Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Short Visit To Singapore

We have been on the road for about two weeks, a journey that began and ended in Singapore.  Our main destination was Sarawak - a state in Malaysian Borneo.  Singapore is a convenient hub for low cost airlines that fly between the two countries.  Besides, we had friends in Singapore (our primary reason to visit this part of the world) and so we set out, looking forward to spending some time in this warm, wet clime.  The winter monsoon had set in but it rarely rains for more than an hour a day in Singapore.  The common joke here is that there are only two seasons in Singapore - indoors and outdoors.  This is really not funny when one experiences it, for most buildings are air-conditioned and are really cold and as soon as one steps out, a warm blast of air hits you; this constant change is very disconcerting.  I think the island could save a considerable amount of energy and money just by raising the temperature on their thermostat settings.

We spent our little time in Singapore mainly in the company of friends, catching up on work and news.  They took us to some very nice places to eat - food is certainly a highlight of this country.  The amount of tasty, fresh and affordable food here is incredible and unique.  We ate all kinds of things especially assorted seafood, which we don't often get in India.  Singapore is known for its 'chilly crab' and there is a string of restaurants along the coast that highlight this preparation.  We have never found this to be an exceptional concoction; this time however, we discovered 'pepper crab', which really was outstanding.

I also enjoyed eating the Chinese food, another cuisine that is hard to come by in India (except the Indianized version).  We had dinner one evening in a mainland China restaurant (part of a chain that actually exists in China) and it was so interesting to see and taste several of the things that I had only read about in books.  To me the food was very satisfying because, like Indian food, there was a range and diversity that covered seasons, tastes, styles and flavours.  There were delicate subtle dishes, strong, hearty ones and in-betweens.  Things were steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, slow-cooked, smoked and one could select a combination that suited one's appetite or mood.  I also appreciated the high level of art involved in cutting, slicing, shredding different foods before they were cooked.  This is also emphasized in traditional Indian cooking, but not to these high standards, and I feel we are slowly losing this skill and knowledge in India.

Orchard street - the main tourist shopping area was packed, and not just with tourists.  Several of Singapore's large, famous malls are here and they had all put on a good show for Christmas.  The air was festive, the lights were strung, the roads jammed at all times of the day with shoppers.  I like to visit Takashimaya, the Japanese giant, for they invariably have an interesting set of kitchen appliances and often very unusual and usable crockery, from Japan.  This time I bought a small set of porcelain plates in a soft blue and grey pattern with matching chopstick holders.  Perhaps this will motivate me to try some more recipes from my Chinese cookbooks!

Holland village is another popular destination amongst tourists, expats and locals, but different people head to different sections in this area.  There is a bustling local market and a row of oriental restaurants on one side.  In another quieter lane are located slightly fancier restaurants, an Italian bakery and three stores selling kitchen equipment and supplies.  My interest, of course, lay in these shops, which stock an incredible array of equipment, ingredients, books and knick-knacks for the kitchen.  Much of it is not affordable or practical for me to buy but I like to look around and generally find something small that I need to pick up for my kitchen.

That is about all I did in Singapore on this visit.  Given more time I would have liked to visit the Botanical Gardens (especially their beautiful orchid section), see some of the museums, contact a few more people, but that will have to wait. We came in and left via Changi Airport - possibly my favourite airport amongst those I have visited.  They have an excellent hotel for transit visitors, advance reservations are required to book the rooms here and one can book a room by the hour.   There are lots of interesting shops, plenty of good food and a nice wine selection.  I have never come across any other airport where the prices of everything (all that I could make out) are exactly the same as the prices in town.  The official are helpful, immigration desks have bowls of sweets placed on them (and the immigration officer actually offered me one)!  A very tourist-friendly spot to relax, spend a little time - and money!

The only thing that saddened me was watching lots of elderly people hard at work, generally doing menial jobs.  There seems to be no pension system in place for the locals and traditional family set-ups seem to have disintegrated, leaving a lot of old people to fend for themselves.  This is perhaps a problem of recent origin (I do not know enough) and I hope the country looks into it in the years to come.

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