A blog post about the time I ate pig intestines. But first…
One of the reasons why I was excited about going on study exchange to Singapore, petty as it may seem, was that I wouldn’t have to cook for myself any. Thanks, Capitalism, why I do like cheap commercial food made by underpaid workers.
This is partly due to how student housing in Singapore is different from Surrey. Instead of having individual houses with shared kitchens and a do-whatever-you-want approach, NTU Singapore has hostel-style accommodation. Cooking for yourself – unless you define that as, perhaps, eating instant ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ noodles – is not an option as the shared kitchens don’t have any food storage cabinets.
Fair enough. I expected this would only result in a wider choice of food dishes for me to select from without having to lift so much as finger in preparation of said dishes. I couldn’t be more wrong. As I have mentioned earlier, it turns out that I have less choice now due to a lack of ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ dishes. What astonishes me – and many other people who I rant about this to (everyone I meet, that is) – is that I have been a vegetarian for 14-odd years, didn’t have a problem staying that way in the UK even when I had to cook for myself…yet, I have had to give it up in Singapore.
(I was ranting once to my Singaporean friends how I never seem to able to find a vegetarian dish as a simple as a salad here. They listened to me, nodding along sympathetically, and then asked, “What’s salad?”)
The realization that I would have to give it up hit me on my very first day here when I looked at the menu in canteens here. I know the sizeable South Indian student population, which mostly consists of vegetarians, live by eating dosa for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the all of four years they would be spending here but that was a choice I simply could not live with. I find it funny (in a cruel way) how these people order a burger at McDonald’s, throw the (chicken/fish/beef) patty away, and morosely chew on a plain bun for lunch.
Ordering food in canteens is an experience I dread every meal. To give you an idea, canteens at NTU are like this…
…multiple food stalls under one roof, each specializing in a different cuisine. On the surface, it would appear there’s a lot to choose from! But what do you do when you have no idea whatsoever what those choices mean? All the dishes listed have names in Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese/Japanese/Korean names written in English rather than describing what the dish is. Here’s how ordering food in the canteens usually turns out for me…
(Picture me standing in queue, trying to figure out what to order. I’m frantically trying to search up what a dish I fancy is on my cellphone when I realize it’s too late.)
Canteen lady: Rice you wan? Or noodle wan?
Canteen lady [dumping both rice and noodles on plate]: What else you wan?
Me [feebly, pointing at a particular dish]: What’s that?
Canteen lady: [insert Chinese swear-word here] You no ask. You tell. You wan? You point number on list.
Me [panicking, people behind me in the queue get impatient]: I…erm…[chirp]…EVERYTHING!
Canteen lady: Okay-lah. [hands plate piled to the ceiling with food] You give 53 dollars.
This sort of experimenting, as you might have figured, ends up making a huge dent in my wallet. So I don’t. By now I have figured out a list of 10-12 dishes that I have found ‘safe’ and ‘nice to eat’ and I try to stick to those.
Also, if I have to eat ‘xing zhou fried rice’ one more time this week from Canteen 2 (it’s the one closest to my hostel block) I am going to jump in front of a bus and end my life.
As a newly converted ‘non-vegetarian’, I am slightly squeamish when it comes to trying out dishes that overtly involve getting messy or obviously appear to be an animal part in the final form in a dish. Every now and then though I pluck up the courage to try something…unique.
So when my Singaporean friends from the student TV station here suggested having a bak kut teh dinner after exams (which finished this week) I immediately agreed. I then followed that up by searching what, exactly, I had just agreed to eat.
Bak kut teh is one of Singapore’s famous dishes; ‘bak kut’ means ‘meat bone’, ‘teh’ means ‘tea’. Founder Bak Kut Teh on Balestier Road is Singapore’s most famous ‘BKT’ restaurant, and that’s where we decided to go.
