Friday, August 17, 2007

Oyster Omelette

Time was when Singapore used to be a fishing village of little especial distinction. First maritime trade, and then other forms of commerce, transformed it into today's economic powerhouse. Presently, fishing has stopped altogether in Singapore. All the seafood one gets here is imported. A taste for fish remains deeply ingrained among its people, however, and this finds ample reflection in its cuisine.

The hawker centre at Newton Circus is famous for seafood. It is also remarkable for staying open almost round the clock. But as far as I am concerned, its best feature is that it is extended walking distance from Evans Lodge, my doss-house.

Yesterday, I went there for the first time, the result of a mad, impulsive late-night decision. I was in my room chatting with friends Ananth and Samjhana, when round midnight all three of us started feeling hungry. Adam Road, our usual haunt, was closed by then. So were most other joints. And we were in one of those moods where crazy ideas meet with instant approval, and then metamorphose into action faster than one can keep track of.

Newton was an eye-opener. I had never, never ever seen such variety in seafood. There was cuttlefish, stingray, shark fin, lobster, crayfish, squid, cockle, octopus, hulking big tiger prawns, even sea vegetables in oyster sauce. And all this was expensive. Lobster was about $5 for 100 grams. Not so big a deal, just that the smallest specimen weighs about 800g.

Even the non-seafood things were priced quite high. One stall even sold Lemon Chicken Rice for $10; a decent helping at Adams Road doesn't cost more than $4. (I found out later, Newton has a reputation for being a tourist attraction. Old hands at the street-food game tend to avoid the place, preferring less expensive and more authentic alternatives.)

Ananth finally located a moderately priced Satay stall. He bought a plate of beef Satay for $5. Pretty good stuff, even if it wasn't seafood. Samjhana ordered a seafood fried rice. Don't know how much she paid for it, but it contained lots of seafood. Bits of squid, fish of some sort, even baby octopus.

I took my time ordering. Went round the whole place carefully, went through the items advertised at each and every stall, and wondered all over again at the range on offer. Finally I decided on an oyster omelette. This stall near our table sold them in various sizes, priced at five, seven and ten Dollars. I picked the smallest one. 'Small' is of course a relative term. It turned out to be wider even than the respectable-sized plate it was served in - big, yellow in colour, and generously studded with greyish oyester all over.

By this time I had grown fairly proficient at handling chopsticks. I took special pleasure in using them to tweezer out the lumps of oyster, dip them in the flat bowl of chili sauce provided, and pop them into my mouth with all due grace.

And what oysters they were! This was the first time I was having them, and I wish I get amnesia soon just so's I can taste them anew all over again. Like I said, they were grey and lumpy to look at, more like slugs than anything remotely edible. Their texture was wholly consistent with this. Slightly chewy, rubbery. And bland too, hardly tasted of anything much.

But once you get your teeth into them, a wonderful thing happens. All the juice stored inside comes out in one big spurt. Intensely flavoured, and with a strong, overpowering taste and smell, this is what makes oysters so worth it. To some, the very intensity of the taste and smell can be off-putting, may even trigger off gag reflexes. It nearly did mine. But once you keep it in your mouth, and let the complex harmonies play on your taste buds, it's paradise!

If the oyster was such a wonderful experience, the omelette must rank among the worst I've come across. I've had several lousy ones, incidentally. At the seaside resort of Digha in West Bengal, I once had one fried in mustard oil. Down south, coconut oil is the staple cooking medium; the peculiar smell it imbues the egg with has to be smelled to be believed.

This one was in a class of its own. I don't know what oil it had been fried in. But it was so greasy it literally oozed oil. That apart, it was surprisingly tasteless. I could detect the use of no significant spice or condiment apart from salt. Ultimately I had to throw away more than half of it.

By this time Ananth had ordered a chili chicken for himself, and cans of Asahi beer for the both of us. (On the superlative beer available here, more later.) The chicken was, if anything, even more oily. But since it hadn't permeated the meat, it could be brushed off. Also, it was sharply and most interestingly spiced. This tempered its oiliness a good deal. As such the chicken, or at least the few morsels I ate, were most enjoyable. Miles more so than what remained of my omelette once I had eaten the oysters, that's for sure!


tayyba said...

I don't think I've ever heard anyone analyze the virginal oyster experience in such detail. But you nailed it. I encountered the gag reflex too - but not just on my first try. Any poor, stale oyster will do it for me. But the spanking fresh ones. Wow. Nothing like slurping them up raw, with a squirt of lemon juice. Sorry about the drab omelette, by the way - I can only imagine how lame that must have been. It's interesting how much flavor eggs can absorb.