Monday, August 30, 2010

Bag of coffee, anyone?

The other day I saw a man walking down the street, carrying what I could have sworn was a bag of coffee.

At the time, I thought maybe his coffee cup had sprung a leak and he just let all the coffee leak into the bag and got rid of the cup.

Ok, that probably sounds really odd and you're thinking, "What planet did you grow up on and why in the world would you think that?". To which I respond with this photo:

It seems that the drink carrier given out by most business here in Singapore bears little resemblance to its American counterpart in cardboard or molded paper pulp, as the case may be.

In fact, my first thought when I saw the guy with the coffee bag was that he was lucky he didn't get a carrier like this one. This other local version is basically a plastic coffee sleeve, with a strappy handle, but with no reservoir for coffee to leak into. (This photo isn't ideal, but this guy was sort of onto me so it was the best I could get.)

And then we got some carryout Indian food for dinner.

The tandoori chicken and the naan came in styrofoam clam shells and the pratha came wrapped in paper. Everything else -- the rice, the chutney, the dal, the aloo gobhi, etc. -- in bags.

These clever little bags have a drawstring up top (as you can see from this picture of the empty pappadam baggie), which gets cinched and then tied around the base of a loop formed in the bag.

All you have to do is pull on the loop and the drawstring loosens up and you can untie the bag and pour the contents into the serving vessel of your choosing.

How common these carryout bags are remains to be seen, but they're pretty nifty ... unless you're living in a hotel and your only serving vessels are two coffee cups and their saucers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Now that's a cracker!

If you go to the HaitaiTM website you will learn that the Haitai Cheese Cracker is the "Cheese Flavored Legitimate Cracker".

It really is a cracker. No joke.

It's actually a really tasty cracker that could be the lovechild of a CheezitTM and a SaltineTM, but better that either of its "parents". Or maybe that's what the "legitimate" claim is all about. Maybe it's "legitimate" meaning "original" and it's the Haitai Cheese Cracker that gave rise to both Cheezits and Saltines?

In any case, it seems to be very popular with coffee: "You Can Enjoy The light Taste of The legitimate Cracker When You Eat It with coffee" (caps original).

If just coffee and crackers aren't good enough for you though, here are some serving suggestions on the box.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The national pastime

It's kind of a toss-up between shopping and dining.

However, since I'm pretty sure that most of the people I know who have been here for more than three weeks would say it's dining (and that would be nine people out of Singapore's five million residents), I'm going to go with that.

And so begins my first (and still very naïve) post about Singaporean food.

Singapore has plenty of regular restaurants and food shops, but it's most famous for its hawker centers.

Hawker centers are basically open-air food courts with counters offering food from lots of different cuisines. As you walk up to the counter to check out what the stall is selling, the cooks/sellers try hawk their wares. Actually, it can even go a little farther than this and at some hawker centers you may be approached by someone bearing a menu from one of the stands in an attempt to entice you over to their stand to order.

One of our Singaporean colleagues invited the new faculty (and spouses) out for dinner at Makansutra Glutton's Bay. Makan means "food" or "eat" in Malay. So you can sort of think of Makansutra as "How to Eat", but Singapore style.

Glutton's Bay is a sort of a cleaned up mini hawker center. It has really good food stalls that were handpicked by a local food guru named K.F. Seetoh when he re-opened Glutton's Bay a few years ago (the original, in a different location, closed in the 1990s), but it's a good hawker center for beginners because, as our colleague said, it's not as loud or messy as most hawker centers and you can linger over your meal and the food is really good (imperative!). Its smaller size also gives it a nice ambiance and it has a fantastic view of the marina and CBD skyline and the Merlion ... none of which figure into the photos I took that evening. I did take this one of the crazy Noah's ark spaceship casino that opened earlier this summer.

Here's how we ate:

Oyster omelette, which is a fried egg and potato flour mixture that gets nice and crispy (from the potato) but is still soft (from the egg) and topped with small oysters (and cilantro).

Grilled sambal skate with calamansi (the little lime-looking thing that makes really delicious juice) and chili "vinaigrette"

Chicken, beef and lamb (l-r) satay with peanut sauce


Chili clams and "morning glory" (also called "water spinach")

We ate all of it. And then topped it off with some ais kacang (shave ice) with durian and chendol. It was too dark to take pictures of those, so I'll post photos of another outing for desserts sometime soon.

Food culture is really unbelievable here. It's like a whole nation of foodies. There is food everywhere and there are so many cuisines represented it's astounding. You think you like Chinese food? Well do you like Cantonese? Hakka? Hainanese? Hokkien? Peranakan? Teochew? And that's just some of the more typically local Chinese cuisines, not to mention the varieties of Malay, Indonesian, Indian, and other cuisines I don't even know about yet that constitute Singaporean cuisine.

The cuisine of Singapore is a force to be reckoned with ... a juggernaut to submit to. Ok, so I'm being dramatic (but only a little!) and I don't really mind acquiescing. And since we're waiting for housing and living in the university's executive center with no kitchen of our own, that's a good thing.

More to come ... we've already eaten so much more than this!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life as a raised zebra

Don't jaywalk.

