Saturday 29 March 2014

Singapore Day 2014 at Victoria Park (AKA Queue and Eat. Rinse, Repeat)

Unlike other posts you might have possibly seen about this year's Singapore Day in London, this one contains zero selfies taken with our PM. The closest I got to him was seeing his helicopter land from where I was queuing for Hokkien Mee (Spoiler Alert: I didn't make it to the end of the line). This is because: 

A - I ducked out at 3 pm to go Hanami with GW at Regent's Park
B - With limited time to get things done, hunting the grounds for the PM was not high on my priority list
C - In my mind, when I finally meet the PM for the first time, it will be in a less chaotic situation, and we will actually be able to have a conversation  

Instead, I present to you all I accomplished (I.E. All I ate) in the 4.5 hours I roamed Victoria Park. Singapore Day felt very homely even this far away from our sunny isle. Some voodoo magic allowed Singapore Day to fall on the first my-goodness-is-it-summer-already day that London's seen this year, and with the sheer masses of people the climate almost felt like Singapore itself.

Growing up, we kept getting bombarded by collective hand-wringing over the lack of an easily definable national identity, but I think we know who we are as Singaporeans. In a Saussurean sense for instance, we are able to distinguish ourselves easily from what we are not ("I'm from Singapore. No, that's not in China/Malaysia/Africa." or "Yeah, I joined my friend in the queue. Singaporeans will just stand there and maybe give you dirty looks, but no one will say anything. Not like in America where someone might actually whack you.").  We also collectively exhibit certain characteristics, which can be positively identified by others as being particularly us ("My friend saw us shouting at each other across the barriers while we were queuing. She said that's so Singaporean. I know right."). So we may not have an easily pinned down essentialist nature beyond perhaps our collective obsession with food. That's fine

AS was my plus-one for the day. She did her time in SMU and spent her childhood making regular trips to Singapore from India since her mom worked in our country, so she's been desperately craving good local food as well. The initial plan was to split up and queue at different stalls then regroup and keep doing that until we managed to try everything, but AS decided she wanted to keep me company and she'd prefer to have her own portion since all the dishes were just taster-sized anyway, so we went everywhere together. We were part of the second wave of people to enter the part around 10.45 am, and we made a beeline for Abdhus Salam Rojak, because we noticed there was no queue. The rojak sauce was a bit sweet but otherwise very flavourful, and all the ingredients were perfectly cooked (Especially the potatoes. Omg those potatoes.). We couldn't understand why no one else had caught on. Everyone else was probably going for the obvious favourites first, so we swept in and profited. 

We ran over to the queue for sambal stingray a few stalls down with our plates of rojak in hand, savouring it slowly while the line inched ever forward. When we got to the front where the people from Boon Tat Street BBQ Seafood were hard at work grilling the stingray pieces on banana leaves, we understood why the chefs were all armed with face masks once we choked on the sambal fumes rising in plumes off the grill. The guy next to us gave a thumbs up while hacking away, as if to say "Yeah guys! This is the real thing!", so we returned the gesture as our eyes watered and I sneezed with particular viciousness (Not on the food of course.)

We were encouraged by the assistant to help ourselves to as much pickles as we wanted, and we didn't need telling twice. We even asked her if we could have extra sambal. Shameless mah. The stingray was amazing. Sinus-clearing sambal and stingray that had been grilled with great skill made for a great eat as we queued for mee pok tah. All the stingray had been filleted, so there weren't any bones to messily contend with while still getting all the extra-soft bits of flesh, and the fish itself was juicy while still having the faintest bit of char. Everyone I met who'd had it concurred that it was amazing ("HAVE YOU HAD THE STINGRAY OMG SO SHIOK"), and we enjoyed the jealous glares of everyone else who hadn't. 

