything. I went down to breakfast with some trepidation. Can I suggest that breakfast in Asia is best taken as a ‘what the locals eat’ experience! You will find that it produces a way better breakfast, rice porridge, coconut rice with fish (Nasi Goreng) and so on, even noodles for breakfast can be great. Fresh fruit juice – no. Fresh fruit – yes! Good yoghurt – no! Bad bad toast – yes! Mind you I have discovered that if you slice your own bread from the selection of ‘gourmet breads’ that you will always find on every breakfast buffet and run them through those god awful silly toasters at least three times, you will (possibly) get good toast. The butter is most often New Zealand, the jam is frequently German or simply unmentionable (not of course in Singapore, but later in Penang). Honey is usually ok, peanut butter is often good too. Vegemite is completely unknown, so take your own. (If you do, don’t carry over 100 grams in your cabin luggage, it will be taken from you.)The egg person (when you have found them) is always good. Avoid the baked beans, when in Malaysia avoid the ‘beef’ bacon – vile stuff! Fried rice is usually good, but for westerners, not a breakfast choice, but even so I urge you to try it. Cereals can often be stale since most Asians won’t eat em… Japanese or for that matter Malay breakfasts should be carefully studied and a degree of understanding engaged before attempting or one is liable to find that you have piled a plate full of fermented dried fish of some kind that will, unquestionably, test your culinary endurance.

If in doubt about the numerous condiments on offer for your rice porridge (called congee) or your noodles or simple rice, take some on some small bowls and when you get to the table taste before adding, this way you will not ruin a good breakfast.

And remember that Asians see breakfast as a savoury meal, we have a tendency to want to sweeten it all. Congee is not designed to be eaten with fruit and cream as my father used to do. Its no wonder I am confused. Choose a local and watch what they eat, copy them and have a go. You may be surprised.

Sometimes in your travels if you sit still and just melt into the world around you, things happen. I had eaten and was drinking my fifth cup of week black tea when a beautifully dressed Asian man, peeled an orange and ate it. I can’t explain why or how, but his doing that was a surreal experience, it was done with grace, beauty and deep pleasure as he and the food he ate became one. It was a complete Zen experience. By way of counterpoint, a black woman walked in to the breakfast room, she was tall, very beautiful, very proud and commanding and around her neck hung this most amazing necklace of multi coloured bling that on her, was so right and on another would have been so wrong. Can you see why I love being in public places and just sort of hanging… its always such a reward.

You need a small bag, something that will just fit with your wallet, your mobile maybe a hankie if you were bought up prior to the 80’s and not much else. I am not and never have been a wallet or mobile in the trouser pocket person, no more do I wander about the place clutching my  mobile nor, as I have seen in some ‘artistic’ circles, do I like clutching mobile, glasses case, wallet all piled together to make a decent handful and often held a little high… such a bad look. Travelling can be fraught, backpack is too big, too old for a bum bag and the wallet around the waist in a kind of cloth belt we did in India in the hippy days seems, sort of inappropriate. Singapore just doesn’t stir until after 10 am, an explanation by a Singaporean friend was, they were all out clubbing last night and too tired to wake early. Maybe!  Wandering along Orchard Road trying to find a small bag was a huge laugh, I was offered every brand imaginable and costs that went from A$1500 down. A$60 got me a small shoulder bag with a crocodile on it. Good enough.

And then I was convinced by dark forces that a visit to Universal Studio was an essential part of the Singapore experience. I was stunned and amazed, no shocked, no gob smacked. What the hell is that place all about. It is a major development and the purpose is purely to find as many ways as possible to get money from the gullible and bored Singapore natives who are Island bound and need to be stimulated in as many ways as possible specially if they are not in a position to leave the Island. To say that this is a triumph in vicarious living is a wild understatement and to say that this place is of little or no intrinsic value and simply a money machine is undeniable. My legs ached, my brain fatigued and I ran as fast as possible to get the hell out of there (It was steamy so my usual athletic running style was a little cramped). I have been accused of being a bad tourist, I think that may be right. I had a similar reaction the first time I ever saw Sunway Pyramid in KL.

In fact ran straight down to East Coast Beach area to a restaurant called Long Beach which had come highly recommended by the same person who suggested that all of Singapore had been clubbing the night before. This all came about because I asked for chilli crab and he said it was the best. I hope to hell he was wrong. But then I am not a connoisseur of chilli crab and to me, the whole experience of first seeing the crab wandering around the bottom of an aquarium and then on a plate swimming in a sea of chilli, egg and what seemed like tomato sauce, was daunting. I also watched as they removed the crayfish that I had ordered and despatched that. When one considers that the majority of the Chinese population of Singapore are Buddhist, and from my many years of study in Buddhism, killing is not considered right or even polite, then how is this justified. I suspect that this is just one of many conundrums that are part and parcel of the Chinese psyche.

This is a recipe for Chilli Crab that sounds great

I often come unstuck with Chinese Restaurants and find myself unable to wend my way through the menu without a lot of assistance.  For example, on what Chinese planet is a steam bun, deep fried, served as an accompaniment with chilli crab? And with a heart, palpitating with desire for the taste of delicious pippies (or Vongole) cooked with ginger and onion, was my heart let down and saddened by the arrival of some strange looking small shell fish where the ginger was more in evidence than the flesh of the shellfish. I tried sucking on the shellfish and managed to extract some of the sauce, but it was far from satisfying.

Have I reached some sort of plateau in eating Asian food… I hope not, I really do, but I have often wondered if the foods of Singapore require a deeper knowledge than I possess. Indeed it would not be hard to say that Singapore itself requires a deeper knowledge of place than I possess. I was trying to explain to someone that my growth and upbringing equipped me with a different set of  life expectations, one that gave me a need for space, privacy, contemplation, conscience and awareness. It never taught greed, power or what can be seen as extraordinary over development as desirable in living, yet in Singapore this seems to be the case that on this small island, immense power, control and living a way of life (here it is proper to acknowledge that this is not the only place that this is found, but it is a city state and that makes it unique in that nearly all of what Singapore needs is imported, other cities such as Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta are served by large areas within their own country supporting the need of the city) that is at most foreign and often completely alien to me prevails, indeed it would be almost safe to say that Singapore is unique on the globe. Consider if you will the symbiotic relationship between Malaysia and Singapore and the ramifications if this ever broke down. I am told (jokingly it was said, but none the less chilling) that a war would break out should Malaysia refuse to supply what Singapore needs.

Not much for my in depth analysis of a place that is unique! And where those who live there, swear complete love for, yet it should be observed that Singaporeans as well as those who live here for work, are frequent travellers… they spend a lot of time travelling and perhaps, that’s because it is easy or perhaps its because they need to remind themselves of a different world out there. Ask a Singaporean what happened when swine fever broke out in the state of JB, Malaysia and Singaporean diners were briefly denied the pleasure of the pig! You will be told that Singapore now has pig farms on Indonesia controlled and run by Singaporeans.. clever lot those Singapore officials.

Singapore has great food, let there be no doubt, the challenge is to locate it and have pockets deep enough to pay. On the other hand the Hawkers stalls in Singapore, used a lot by locals and encouraged by the Government are great. There is a huge number of them but, you must be determined to find them and be prepared to work them as a local would, don’t expect to be feted and adored, they will bring your food to their table, but that’s it. And of course to get the most out of the experience, you can order a variety of dishes that will allow you to sample a good cross section. Be aware too that the style of food in the markets is mostly Chinese, but both Malay and Indian foods will also be very much in evidence, along with all manner of blends.

~ by peterwatson on March 7, 2012.

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