Monday, August 27, 2007

FoodScapes at the University - I

'Chicken in the house is as humdrum as lentils'
Vikram Seth's translation of 'Ghar ki murgi daal barabar'

I seem to've fallen into this 'ghar ki murgi' trap myself. So many posts on roast duck and oyster omelette and suchlike other exotica, and not a word about the wonderful food I get to eat every day at the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. As a matter of course even, if you pardon the pun.

All my life I've looked at school and college food with dread. Till Class VIII I was in a school that served lunch. Rotis the toughness and consistency of cardboard; slimy grey-green Sabzi; occasionally a virulent yellow Karhi sour as the cook who made it, dusted over with red chilli powder.

In college, my encounters with indifferent cooking began afresh. I suppose ours was the only hostel around to serve Vindaloo regular once a week. Not the Goan meat-pickle delicacy. This one comprised Bhindi (okra) and Alu (potato) boiled together, then (surprise!) dusted over with red chili powder.

Singapore has given me a fresh perspective on college nosh. Good, tasty, nutritious food goes a long way in enhancing student productivity. True the world over, meticulously ignored in India. Singapore adds a fresh twist to it - variety.

NUS is spread over two campuses, the main one at Kent Ridge, and a smaller one at Bukit Timah where the Law School is located. The spread available even at the smaller campus is reflective of Singapore's multi-ethnic population. Two stalls sell differing types of Chinese food, one seves Western food, one Japanese food, one is devoted to what's known as 'Muslim' cuisine, and the one in the corner deals in tea, coffee, juices, cut fruit, Pau buns, Kaya Toast and the like.

There's also a stall offering good ol' (north) Indian khana. Roti, Sabzi, Daal, Alu ka Parantha, mutton curry, chicken curry, stuff like that. I haven't been there even once till date. 'Ghar ki murgi' trap yet again? I guess so!

Of the two Chinese stalls, the one to the left is the 'economy' counter. You get rice, one veg and one meat for a Dollar fifty, rice with two veg a Dollar thirty, and so on. Inexpensive, yes, but also tasty, hot, nutritious, and light on the palate. Popular dishes include pork in soy sauce, sweet-and-sour pork (my favourite), two types of chicken, sautéed spinach, a mushroom-and-cabbage dish, and lots more besides. Don't even know most of their names. There's always a huge crowd milling about the place, and the guys running the stall don't speak English too well.

Intriguing things, these other items are. One turned out to be pork liver; avoided it! Another was more interesting. Slices of Tofu with half-eggs on top. I asked for one the other day, and the guy proceeded to scoop up a slice topped with regular hard-boiled egg. I stopped him at once, and pointed to the ones with peculiar dark-brown eggs. He gave me a funny look, but did my bidding.

I had thought it was some sort of egg boiled in soy sauce, or maybe a Tea-Steeped Egg (more on them later). But my friend Emmanuel (he's Chinese settled in Singapore) pointed out it was actually a Century Egg, or Thousand-Year-Old Egg, of hoary repute. (He also commended me for trying it out. Apparently most non-Chinese get put off by its looks.)

The yolk was more grey than green or black. It was also the best-tasting part of the egg. The Wikipedia article describes it as "creamy with a strong aroma and an almost cheese-like flavor." The strong flavour was there all right, almost like chicken stock but much more complex. It wasn't exactly creamy, though. In texture it resembled, well, egg yolk more than anything else. The "white", indeed cola-coloured, was comparatively bland, but did have a flavour of its own. Delightful, the whole thing was! I intend to have more!

Soups and hearty stews form the mainstay of the other Chinese stall. Somwhat more expensive, about $2.50 and up. I have their Beef Ball Soup often. A consommé made of stock and spinach mainly, with six-odd hefty beefballs thrown in. Sounds meagre, but is surprisingly filling; keeps you going for hours. And tasty too. The boiled beef is strongly flavoured, and the soup itself exudes a delicate aroma. To make it more interesting, one can add a touch of chili-flavoured soya sauce. In moderate quantities, this extremely spicy condiment improves the flavour a good deal. An excessive dose renders the whole thing inedible.

Haven't tried the Fish Ball soup yet, but the other day the stallkeeper added a fishball to my regular soup by mistake. He was sporting about it, grinned and said it was on the house! It was quite nice, though the damn' thing smelled a good deal. Readers who've known me a long time must be grinning by now. Despite being born and brought up a Bengali, I've harboured a lifelong aversion to fish. Laugh away, you louts! Just wait till I tell you (in a later post) about the terrific Sushi I had today!

The stall also keeps an assorment of side-orders to go with the soups. The fried egg, at 50 Cents, didn't enthuse me much the one time I tried it. Rather bland and overfried. Even generous dousings of chili-spiked soya sauce didn't help. I prefer the slice of batter-fried luncheon meat. Cheaper at 30 Cents, and much more flavourful (if a little greasy).

[Continued in Part II]


Arvind said...

Damn! You are hungry! Bu why are you going around eating beef balls and fish bals?

Abhik Majumdar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhik Majumdar said...

For much the same reasons as your kinsmen go gaga about Ragi balls. Happy?

Arvind said...

Presumably not for the purpose of consuming cereals

Abhik Majumdar said...

Of course! Why do you think Singapore's known as a cereal port?

ys said...

Arre toooo goood! You describe things so well, it is nearly as much fun as watching lovable foodies. Enjoy your grub, watch your health and exercise regularly :). Yea, I am like that only - very big-sisterly...