Thursday, January 15, 2009

CLE African Restaurant


Lovely weather it was. The surroundings were noisy as Little India always is, and yet strangely reposeful. A clear, crisp day, rare in Singapore, had given way to a twilight of deep mystical blue. Against this backdrop stood rows of quaint old houses, chocolate-box pretty, and painted in cheerful colours. And what was I doing in such a charming atmosphere? Trying to finish, in decidedly hostile surroundings, the most miserable meal I've ever had in Singapore, that's what I was doing. Welcome to CLE African Restaurant.

The place is located behind Mustafa's. Go out through the rear exit, left towards Rangoon Road, then first right at the Chinese food-court at the corner. Don't suppose the location of the place matters, really. One, I don't recommend it to anybody; and two, the management (such as it is) didn't seem too keen on outsiders intruding into what was clearly intended as a meeting-place for Africans.

Like most cheap eateries in Singapore, the tiny shop-space contained only the kitchen and the counter, and tables and chairs were laid out on the sidewalk. As I approached the counter, I could feel suspicious stares boring into me from all sides. Even the guy at the counter, though not exactly rude, didn't seem particularly disposed to chat. I ended up not even asking him which part of Africa he came from.

Older writeups list a more extensive menu, but when I went there the bill of fare was limited to about five dishes. Chicken and beef sold for two Dollars a helping, rice sold for a Dollar, and there was something called Suji, also priced at two Dollars. Back home in India, Suji is what we call semolina; I wondered what it meant here. So I asked the manager. He paused a bit and said, "You know, semo . . . uh, semonlina?" Oh.

(I shouldn't have been so surprised, actually. Once I had tried to explain to Jacinta, a friend from Uganda, what clarified butter was. After listening about ten minutes she brightened: "Oh yes, we also eat it back home. We call it Ghee." I'm not sure how these words have infiltrated Africa. My guess says, through generations and generations of Indian shopkeepers.)

As is my habit, after placing my order (Suji and beef), I fished out my camera and started taking pictures of the surroundings. That is when the other customers' sullen discomfiture at my presence flamed into outright belligerence. Some five of them, each about a foot taller than I, walked up and said, "We don't want you taking pictures of us." Clearly there were immigration issues involved, so I didn't pry further. Instead, I pointed out I was clicking only the surroundings, and that at no time had I pointed the camera at them. That had them only half-placated. They continued to glare at me and mutter, "No pictures of us." Even the manager strode up to me and asked me not to take pictures. That's why I don't have any pictures of the shop itself.

This unwonted hostility only served to trigger off my perverse genes. I set the camera to maximum wide angle, and contrived to "accidentally" get those customers somewhere within the frame. Evidently they were not familiar with wide angle, because they didn't catch on. Except one guy who covered his face when I pointed the camera not too far from where he was sitting. But even that, I think, was just being careful.

The food arrived. On a large plastic basin was placed a plate with a lump of Suji and two smaller lumps of beef charred almost black. Next to it was a bowl of stew made with okra and dried fish. I learnt later the basin contained hot water to wash one's hand in at the end of the meal. The Suji was doughy and tasteless, but that was only expected. Its pristine white colour indicated no spices had been added to it. I figured out, correctly as it turned out, you were supposed to tear off small pieces and dip them into the stew. The stew itself was decent enough. It smelled of dried fish, but not too much. The Okra masked the smell and complemented the flavour. I could smell tomatoes and garlic, but nothing much more. The meat was the wost I've ever had, fully as unappetising as it looked. It was dry, flavourless, and mostly cartilage. Even the little bits of meat were tough and chewy beyond belief. Beyond a little salt, I couldn't discern any spices at all.

While I was eating a guy came over and sat next to me. I forgot his name, but do remember he was from Nigeria. Unlike the others, he seemed to be eager to talk, and I had a shrewd idea about the reason why. Sure enough, after initial pourparlers, he asked me just why I was taking so many pictures. I pointed to one of the old houses, and started talking of scrolls, foliations and sconces. If you've read Jeeves discoursing on cow creamers and other silverware, you will know just where I had sourced my terms from. Happily, this friend was unfamiliar with architecture and Wodehouse alike, and swallowed my bullshit with little demur.

After a while he asked me if I were an architect myself. I decided to play it safe, and said I study law at NUS. Immediately came a very suspicious "So how come you know so much about architecture?" Hey, I knew that was coming! Had known it even when I was confessing to being a law student. Which had given me loads of time to invent an architect friend back home who'd asked me to take pictures for a project he was doing. Satisfied there was nothing fishy about me, the guy then lapsed into a sulky silence.

