A simple breakfast- two roti prata with attendant curry sauce, an iced Milo. I watch the man knead, stretch and oil the dough, endless rounds of endless rounds (the shop is open 24 hours). They make their Milo with milk instead of water, and the difference is telling. There are big framed phrases in Arabic on the walls, beaten out of copper and tin.There are a dozen fried half-chickens stacked like cordwood in the display window. There are bright plastic yellow chairs and bright plastic green tables and dingy yellow walls, and for $2.45 you can have a quick, simple, filling breakfast.
In San Antonio, on the South Side, the tables would be wooden, perhaps with cigarette-holed checkered plastic tablecloths, perhaps scarred and bare. there might be garage-built benches instead of cheap patio chairs. Instead of prata and curry, there would be refried bean and cheese tacos or egg and cheese tacos; the tortillas and the pico de gallo would be fresh, fresh fresh. Instead of iced Milo there might be fresh squeezed Valley-grown orange juice or lime-aid or drip-grind coffee con leche. For the big spender there might be a big plate of huevos rancheros...
Instead of Arabic proverbs, the walls would be adorned with pictures of the Virgin Mary or Jesus of the Sacred Heart (along with dusty serapes, yellowing posters of Corona girls in skimpy conjunto outfits, and bodega-advertising calendars). Instead of fried chicken stacked in the display window, there would be a feeble attempt at decoration--plastic flowers, plastic fruit, plastic vegetables.
But it's all the same, really. Food for the common man and woman. Deceptively simple food, designed to get you through to lunch. Food meant for those who work with their backs, their hands.
I am, I have always been more satisfied with the bean and cheese taco, the plain prata, at 60 or 80 cents apiece, then I have ever been with the $15 hotel buffet breakfast spread that always has everything you want except what you actually want. It drives [redacted] insane. Mostly we compromise on the weekends, the only time we actually have time to eat breakfast together. Mostly we go to (the original) Killiney Kopitiam, where I have french toast with kaya or maybe the chicken curry, and she has her runny egs and mee siam. I'll drink my kopi ping and she'll drink my kopi ping after protesting yet again that she doesn't want anything to drink, no really.
Food, you see, more than language or skin tone or political leanings is what keps me from integrating more fully into Singapore society. Chilli crab? Too messy, too much work for not enough meat. Fish head curry? I wouldn't want anybody to eat my face, and so I show fish the same courtesy. Sushi? the only thing I prefer raw is wrestling, thank-you-very-much.
In fact, seafood in general is is dangerous territory. I grew up hundreds of miles from the coast, The only seafood I knew during those important formative years was breaded and/or pressed into unnatural shapes. Anything else is just too foreign for me to ever be really comfortable with. Someone who grew up on an island will never understand.
God, I miss Tex-Mex. It is a culinary tradition much maligned, much misunderstood. It is the American equivalent of Peranikan food, with as rich a history and as varied a spectrum of influences, and yet too often it's treated as a joke.
[Redacted] has taken me to every vaguely Mexican-sounding restaurant in Singapore now. Inevitably everything is covered in sour cream, which is like going to a Chinese restaurant and having everything covered in soy sauce. It's a travesty. It should carry a mandatory death sentence. For my birthday she took me to Margarita's. I ordered the standard by which every Mexican restaurant is judged in Texas, the cheese enchilada plate.
"Does it come with sour cream?" I ask the pre-teen taking my order.
"Because if it does, I don't want sour cream."
"It doesn't come with sour cream."
And when it arrives, it has been drenched in sour cream. Never mind the enchilada sauce is nearly non-existent, or that the enchiladas are sitting in a puddle of grease. Small indignities I have learned to accept. I look up at the pre-pubescent waiter and say "That's sour cream."
"Oh. Sorry ah." and he walks off.
I sit there, stunned. I tell myself the fantasy that he's gone to get me a fresh plate. Five minutes later I see him in a corner, skiving with the pre-teen hostess. I wave violently until he can no longer pretend not to see me.
"Please take this back. I specifically asked for no sour cream." He does so with ill grace, then returns less than a minute later. It's obvious he's just scraped the tops of the enchiladas with a butter knife, or possibly his fingers. He's removed most of the sour cream, along with the majority of what little sauce there was to begin with.
At this point the owner (who I had met previously) returns from some errand, sparing the boy two weeks in traction and myself an unknown quantity of jail time.
And [redacted]? The one who swore in front of God, a priest, and dozens of guests to comfort me? She's laughing.
And yet, I know she understands my pain and least to some degree. Spending so many summers in Sibu growing up, a frightening, almost unholy light flares in her eyes when she talks about Sarawak noodles. When she talks about them, she speaks with the conviction of a zealot. And when she found out a couple of weeks ago that a Sarawak noodle stall had opened up somewhere in Chinatown, it was like telling a kid Santa was coming. Finally she rounded up L. and K. and me and MachineBoy to make the pilgrimage. L. drove. We were uncertain of the exact address. Then she saw the sign, and began to cry. Tissues were duly passed over to her. She couldn't bear to wait until we'd found a parking spot, so everyone was dropped off while L graciously looked for parking on a Saturday afternon in Chinatown.
The place was packed. Always a good sign. Hope flared high and bright. Noodles were ordered. People waited with varying degrees of anticipation.
And then it arrived.
"What are these pork crumbles doing in here? Why so many green onions? This char siew is not thin enough! Noodles not correct!"
I didn't laugh, not once. I could speculate that I am simply a nicer, kinder person than [redacted]... but really, I think it was just my sense of self-preservation kicking in. [Hindsight - no, I really was/am a nicer, kinder person than my ex]