Here’s part 2 of LocAlien’s guest post from Singapore. Thanks again, LocAlien! I will totally go hunting for grimy biryani parlours with you if I ever get the chance…
I suppose that Anthony Bourdain has done more than most to introduce this street food culture to the world. I believe that he honestly tries to find its genuine elements, while evading and even subverting the manufactured gimmickry and antiseptic options that the tourist promotion board pushes on innocent food tourists. But he can unnecessarily overreach, as when he asserts that chicken rice has the strongest claim to being the national dish. (Check out a clip here.) The problems: One, other dishes have more justified claims to the title. Two, ethnic hegemony. The chicken rice he eats on tv is the Chinese version, which you’ll never see Malays or Indians ever eat. The less famous Malay version of chicken rice can be very well executed, especially if you prefer the chicken more roasted-y rather than poached, and the rice drier. Nevertheless, Chinese chicken rice can be superb, especially if the initial thought of boiled chicken served cold grosses you out. The gelatinous skin alone is gold. Three, over-selling it. Telling people that chicken rice is the national dish, convinces them to buy the first plate they see, and they will see it everywhere. Most chicken rice isn’t worth the hassle, and will make you think Bourdain is a moron. Pick the wrong place, and you’ll be gagging on rendered chicken fat. I’d venture that only 40% is decent, and the best handful of sellers would serve you a plate that might just be worth half your airfare. Four, he just plain eats it wrong. Whatever you do, don’t douse it in soy sauce for fuck sake. If you know enough about sushi to know that soy sauce disrespects the chef, you should know that the same about the chicken rice cook. Oh, and fun fact: Pay close attention to the guy chopping your chicken with the cleaver. Count his fingers, and see if you reach 10. If you do, he might not have being doing this for long enough.
Just like the World Cup makes nationalism acceptable.
Food culture makes xenophobia kinda OK.
Globalization. Migration. Influx from China.
Street food. Franchising. Proliferation.
iPhone, pomo, why learn to cook street food?
Food courts, migrant cooks, wtf do they know about what it’s supposed to taste like?
wtf do the people who run the food court care about your shitty food?
Dearth of flavor.
Death of culture.
Work of leathery old men who bought their Rolexes and Beamers cooking one dish, daily, for 40 years, dies with them.
Mom: What do you feel like eating today?
Me: How about biryani?
Mom: We have a new shop just up the street.
Me: Is it dirty?
Mom: No, it’s a new place, it’s very clean.
Me: No, you don’t understand. I WANT the dirty. The chicken biryani in the big old aluminum tubs with little dents all over, scooped out by the fat Indian man who might or might not have been scratching under his dhoti just a minute before.
Mom: You’re nuts.
Me: So, is it dirty?
Mom: Not really.
Me: Then there’s no point to it.
Mom: What about fried prawn noodles, then?
Me: Is it dirty?
Let’s end on a good note. Earlier, I told you that you’re going to need a knowledgeable local to tell you where the good stuff still exists. I’d like to add that you should have a few of them, and they should preferably be culturally diverse. My preference leans Malay and Indian, so I need to be led when it comes to Chinese. An old school friend brought me to the seafood restaurants on Alexandra Road one evening for a post-run dinner. Open-aired tables and no fast food or franchises within view… that’s one way to know that you’ve found something worthwhile. I had to stop Eugene’s order at 4 items as I hadn’t been in a binge eating mood like I have on trips past. Barbequed stingray (a local favorite), sambal squid, a soft tofu-seafood stir fry, and chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. Finished with Heinekens, and a short walk later, 2 glasses of sugarcane juice. (Yes, you see the man manually putting the sugarcane through the press.) It all came in at about $40. Rachael Ray’s asinine tourist traps can kiss my ass. The cost of living here as Singapore aspires to be Tokyo is soaring, and Eugene said that affordable food is just about the state’s last line of defense against truly restless, but for now politically passive masses. I believe it.