An Eye For An Eye – My Uncle’s Story

Across my uncle’s three-decade career as an academic, he has supervised many a graduate student. Some of these students he has kept in touch with after they have graduated and gone on to do other things. Sometimes these students are international students, and when he finds himself in their home city for work, he will look them up.

And so it was that my uncle, whilst on a work trip to Singapore, found himself invited to a formal dinner with an ex-student and his family. Dinner was a banquet – an endless succession of intricate delicacies and local favourites. Then, as the meal reached its climax, the main event was brought to the table – a whole fish.

In Singaporean culture, it is apparently tradition to show respect to the guest of honour by allowing them to eat the juiciest, most delicious, most delicate part of the fish: its eyes. (Perhaps it’s also just a fun way to mess with friends who are new to the city.)

POP! went the eyes as they were scooped out of their sockets and placed on my uncle’s plate.

And so my uncle – who will devour cow tongue with a relish bordering on grotesque and yet who is surprisingly squeamish about other body parts – found himself staring at his plate whilst the rest of the table sat smiling encouragingly at him.

I think he might have just swallowed them whole.

“What hath night to do with sleep?”

For a long time, I’ve wanted to go to Singapore but each time I planned a trip something would come up just before I booked flights and make it impossible for me to go. This has happened four times, but fifth time’s the charm and a few months ago I managed to sneak in a two-night trip.

I’ve known a lot of people who have moved from Singapore to Australia, so my expectations of the city were largely based on what they as (sometimes disgruntled) expats told me of their hometown. I was expecting a city of concrete and towers, of conformity and order, and of amazing food. The food certainly did not disappoint, but the city surprised me in many other ways.

Although concrete and towers are certainly pervasive, I was shocked at how beautifully green the island city was. Although it was incredibly humid whilst we were there, the innumerable parks which join each neighbourhood made the 6-hour+ walking days incredibly pleasant. And each neighbourhood certainly had its own charm.

A bit like Kuala Lumpur, the diversity of Singapore makes for a hodge-podge of a city, and the compilation of all the different neighbourhoods makes it feel like multiple cities in one. On the second day, we took a walk through the heritage-listed streets of the old town where multiple stalls and tiny shop fronts sold everything from touristic knick knacks to bags and clothing to incredibly beautiful antique furniture. From there we headed to little India where we stumbled upon an insipid-looking but incredibly popular eatery where – encouraged by the large local crowd and the obvious enjoyment of the diners – we ordered a dosa masala (freshly made) and sour lassi. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing that meal was, so I’m not going to even attempt it.

Despite its deliciousness, we found ourselves unable to finish our dosa. Actually, we struggled to finish most of our meals in Singapore. The wide variety of the food, its continual availability and surprisingly low cost meant we spent most of our time eating. It’s entirely possible that I consumed my body weight in dumplings, and that was before we even got around to trying all the dishes Singapore is known for. All the different types of noodle dishes, daikon cake, murtabak – it was all good. Despite our incredibly short visit, I also really got into ordering coffee like a local (kopi-O-peng kosong!) which meant very high caffeine levels and so made getting the most out of our 40-hour trip a breeze.

Which was a good thing, because Singapore really comes alive after dark. It’s a city of roof-top bars and trendy nightclubs where young professionals in designer clothes sit in booths sipping top-shelf vodka or champagne. Or so I’ve been told by those same expats. With a historically conservative culture around drinking, alcohol in Singapore is expensive and the dress-standard entrance to clubs and some bars is prohibitively high. So we didn’t really ‘go out’ while we were there. We just wandered the streets hour after hour soaking up the atmosphere. Content to be anonymous revellers tripping the light fantastic down brightly lit boulevards where billboard advertisements move and beckon, inviting you into the eternally-open shopping centres.

 

 

 

Walking the Great Wall: My Uncle’s Story

Until now the family stories I have shared have been set in the same cities I have posted about. Today I wanted to do something slightly different, and offer a story echo based on region. Apart from myself, no one in my family has traveled extensively in Asia, meaning that I have no family tales to share about Taiwan. My uncle has, however, been to China – a country I have yet to visit.

*

When China opened its borders to the west in the early 1980s, my uncle packed his bags and headed over. Now a somewhat older and more experienced traveler, he delighted in the oddity he presented to the locals as a foreigner. The locals pointed, some took photos, some attempted to talk to him, some were obviously shy and gave him a wide berth and sideways glance.

His delight with China once again expressed itself in his relationship to local food practices. His interest in the tastes of the cuisine and the magnificently grand cooking techniques led to an examination question he posed to his engineering students in Perth the following year:

How would one could remove the entire skeleton from a dead duck, leaving both the carcass and the skeleton still in tact? 

