Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Best Meal in Singapore

I’ve now eaten two mind-blowingly fabulous Sunday brunches in Singapore - one at the Four Seasons and one at a gorgeous, modern restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel - but I have a new contender for the Best Meal in Singapore. In fact, I think we have a winner.

This meal, unlike the other two, wasn’t served in a five-star restaurant. No ice sculptures, no free-flowing papaya and passion-fruit martinis, no white- and black-truffle risotto. Instead, there were 15 people packed into a three-room HDB (public housing) flat, one grandmother cooking with the expertise of generations, and a glorious noodle-tossing finale.

I don’t know how many new expats get to experience this; it can’t be many. But we were lucky enough to spend our Chinese New Year’s Eve eating a traditional reunion dinner in local style, at the home of a wonderful Singaporean family who adopted us for the occasion.

Although as friends-of-friends they'd never met us before, Chin and Esther graciously picked us up at our doorstep and drove us to Chin’s mother’s home in an older HDB estate. HDB (Housing Development Board) apartments aren’t what Americans might think of when they hear the term “public housing.” In fact, although tourists and expats hardly ever see inside them, about 80 percent of Singaporeans are happy to live in them. While they tend not to be as modern or as large as private condos and townhouses, they are scrupulously clean - it being Singapore - and well cared for.

We walked up four flights of stairs and down a long row of identical doors, each with a different-colored decorative gate in front. Soon, we reached an open door where Chin’s sister was waiting to welcome us inside. We slipped off our shoes and stepped into the packed room. I was vividly reminded of Thanksgiving at home: the uncles were laughing at a movie on TV; the teenagers were playing mah-jongg, oblivious to anything going on around them; and most of the women were in the kitchen, busily putting the finishing touches on the meal. The younger children ran back and forth, channeling the excitement.

New Year’s treats were everywhere, each in its own red-topped jar, and we weren’t there more than a minute before we were pressed into trying some. Our favorites were “love letters,” rolled cookies perhaps imprinted with messages of love, and bakkwa (in Cantonese, or ro gan in Mandarin), a sweet pork jerky. We’d brought some bakkwa as a gift - you can’t show up empty handed on New Year's Eve!

Soon afterward, the meal was ready, and we packed ourselves around the kitchen table to eat. The table was loaded with “auspicious” foods: a soup with cabbage and fish balls and tripe (I skipped the tripe), a delicious whole fish with leeks, a lightly fried fish steak fresh from the morning’s market - possibly the best fish I’ve ever eaten - braised pork, an assortment of vegetables and sauces, sea cucumber (try this if you get the chance), cold chicken, roasted duck, and a red curry of chicken and potatoes, all homemade that day - even the chili sauces. There was also a plate of little fried nuggets of shrimp and vegetables - we don’t know what they were, but we should have asked for the recipe!

After we ate, the adults moved into the living room to talk as the children pushed into the kitchen for their shift. Everyone spoke English, and Esther told us it was easier, because there were so many dialects of Chinese in the family. Chin speaks Hokkien (like Taiwanese), Esther speaks Cantonese, and the children study Mandarin in school. Chin’s mother knows all three dialects, so she speaks a different dialect to each person in turn.

At the very end of the night, the whole family gathered in the kitchen again for the traditional tossing of a noodle dish called lo hei (in Cantonese, or yu sheng in Mandarin). It’s basically a cold salad of long noodles, shredded vegetables, crunchy crackers, sesame seeds, a light sauce, and fragrant spices including cinnamon and ginger. Everyone grabbed a pair of chopsticks, and together we reached in and tossed the mix higher and higher, shouting New Year’s greetings and wishes for the coming year. “The higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have this year!” they said. But parents were careful to tell the children that if you toss noodles out of the bowl, there goes your luck!

After the tossing, we each ate a small bowl of the noodle mix to cap off the celebration. And then we headed home, grateful for our adopted family and our incredible Lunar New Year meal. The best meal in Singapore, indeed.


Venitha said...

What a treat! Jenn, you must totally have stood out in this crowd with your beautiful blonde hair. =) I love those love letters. Jim got to do the lo hei toss with co-workers, but I never had the pleasure. Gong xi fa cai!

Jim said...

Jenn -
Excellent! I'm actually jealous! What a great experience.

I'm really glad to see you're blogging! I'm already enjoying getting to see the experience through different eyes - more the better eyes of folks that I know!

Hope you're settling in better - glad the rain has finally started again.