Sixteen hours after departing stuck-in-winter’s-grasp Austria, the heat of Singapore greeted me warmly (pun intended), and I was ever so glad that I had worn linen trousers for the flight. Our hotel was an easy and humid half-kilometer from an MRT station, and in good order I was resting in the air-conditioned reception of Hotel Vagabond, a glass of lime juice (Singapore’s magic elixir) in my hand while the clerk was cheerily upgrading us to a terrace suite for no apparent reason at all.
In the room I threw open the colonial-shuttered doors to said terrace, humidity be damned, and sat on the chaise; moments later a couple of Javan mynah birds dropped in on the nearby (lime?) tree and studied on me as I studied on them, each time flitting off whenever I would reach for my camera. Eventually I snapped a photo from inside the room; the bird isn’t terribly visible but I’m still declaring victory.
The game continued for a bit, but soon it was time for me to meet Tony (he was a couple of hours behind me in travel). On my way to the MRT station to fetch him I detoured through a little market. Of course I did. “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall” soup spices and white curry paste made the trip home; “Cooling Water” is like rehydrating beverage based on ancient Chinese medicinals; and Hairy Gourds to make me chuckle 😂. (For the record, Barley drink is an acquired taste.)
Under Singaporean law chewing gum is prohibited. This package of “chewing gum” certainly deterred us.
Some items confounded me; others made perfect sense. Hint: charcoal-tipped cotton swabs absorb oils better than plain swabs.
Adjacent to the MRT station, my first hawker center! From “Pigs Organ Soup” to “Halal/Non-Halal” Tray Return stations, everything fascinated me. We just don’t have this sort of exotic in Vienna.
This is Bakkwa. The word is Fujian for “dried meat,” and almost exclusively refers to what might also be called pork belly jerky. What it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in taste, but wasn’t something we were inspired to bring home. The secret to its delectable salty-sweet taste lies in the dehydrating process, an ancient Chinese technique that makes us of slow-cooking over a charcoal fire.
Once Tony had donned lighter clothing we set out to explore our hotel neighborhood and to find some dinner. The streets were lively (“Look Right!”) and the buildings vibrant with color; cyclists coming and going in every direction, and Singaporeans schlumpfing along in their flip-flops (OMGosh do I despise flip-flops outside of beaches and public showers!)
In preparing for the Singapore part of the holiday I had absorbed every possible written word on “what to eat,” down to the insipid listicles that wannabe travel bloggers write, and had created a Google Map of the most-mentioned places at which we could indulge. Sungei Road Laksa stall, a “Heritage Hawker” was nearest the hotel and was to where we walked, only to discover, or forget to remember, that it was closed on Wednesdays. Ha!
But not to worry, delicious food is always within reach in Singapore. Steps away from Sungei was Mr. Ng’s shop, Da Lian. Mr. Ng was a “normal Teochew family man” who wanted to make a better life for his family. He met a man from Shan Tou, China, a master of spices, who took him under his wing. Together they opened their noodle shop with its signature chili paste in 1981; and the rest, as the placard read, “is history.”
All told we shared Teochew noodles on four occasions, two of which were at Mr. Ng’s shop, perched on plastic stools at a rickety sidewalk table alongside other happy diners. It was noodle love at first bite. Each dry bowl (the spectacular clean broth is served on the side, of course) was brimming with minced pork, paper-thin abalone, shrimp, perfectly spongy fish balls and…those noodles! That chili paste! Smoky, spicy, and altogether the game changer in vaulting Mr. Ng above—dare I write?—the Michelin one-star Hawker, Hill Street’s Tai Hwa Pork Noodle dish we queued 30 minutes for later in the holiday.
Quite pleased with our choice for dinner we succumbed to our jet lag, cruel mistress that she is, and tumbled into bed for the night.