This is serious business in Singapore. Here's an excerpt from a 2009 police force media release:

"Pedestrians who jaywalk commit an offence that entails a composition amount of S$20/-. If charged and convicted in court, the pedestrian is liable to a fine not exceeding S$1000/- or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months. In the case of a second or subsequent offence, the offender faces a fine not exceeding S$2000/- or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months."

Mind you, the fine in many US cities is considerably higher, it's just that there's no risk of prison time. But does anyone really get put in prison for jaywalking here? I kind of doubt it. However, there's some good signage, and that's the real reason for the post.

The pedestrian is instructed to use the crosswalks.

And here, the crosswalks are called "zebra crossings".

As I have just learned, that's the British English terminology. (Note also the spelling of "offense" in the press release.) The "raised" part? Well, that's because these are a crosswalk + a speed bump.

In my experience, most signs that warn drivers about crossings usually make reference to the thing that's going to be doing the crossing. And I guess this one does too, but with conflicting information: is it a man or a raised zebra?

The British traffic lexicon also includes the entries Pelican, Puffin, Toucan and the (elusive? mythical?) Pegasus crossings, but I've yet to see signs for those here.

I have seen plenty of scofflaws jaywalking their way across the street though.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

First impressions

It's eerily clean, orderly, efficient and quiet here.

Those sound like positive things, so why are they disconcerting? Well, they also stand in stark contrast to some of the things we were quite used to before coming here.

So, I love France, and I miss it, and I want to go back like nobody's business but it's also true that spending a couple of years there certainly made me expect a little grit, more than a little noise, some minor chaos -- unless you're at the préfecture in Marseille (then major chaos) -- and long, long waiting times for official business. Of course, after two years there, I can easily see that there are certain advantages that go along with each of those "negative" things (except maybe the noise one ...) and there are plenty of other really great things about France that make me want to go back, but these are some of the aspects of life that you immediately notice are different here. And that feels both nice, and a little weird.

We stepped out of the plane, which had been full (in coach class at least -- I can't say what was going on up in business or first where passengers get to travel in their own little cocoons because they don't let the riff raff up there) into the calm, cool air of Changi airport and followed the signs through the new and sparkly Terminal 3.

It smelled like the Polynesian hotel in Disney World used to smell in the 1980s. Aahh!

The bathrooms were impeccable and had toilet paper, soap and a choice of paper towels or hand dryers. Yes, this is actually something of note for me and James.

There is a special area of immigration for citizens and permanent residents that allows you to scan your ID card the way you'd scan a subway pass and go right on through. Residents-to-be and visitors have to go to the normal immigration counters, which, in this case, were not so normal because none had a line of more than about eight people and it only took about five minutes including waiting for those eight people in front of you.

James passed through immigration first (it's all orderly and "one-at-a-time", except for parents with small children) and barely had time to get a luggage cart (free) before our bags passed by on the luggage carousel.

Where was this strange land where you could get off a 13-hour international flight, go through immigration and get your bags in less than 20 minutes?

The same strange land where you could get a delicious bubble tea in the airport!

Blueberry and honey.

Or go on a walk on the airport nature trail, or swim in the airport hotel pool.

Also the same strange land where getting your work/resident permit takes about 15 minutes (of your time -- there's obviously stuff that gets done before you get there). We went down to the Ministry of Manpower (which they call "MOM") Employment Pass bureau with our paperwork and photos at the appointed time ... well, actually we were a little early. Luckily, there were greeters to help us.

And that went down something like this:

"What, you're 20 minutes early? No problem, may I have your letter?"
[Takes the letter over to one of the electronic registration kiosks and scans the barcode on the letter, returns the letter to us]
"You can go in and wait for your name to appear on one of the screens. When it does, you may go to any available counter."
We were done before our scheduled appointment.

We did have to get fingerprinted as part of that process (image on the back of the card), or thumbprinted, which seems a little intrusive, but I know that foreigners entering the US have to have all their fingers (and palms) scanned so I probably shouldn't feel weird. It's just that this never happened at the préfecture!

(It turns out my thumbs aren't very printable, so clearly I should have chosen a life of crime ... using only my thumbs. I guess there's still time, but Singapore's strict penalties for lawlessness make this a bad time to get my chops.)

After that we took a little stroll around downtown, got some fresh water chestnut juice and some guava juice at a hawker stand (more on these to come) and were amazed that we were able to carry on a conversation out on the street without having our voices drowned out by passing scooters. It seems people are required to keep the muffler on their two-wheeled motorized vehicles here. And it doesn't hurt that all the roads are new and well surfaced -- though far less charming.

All this calmness was a little too much to take so we went to Carrefour and then sat down for an apéro: the Singapore Sling -- cliché, but a drink I have been curious about since Richard Pryor mentioned it in Superman III.

Some liken it to cough syrup, but I beg to differ. It's a tasty blend of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Bénédictine, grenadine, pineapple juice and bitters. I would get another one, but alcohol is insanely expensive here -- like US$25 for a bottle of certain $7 Trader Joe's wines -- so that will have to wait for a special occasion.

But other than the price of wine, so far so good in clean, orderly, efficient and quiet Singapore.

More pictures to come!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Le Mas has moved ... Singapore.

Which means that there are a whole lot of things that I never got around to posting about in France!

I even have a few entries that I started and didn't finish up. Ugh.

Well, I'll have to save those for a rainy day ... some rainy day at some point in the future.

For now, you'll have to read about what's going on nearer to the equator.