Categories
Reviews

The Pot Belly / What A Comic Show reviews

My trip to The Pot Belly Cafe was mildly adventurous. Since I got a new Nokia Lumia phone, I decided to check out how accurate its HERE Transit app is with Delhi transport. I started off from my house near Moti Bagh and took a bus to AIIMS. At this point, the app kept telling me either to take a 465EXT route bus – which never arrived despite being listed multiple times – or to take route 540 from South Extension, 500 metres away.

AIIMS flyover

I thought, “500 metres ain’t too bad” so I started walking towards South Ex from AIIMS. At first there was a usable (in Delhi!) footpath, which soon narrowed down to a single-brick wide pathway alongside a busy highway. It was at this point that two guys on a motorcycle alighted next me. Now, it was dark – around 8pm – and I expected they’d either mug me or ask for directions. The mystery was soon resolved when one of the guys approached me and asked me whether I wanted to buy a Nokia Lumia 920 for “a reasonable price”. I politely declined and reached my destination eventually by bus. I learned later that it’s a common scam in Delhi to be approached by people pretending to sell you a phone at a seemingly bargain price, and then swap the phone with a dummy when the transaction takes place.

I was headed to Shahpur Jat – a “ghetto version of Hauz Khas Village”, as a friend described it. I was little prepared for the shock when I entered the “village” from the incorrect entrance and had to navigate narrow alley after another to get to my destination. (Directions on Zomato or Google Maps weren’t helpful.) Karmanya may have been scared to get shanked in HKV, but on this occasion I felt that was an actual possibility. The closest parallel I can draw to what the general vibe is when I’ve had to visit relatives in Katwaria Sarai.

Anyway, I finally did reach my destination, The Pot Belly Cafe. Not a particularly upscale option as it specialises in Bihari cuisine, which was part of the attraction to me since it would be something different. This place had been picked on Prateek‘s recommendation (a foodie who runs an amazing food blog over at Belly Centric); I was also meeting up with other Twitter-friends – Souvik, Apoorv, and Karan.

Pot Belly

The interiors look like a fancy dhaba. We started off with baskets of meat and vegetable pakoras for starters. Pakoras are fairly typical and our group was still hungry so we decided to order more starters.

Pot Belly - Phish Phingers

The next set of starters we ordered were “phish phingers” – cylindrical fish sticks with crispy potatoes of the kind you get at Yo! China – along with the Bihari staple of litti chokha. Litti is basically roasted chickpea which is stuffed into a fried jacket, like a jacket potato, served with (on this occasion) with chana dal. My impression of litti chokha from litti juices that I’ve drunk earlier wasn’t particularly amazing, so I was quite surprised that this was tasty!

For the main course, we chose three dishes. Bihari burger turned out to be a cross between a normal burger and a pav bhaaji, with a mutton patty and filling in super-sized pav bhaaji buns – enough for two people if you aren’t feeling peckish. Champaran-style mutton was boneless, tender mutton served with paranthas and raita. And lastly, Maithili thali was a puri dish with diced paneer. The portions were good enough for sharing among the five of us.

Somewhat out-of-the-way, The Pot Belly Cafe is an excellent choice if you want to try out Indian cuisine that’s typically not classified as “sexy” among eating-out choices or easily available. Make sure you figure out where it is first though! It’s very easy to miss. (Slice of Italy / The Coffee Garage are good landmarks in case you need to seek directions.)

Rating: 8 / 10

***

SDA Market (opposite IIT Delhi) isn’t my usual choice for venue for a meal due to the lack of choice in cuisines. Not much space in such a tiny market anyway. However, I had noticed signs for a new establishment called What A Comic Show, and I was intrigued by it because I assumed it would be a comedy club. I wanted to give an Indian comedy club that supported local comedians a shot.

What A Comic Show

It wasn’t until I met up with Bhavika for dinner yesterday there that I realised that What A Comic Show is a restaurant – hence the name, rather than a comedy club. The restaurant is stocked with comic book memorabilia (with scary “no touching!” signs) on all shelves, with custom comic book graphic art poster for each table top. The menu, too, is a cardboard slab with comic book action font.

