Friday, April 29, 2005

Hawker Fare

Some cities are best explored serendipitously. Singapore, all orderly and efficient, is made to be explored determinedly - searching every nook and cranny for scraps of character and the authentic spirit of Singapore. Otherwise you're doomed to wander aimlessly through faceless chain stores and a maze of airconditioned little food courts, all alike.

Which is why in the past couple of weeks I've made pilgrimages to hawker spots around town - Newton Food Centre (delicious but overpriced and touristy), Maxwell Food Centre (filling) and a hawker centre on Victoria street beside Allson Hotel. This last place is refreshingly breezy, which is good because the mouthwatering smells wafting from the next table make my peanuty kway teow taste better than it is. Next time, more spice.

Directly in front of me, a weathered, tanned Chinese man sits alone with five dishes and four large ice-cold Heinekens. Surely he can't mean to consume that all himself? The frosty beers make me want to go get a drink.

I end up with one of those harsh artificial lime juices. Awful stuff, but it goes with the peanut taste and washes away the oil better than a gourmet lemon sorbet.

My mind begins making up stories to explain the spread at the other table. Could he have companions coming? Why just one mug for four bottles of beer? Is he a travelling gourmand and Heineken fan?

The man bites into something spicy. As he waves air out of his mouth, he catches me looking in his direction. Too busy to care, he stuffs a wad of tissue between his lips, and then takes it out and waves some more.

His cell phone rings. He talks, stands, and then gestures broadly, giving directions. Ah, part of the mystery is revealed. Someone is coming.

I continue eating my kway teow. Is kway teow even supposed to have peanuts? Maybe it's peanut oil.

After a while he pushes the half-eaten dishes to the other side of the table and lines up the beers in front of him like a firing squad. He's well on his way to finishing his second bottle.

Phone rings. He speaks into the phone again, now angrily. They aren't coming. They're late. They've already eaten. I can only guess. He hangs up, shakes his head in exasperation, and calls a cleaning lady to take away the food. Some of the dishes have barely been touched. That last plate heading for the trash bag looks like chilli prawn. Nooo!!!!

Every now and then he glances my way. I can see he's just as puzzled about what I'm doing there, writing away beside a heaping plate of kway teow. Am I a student? A spy? Hawker food stall reviewer? Private detective sent by his wife to tail him?

Phone rings again. My imagination translates both sides of the Chinese dialogue. "We're almost there, just 10 minutes away! So sorry we're late!" "Sorry, sorry, too late lah! Food all gone. Throw already." He gets up, gives directions again. Walks to the front of the food centre and, still on the phone, points to the signboard (no doubt his listener will know exactly which one he means).

I finish my meal and he's still here, waiting. I was right about one thing though - he drank all four Heinekens.

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