(Photo credit: Francisco Marin)
A constant stream of water poured down off the roof of the old colonial building. It was raining, but in simply saying that it was raining does the volume of water falling from the heavens a disservice. It was coming down in sheets, as if some vengeful God had finally had enough with our fuckery and decided to replicate the stories of old.
I mean, it was really fucking raining. So, you know, Friday.
Monsoon season is back upon us, this time the “first” of the seasons, the Northeast monsoon, and with it, not only the prevailing winds for which the word monsoon means, but a steady line of storms, vicious thunderstorms whose bolts touch the buildings of the city, sending reverberating explosions of sound through the city and my dog to hide under the table. It isn’t quite a daily experience to have thunderstorms in every part of the city, but it’s been close enough.
But, it was Friday, and I was comfortably inside INDOCAFE the white house, with three other fellows from SOMA, embarking on what had been dubbed “Gourmet Explorers”, a monthly lunch meetup to check out some of the swankier digs in town, for which I felt an incredible amount of hesitation joining. I don’t have a job, after all, but then again, I reckon that’s no excuse in the Overbooked Men’s Association. So, reminding myself to carpe churro, I threw on some slacks and enjoyed a cool1ish walk and train ride towards Newton and our gourmet destination.
INDOCAFE specializes, features or just flat out only offers, Peranakan cuisine. The Peranakan are immigrants to the Malaysian Peninsula and Java between the 15th and 17th centuries who blended their home culture with local/native cultures. Most commonly, those immigrants were Hokkien Chinese, though Peranakan cultures arose from Indian, Arab and even European immigrants. Chinese Peranakan become the Singaporean and Malaccan elite – merchants and traders who supported the British interests and trade in the region – and their cuisine what could now be called true “Singaporean” food.
The most famous of these dishes is no doubt “laksa”, a spicy noodle soup that is as identified with Singapore as chicken rice or chili crab. Ironically, laksa never figured into our lunch, as the four of us decided that the best way to experience the cuisine was to order the buffet and allow our waiter to select a sampling of their signature dishes for us to enjoy.
We were well rewarded by our decision.
As the thunderstorm pounded downtown and the outside world become a shimmering, distorted version of itself through the sheets of rain, we enjoyed satay2skewered, grilled meat, a Malaysian staple as an appetizer, as well as kueh pie tee – pastry cups that we filled with shredded turnip, baby shrimp and an amazing chili dip. The pastry cups’ zig zagging shape when filled and topped with a dollop of the dip looked so much like savory cupcakes, complete with chili frosting. Fishball soup, another local favorite made an appearance, and while we finished our cups of the broth, the mains started to make their way to our table.
Wagyu beef and deep-fried chicken, dishes that cultures around the world have their own spin on were the first show, both expertly cooked and presented with little fanfare, two meat-forward dishes that let their stars do all the talking. The chicken was a whole chicken, wings, half-breasts and legs making for three vastly different experiences with the same bird and the same preparation. The wings showed off the ginger and lemongrass marinade, where the breasts revealed perfectly cooked chunks of meet infused with the marinade, but with the pleasure of juicy, meaty chicken breasts.
Pan-seared cod arrived as crispy cubes lightly covered in a sweet hot sauce. Inside, the cod nearly fell apart in your mouth, the white meat still tender despite the nearly crunchy seared exterior. Squid served in Nyonya3specifically Chinese Peranakan curry had the consistency and firmness of noodles, another nod towards the inestimable skill of our chef. Pineapple rice was cooked in an amazingly strong curry, holding up to each of these dishes with ease, as did the stir-fried vegetables.
Sound like a bit too much? Perhaps it was, but the glorious part of this gluttony is that their buffet for lunch only cost $50, a paltry figure for the largess provided. At any time, our waiter advised us, if there was something we wanted more of, we need only ask. Everything was free-flow; the food, the fresh juice, the joy of good conversation and laughter, even dessert.
Oh Gods above, dessert.
If the mains were a feast then I don’t know what to call dessert. Rather than select dishes, our waiter upped the ante by simply overwhelming us with the entire freakin’ menu. Yam, sweet potatoes and bananas served in warm coconut milk, gulli jelly, fresh fruit encased in a gelatin sheath and served in lemongrass syrup, both “soup” style desserts that replaced the space typically held by the ever-present ice cream. Peranakan cuisine is also well-defined by their cakes and pastries and INDOCAFE pulled no punches showing off ondeh-ondeh, rice cake balls filled with a brown-sugar based syrup called melaka, and then rolled in dried coconut. Telam hijau and seri kaya looked like twins – double-layed cakes with a green upper layer and a white base. But each were vastly different, the telam hijau was a pandan leaf and palm sugar confection and seri kaya is a coconut based4kaya is a well-loved sweet coconut spread often served on toast for breakfast. It’s nummy. custard laid on a bed of sweetened glutinous rice5despite the name, glutinous rice does not contain gluten, but rather is named as such for its glue-like stickiness when cooked. Rice is gluten free and safe for those with celiac disease or gluten allergies.. We enjoyed the two with great surprise that two dishes could look the same even after more than a cursory glance and yet be completely difference compositions.