What A Comic Show primarily serves Asian and Continental cuisine. The Asian section, to be honest, is quite disappointing serving what passes off as Chinese cuisine in India. The Continental menu, on the other hand, is loaded with many interesting choices. We ordered the mix bell pepper bruschetta and mushroom toast for starters. The quantity was overkill for a starer, since each portion is quite large for two people with four pieces each. For mains, I ate their signature “All Flavour Burger” – a delicious combination of bacon, egg, and burger with fries.

The only hitch is that our first waiter seemed quite inexperienced, and didn’t understand either English or Hindi, consistently misunderstanding what we were trying to convey. Another waiter took over soon enough and he was charming and competent. It’s an important point because their menu doesn’t list what drinks they serve (no alcohol), so you’re completely reliant on the waiters to inform you about your choices. Another part of the decor – an ugly-ass stereo system near the cashiers’ desk – stuck out as slightly incongruous to me with the rest of the decor.

Prices are reasonably cheap and a meal for two can be easily had with starters, mains, and drinks for approximately Rs 900. (We did have to pay more as we underestimated and ordered more food.) With its prime location, pocket-friendly prices, and interesting take on a restaurant theme I can imagine this place would be popular among young people.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Categories
Reviews

Garage, Inc (Hauz Khas Village) / The Blue Door (Khan Market) reviews

My friend Karmanya and I have been searching for a good burger in Delhi the past week. With that in mind, I went to two places to see how the burgers were.

***

Garage Inc

Garage, Inc in Hauz Khas Village bills itself as an American diner. Naturally, the bare minimum expectation of an American diner is it should serve good burgers. A flight of stairs through the cacophony of construction that seem to be perpetually going on HKV leads to this restaurant. (Karmanya thought he was about to shanked because of how shady the construction site looked.)

A heavy iron door – the kind you’d expect for a bank vault, but not really – opens into the restaurant which seems to be aiming for the biker look on everything except for its menu. To be honest, nothing stands out in the decor except for a seemingly-unused foosball table right in front of the door.

For starters we ordered cheesy fries with pork, which had some description of shredded meat similar to beef chilli (but supposedly pork). Oh well. I had better hope from their burgers, so I ordered a chicken grease burger with bacon while Karmanya ordered a bacon and beef burger. Now, the concept of “rare” or “medium rare” seems to be non-existent in India, despite specifically making a request for a medium rare burger, the patty in the one Karmanya got was charred. Mine was slightly better, but that’s not saying much since the buns seemed to be too cheap / badly stored and fell apart within seconds. The coleslaw, too, was stale (and upset my stomach later in the day).

I was looking forward to dessert since I’d looked up on Zomato that they did deep-fried Mars bar, a Scottish abomination that I haven’t eaten for a while. It’s a standard Mars bar, deep-fried in batter to create a Frankensteinian calorie monster that makes you regret eating it the moment you do. BUT IT IS SO WORTH IT.

Garage Inc - Deep fried Mars bar

Now, the thing about a deep-fried Mars bar is that isn’t supposed to be a fine dining experience – because that’s not what the deep-fried Southern American cuisine style is about. It’s supposed to greasy, dirty, sweet, and loaded on calories. Yet the dessert that was presented was dainty, with chocolate sauce dressing, a scoop of ice cream, and to make it worse a “fun” size Mars bar rather than a normal one.

The ambience and food at Garage, Inc is terrible. Give this place a miss.

Rating: 3 / 10

***

Blue Door Cafe Khan Market signI’ve walked passed the sign for The Blue Door Cafe in Khan Market many times, always giving it a miss because the sign looks. so. shit. The sign is tacky as fuck, more along the line of an upscale dhaba that attempts to do European cuisine. Still, on Karmanya’s recommendation – and since my choice of Garage, Inc had been so crap – we decided to give this place a go.

We went in for lunch, although they seem to specialise in breakfasts and crepes. I ordered a burger again with a brownie shake – the latter of which they promptly forgot until I prompted them for it an hour later. Apart from that hitch, the service was on the ball.

Speaking of the burger itself, it was done medium rare-ish without even asking for it, showing that the place cares about its meat. The salad was fresh, the chips were chunky, and buns too tasted fresh without falling apart. The shake, well, shakes are good in their own right but given enough whipped cream anything tastes good, to the point that anyone who claims a milkshake they had was “heavenly” now just gets a shrug from me.

