Let's fast forward a little. After four days exploring Singapore's hawker centres and back-alley cafes, I dragged my bag to the MRT and set off for Johor Bahru, Malaysia. This coastal city is just over the causeway from Singapore and is where my friend Mrs Hand has taken up residence.
Why Mrs Hand, you say? When I asked her if I could include her in photos, "No way man!" came the reply in her thick Aussie accent. "Come on, what about if your hand's in the way?" I pressed. "Fine, whatever," she smiled. So Mrs Hand it is.
She knew I was on an eating pilgrimage, so first stop, a nasi campur stall in a local wet market. You load up your plate with rice from the rice cooker and then just start piling on the goods. Chilli beef jerky, fried tempeh, emerald green water spinach and more. The beef rendang was out of control good. I stopped at the sea snail shells though!
There are loads of roadside stalls selling everything from kueh (steamed cakes) to fresh fruit. This is Mrs Hand's regular stop for after-school snacks - freshly made fruit and vegie fritters. I loved the cassava sticks and two types of fried banana, pisang rajah (small and sweet) and pisang besar (like plantain slices).
That night it was time for the best roasted quail, marinated in sweet soy and chilli and roasted over flames (fanned by, well, a fan!)
Alongside were delicate chicken satay served with wickedly good, rich satay sauce, full of many layers of flavour including lemongrass, chilli and just a little peanut. Hmm - my go-to satay sauce of coconut milk, sweet chilli sauce and Kraft peanut butter isn't seeming all that appetising now!
Breakfast was at a Mamak eatery, which serves food from the Tamil Muslim community of Malaysia, including roti, dosa, curries and more.
Tissue-thin, light and puffy roti bread dipped in classic South Indian dal. Two roti with dal cost the equivalent of 55 Australian cents. YES - 55 cents. That's it... I'm moving to Malaysia.
Medical specimen or freshly squeezed OJ to go?
With the promise of home cooking, we bundled into the car for an epic journey up the coast to Mrs Hand's auntie's house, where a goat had been killed that morning for the aqiqah, a celebration of a new baby's birth.
Anything with a skull floating in it has to be good. Believe me, this curry was insanely delicious. The bones gave it such turbo-charged, deep meaty flavour (by which I don't mean gamey), and all the stringy bits had melted down to create a rich, silky gravy, loaded with cinnamon and cardamom pods.
More beautiful Malay home cooking - thin, mild coconut curry loaded with carrot, tofu and jackfruit, perfect for pouring over homemade sticky rice cakes...plus achar, a simple but addictive cucumber and long red chilli pickle, and more crack-tastic satay sauce. One of the family's kids apparently eats bowl after bowl of this peanut sauce and little else. I can relate.
Now, I could tell you the story of how Mrs Hand crashed us into a police roadblock, or how we got attacked by monkeys and had to drive off in a panic in our bathers through the conservative Malay countryside. But I'll leave you with the South China Sea, warm as bathwater, where I floated weightlessly on my back for the longest time, buffeted by gentle swells, and stared at the blue sky above.