How much does AS love Singapore? A lot. How bad am I at drawing things on my laptop? Very. Hers was a little faint, but I got chopped with such viciousness at the entrance that the marks didn't fade completely till the next day. Good times! It was impossible to upload anything onto Instagram and after the first 45 minutes the network around the place seemed to shut down entirely given the density of people all trying to use their phones. If not, the internet would have been collectively flooded with identical pictures of the same kinds of Singaporean food as the event went on. Pity. The line for mee pok tah moved more quickly than expected, and as we regularly shifted closer to the counter we watched as those there for the fried carrot cake next door faced an almost indeterminable wait. ("I've been here forever. This is my first stall. How have you eaten so many things alread?!") 

The assistant at Ruji Kitchen Mee Pok Tah was the sweetest. She saw our stack of empty plate when we got to the front and immediately offered then helped up throw it away for us behind the counter as the uncle cooked our batches of noodles, and when I wheedled a little she gave me an extra handmade fishball. It was a small portion, but it meant that for once I didn't suffer from never-ending noodles while eating mee pok. The noodles were fresh and nicely chewy, and while it didn't have as much chilli as I normally put in my mee pok, the oil and generous helping of lard bits more than made up for it. 

I heard a rumour while standing in line that someone who'd gone there straight past the gates had asked the uncle to 加面 and he'd very kindly obliged. I don't really know why, but I desperately want this to be true. The uncle was super nice and talked to me while cooking the next batch of noodles, one of which was due to go to AS, so I wouldn't put it past him. 

Our next stall was Selara Rasa Nasi Lemak, where the queue shifted with great efficiency as the toppings were just piled onto the fluffy rice. Nothing could match the sambal from the BBQ Stingray, but this one was very comforting, and the fried chicken brought me back to Fried Food Wednesdays and ordering deep fried drumsticks and begedils at recess. What amazed me the most though was how every egg had been so uniformly prepared with fully cooked whites but a runny yolk.  

The nasi lemak was gone to soon as we waited 40 minutes for BBQ-ed chicken wings. The one thing I miss most often on the cold, cold nights in London is quite weirdly the chilli and lime mixture for BBQ wings, especially the one from Laguna, because that's what I grew up eating. Huat Huat's famous in Singapore for their comparatively bigger wings from Brazil, but on Singapore day they'd sourced from the UK, so everything was somewhat scaled down. Because the chicken wings were cooked in batches and they'd run down their buffer, the line was incredibly stop-start, and at the end of the queue we emerged with one wing each, a militantly enforced rule. Each bite was precious. 

The line for chicken rice had snaked out far, far beyond the designated queue, and even with the construction of further makeshift line markers, it had stretched out all the way to the army tent. In the time we spent in line, I left twice to queue for packet drinks, once for an emergency trip to the toilets (Which were really clean!) most likely triggered by the sambal, and to steal big gulps of rich M A Deen Biasa kambing soup from DS, who I kept seeing everywhere. It was utter insanity, but it had to be done.

FINALLY. Finally, we reached the end and got our plates of Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice. I'm a roasted chicken sort of person, so I gave AS my piece of boiled chicken skin, but otherwise, I was very happy. With an hour to spare, we cut across all the tents to the Come Daily Hokkien mee line, where I allowed my chicken rice to cool to a desirable temperature before devouring everything. 

Frying fresh Hokkien mee takes time, and after 45 minutes we were only at the halfway mark. With no way of contacting GW I had to leave Zone 2 at 3 on the dot if I even hoped to swing back to grab the Party Apple Juice before running to Regent's Park in time for our appointment. Eventually, I gave up and quit the line to get a bowl of Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh right next door because hardly anyone was there. In under ten minutes, I had a piping hot bowl of the plain soup I wanted, and it was the peppery kind of soup, which I consider vastly superior to the herbal kind. My friends who toughed the Hokkien mee queue till the end told me the wait was worth it, but by that time I was already eating cream cheese, cucumber and salmon sandwiches and demolishing cups of chocolate custard under the trees. 

Back home in June, where all the Hokkien mee I need will fortify me while I finish my dissertation. Hopefully the Overseas Singaporean Unit will hold next year's installment in LA while I'm there and acutely missing food from home. 

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