I need to go back to this place another day to try their breakfast, because properly-cooked bacon is hard to get in Delhi. The Blue Door Cafe is an excellent place for the price you pay.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Categories
Reviews

Gung The Palace review

I used to fret whether searching for “authentic” cuisine in non-native countries was a pretentious thing to do. Now, I’ve reconciled to the fact that people who try out a fake version of a foreign cuisine and gush about it are far more pretentious, and hence I have my own right to be more smug than them. IT HELPS ME SLEEP AT NIGHT, OKAY.

Anyway. I’m back in Delhi while I’m waiting for my visa to be sorted out. During this time, I’ve gone around meeting friends and I’ve quite often been disappointed with what is passed off as foreign cuisine in Delhi. The other day I went to Boombox Cafe, much-beloved among the Delhi crowd for its variety of cuisine as evidenced by online reviews. I haven’t eaten Mexican food for ages now, so I ordered a chicken quesedilla…and got a random mix of diced chicken inside a paratha. Another day, at Cafe Morrison, I ordered nachos with cheese only to get a hardened, dried nachos with “cheese” that was yellow-coloured running water. Such is the state of eating out in Delhi, with many popular restaurants trying to serve dishes from multiple cuisines to customers who wouldn’t know better, as long as they have an illusion of choice. It was in this context that, you must realise, when one of my friends suggested a place in Green Park that served “really authentic Korean food” I wanted to reserve my judgement until I saw it with my own eyes.

Gung The Palace lobby

Tucked away in a side road from Green Park Main Market is Gung The Palace. The lobby that greets you when you walk in is littered with Korean pamphlets and memorabilia, with private rooms where you sit down on the floor in front of low tables for your dining experience. My friend (Karmanya) and I walked in today asked for a table for two, and the hostess who greeted us at the door asked us if we had a reservation. We didn’t. She gave a look as if that never happened in this establishment. I was almost about to blurt out “Look here lady, I don’t know how they do it in False Korea, but in True Korea we would have been greeted warmly” when we were ushered upstairs to a standard seating area with normal dining tables and chairs.

The decor in this section of the restaurant was somewhat incongruous. There was a TV, much like in a dhaba, playing a Korean TV channel showing a Korean version of Takeshi’s Castle where competitors were running around over giant inflatable pools and eating noodles. (I presume on their breaks from running on top of giant inflatable pools.) In another corner was a disco ball on the ceiling for…I don’t know. Impromptu karaoke parties?

Credit: Nichola at My Korean Husband
Credit: Nichola at My Korean Husband

We got served cold tea right away – I assume it was barley tea, or hell may rain wrath upon them – along with a selection of appetisers such as soft, sweet peanuts (my favourite), kimchi, fried chicken pieces (kinda similar to Japanese chicken karaage), brussels sprouts, spinach, et al while we perused the menu. The menu is cute in how words in the story of the restaurant are randomly missing spaces to make breathlessrunonwordsthatmakenosense. Helpful pictures guide first-timers to Korean cuisine on what the dishes look like, and it took us a while to decide on dishes because there are around 70-80 items on the menu. (Options available for vegetarians too, asthemenubreathlesslyinformsyou.) I was salivating at pictures of prime sirloin and prime jowls already. Perhaps the only item that looked out-of-place were the California rolls.

Ultimately, I ordered marinated chicken – dak bulgogi – with glass noodles (it’s been a while since I’ve eaten glass noodles) while Karmanya ordered sour pork with rice. Part of hesitation with the menu came from the eye-watering prices (by Delhi standards) with most dishes in the range of Rs 700-1800. We also ordered sweet plum soju, which came in a teapot for multiple servings.

Gung The Palace - Dak Bulgogi

We’d seriously underestimated the quantity of food we’d get. Unlike other expensive places, Gung doesn’t skimp on portions at all! My noodles were served hotpot-style with a burner on the table a huge plate with a generous serving of bulgogi with noodles. In fact, to anyone who goes there I’d recommend being restrained with how many dishes to order since each can easily feed 2-3 people. (It was the same with the portions Karmanya got.) The bulgogi was done just right – with deliciously tender pieces of chicken. A superb meal in all!

Gung The Palace - Enormous quantities of food

The total for two people came to Rs 3000 – exactly as predicted on Zomato – and neither of us wanted dessert because the only option was ice shavings with red bean. I’m not a big fan of desserts with beans in them. To me, that’s the antithesis of what dessert should be – sweet! Especially when paired with something cold like ice, the resulting taste is bland.

