Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Of Street-Walkers and BBQ Crocodile - II

[Continued from Part I]

The food, now. We trooped down the entire length of Lorong 11 right down to Geylang Road without finding a single interesting eating place. Our choices were circumscribed by our own predispositions. Jacinta flat-out refused to eat at a 'place that looked like a food court', as she put it. I could see her point; we'd all had a tough week or two, and pampering ourselves to something plushy, quiet and air-conditioned place seemed tempting. Of course, those notorious KTV Bars along Geylang Road fulfilled all three criteria, but the girls sitting outside them scared us. And they didn't seem to serve much food either, certainly not at reasonable prices.

Geylang Road had lots of other options, but figuring them out was tricky. Virtually everything was in Chinese - signboards, menucards displayed outside, even the waiters didn't speak much English. We went into a place only because a poster mentioned the figure $12.50 - what it sold for the price we had no idea, but it fitted our budget just right.

Turns out, it was a steamboat joint. An interesting one too. It had little burners fixed into the tables; the steamboats were placed on top of them and kept at boiling point. The food must have been spectacular - the place was quite crowded - but we none of us were in the mood for steamboat. Walking east along Geylang Road, we finally came across LDM Charcoal BBQ Restaurant at #260.

The place was unpretentious in terms of decor. Air-conditioned, true, but rather minimalist all the same. Its walls were painted bright red and grey, with virtually no ornamentation. High-backed faux-leather sofas imparted a measure of privacy. It was clearly very popular with the local clientele. Finding a table wasn't as difficult as in the steamboat place, but that could have been luck. Another thing - customers tended to linger over their meal, ordering second, third and even more helpings. Surely a good sign.

The clientele was interesting in its own right. Courting couples (the girls were clearly 'non-professional'), families, young professionals meeting up after work, students like us - in short, a very commonplace motley crowd gathered together for a relaxed evening in congenial, low-octane surroundings. Now what was this sort of crowd doing right next to the seediest aspects of Singapore? I have previously commented on the city's remarkable capacity for coexistence (as also Delhi's dismal record in this regard). This, I guess, is yet another example.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the restaurant were the tables. They were made of sheet metal, with little grills built in - rectangular troughs or wells set inside a raised border a couple of inches high. Once the orders began to be brought in, a guy would come with a pan of glowing coals, pour them into the trough, and switch on the concealed gas connection. (Yes, a fairly modern apparatus.) Metal stands about six inches high completed the apparatus.

The grills were meant more for giving finishing touches to the food, which would be brought from the kitchen already cooked. To keep the food warm, you placed it on the stand. And if you wanted an intense grilling, there were notches cut into the grill wall, into which you could slot the skewers barely an inch above the glowing coals.

Most of the stuff in the menu was sold by the skewer, thin like Satay sticks but made of metal. The waiter handed us what looked like an invoice, with the items printed on the left, and a space on the right where we need to fill in the quantities ordered. Beef, the cheapest, sold for about 60 Cents, mutton (leg meat specified) for about a Dollar, chicken for the same price, different cuts of pork between 80 c to $1.40. Crocodile tail meat was the most expensive on the bill of fare, selling at $2 a skewer.

Can't recall what all we ordered. Loads of beef, some mutton, some pork, and of course some crocodile. Washed it down with Yanjing Beer for Freddy and self, and Sprite for Jacinta. It was wonderful, every last morsel of it. The beef was slightly tough, maybe it had not been marinated too well. The pork was sprinkled over with chili flakes, which added the right amount of piquancy. None of the meat had that unpleasant aftertaste of vinegar so common to Delhi kabab-shops of the more indifferent variety. The beer was mediocre. Very little body to it, even though it was smooth.

I've been so often a victim of exotic food that didn't live up to its hype. The crocodile was a notable exception. It was white, soft, really soft, with a sweetish aftertaste. Had very little by way of spices added to it. The cooks must have simply cut it up into chunks, sprinkled a bit of salt, and let the meat's natural flavours do their job. Loved every bite of it!

