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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

I woke up this morning and as I do nearly every morning, checked my phone in the knowing that as I slept, the Western Hemisphere went about its day.  Often times I’ve awoken to missed messages throughout the night, or to the news of the US that happened while I was sleeping.  However, this morning, as with days past from this time last year, there was another reason for me to check my phone first thing in the am.

Fantasy fuckin’ football.

The national spectacle of the NFL has started another season, so I feel it’s a wonderful time to re-start this column as to compete with the Sunday evening tradition of listening to Al Michaels resist the urge to throttle his partner in broadcasting, Chris Colinsworth, for sounding out “National Football League” like the name alone will salve all wounds and cure all ills.

You know, the ills that the NFL actually cares about.  Not like concussions.  It’s just a theory, anyway.

But enough of the fuckery of professional sports.  There will be time enough in the future for me to sit on the couch and submit to Joe Buck’s monotone rendering of an exciting sport to something with all the urgency of a documentary on postage stamps.  Indeed, there will be time to view the five hundred and seventy-third showing of Peyton Manning’s latest celebrity endorsement in between the conversion and the kickoff and again eighteen seconds later after the pigskin has gone flying into the autumn night past the goal posts — the touchback exists because the NFL cares, after all.  There will be time for all this, gentle reader, do not fear.  Like anyone who speaks of racial justice or social change, I’ll be sitting down1or standing up?  Is sitting down now a Bad Thing?  Because I’m all for doing Bad Things, motherfuckers., shutting up, and tuning in like the rest of us; ready to let Thom Brennanananananananaman take me to another place — likely Buffalo or Kansas City because they don’t send him to the fun places — and, if I close my eyes and pretend, it’ll be Joe Buck and not his off-brand imitator.

No, fear not, I’m with the program.  Just, not right now.

Nah, I’m still in South-East Asia for a month.  Though the dates are set and the bags are practically packed, I’m not going anywhere until they stuff me into a limo cab and drag me to Changi.  And since my novel isn’t going to be finished by my deadline, I’m going to take it out on all of you here.

Why so scared lah?  Let’s talk about laksa.

Please.  Allow me.

When Americans think of South-East Asian cuisine — and let’s be honest, that particular phrasing doesn’t appear often — we think of those Indochinese cuisines par-excellence, namely Thai & Vietnamese food.  Thai food is very popular in the US and with good reason2because it’s fucking amazing, that’s why, but Vietnamese cuisine, once just thought of as just to phō and bánh mì, is slowly growing as Vietnam rebuilds her ties with the United States.  I’m going to be quite outspoken on this3perish the thought, I’m of the opinion that Vietnamese food is the finest food in the world.  The world.  And yes, I know, I’m an Italian-American from San Francisco and I ought to be saying praise Jesus and pass the cioppino and polenta.  But while Italian, and many European culinary traditions for that matter, have benefitted from the local evolution of their neighbor’s best efforts, so too has the food of South-East Asia.  The history of these states here is not much different from the cultural and tribal shifts of Europe during their warring days — so too has the food crossed lines on a map.  SE Asia has had its own strong culinary identity well before any of us ang moh showed up with our guns and cannons and shit.  But in Vietnam, once the shining jewel of French Indochina, that strong culinary tradition mixed with the French love of gastronomy, and something magical happened.

Now, this is an opinion, the valuation of Vietnamese cuisine.  There are many a person here in town who might look at what I just wrote and shake their head and then lean back over their bowl of laksa and slurp in perfect contentment.

I couldn’t fault them a second.

Laksa is one of the signature dishes of Peranakan food; what could be called “Straits Cuisine”, the shared culinary stylings of the nations that border the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula4such a name is in reference to the various straits of water here, namely the Malacca and Singapore Straits.  Peranakan as an adjective usually describes the Chinese settlers, traders and adventurers that moved from the motherland to the various ports of the Straits; typically in response to the business opportunities presented by European trading companies in the area.  Peranakan isn’t quite a racial descriptor, though.  Peranakan can also be used to describe Straits-born settlers from India or the various Arabian nations.  The constant though is that they were mostly upper-middle class families that combined their home culture with the mostly Malay culture and cuisine, resulting in what can truly be called a base for Singaporean food.

As a dish, laksa is one of the best examples of this blending.  As you could expect for an island, seafood plays a large role in the food here in Singapore.  Laksa is essentially a seafood curry5there is a tamarind asam version as well soup; prawns and fish6sometimes chicken as well served with vermicelli noodles.  The soup is rich and thick with coconut milk and liberally spiced with chili and numerous combinations of other flavors.