Overall, I’d say Gung The Palace is an excellent place to go for a meal. It’s pricey, but totally worth the money if you’re looking for authentic Korean food, and the portions are huge. The decor’s nice too, as long as you don’t get shunted into the ghetto dining area on tables on the first floor. Would definitely recommend.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

***

One thing I noticed at Gung was that all the waitresses were Nepalese (at least from the conversation I could hear from the kitchen), dressed in traditional Korean uniforms. Maybe it’s just me, but hiring Nepalese waitresses exclusively smacks of institutional racism to me because the intent it implies is that patrons would want to be served by someone “vaguely Korean-looking”, as Indians so commonly do for anyone with slightly Oriental features. It’s a tricky one, because on one hand people from North-East India and Nepal get a shit deal in the rest of India, ritually being marginalised and referred to by derogatory terms. So if this was “affirmative action” on the management’s part to provide employment to a marginalised section of society, then I laud them in their efforts. Yet there’s a part of me which thinks that perhaps not the case – and that would indeed be sad.

Categories
Travel

A day out in Pulau Ubin, More Strange Signs (TM), and cautionary tales about Google Maps

Given the state of house addressing, using Google Maps to guide oneself around in India ends in tears. Singapore, though, is a well-planned city with a robust public transport system – and here Google Maps usually shines for a navigationally-challenged person like me.

Usually. Last week, I needed to go to a place called Pulau Ubin (more on that later). I whipped out my smartphone, asked Google Maps to show me the best route via public transport from my (then) current location (it can do that, that smart cookie!) to where I wanted to go. Pat came the reply: “no buses found, 41 minutes walking from current location to Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam.”

Hmmm.

Turns out that I was standing on the wrong side of the road; therefore, there were no buses heading the way I had to. So – like the proverbial chicken – I crossed the road…and all was m’kay.

****

Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s last remaining kampung (village). For a country that was founded no more than 50 years ago, urbanization has been rapid in engulfing any semblance of rural settlement that might have been there. Pulau Ubin is the exception – it is a tiny island off the coast of Singapore, now maintained as a nature reserve. I had a friend from my university whom I used to work with vacationing in Singapore, and we (along with some travellers he met in Kuala Lumpur) decided to go mountain biking.

(insert random scenery shot of Pulau Ubin here)

To reach Pulau Ubin, one can take the MRT to Tanah Merah (on the Green Line) – if you’ve been here, then you might recollect this as the place where the MRT branches off to Changi Airport – and then catch a bus from there to Changi Village Ferry Terminal. At the ferry terminal, Singapore’s fetish for weird public signs continued to catch me off guard. For instance, this sign asking people not to wash their feet in the washbasin (complete with plagiarised stock photography of a foot being washed in a washbasin)…

You can't see it in this picture, but there was an istockphoto.com watermark on that image of a foot being washed.

…a comic strip explaining how and why people should dry their hands after visiting the toilet…

Captain Obvious is the superhero is this comic strip (sponsored by Harpic Toilet Cleaner)

…a bizarre ‘Beware of Glass’ notice on a free-standing pane of glass, that serves no apparent purpose…

…’2 crews’ (as opposed to ‘2 crew members‘) for every 12 passengers on our ‘bum boat’…

…right until we reached Pulau Ubin, where we were warned not to set up tents on the jetty.

Dangnamit. :(

It’s insane! Someone, somewhere has a job in Singapore to think of every single ‘undesirable’ situation and come up with pictorial representation warning the public not to do that. (For more on this, watch video blogger Natalie Tran’s vlog for Lonely Planet from Singapore.)

****

The name ‘Pulau Ubin’ means ‘Granite Island’. Not surprising, because in the old days this island used to be a granite mine. Ever since it was converted to a nature reserve though, mining activities have been stopped. Pulau Ubin is now an idyllic resort for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and fat old bastards with moolah to spend at resorts on the island.

"I'm On A Bum Boat" - probably the shittiest possible Weird Al parody of the popular song. (This picture on the approach to Pulau Ubin jetty, seen far off in the centre of the picture here.)

