Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Singapore...with kids

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Last January I had a most delightful week by myself in Singapore.  It's a hot and steamy place where eating is the national sport, and hence it suited me to a T.  I spent a glorious week stuffing myself with roti prata, fried noodles and kueh, with occasional interludes wandering around atmospheric neighbourhoods and guzzling lots of Tiger beer.

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As things would have it, my husband had been working there this year for a few months, so my three kids and I decided to meet him on the tail end of the job and spend a couple of weeks there.  They say if you have no expectations, you'll never be disappointed, but I couldn't help but fantasise about my children's sparkly-eyed delight at the moustachioed roti man twirling each tissue-thin pastry sheet.  I imagined them exploring the wet markets and temples with wide-eyed wonder.  I daydreamed about them gobbling down bowls of spicy laksa and clamouring for extra blood cockles in their char kway teow.

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Things did not work out that way.

The first few days, I dragged my sluggish troupe of tiny travellers from temple to teahouse.  Instead of "wow", I got "wah".  It was too hot.  Their feet hurt.  They wanted to go back to the hotel and watch Cartoon Network.  Glorious golden-domed mosques got barely a glance, but when they found the knock-off Pokemon cards for sale?  Call in the riot squad!

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And they would not eat ANYTHING.  Confronted with a nice plate of beef hor fun, either they made like cranky clams and clamped their mouths shut, or they went into defensive centipede mode, curling up and promptly going to sleep.

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And again.

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And again.

Yes, I know.  I remember my husband gently trying to explain to a crying me years ago that it was unreasonable to expect a 2-year-old to eat home-made pad Thai, even if I had made the tamarind paste myself.  But when food, travel, culture and language are your biggest passions, and it turns out that your children's pinnacle of enjoyment in a foreign country is pressing the lift buttons - seriously depressing stuff.

Some major recalibration was required.  My kids are voracious consumers of Vietnamese food in Footscray and I assumed their love for pho and com tam dac biet would translate nicely into wonton mee and chicken rice.  For whatever reason, it didn't.

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Golden Mile Food Centre was right near where we were staying.  There we found a Japanese stall, and the kids really enjoyed their teriyaki salmon, tangy coleslaw, white rice and miso...

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...while I got a much-needed serve of greens with very good kway teow mee.

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It was also here that I failed to purchase this deep-fried cheese sandwich, which I shall regret for the rest of my days.

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Smoky satays from East Coast Lagoon Food Village got a tick...

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...while the adults swooned over gooey, wobbly oyster omelette from Song Kee Fried Oyster.

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Loved this white carrot cake from a stall a few doors down from Song Kee Fried Oyster.  Child #1 was inconsolable when she heard she had missed out on carrot cake due to protest sleeping.  I did not choose to enlighten her Singaporean carrot cake is neither cake as she would know it nor made of carrots, but rather a steamed cake of rice flour and radish that is then bound and fried with eggs.

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Perhaps enticed by thoughts of mythical Singaporean carrot cakes, the spawn deigned to try ice kacang, and promptly fell in love.

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Instead of historical walks, we went on waterslides, the cable car, and saw 4D movies...

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...had our feet exfoliated by "doctor fish" in Chinatown...

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...went to the Night Safari, and to the supertrees at Gardens by the Bay.  And you know what?  It may have been all been cheesy family fun, but it was genuinely really awesome.

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And much as I wanted the kids to fall in love with Nyonya pineapple tarts, I just let them like what they liked (namely, giant boxes of donuts).  "It is what it is," say the Irish.  Why not just enjoy it?

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And you know what?  Once I let go, magical things started to happen.  My eldest decided she wanted to try crab, so we ventured into Geylang, Singapore's red-light district, where JB Ah Meng's Crab House lies.  I'd been taken to this rough-and-ready, back-alley eatery by Bryan's gorgeous, generous parents when I'd first visited Singapore.  Eating in the grungy, "locals-only" laneway, gorging myself on incredible seafood and huge mugs of Tiger beer over ice - it was one of the best food experiences of my life.

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I ventured back with trepidation.  Why return to an experience that was so perfect the first time around and risk ruining the memory?  But it was crazy, amazingly good.  Yes, two of the kids refused to eat anything, but the eldest devoured so much white-pepper crab.  What an amazing first crab experience.

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Here's a crab shot...

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...incredible, garlicky "la la" or clams...

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...and scrambled eggs with tomato and black fungus.  I could eat this kind of food every day.

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On the way home, we stopped at a durian stall...

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...and while only one out of three kids tried the "king of fruit", we ended up three for three when it came to mangosteens!  I predict lots of these in lunchboxes for the rest of the year.

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(The durian verdict?  It's bizarre.  If you don't know, this giant spiky fruit has a distinct aroma that is somewhere between cooking gas and overripe fruit.  Other people report it smelling like rotten cheese or smelly feet.  It's so intense that in many Asian countries, it's banned from subways or planes.  Some of the eating around it seems almost mythical - one fellow durian-eater that night mused misty-eyed that "no two durians taste alike" - almost like they have souls!

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The taste is very floral, like overripe papaya or mango, but it's the texture that's the oddest thing - like pate or cream cheese.  We got a tip which was to keep a segment of the spiky shell, fill that with water and then use that to rinse your mouth out so you don't have durian breath.  Such a fantastic experience, although we did stink out the whole hotel room with our leftovers and had to leave the do-not-disturb sign on all day while we blasted the AC to try to clear the scene of the crime!)

