Happy National Day, my fellow gluttonous Singaporeans!
Each August 9th, I usually send out an email to my fellow countrypeeps living abroad, sending them best wishes for finding greasy char kway teow and prata to warm the cockles of their hearts as they think of home sweet-sour-salty-spicy home. This year, I'd like to share an absolutely delightful piece that my Londoner pal Sunny wrote about us. I've sat on this longer than I should have (sorry Sunny!) but I hope you'll agree, today's quite the fitting occasion to run this. Enjoy! -- Wen
By Sunny Dhama
I had always considered myself something of a connoisseur. I had eaten all around the world, enjoyed a complete education in Indian food courtesy of my family, been to my share of Michelin starred venues, and had my own collection of hard-sought local gems to divulge to the few I trusted enough with the information. In short, I believed myself to be quite the foodie – if not a professional, then at least a talented amateur with an educated palate. I cringe as I remember those naïve days.
A brief soujourn in the Garden City of Singapore set me straight. I had visited Singapore before and was unimpressed. It struck me as an unremarkable sweltering anodyne city-state fully meriting its moniker of the World’s biggest airport lounge. I started to realise the folly of my ways after my first weekend of a multi-month work assignment in Singapore. Two close friends of mine invited me to Sunday lunch. It was a barbequed feast that left me and the other guests gasping from the quality and groaning from the sheer volume of food on the table. We all retired to the lounge to sleep off the effects of our lunch. But this is a scene that is replayed all around the world – a heavy late Sunday lunch followed by a nap. So far, so normal. Then it happened. One by one, the guests started to rouse themselves and make their excuses. They had to leave as they were going out to dinner with their families.
Out to dinner.
They were eating again.
Just as zombies in horror movies can never be killed, the appetites of these people can never be sated. I turned to my hosts (who, incidentally, were also preparing to go out to dinner themselves) and timidly asked, with a now laughable innocence,
“That wasn’t a big meal for a Singaporean was it?”
They looked at me, their faces a combination of pity and quizzical amusement.
“No” they replied in unison.
And so it began. The next few months were a whirling carousel of food experiences. I could try and list them, but my vocabulary and memory won’t do them justice. They were always hungry. It was always dinner-time. There was always somewhere to go that served food more ambrosial than the last place we went. They would arrive, critically evaluate the restaurant, peer at the orders of the other diners, and then order. Once the food arrived, they would discuss their meals, each other’s meals and meals they would like to have once this meal was finished. I was shocked. I was awed. I was out of my depth. I felt like a provincial football team promoted to the Premiership. I doubted I would survive in this rarefied atmosphere, but I was giving it a damn good try.
All too soon, I had to leave. I had changed irrevocably. I no longer thought in terms of days and nights, but simply in terms of meals and snacks. Nothing would ever be the same.
Serendipitously, a number of my new found friends were (drawn by my immense personal magnetism, no doubt) moving to London allowing the summer of glut to continue (unabated by the changing seasons). Despite (or perhaps because) I am a lifelong Londoner the only parts of the city I knew were where I worked, where I drank and where I slept. Suddenly a culinary google map of London opened up in front of me. Areas which were previously off-limits became must-sees (or rather, must-tastes). I found myself judging my friends on their restaurant choices and judging dates by what they ordered.
And so I found myself on a train to Kent to an out-of-the-way eatery simply because the oysters were famous (oysters! Before I met these people, I never even liked oysters!) We arrived in the tiny restaurant having already phoned through our orders. Nonetheless, the proprietor counted the number of dishes ordered, and then counted the number of people dining and enquired as to whether we were expecting more people. I smiled wryly. She then warned us that we had very little time in which to finish our feast before the next booking arrived. Again, I smiled as we reassured her that there would be no problem. She looked on astonished as we devoured the procession of food placed before us like a plague of discerning locusts. I sympathised. Only a couple of years beforehand, I would have shared her scepticism and bewilderment. Now however, I knew better. Having laid waste to the table we decided it was time to return to London – but not before stopping for cake.