As we travelled on D-Day to Novena MRT station, I told my friends about my squeamishness about eating anything that was like…what I had seen online. They explained to me along the way what the dish is. Essentially, it is pork ribs in soup. What usually distinguishes one restaurant’s BKT from another’s is the soup that it comes with. The two main styles of preparing it (in Singapore at least), are the Teochew style, in which the soup is peppery; and the Hokkien style, in which the soup is flavoured with herbs. There’s no ‘tea’ involved in the sense of the word you’d usually associate, with as the soup is the ‘tea’ here.
This description encouraged me a bit, because previously I had a similar chicken ‘meat bone’ soup – and I quite liked the rich flavours in that. It also helped that there was another friend in our who was equally apprehensive about how BKT would taste.
You could say that bak kut teh is the ratatouille of Chinese dishes – it started off as a dish that porters at Singapore as its high calorific value provided them energy to work for the day, and gradually morphed into one of the dishes that defines Singaporean cuisine.
Our merry bunch arrived at 5.30pm to find the restaurant shuttered down. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Founder Bak Kut Teh shuts down between 2pm to 6pm everyday. That put us right in front of the queue – waiting times can be more than an hour here when it gets busy! Founder BKT remains open till 2am daily, except for Tuesdays when it’s closed the whole day.
Inside, every inch of the walls of Founder BKT had pictures of celebrities who had visited the restaurant plastered on them. Even a casual diner wouldn’t be able to ignore this part of the heritage of the place, although have hundreds of (celebrity) eyes looking down upon you while you eat is decidedly creepy. I didn’t recognize any of the celebrities (mostly Singaporean) by face or name, except for Jackie Chan’s son as pointed out by friends.
Our order of the signature pork rib BKT dish arrived surprisingly quickly. The soup was excellent. Contrary to my expectations, the pig ribs weren’t as bad I thought they would be at all. The meat is tender and easy to bite off; infused with the peppery soup flavour it tasted good. What was hard for me though was using chopsticks to hold on to the slippery ribs. (I ended up need three pairs of chopsticks after my incorrect grip sent them flying dangerously close to poking someone’s eye out. The trick, I was told, is that usually Chinese people hold the rice/dish bowl close to their face and shovel food into their mouth with chopsticks rather than trying to pick up food from a bowl resting on a table.)
You can order pretty much any part of a pig you want to eat at Founder Bak Kut Teh – ribs, liver, heart. What you see above is the pig trotters dish (feet of a pig). The taste is really distinctive; the closest I can describe it to is a bitter-tasting cinnamon. I could feel the aftertaste in my mouth for the rest of the day. I mean that in a ‘good’ way rather than the bad aftertaste that durian leaves.
I didn’t have enough courage to order it, but a friend at our table did order pig intestines. (Shown in the picture above; the piece being held up is the appendix.) I sampled a few small pieces from this. It comes in the same peppery soup, and as you’d expect the intestines are really chewy. They also have some sort of filling inside them that I’d describe as having the texture and taste of fried eggs, with hint of peppery soup.
Not all the dishes ordered were non-vegetarian. The salted vegetable dish – chopped leafy green vegetables in a sour-salty watery sauce – was delicious, as were the ‘youtiao’ – fried dough sticks that are eaten after dunking them thoroughly in bak kut teh soup.
To wash everything down while dining, I ordered a luohan gan fruit drink. The colour is similar to the popular-here grass jelly drinks, and the taste is like that of malted chocolate drinks.
As we were all having dinner, my friends commented how unique it was to have dishes they have been eating for many years described the way I was doing. That prompted a discussion on how at a broad level our cultural experience influences the further experiences we have – insofar as to what the ‘baseline’ from what everything is measured.
I can’t even get started on how glad I was my friend’s called me along for this. Founder Bak Kut Teh is a don’t-miss culinary stopover when in Singapore.
There was something else that I am really curious about – and I put this question to my friends but they didn’t know an answer. I find it a bit odd that soybean milk and its derivative products (tofu, for instance) seem to preferred over dairy equivalents in South East Asia. I assumed this was possibly because people here might be genetically pre-disposed towards lactose-intolerance. Apparently not, my friends say, though they have no idea for this preference. Anyone else able to shed light on this? From the looks of it, this just seems a case where everyone decided to drink soy milk instead of cow milk for no specific reason!