Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Memory Is A Funny Thing.

Walking around in Little India, the smells evoked a surprisingly emotional response, as little details of the previous trip there bubbled up from the dim recesses of what few brain cells are left functioning. Incense wafting out of shops and restaurants, mixing with garlic and masala. I had forgotten about the continuous construction and destruction that is always going on, no matter where you are. It's as if Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva all joined forces, donned hard hats, and went at it 24/7. Something is always being torn down, drilled, tiled, or riveted. Invariably, the compressor that drives this cosmic hardware is parked just outside your hotel room window. Then there are the open sewers on either side of the street, posing a constant threat to your balance. At least the ones in Singapore are fairly dry...

We took a cab to the Seafood Center for what we hoped would be a fabulous revisiting of the crab dinners we had enjoyed nearly a decade before. We got there a little early, so we spent some time on the beach. The boys made sand castles and dodged the medical waste that peppered the high water mark until we went to eat. Instantly, my senses told me that something was not quite right. Every restaurant had a well groomed menu-waving tout in front of it, and walking across the strip between the restaurant fronts and the beach was like running the gauntlet, as we were politely harassed by someone from each establishment. Sort of like cruising the midway at a state fair. We settled on one place, "Jumbo", and were seated outside. It was here that I discovered the disconnect between the Singaporean chair design and my decidedly Caucasian ass. Juuuuuuuust a little to narrow for a comfy sit down dinner.

An American gentleman in his late 20's, perhaps on his first or second business trip was dining with an Asian colleague, and the conversation we overheard was hysterical. the American guy says "I don't like fish. People tell me that salmon doesn't taste like fish, but it does. I don't like fish". His Asian colleague, looking quite crestfallen, but trying very hard to be polite, said "But you eat prawns, right?" "Yeah, I'll eat prawns. But not the ones with the heads on. I can't eat anything that looks back at me". At that point he went off about beady little eyes, and we kind of tuned out. I felt bad for the Asian guy who was obviously trying to impress and out of town client that obviously would have been much more at home at Arby's.

So we ordered deep fried baby squid as an appetizer, and some Gai Lan in garlic sauce to go with the Sri Lankan Chili Crab. Within minutes, the squid came. It was way overcooked, to the point of near incineration, and the oil that was intended to make it crispy was perhaps sourced from a Korean War surplus Jeep. Not a promising start. The waitress came by and asked "How is it?" Not being shy, I said "Disappointing. We ate it because we were hungry, but it was way overcooked, and your oil hasn't been changed in a while". She must have taken this as some sort of obscure joke, because she just tossed her head back and laughed before disappearing. The Gai Lan was quite fabulous. Then came the crab. Somewhat smaller than I remembered. And the award winning sauce was, well... pedestrian. It was a tasty crab all right, but Laurel and I looked at each other and each kind of faked a smile, knowing exactly what each other were thinking. We were about halfway through, when another waitress came up and was perhaps trying to be helpful by informing us "Ooohh, watch out. There is some hot chili in there!". I think I mumbled something like "That's what we ordered", and tried to ignore her. Perhaps she was trying to build a bridge across what she perceived to be a massive cultural divide, but it felt rather condescending from this end.

So we tallied up the bill, skipped dessert, and basically fled the premises, hoping that squid did not make a surprise reappearance at midnight. We talked about it later, and were kind of puzzled by the whole thing. Was the meal we had nearly a decade ago that much better? Or have our palates changed over the years? One thing is for sure. We both agreed that our homemade version that uses Dungeness crab was far superior. I'll post that recipe up when I return home, I promise. The Sri Lankan crabs themselves are a treat, though. You just don't see them in North America. Interestingly, this meal cost exactly ten times what the food court Laksa meal cost, and the Laksa was twice as good, and the service was friendlier and genuine. I know where we're going tomorrow!

Memory is a funny thing. And you can't go back.

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