Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tea and Taboo

Last week, so as not to distract Joey during his Hugely Stressful Looming Deadline, I figured I needed to find a project of my own. So I decided: I would bake. Strangely, though I loved my semi-custom kitchen in New Jersey, I find myself cooking a lot more in the Lilliputian (though, thank God, air-conditioned) kitchen here in Singapore.

True, the oven is only just big enough to fit the smallest baking sheet I could find in the US. But here I also know a lot more women who either work part time or freelance (as I do) or don’t work at all. Which means I can lure them over during the day to eat the excessively caloric things I’ve made, so I don’t have to.

The other reason I bake for them is that my ordinary American staples are new and exciting to my Singaporean and international friends. Never mind that they can make the best mee rebus and rojak imaginable, the most delectable popiah filling from scratch, the perfect crusty Norwegian bread, the most endorphin-inducing Thai salads with piercing heat and delicate blends of spices.

They’ll still mob a plate of my standard chocolate chip cookies as if they were made from a secret gourmet recipe. And the American southern-style biscuits - my specialty, true, but they’re still only about 15 minutes from start to finish - are rhapsodized over as the most melt-in-your-mouth “scones” anyone has ever tasted.

So our mishmash of cultures made for a fairly successful afternoon tea - and, after only crumbs were left, a rather interesting game of Taboo. (We brought this game with us from the US. It consists of cards that each have one word at the top, which you must get your team to say, followed by five seemingly too-obvious words you are not allowed to use as hints.)

I admit I’d already edited the cards somewhat; I did not want to be doing the “Muslim” card or the “George W. Bush” card with this bunch. But I hadn’t anticipated that they’d have no idea what a “heartthrob” was – and I should have known they’d have an easy time with “shag” (the makers of these cards clearly weren’t British).

The “equator” card was pretty easy, too: “A line we live 85 miles away from.” And I’d guess that (Thai) “kickboxing” and “feng shui” were much more top-of-mind than they’d have been at a party in the US. A “bin” was a “thing you put rubbish in.”

And the “cockatoo” card? Easily identified as: “You know, those huge white birds that screech in your back garden at 6 a.m.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Our Morning: A Haiku

Car sans umbrella
Cumulonimbus lurking
Which first reaches work?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fish Food

As we walked up to the low tank full of fish, the mass of them swirled toward us, just like any other aquarium fish who know someone is approaching with food. But in our case, it was different: this time, we were the fish food.

The spa called it “fish reflexology.” But it was simply this: we were to willingly dangle our feet and calves into a pool full of fish. So they could nibble on us.

It sounds completely insane, but supposedly varieties of spa fish have been eating the dead skin off humans for centuries. We passed up the tank of African spa fish, about an inch or two long, in favor of the larger Turkish spa fish. Neither size seems like such a big deal - until a couple dozen of them are heading for your toes.

Each of us was afraid to put the first foot in (the fish were looking pretty interested, and seemed likely to overwhelm a single foot), so we tried to put our feet in at about the same time. Then, in trepidation, we watched as they swarmed toward us, sizing us up for tasty morsels.

And then came the tickling of puckering fish lips and the tiny flicks of fish tails as they brushed along our feet and legs. And yes, especially at first, it tickled a lot. Much hysterical giggling ensued. Trying desperately to keep still and not twitch away, I kept thinking, “Please, don’t let me kick any of them in the eye.”

But they didn’t seem to mind us at all, and as they got into a routine, we almost got used to the sensation. And so we began to watch them work. It was surreal: “Huh. A fish is cleaning up my cuticles. How nice of him. And look at the little ones nibbling between my toes. They’re doing such a good job.”

Three of us, being female and recently pedicured, were still worked over by our fair share of fish. But Joey was clearly the tasty feature dish. He was, to put it plainly, mobbed.

Once, he tried lifting a foot out of the water, so as to send more fish down to our end of the pool, but they attempted to follow him. Even after he gently shook off the clingier ones, the mouths still hopefully kissed the surface of the water beneath his foot, begging for more.

After twenty minutes of being nibbled, just when we’d begun to get used to the idea, we were led away for a foot massage (this time, by a person) on our newly exfoliated skin.

After the foot rub, we passed the pool again on our way back to our shoes. By this time, it could have been mistaken for any ordinary fish tank; the fish, apparently satisfied with their afternoon meal, had returned to placidly following the current of their pool.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Touring Singapore

If you’re wondering what happened to the last half of March (and its attendant fruit of the month), I’ll tell you: we were, as Singaporeans put it, “so blur.” We had work, we had travel, we had houseguests. And somehow, before we knew it, it was April.

But I do remember that we spent our last week of March trying to convey to our guests, in just a short time, what Singapore was all about. Singapore has a reputation of being a quick, easy place to visit; most people think they’ll be done in a day or two. Our guests had even scheduled a couple of days in Bali in the middle of their fairly short trip (not that we blame them; who would not want to go to Bali?). But they still wanted to see all Singapore had to offer. So we tried...

We ate a modern, multicultural breakfast at the lush Shangri-La Hotel. We pounded the pavement at Orchard Road and pretended we could afford the merchandise. We ate Thai food at our favorite place (of course).

We packed our guests off to wander in Chinatown and Arab Street, and they returned with handfuls of costume jewelry and stomachs full of dim sum and kebabs. We dropped by the Malay wet market to choose from the endless fruit stalls. We ate a quick sunset dinner of hawker food (fried bananas, noodles, nasi lemak, satay, sugar cane juice). And after dark, we watched the yipping river otters, pouncing fishing cats, and a flying squirrel the size of a housecat frolicking in the dim light of the Night Safari.

Our guests collected sea glass at East Coast Park and got horribly sunburned (it is the equator, after all). With Joey they ate roti prata and laksa by the harbor, dropped by the American club, and dined at a gorgeous place designed to look like a Peranakan nonya’s living room.

We toured the botanical gardens one morning, timing our visit so we could see the stunning orchids, walk through the mist-filled room filled with pitcher plants, and be sitting in the shade sucking down ice-cold lime juice just as the mid-day heat set in.

Then our guests were off to Bali. When they returned, they told us their tales of watching temple dances and the rice harvest (and being climbed on by mischievous macaques), as we eased them back into big-city life at one of Singapore’s colorful riverfront quays.

Their last day, we wandered through the huge British Colonial buildings, the Asian Civilizations Museum, and the legendary Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was invented. We did the tourist thing, drinking the pink stuff with fish and chips and throwing our peanut shells on the floor. And then we headed off to a most unusual spa on Sentosa - but that deserves its own post.

A whirlwind tour, and still there were things we missed: Little India, the Chinese and Japanese gardens, the fishing village on Pulau Ubin, and the rainforest, just to name a few. Who knew such a tiny island would have so many things to see?