Saturday, September 08, 2007

Rational Social Choice: Grilled Stingray and Tiger Beer

Prof Bruce Chapman, University of Toronto, basks in the dubious distinction of teaching the most incomprehensible course I have ever come across. 'Rational Social Choice and the Law', as it was called, involved Arrow's Theorem, sundry Pareto principles (efficiency and otherwise), bits of game theory, and course-material only knows what else, together with their possible applications to law. And since the course was an 'intensive', he was required to teach all this within three weeks, three lectures a week, three hours a lecture. Twenty-seven hours of classes in total.

This thankless task he managed to pull off with élan. He had the subject at his fingertips, came to class meticulously prepared, and hid his considerable scholarship behind a wry, low-key, unobtrusive teaching style that we all warmed to. On the last day of class, someone (Pavandeep, I think) had the idea of going out for dinner with him. I for one agreed with alacrity.

At last count there were six of us: Pavandeep, Emmanuel (of century egg fame), Shang and Chin Yong, all local residents; and Bruce and self, both rank outsiders. The Singapore veterans collectively voted for Lau Pa Sat, and I have to hand it to them. Seldom have I seen a decision that reflected such good taste.

For one, the place itself is utterly charming. Over a hundred years old, it was originally a wet market before its heritage value and tourist potential had it turned into a food court. The building is typical of Victorian architecture of a certain sort, once reviled but now recalled with nostalgia. Cast-iron columns, high vaulted ceilings, and a red tiled roof surmounted by a cream clock tower - an airy, gracious structure. And like most things in Singapore, impeccably maintained.

Indeed, the market looks hardly a few years old, and there's a story to it. It was dismantled in the 1980s to make way for an MRT underground line. The entire process was monitored by computer, and the important parts, especially those wonderful cast-iron columns, were carefully inventorised. When the MRT work was completed, the market was re-assembled and restored to its former elegance. As good as old, so to speak! I guess that's what they call heritage conservation in these parts.

Boon Tat Street runs alongside it. Every evening it is barricaded, and tables and chairs set up all over it. So one has the option of eating under the stars while taking in what must be a uniquely Singaporean vista - hulking glass-and-steel skyscrapers in the background, their dimmed lights glowering sulkily, fronted by a languid Victorian edifice that looks as spanking new as they do.

We had loads of fun getting to Lau Pa Sat. Chin Yong, who was driving, took a wrong turn and found himself trapped in a maze of one-way streets. To get us out, he managed to break more traffic rules than the average Singaporean breaks in a year. We nipped out of side alleys, took illegal turns, and aggressively cut across lanes. This guy in a passing Mercedes even flashed us an upraised forefinger. Miraculously we weren't fined even once, but by the end we were all reduced to such helpless giggles we could barely walk. Somehow we found parking space, trooped into Boon Tat Street, and settled down at an open-air table with Satay and that lovely, lovely chilled Tiger beer.

To my untutored palate, the Satay seemed above average. Tender, meaty and succulent, both the chicken and the mutton versions were. Don't know what marinade was used, but it softened the meat without unduly affecting their intrinsic texture. Personally, I find the best part of Satay to be the sweetish sauce they brush over the meat. It first absorbs smokiness from the charcoal flame, then it caramelises in the intense heat and fuses to the meat. The sweetness is tempered by the peanut sauce, shredded onion and cucumber, and bland rice-cakes.

The Satay comprised the prelude to the pièce de résistance, grilled stingray (the same sort as killed Steve Irwin). Considered one of the glories of Singapore and reportedly a speciality of Lau Pa Sat, it is usually cooked in banana leaves and coated with Sambal. My guess is, every chef has his own secret Sambal recipe to coat stingray with. This one was just perfect. Unlike most Sambals I've encountered, it was only mildly spicy. Even Bruce, unused to chili as he was, thoroughly enjoyed it. The basil and lime in it gave off a lovely moist fragrance, which complemented the flavour of the fish.

Complemented, because so did the stingray exude a moist aroma of its own, deriving largely from the banana leaves it was cooked in. And a delectable piece of fish it was! As fresh as any I have seen, it didn't smell the slightest. In fact, it didn't taste like seafood at all. Juicy, soft, delicately flavoured and mildly smoky it was; flaked at the touch of the fork. Beneath the flesh lay the hard carapace, from which we scooped out the meat onto our own plates. Stingray on the half-shell, one can call it.

To heighten the flavour, we squeezed lime over it. Lime as in the Calamansi lime you get in Singapore - dark green, with a tough, leathery skin, and a sweet-sour flavour and fragrance so subtle that the lime back in India seems like citric acid. Of course, what really enhanced the flavour was another round of Tiger beer, let's face it! Loads of beer, a stunning backdrop, company as diverse as it was convivial, and that terrific grilled stingray. What more could one ask for?

Matter of fact, we did ask for some more stuff. Chicken wings and squid - Bruce insisted on standing this round. The wings were nice, but not exceptional. The squid rings were more interesting. Soft but chewy, smelling of seafood somewhat, and smothered in Sambal - the spicy variety this time, brought tears to one's eyes. Pretty good, but not a patch on the stingray, which remains a high-watermark of my sojourn to Singapore.


ys said...

Oye eater the great, here's the comment - i am sure of at least one person who can reply to 'peacock is such a lovely bird!' with 'oh, is it? i haven't tried it'. eat on, u hoggies - me more amused than disgusted! See how choice and bringing up influence us :) I invariably imagine how a plant or its parts would taste raw or variously recipied, but am more that content thinking of how an animal/bird's skin feels and what sound/behaviour it can produce!

ys said...

Aur hna, very khush that you have lovely course work and fantastic teachers :)

Look, am very intolerant with word verifications - leave me out of this, pleeeeze! Mmm, can u change the settings?

Abhik Majumdar said...

Incidentally, these word verification things are called CAPTCHAs. The word stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart". I hope you're suitably entertained.

Lola Bunny said...

This Pavandeep guy is really really HOT!