Saturday, April 14, 2012

Singapore, Part I: Durian, Dim Sum & Dripping Sweat

I went to Singapore to eat, and I am not ashamed.

Spotted during a very sweaty run. If this is not Singapore's official motto, it should be.

In the early stages of my travel planning, I didn't give Singapore a lot of thought. I didn't even know that much about it. Is it a city? Is it a country? (It's both!)

And then I caught the first episode of Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show The Layover, in which the infamous foodie explores a city's culinary scene in less than 24 hours. I watched in fascination as Bourdain navigated Singapore's wildly popular hawker centers, which house hundreds of stalls bursting with delicious Chinese, Indian and Malaysian street food — a diverse mix that mirrors that of Singapore's population.

As Bourdain zipped around town and packed his stomach full of multicultural goodies, he declared Singapore's offerings the best street food in the world. That was certainly enough to convince me to stop over after my month in Australia and before I reached Thailand. Hey, it was on the way!

I arrived at Five Stones Hostel on a hot, sticky evening after two flights and a little airport snafu that involved me hastily booking an onward bus ticket to Malaysia in order to be able to enter Singapore (wheee!). I was sweaty, tired and hungry, but the hungry bit meant that food took precedence over a shower and a nap.

After 15 minutes of aimless wandering, I miraculously happened upon Smith Street — also known as Food Street — in the heart of Chinatown.


I chose the food stall with the longest line, which is a ridiculously terrible idea when you're starving, but I figured it meant my meal would be good.

It was.

I enjoyed piping-hot fried cockle kway teow, straight from the wok...

...and washed it down with refreshing lemon iced tea in a most excellent dolphin cup.

My hunger was satisfied, but I craved something cool and sweet to cap off the night. In the spirit of adventure, I located an icy treat topped with durian — that foul-smelling fruit that one either loves or loathes.

Why play it safe with a mango or strawberry topping when you can experience something that has been described as smelling like "almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks"?

The durian was actually the least strange thing about this dessert for me. As I dug into the mountain of multicolored ice, I encountered sweet corn, red beans and a variety of mysterious jelly cubes in each bite. It was an... interesting... combination of flavors and textures, and I left most of the beans and jelly cubes behind. Overall, the ice kachang was a bit too sweet (and odd) for me, but I was glad I tried it!

I began the next morning with some more wandering in search of food and caught my first glimpse of pitaya, or dragon fruit, at a market. Pretty!

I was in the mood for some warm food, though, and found myself back on Smith Street ordering dim sum at Tak Po. I should note here that I had only had dim sum once in my life before, so I just got a few things that looked interesting!

Buns: char siew and lotus seed paste.

Scallop and seaweed dumplings. Super tasty.

I followed that up with freshly blended pineapple-apple-watermelon juice at the Maxwell Hawker Centre.

I'm unsure of what the exact temperature was that day, but it was somewhere between Sweating My Face Off and Hotter Than Hell, so I retreated back to the air-conditioned hostel for a water-guzzling, sunscreen-applying break.

That lack of heat tolerance makes my lunch choice seem very strange indeed.

At Lau Pa Sat — a huge hawker center that was packed with white-collar workers on their lunch breaks — I chose steaming-hot fish ball soup with two types of noodles and some unidentified meat (pork, maybe?).

Picture this: I am already dripping with sweat in this stuffy hawker center that is teeming with people, and everyone is eating hot food while dressed in long slacks and collared shirts. My embarrassing chopstick skills have me eating this soup at the rate of one noodle per bite. As I get to the red, spicy parts of the soup, my eyes begin to sting and my nose threatens to drip (I have no napkin). The woman across from me looks cool as a cucumber and she gobbles her soup. I am too stubborn to get a fork or a napkin or a cooler lunch. I am praying that my sweat and my snot won't drip everywhere, or, if they do, that no one will notice.

I won. And this taught me that it is crucial to always carry napkins, Kleenex and/or toilet paper with you in Southeast Asia... for many reasons.

I set off to see more of the city and marveled at its overall loveliness and cleanliness. There are strict laws in Singapore against things like spitting, littering and jaywalking, and while some might find those too restrictive, it's easy to tell the difference they make.

Also, I'm a compulsive rule-follower, and for once I didn't feel like a nerd for waiting for the crosswalk signal. (I had a rough time with the "let's jump in front of cars!" method of crossing the street in New York City. Let's not even talk about Thailand, where I am now.)

My meandering eventually got me good and lost — just how I like to be! I spotted an interesting-looking building marked Urban Redevelopment Authority and popped in to have a look.

You won't believe what I found.

A freakin' model of the city, complete with a YOU ARE HERE flag. Who needs a map??

I used the model to memorize the directions back to my hostel, and also to plan my next stop.

And that's how I came to catch my first glimpse of this iconic trio: the Singapore Flyer, the ArtScience Museum and the epic Marina Bay Sands resort (more on this last one later). I'm pretty pleased about how that turned out. : )

I then scurried back to the hostel to shower and put on my little black dress. I had a legit dinner date!

To be continued...


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