We even went back for another helping of the ondeh-ondeh. Early on, we decided that splitting a bottle of wine wouldn’t be a bad idea, even though only three of us were drinking and a bottle would double our ticket price, each. While I’m not the biggest fan of white wine, my German and British compatriots settled on a bottle of sauvignon blanc. They chose well, though, the lighter white wine taking a complimentary back seat to all the strong flavors of the day. I put up a token defense of having a Christmas party to go to later that day when a second bottle was discussed, but my heart wasn’t in it. My wallet sighed, going through quite the weight loss program while I gorged myself on fine dining.
At least one of us was getting thinner. It’s all in how you think about it.
The rain continued to pound the little red dot late into Saturday night. Shocking nobody, I was still drinking wine, but this time bought and paid for by the Singapore Writers’ Group as part of our Christmas party. “Shake It Off” and amusingly “Set Fire to the Rain” were being covered as us writers discussed such important things as the pending Star Wars movie and the awkwardness of letting Americans kiss on the cheek by way of greeting.
A few spouses were present as well, including our fearless leader’s husband whom I had met before; I also found myself in conversation with another man I didn’t know, who I assumed was also someone’s husband when he asked if I too was a “trailing spouse”, or a writer.
What else could I say? I said “both”.
And though I somewhat regrettably stayed within my sci-fi/fantasy circle, missing out on the chance to meet folks from some of the other groups, I was once again reminded what a massive difference the group has made in my life here. Some of the closest friendships I’ve forged here have been made through the group, connections that I hope will last a lifetime. Going to that first social, getting invited into the sci-fi group, has proven to be another watershed moment, the opening of amazing friendships. If this is truly the time of the year to reflect on those near to you, then Saturday night, surrounded by the rain, talking over renditions of Maroon 5 of how “The Phantom Menace” broke my heart and why none of us ever want to write something like “A Song of Fire and Ice”6because none of us are psychopathic misanthropes.
The rain abated for a morning – enough for nine holes at least – in Batam Hills, Indonesia. Though I stayed up way too late when I was due to wake up at five-thirty the next morning, the kopi “O” was enough to get me going. Misty drizzles kept us largely cool through the front nine and my game was pretty strong, actually. I even scored par on a short par five, kept from a birdie only by a bad bounce OB on my tee shot. The par was saved by a 30-foot pitch, and let me tell you, if you’ve never played golf, a shot like that makes your whole fucking day. Though I tripled the next hole – in part because while my next tee shot was strong but in a wooded lie, I decided instead of laying up to the fairway, I would make like Phil and try threading the needle, only to hit a tree and bounce right back to where I started – I was floating on air as we came in off nine to get a bite and see if the approaching storm would pass us quickly.
An hour later and an inch more of rain, we concluded that our golfing was done for the day. Even if the rain stopped that minute, no doubt the already soaked ground would be a marsh. Already we had been digging balls out of the muck and hitting low to avoid burying our shots an inch deep in mud. We had two coolers full of Tiger and nowhere to go, so why not have a few more and watch the rain and lightning on a relatively cool Indonesian afternoon?
Our choice turned out to be correct. The rain never let up, the thunder continued to rock the clubhouse. I took a shower, washing off the mud and the sweat, and had a few more Tigers. When we closed up with our caddies, each successive lightning bolt sent the ladies cringing. Of course, the carts were parked under a tin roof so their nervousness was understandable.
I was a bit put out. Thoughts of another par, or God forbid, a birdie, urged me towards finishing out, but I had to admit it, the course was by now surely a swamp and any play would be miserable. In the locker room, I spoke with someone who had come off the course after eight. Paul said he spoke to someone who had to come off after one. Ouch.
The rain let up as we boarded the ferry back to Singapore. We drove past flooded houses, shacks, really, as the bus driver guided through a section of flooded road. The bus was dripping everywhere, the rusted out roof only serving as a channel for the rain, not a deterrent. I considered this as some tried barricading their meager homes, or some just sat it out, accepting that upon every life a little rain must fall – some more than others. The loss of nine holes of golf faded immediately, if that was the extent of the rain’s damage on a weekend, then I was truly privileged. I swallowed any feelings of disappointment, happy to have had great outing with friends, and went home.
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