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Part of letting go was also hiring a babysitter for quite a few evenings so we could go do what we wanted (namely, eat copious amounts of things, with optional ending up at the Thai disco).  A highlight was the White Rabbit, inside an old church in the lush Dempsey Hill area, and which has got to be one of the most romantic eateries anywhere on the planet.  I conveniently submerged my ethics under a few raspberry martinis and we had a pre-firing squad-style dinner of oysters, Maine lobster, foie gras, and a how is this thing not a cornflake yet-amount of days-grain fed steak.  Such an incredible evening - we even got to see a marriage proposal!

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But perhaps in the same style of subverted expectations, one of the most delicious things we ate wasn't even Singaporean.  Right near where we were staying was the Golden Mile Complex, also known as "Thai Town".  This is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping centre crammed with Thai discos, karaoke joints, restaurants and travel agents, complete with cockfighting on the teev.

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It was here that we found a mookata spot, which is a Thai hybrid between steamboat and Korean-style BBQ.

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You're given a heaping platter of vegies and meats - marinated pork, liver, chicken, calamari, fish balls, crab sticks and mini hot dogs - and the surrounding "moat" is topped up first of all with a very weak chicken stock.  A burner is turned on underneath and as you sizzle marinated pork, chicken and more, all the juices run down off the domed, ridged cooktop into the stock.

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In the bubbling brew you might poach an egg, cook some of the noodles, or swizzle some mushrooms and greens.  It condenses down more and more until finally, stuffed fit to bursting, you scoop out the now viscous, rich brown liquid, which tastes like distilled daydreams.

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And how did this meal go down?  The kids ate all the mini hot dogs.  I ate all the prawns, and my husband ate all the liver.

Everyone was happy.

18 comments:

  1. Great article Lauren. I've recently discovered your blog and it's been really interesting :) I work in West Melbourne and frequent Footscray for lunch/market shopping all the time - I love it! So, thanks for the tips on the places I haven't eaten at yet! And I can totally empathise with you in regards to travelling with little tackers :-/ I took my son to Thailand last year when he was 3 1/2 and got the 'I'm hot, pick me up, I just want to swim at 'home' (aka our resort) a lot' So, this time it's Vietnam ala solo!

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    1. Thanks Joe and it's my pleasure! I'm happy for me (but sad for you!) that I have a fellow pained parent! I ended up going to Toys R Us for pool toys in desperation, as the pool at the hotel was pretty much just a pool - no kid-friendly features. Bring on Vietnam solo; sounds incredible!!!

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  2. Hi Lauren! What a delicious food post! You are making me salivate with envy and extremely homesick for Singaporean food especially the chilli crabs and hawker delights at Lagoon Food Centre, I used to to go Lagoon with my family before my sailing class on Sunday so it brought brought back great memories. White Rabbit is a really lovely place and glad to explore the 'finer' side of Singapore food. Another great place to check out in the future would be Lolla at Ann Siang Hill near Chinatown. Glad that your kids did enjoy their holiday in Singapore despite not being so adventurous with their food but I am sure that they would enjoy it more the next time you visit again as their palate evolve! Felicia

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    1. Hi Felicia! We loved The White Rabbit and also made it to The Disgruntled Chef, at which we had - no kidding - the best steak I've EVER eaten. I will definitely keep Lolla in mind for next time! And yes, with time I'm sure the kids will slowly learn to love travelling and eating as much as I do. I know when we first moved to Footscray, they wouldn't eat anything, but that has certainly changed! xo

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  3. What a lovely post! I've had my own butting of heads, and adult hopes/expectations meeting those of a much younger Bennie. It can be a challenge ... "letting go".

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  4. So that's where you've been!!! I was starting to get worried!! But I do have a bone to pick with you - Geylang is NOT the red light district!! Only a certain section off Geylang road is! Love your work and incredibly jealous and all that ...

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    1. I stand humbly corrected! :-) You are sweet to worry!

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  5. Love love love this post! Such a epic & funny story with your cute kids getting all grumpy in the HOT HOT weather... which is exactly how I'm like when I'm back home. I drooled over the thought of you going back to JB Ah Meng too, the crab (and ambience) there's so yummy. By the way, Fatbee says the donuts you got your kids (J.Co.) is from an Indonesian franchise, so at least it's "Asiany", lol.

    And guess what? I've never seen nor eaten deep fried cheese toasties in Singapore before. It'll probably be like the cheese sandwich version of goreng pisang (banana fritters) perhaps?

    This whirldwind tour inspires me to start sharing my Singapore food posts again. They're tiring to write up, but so much fun writing up!

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    1. Ha! I feel redeemed that at least they got "Asiany" donuts! Yes, that cheese toast was from a store that had pisang goreng etc. I actually got the fried bananas for the kids and they enjoyed them a lot.

      I love your Singapore posts! As you know, they are what inspired my trip to Singapore in the first place. I will be watching for your next one! ;-)

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  6. singapore's food is almost like vietnam's food

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    1. There are certainly some similarities... Vietnam is where I'd like to go next!

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  7. I love the photo with the reaction to the ice kacang - that was pretty much my reaction the first time I ever had one :) Thanks for sharing these great photos and story. I went to Singapore last year and can't wait to re-visit one day.

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  8. Lauren, that person crying over child not eating homemade pad thai could be me!! And I totally feel your disappointment over stubborn children on your trip to Singapore. My gosh, kids can be tricky!! We went to Vietnam last year with our two little kids and we were pretty proud of our 31/2 year old daughter - she was my little noodle companion. I'm am crossing my fingers that our youngest, now 2, is going to follow in her footsteps, but he is not nearly as adventurous as her yet!!

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    1. Hi Rachel! That is excellent to hear. Mine have always been rubbish with noodles. I have tried to explain over and over that they are essentially pasta (ie, favourite food numero uno) but no dice. Perhaps it has to do with social acceptability of adding cheese. At least now they like noodles in soup. Sigh! The coquettishness of children's tastebuds!!!

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  9. nice photos with delicious foods

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