The ferry ride from Changi Village Ferry Terminal is a short one – for about S$2.50, a ‘bum boat‘ will take you across the channel to Pulau Ubin in fifteen minutes. (You might have to wait a bit for enough people to gather at the departure jetty.) Not a lot of thought seemed to have gone into the naming a mode of transport as ‘bum boat’ and why tourists might find it funny; I’m assuming that the descendants of the creative geniuses who did so went to name a retail clothing chain ‘Wanko’.

(This joke is lost on most of my Indian readers. Urban Dictionary 'wanker', fellas.)

A short walk away from the jetty area, you’ll find shops renting out bicycles. (With signs that read “IS IT REALLY TRUE? $2 HIRE!” The answer is yes, it’s true, but only for children’s bicycles.) Prices are standard at every stall so there’s no point price hunting – decide the kind of bike you want and hire one. Standard rates hover around S$5 for the cheapest bikes going up to S$8, so there’s no need to haggle either for a couple of dollars. Bikes are rented out till 6pm in the evening.

Pulau Ubin: the only place in Singapore where a tin shack is called 'home'.

Although you can go to Pulau Ubin for hiking too, the place is primarily designed for mountain biking. There are varied difficulty levels for tracks and varied settings. Personally, I had never tried mountain biking before this, neither did most of the others in our group. The sections of the trail passing through jungle were excruciatingly hot and humid to negotiate, but they were interspersed with stretches of less steep trails every now and then to ease the pressure. The humidity can quickly sap your energy. Make sure that you buy enough bottles of water at the jetty base and keep rehydrating yourself!

One of the easiest stretches of the biking trail

Overall, the bike trail definitely is one intended for novices, with a few challenging stretches thrown in. The reward for taking on the challenging stretches is that you get to see granite quarries not reachable via the easier trails. Unfortunately, I had to drop out halfway through the trail. I sprained my right wrist quite badly recently; I was even forced to wear a wrist brace. I reckoned that since I had been wearing the wrist brace and popping painkillers it would be okay, but the pain become unbearable going on a particularly steep slope. I decided to drop out from the group and head back to base.

Hilarity ensued when I got distracted laughing at a road sign showing a tree branch falling on a cyclist, consequently took a wrong turn, and rode straight onto a beach on the far end of the island. I did make it back, eventually, after causing a crash among three bikers (and running away from the scene of the crime). The man we had hired our bikes from regarded me suspiciously when I returned the bike early and without my friends accompanying me. He started inspecting the bike and shouting things at me. I think he was accusing me of having pushed my friends off a cliff at a granite mine after forcing them to sign their wills over to me at gunpoint. Then again, my grasp of Chinese is weak, so maybe not.

Divested of my hired bicycle, I decided to explore the coast near the jetty while I awaited my friends’ return. Beaches on Pulau Ubin are little more than thin strips of sand, and the coastline is dotted with jagged rocks. I was lucky to catch the shift from low tide to high tide as I strolled along the beach; the change is as breathtaking as it is dramatic. The instant when softly lapping waves start smashing violently against the rocks is a sight to behold.

Beer bottles are always a good indicator of how popular a place is. Here's Pulau Ubin's proof.

We weren’t frisked or anything on the way out to Pulau Ubin, but on our return we were searched at the ferry terminal and our bags scanned with an X-ray machine. What undesirable material could we possibly bring back-lah from a granite island?! Durian?

(That reminds me of an urban legend about durians. The saying goes that if there’s a person sitting beneath a durian tree, a durian will never fall on his head.)

****

There are a couple of seafood restaurants at Pulau Ubin, and it’s a great place to try out Singaporean seafood delicacies made from fresh catch from the sea. Our group didn’t eat there though as the prices seemed too ‘touristy’. Instead, we headed back by bum boat to Changi Village and proceeded to the hawker centre nearby. You get the same, fresh catch while getting cheaper prices – it’s a win-win.

I recommended my friend from Surrey to try out chilli crab – one of Singapore’s signature dishes. I myself had tried eating this once, only to find it way too messy and spicy for my tastebuds. Anyway, my friend orders the dish, and the hawker asks, “Which crab do you want?” There was a tiny steel box outside his stall, with barely 5cm deep water in which lived four crabs! My friend chose one, and then the hawker proceed to cook it behind the scenes.

