My first meal “back” in Singapore
Homecoming. It’s a word that until a few years ago I wasn’t very familiar with. I mean I knew what it was, there was homecoming at my American high school in Taipei, but it wasn’t until college at Syracuse that I understood what it stood for. At first I thought it was just guys trying to relive their college days, hoping to score some co-ed pootang. After a while though I realize that there was something deeper that draws back the old SU folks. Perhaps it is familiarity, or perhaps the sense of “growing up,” my four years there were formative and influential. Perhaps it is the bond of friendship. Every year hundreds of people feel the pull of these factors and return to a place they once called home.
Fish head steam boat – Can you identify all the ingredients?
My homecoming to Singapore couldn’t be more opposite. First it wasn’t so much of a pull but a push to go back. All my friends were in New York. The only people I knew back in Singapore were my army buddies, the side effect of having spent most of my adolescence overseas. My mom and dad weren’t there too. Singapore wasn’t familiar. I left when I was twelve and only came back for a year and a half plus my two and half years in the army.
I heart charcoal
But the unfamiliarity sweetened the bitterness of leaving the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. On the first “proper” night back to Singapore (I had come back a couple weeks ago, but reported immediately for military training then left to visit my parents in Brunei,) my mother, who flew back with me from Brunei wanted to try a fish head steamboat restaurant which was featured on the Asian Food Channel. It was my first time eating that exotic version of a fish stew. And though I didn’t know it at the time, that meal came to represent what my return would be like.
Delicious demi glace like sauce after all the heat and reduction.
I was surprised by how much I liked it. There was so much going on from the various ingredients in the metal vessel. Was that a salted sour plum in there? Pork with the fish? I couldn’t help but be excited to taste the forgotten flavors of my home. And as the charcoal continued to boil off the stock, it changed from a clean tasting soup to a robust demi-glace like sauce.
It’s funny, when I was younger, I had everything planned out – high school, army, college, then live and work in New York. Well one of the hardest things about growing up though is that sometimes things don’t go as planned.
Maybe coming back to Singapore isn’t an exile but my version of Walden, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” or at least to slurp up the gelatinous face of a fish.