An ancient technique, the record of the procedure can only be found in one English translation of an obscure medieval Chinese cookery pamphlet. His students called the question unfair. My uncle argued that research was an important skill for an engineer.

My uncle always looks happy when he speaks of his time in China and even potentially unpleasant experiences are told with a smile and a laugh.

At the end of his trek along a section of the Great Wall, my uncle spied a fruit stand. Being both hungry and thirsty he headed over. There were many fruits on offer, but my uncle’s eye was drawn to the big juicy oranges at the back of the stall. He had no Mandarin, the seller had no English, and so my uncle pointed at them and then held up his finger to indicate that he wanted only one. The seller seemed shocked and checked several times – by both holding up the orange and pointing at it – that this was the fruit my uncle wanted. My uncle, somewhat confused, nodded his head vigorously and assured the man that, yes, that was the fruit he would like. The seller nodded his understanding and then began to gift-wrap the orange in paper and sugar.

My uncle, now even more confused, figured that he was simply ignorant of local cultural practice and did not question the situation. The man handed over the orange and pointed to the note my uncle was to give him. My uncle handed it over with a smile, bowed his thank you and left. It was not until the next day when he converted the sum that he realised he had paid around $50 for the orange.

It had been incredibly juicy and delicious though.

“Hunger is good discipline”

Until recently I hadn’t seen much of Asia, but Taipei was always high on the list of places I wanted to visit. My Taiwanese friends’ accounts and their epic love of food had long led me to believe that Taipei was a food paradise where continuous snacking was not only not frowned upon, but actively encouraged. In this I was certainly not disappointed. I felt like Alice nibbling her way through Wonderland, taking a tour through China’s best culinary achievements organised by region.*

Buns of every flavour – egg custard, vermicelli noodles with vegetables, red bean paste, mushrooms and spinach, black sesame paste (the kind that oozes like warmed Nutella and is so rich it acts as a tongue depressor), vegetable stew – they were innumerable to count. And then there were the pancakes! Spring onion pancake (the yum cha classic), and my new favourite post-pint treat: egg roti pancake. I think there is a similar dish to this in Singapore. You take a really thin roti pancake cooked with spring onion and fry it just a little on one side, then you flip it, crack an egg onto it and fry it till it is crisp and golden and so delicious it almost induces instant diabetes (insta-betes, if you will), then you serve the crispy buttery yolky mess with Sriracha sauce. And then you fight over it because you only got one between two and neither of you wants to wait in line for another one. Not that that happened…

But the most exciting part about discovering Taipei food culture was the dessert. Taiwanese dessert is genuinely amazing. Served hot or cold, your typical bowl involves taro, kidney beans, and jelly served in a rich red bean soup (and, one can only assume, a mountain of invisible sugar). And to wash it all down, there’s that Taiwanese export gem: bubble tea.

You never run the risk of being hungry in Taipei.

Of course, it wasn’t only the food that made the trip. Like most large Asian cities, Taipei boasts labyrinthine markets, vibrant neon-lit public spaces, amazing and diverse neighbourhoods, and an exciting nightlife.

Actually, Taipei’s nightlife has quite an interesting dynamic. Taipei has one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in the world (a result, it would seem, of the dual influences of an at times conservative culture and the exorbitant price of alcohol at bars). What this means is that nightlife happens in and around food markets, rather than bars, nightclubs or similar. And so you have families, groups of teenagers, business people, and tourists, all genuinely playing in the same sandpit, which makes for a very interesting – and quite wonderful and friendly – dynamic. Combined with a crime rate to rival Tokyo’s (both so low kindergarteners ride public buses to school by themselves) it also makes for an incredibly relaxed atmosphere.

And then there were the amazing day trips – visiting pandas, exploring temples, walking through all the neighbourhoods, discovering Taipei coffee culture, the amazing afternoon spent down at the converted docks (it’s now an art space for outdoor sculptures and indoor exhibition galleries), our accidental degustation dinner (it was so cheap we just thought it was a tapas style thing!), the attempt to visit all of the night markets which was very quickly deserted when we realised the actual scale of that project… The list is actually endless.

Sadly, the gallery below doesn’t adequately capture this. Regular readers (if they exist) may well have noticed that this post features a lot more description – and a lot less photos – than usual. There’s a reason for that.

We flew from Taipei to Seoul, landing at around the time locals would have been eating dinner. Somewhere between the airport and our hostel our camera – and all the memories it held – went missing. It was a horrible realisation and a bitter start to our time in Seoul.

But at least I have a valid excuse to head back to Taipei soon!

*Taiwan’s incredibly varied food culture is informed by a difficult history – something which I don’t think the tenor or length of this blog has any right to attempt to venture into. There are a number of amazing online resources which do this topic justice.