So why all these words about laksa?  Simply put I’m on a laksa high from going out wth Pey Ling, who insisted on going across town with us to a well-known joint on Mountbatten in the Marine Parade neighborhood.  Marine Parade is one of the East Coast neighborhoods, stretched along that long park/beach.  Our particular destination, 328 Katong Laksa, is a popular place for laksa.  As we arrived, the numerous newspaper clippings boasting of their beating Gordon Ramsey in a taste test spoke volumes as to why.  It was, simply put, the best I’d had.  Pey Ling explained that for her, and likely for many a Singaporean, laksa is comfort food.  It can be any degree of spicy, but the noodles and seafood make for a rich, lasting flavor.  She ordered for us some otah, a ground fish cake grilled in a banana leaf, which we cut up and dropped into our soup, adding to the symphony of flavor within the dish.  I can still taste it in my mind, still feel the tingle on my tongue as I type these words.  There’s laksa a-plenty in this town, I need to be having more of it before I leave.

In one sense, I’m in luck.  Packages of laksa spice are easily bought from the local supermarket, and you can believe that we’ll be buying a large number of those to bring back.  My father, who sampled the dish in Indonesia after our golf outing, made it, I imagine, from scratch, and there are recipes galore on the Interwebs for doing just such.  Speaking of the Interwebs, through its magic, Bev & I were able to learn that there is a Malaysian woman who runs a Peranakan cart in Portland and serves laksa.  I looked at her menu, she charges $10 USD for it.

In one sense, I’m screwed.

This past weekend was quite the culinary adventure.  Friday night, we met up with Mags and her husband at their friend’s French restaurant in the same area of town as our laksa outing.  We had margaritas7totally French that were made as a tequila cocktail and flavored by a lime popsicle dunked in the drink.  As the desert-on-a-stick melted8and of course it did because this is Singapore, the sugary lime juice flavored the drink to be an incredibly tasty9and a bit dangerous take on the famous cocktail.  Dinner was steak and fries — simple fare done incredibly well, showing that all you really need is a few good items on your menu and you’ll be just fine if you can draw the crowds.  Judging by the number of people in the dining room of their converted row home space, I’d say that my friend’s friend will be just fine.

For those in town, the place is called Braseiro Restaurant on Joo Chiat.  Do visit if you’re in the mood for a simple but delicious steak meal and don’t want to blow your life’s savings on a chophouse.

Saturday night, I met up with my neighbor Dan and his friends down in Holland Village.  There, we went in on a five-liter keg of beer10don’t ask the price, you don’t want to know and stood out on the street watching Manchester United vs. Manchester City.  Throngs of people filled the street, many of them wearing the red of Man U, while Dan’s friend, the City fan, rolled his eyes.  After a while, those of us not wholly emotionally invested in the game walked down the street to the smaller of the two food courts, loaded up on Chinese food and Anchor beer.  The City fan, another friend in tow, joined us and having missed our feast, split some fish head curry.

I’ve never had fish head curry, though I’ve heard plenty about it.  Realizing that now was my chance, I asked if I could try a taste, joked about eating the eye, and stuck a spoon in.  Fish head curry is accurately named.  A full fish head is cooked in curry with eggplant and potato, making a spicy stew with amazingly tender cheek meat from the head.  I slurped down curry and meat eagerly, happy to have tried the dish finally.

Then the eye landed on the plate before me.  Laughter rang out along with some questioning looks.  Already five11or so beers down and knowing that this was not something I’d do often, I spooned up the eye, popped it in my mouth and sucked the flesh right out of the cartilage socket, which I spit back out with a flourish.  Eyes widened and a few appreciative whistles rang out.

As for the taste; I couldn’t taste much of the flesh itself, it was mostly curry that I tasted.  Fish head curry is strong, spicy stuff, I suspect to ensure that there’s little of the briny taste from the fish’s skin.

I’m painfully aware that each of these experiences threaten to be “the last”.  The last time I have fish head curry, the last chicken rice, the last time I have to call my banker to clear a night out in Holland Village.  The last time that I can walk five minutes to the local prata place and have a few quick bites to get my morning right after going out drinking the night before.  Each time, I try to block out the sorrow that accompanies such a thought and focus in on the experience itself.  I am going to miss Singapore, there’s no lie there.  I’m going to miss my friends, I’m going to miss the food and the travel.  I am looking forward to my return, no doubt.  I can see basketball games at Fire on the Mountain12yassss Celina, a fire going with the cold of winter outside while watching football.  Reconnecting with my friends in Portland and making new friends as I engage my creativity and passion for writing with groups in the Rose City.

And I can see, that after all the repatriation, all the football and hiking and cheap beer and everything I’ve missed, I’ll open one of those laksa packages or make some chicken rice, look wistfully out the window towards the ocean, trying to look fifteen hours in the future.

I’ll smile.

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