I chose to have ‘seafood egg’ instead. From the picture shown in the menu, it seemed like oyster omelette that I’d eaten elsewhere. My guess is that the hawker literally translated the Chinese name for the dish to arrive at ‘seafood egg’ for ‘oyster omelette’. That’s what it eventually turned out to be, albeit a rendition that tasted more omelette than oyster. My friend, on the other hand, thoroughly seemed to enjoy attacking his chilli crab dish. Our other friends in the group ate chicken rice and char siew (pork) rice – staple foods here, so nothing interesting to write about.

The ‘seafood egg’ incident reminded me of a conversation I had with my friends during our trip to eat pig intestines. The largest trader of durians in Singapore is a company called ‘717 Trading’, which operates the Durian Mpire chain where I’d tried eating durian. ‘717’ seemed to be an awkward name for a company, so I asked my friends why it was so. They said the reason is that in Mandarin, ‘717’ phonetically sounds like ‘come eat here’. Instead of an in-your-face name like ‘Come Eat Here Trading’, the company chose a subtler ‘717 Trading’. Clever.

****

I'm seriously, you guys. You must try chili crab - at least in dip form!

One thing that I did distinctly remember from the time I tried eating chilli crab though was how good the gravy was. Later, we had dinner at an Irish place near Marina Square called Durty Nelly’s. ‘Chilli crab dip with potato wedges’ is one unique item on their menu that you should try out, if you’re a vegetarian or otherwise not feeling courageous enough to try crab. The fiery taste is almost, but not quite, like salsa dip.

Outside Durty Nelly’s, there’s a swish hotel with this street sign…

…which makes me wonder: are such misunderstandings common in Singapore? Are people washing their feet in washbasins in hordes? Do public transport buses – the only double deckers buses in Singapore – suddenly swerve out of their fixed routes and into the parking lane of expensive hotels?

Must there be a sign for Life, the Universe, and Everything?

****

With friends here, I finally got to do ‘touristy stuff’ around town. Going on the Singapore Flyer; searching for that perfect chilli crab and kaya toast breakfast; strolling around Arab Street, Chinatown, Little India, Esplanade and Marina Bay – we did it all. I had been to Sentosa beach resort earlier on an ‘Amazing Race’ style competition organized by The IET club over here, but that trip was a bit rushed. Finally, I got do the luge run and the skyride in a leisurely way. They are pretty lax about who they allow on these rides, you see. You need to be 110 millimetres tall to ride.

Note: For those of you bad at maths, that's 11cm.

To be fair, they did have a life-size cutout stating the actual limit, which is 110cm. What happened here, probably, is a pedantic printing press received an order for this poster and went, “But…in the picture here…it’s just 11cm! No time to ask our clients – change it to 110mm pronto!”

****

I was so bored of canteen food that I spent the last few days eating out. One place that I got to check out was Fatboy’s Burger Bar at Mohammed Sultan Road (they have another branch at Upper Thomson Road, which I gather is the more popular branch), thanks to a 50% off voucher I got from the group buying deals website HungryDeals.sg. (I love these HungryDeals guys, simply because their mission statement is “trying to solve the ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ question phase of our civilization’. ;D )

It’s probably best that I don’t mention here that I had to walk a long way to reach the place. I was travelling by bus and tracking on Google Maps the stop I was supposed to get off at; the location update got delayed and I only realized two bus stops later that the place had passed by.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because I ate lamb for the first time. I ordered their ‘Bolly Wooly’ burger – lamb burger with lettuce, tomatoes, mango chutney in a honey oat brown bun, with a large helping of thick cut fries. By default they do the patties medium rare, but I requested it to be done well-done instead. The lamb meat was so tender that I could almost picture the baby sheep that was killed to make this burger looking at a butcher with glistening eyes; the eyes pleading that its life not be ended cut short (literally) so soon.

A jolly good meal, I say! Only S$20.

Categories
Travel

Pigging Out

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?

Me: Wha…YES!

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.

Me: [chirp]

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.

Step 1: Search 'bak kut teh'. Step 2: "Oh. Guys? Erm, about that dinner I agreed to..."

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.

According to my friend, 'Founder Bak Kut Teh' is mistakenly written in this sign as 'Human meat bone tea'

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.

"Look! Celebrity!"

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.

That's chili sauce mixed with dark soy in the bottom of this picture.

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!