9 AM: Woke up a little groggy after our marathon sightseeing day yesterday. D and I need some energy, so we head straightaway for a starchy breakfast. We sample the kaya toast at Tong Ah Eating House, this time accompanied by the traditional soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce. The French kaya toast is eggy and dense, while the plain is nice and crispy, but both have plenty of butter and Tong Ah’s homemade kaya. Just to gild the lily, we mainline a pair of high-octane iced coffees, very dark and sweet, out of Guinness mugs for extra oomph. Now that’s a breakfast.
11 AM: Boy howdy, it’s a good thing we fortified ourselves because we are about to take on quite a strenuous morning activity: lounging in recliners for foot reflexology treatments. We head into a very tall building full of travel agencies and reflexology spas, and settle in for some deep tissue work. After all the walking yesterday, plus lingering stiffness from the flight, it feels fabulous – and only costs about $13 US.
Thoroughly relaxed, we wander the busy Chinatown streets. Although D helpfully directs me to many good souvenir options – name stamps carved in little stones were particularly attractive – none were calling my name.
That is, until we passed a stall for henna tattoos. I’m not big on collecting stuff, other than kitchen supplies, decorative paper, or unusually comfortable shoes. But I am fond of wacky experiences. And, if you read about my first day in Singapore, you know that I’m irrationally enchanted by the national mascot, the merlion. I decided I needed no memory of the unique relationship the merlion and I share, other than her imprint on my skin – however ephemeral. D decided to join me, choosing a slightly more abstract design, and we drew a crowd of spectators who oohed and awed at the artist’s skill. One repeatedly exclaimed, “Such steady hands! He should be a surgeon!” Though his medical knowledge remains unconfirmed, the artist did freehand me the merlion tattoo of my dreams in under ten minutes for just $10.
It was only after inscribing the merlion on my flesh that I learned that local Singaporeans use the word “merlion” to mean copious vomiting. Recall, if you will, that the merlion statue spits a constant stream of water arcing gracefully over the Marina Bay. The motion is not dissimilar to projectile vomit. In Singlish, the local creole, one might therefore say, while observing a fallen comrade in the club, “Wah, he merlion lah!” (Roughly: “Haha, he’s puking.”)
This is another reason why I prefer my tattoo temporary.
1 PM: Thus festooned, we head to the Maxwell Food Centre (another hawker centre) for lunch. The star of the show was a plate of Hainanese chicken rice, which I have cooked for myself several times in the past without ever sampling an authentic version. And I have a long way to go. It’s a simple dish, but every element takes finesse to execute perfectly. Poach a chicken slowly in flavorful broth, then use the broth and fat to cook long-grained rice. Serve with fresh cucumber, a cup of the broth, and an addictive chili-garlic sauce; feel so nourished.
We also enjoyed popiah, or tasty crisp vegetables and sauce wrapped in a thin wheat crepe; a prawn and egg noodle stir fry called hokkien mee; a lightly sweetened peanut tong sui soup with crispy crullers and sticky black sesame rice dumplings, and another tall glass of fresh fruit juice (starfruit and guava, such a good combo). My favorite new taste from this meal was definitely the pisang goreng – the banana fritter. I am positive these are made with a different banana variety than the Cavendishes we’re subject to in the U.S (learn more about our sad bananas here). This one was custardy in both flavor and texture, a beautiful golden color, and surrounded by a resolutely crispy batter that melted on the tongue. I could eat these by the plateful.
3 PM: D has to go to work, so I settle into a cafe for a few hours of work/blogging.
5 PM: On our way back to D’s place, we stroll through Kampong Glam, a primarily Muslim and Malay neighborhood. Perhaps its most striking feature is Masjid Sultan, a beautiful mosque with history dating back to Britain’s first incursions into Singapore.
See, in 1819, the tricky Sir Stamford Raffles secured the East India Company rights to Singapore despite Dutch opposition. To do so, he circumvented the Dutch-recognized sultan and dealt instead with the former crown prince, Hussein Shah. The Singapore National Museum refers to as Sultan Hussein as “a weak figurehead who led an indulgent life.” Oh snap! Indeed, he did sign away Singapore’s independence and his own power in exchange for a hefty sum of money and the use of Kampong Glam as a Muslim neighborhood. The East India Company placated Sultan Hussein further by funding the construction of the Masjid Sultan in 1824, since which time it has continued to serve as a pillar of Singapore’s Muslim community (though it was rebuilt to its current form in 1928).
Today, Kampong Glam is vibrant and lively, with murals, Malayan and Arab restaurants, shophouse architecture, and fabric stalls bursting with bolts of wax-dyed batik cloth. And Haji Lane – originally named for the Muslim pilgrims undertaking the haj pilgrimage to Mecca who sought shelter here – now features all sorts of quirky boutiques, designer goods, and artisanal cafes. Definitely a hip part of town.
7 PM: There’s a line at Swee Choon restaurant. A small group of us is here to feast on dim sum (which they spell “tim sum” here in Singapore) and the future looks bright.
While we wait, we load up our order sheet, and when we finally sit, the dishes come thick and fast. We’re pretty much quiet, lost in our own happy bubbles as we devour our treasures. It’s a little crazy how good it all tastes. Some highlights: Mee suah kueh, or rice noodles pressed into soft chewy rectangles and crisped on the bottom. Hei zho, or chopped prawns rolled neatly in a crispy tofu skin. An incredibly succulent smoked duck breast, crusted with black pepper and served over sliced tomatoes.
And to finish, the delectable dessert known as liu sha bao, or molten salted egg custard buns. (A more attractive, but less informative, name for liu sha bao is “golden lava sand bun.”) Anyway, these rich steamed sweets are indescribably delicious. Pop open the fluffy white dough and let the warm, buttery custard seep out. Pull off tufts of bun and use them to spoon custard slowly into your mouth, licking your lips and your fingers, until it’s gone. Then sit back, take a long sip of chrysanthemum tea, and sigh.
9 PM: Back at D’s apartment after a stroll through in Little India in the balmy darkness. The Diwali decorations are still up, and the streets slowly emptying as people return home. I think I’ll sleep well tonight.