One could discern a faint smell of fish. I've always been bothered by this smell; makes me tend to avoid fish despite being born and bred a Bengali. But in this case, the smell combined with the meat's natural sweetness as to actually make it a pleasant experience. We sprinkled cumin powder over it, which enhanced meat's flavour even more.

Along with the barbecued stuff, we had also ordered pork chops and pork-and-celery dumplings. (Look, this was a Chinese shop - they eat pork the way we brush our teeth.) The chops were slightly disappointing. They were excessively dusted over with pepper, tough, chewy, and quite devoid of flavour as such.

More interesting were the dumplings. I'm sure the Chinese parts of the menu had more detailed information about what sorts they were. Going by their shape and size, my guess runs towards Jiaozi than the more common Wonton. The meaty pork and the green, crunchy celery made for an interesting counterpoint. And they were moist. Possibly some of the juices sweated off the meat remained trapped in the dough casing. I'd say it's worth going back just to try those dumplings again.

For our last round, we ordered another round of crocodile (of course!), and half a dozen of what was described as Golden Dragon sausages. They were plump, fatty, and sweetish in flavour, and had deep fluted incisions cut into their sides. When eating the pork chops, Jacinta had collared the only knife and fork around. I was content to eat them with my hands, but poor Freddy didn't like the idea one bit. Finally he borrowed the cutlery from Jacinta, cut the meat into small pieces, and ate them with chopsticks.

When the sausages arrived, Jacinta once again helped herself to knife and fork, I ate them directly off the skewers. This time Freddy decided to innovate. He first slid the sausages off the skewers, then ate them whole using chopsticks. As far as I'm concerned, the sight of Freddy diligently, studiously chewing on sausages with chopsticks was the single most visually arresting part of the evening, bar none. Not even the girls outside came close.

Meal over, we were waiting at the bus-stop, idly looking over the 'working girls' standing there. By this time Jacinta was very curious about the whole business. Particularly how one approached and propositioned them. I said there was nothing to it, you need only ask. Jacinta immediately dared me to talk to one of them. So I went over to this girl standing by a 7-Eleven.

She wasn't especially tarted up, wore ordinary tight jeans and a pink striped t-shirt. For one ghastly moment I got scared she might not be a walker after all. I decided to play it safe and ask if she was waiting for someone. She looked up and asked me if I wanted some 'mazok mazok', which I surmised meant something salacious in Malay. I asked her how much, she said $50 for an hour. That's when the bus came by, so I excused myself.

Later on I felt bad about doing this. Prostitution is easily among the least attractive professions around. Calculated to erode one's social respect, and downright dangerous besides. The threats range across psychotic customers, pimps out for their cut, gangland bosses (I'm sure such things exist in Singapore), law enforcement officers, and the omnipresent risk of HIV and other diseases. And when some smart-aleck starts negotiating just for fun, it surely adds further insult to the insult, and injury, already heaped high on her.


Megan said...

Very sensitive post. I walked around Geylang several times last fall and always felt terrible pity for the prostitutes there. Some of them were hearbreakingly young; some of them were older and their profession had clearly taken its toll. It's no kind of a life.
On a different note, you should give alligator/crocodile another try. It's a pleasant mixture of fish and chicken tastes and a favorite in Florida, where I grew up. Next time try it fried in batter with a spicy dipping sauce -- lovely!

Jas said...

Abhik, that was so precise!!! You recalled the whole evening vividly and reflected it well in writing...

Rash said...

Ah! Some Indian perspective to read for this new Singaporean. Is the blog just gasping for new posts or is it dead already?

Abhik Majumdar said...

No no, alive and kicking. Check the recent posts.

takaikundu said...

Very nice post. Here in US crocodile tail meat is very much available, and is quite tasty. The call it gator meat though.