A little footnote: When I went to pay for my meal, the manager asked for five Dollars. I said Suji and meat came to only four bucks. He pointed out I was given that stew as well. True I hadn't asked for it, but people who order Suji always have stew to go with it. I decided not to argue. He wasn't overcharging me; I did get something for that extra Dollar even though I hadn't asked for it. At the same time it served to underscore just how uncomfortable the entire experience had been.

9 comments:

Manohar said...

Well that was some experience.

If you go to Nigeria and you order Bush meat I am sure you know what you are ordering.

I made that mistake and found it was meat of big rats.

Prithviraj said...

This is complete opposite of what my experience has been (twice) at a Ghanaian place which I really like to go. The Senegalese places I've been to are far more impersonal but nowhere in all of these place did I have to regret anything about the food.
If one's conversant with McCall Smith's fiction series based in Botswana, he would know what Mma Ramotswe thinks about Nigerians and Abhik's experience suggests that Mma is right!

Anonymous said...

Wow.

This article just reeks of hate. You bloody indian twat think you are superior to who? What's all that semolina and ghee talk about? You wanna say "jungle people"? If you weren't so stupid, you'd know different things have different names in different places.

Funny when a white guy acts superior to an indian, the indians start a fight (seen many many times) and yet here you are thinking you are superior to a people bcos you hung out at some cheapass african food joint.

And prithvagina (or whatever), how many well-to-do nigerians have you met??

Just as well though, i've seen many classifieds that say "no indians welcome". Why is that?

Lastly, i've been to shitty indian restuarants (review little india) in singapore too. Get off the hate.

Anonymous said...

I DARE YOU APPROVE THIS COMMENT.

Wow.

This article just reeks of hate. You bloody indian twat think you are superior to who? What's all that semolina and ghee talk about? You wanna say "jungle people"? If you weren't so stupid, you'd know different things have different names in different places.

Funny when a white guy acts superior to an indian, the indians start a fight (seen many many times) and yet here you are thinking you are superior to a people bcos you hung out at some cheapass african food joint.

And prithvagina (or whatever), how many well-to-do nigerians have you met??

Just as well though, i've seen many classifieds that say "no indians welcome". Why is that?

Lastly, i've been to shitty indian restuarants (review little india) in singapore too. Get off the hate.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Dear Anon (whoever you are), why don't you read the post properly before adding your comments? The post was concerned only about one "cheapass african food joint", as you put it. It was NOT intended to be a reflection of Africa or Africans in general (whom I hold in high esteem, and among whom I have many friends).

> What's all that semolina and ghee talk about? You wanna say "jungle people"? If you weren't so stupid, you'd know different things have different names in different places.

This shows how little you have read of the post. Read it again and see what it actually says. I pointed out that things like Suji and Ghee have the SAME names in different places. I'm not sure I'm the one being stupid here. At least I take care to read things before reacting to them.

> you are thinking you are superior to a people bcos you hung out at some cheapass african food joint.

I did nothing of the sort. All I did was record my negative experiences of a "cheapass joint". How you extend this to "thinking I am superior to a people" is beyond my comprehension.

> And prithvagina (or whatever), how many well-to-do nigerians have you met??

How does it matter how many well to do Nigerians he's met? His comment was about what Botswanans (fictitious ones at that) think of Nigerians. Moreover, he clearly says his experience of Senegalese and Ghanaian restaurants is pretty positive.

On my part, I have several close friends who are Nigerians. I don't know if they are "well to do", nor do I care - the only thing that matters to me is that they are great human beings and great friends. My other close friends include people from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. I have shown my post to them all, including my Nigerian friends. Not a single one of them thinks I have denigrated Africa or Africans, in fact they all found it to be both funny and in good taste.

You may cry "racism" till you are blue in the face for all I care, the fact of the matter is whatever racism you perceive exists only in your imagination. Neither did I intend any slur on Africa or African people, nor has anyone else (including my African friends) interpreted it as such. All I did was describe how miserably bad one particular restaurant was. If you think this amounts to flaunting my putative "superiority" over the people of Africa, you clearly have another think coming.

Lastly, I don't know what your problem is, or what your connection with CLE is (your mention of Little India indicates you have some connection with Singapore at least). All I suggest is, when you "DARE" others to "APPROVE THIS COMMENT", at least have the decency to disclose your own identity and your connection, if any, with the restaurant under review.

Prithviraj said...

Hey Anon (or whatever):

You seem to be too lazy to even copy/paste my name! I'm sure Mma Ramotswe won't approve of such tardiness either! :)

And, to answer your question - I have not yet met any rich Nigerians so far. But, I have met many people who could be bracketed within the lower middle class - never have had any problem with any of them. If you suggest that being rich &/or educated guarantees good behaviour, etc. - I can only say this much - you're way off ... your comment reeks of crass classism!

Durba Basu said...

Abhik, I do not think your post is racist. You are not stereotyping i.e. generalizing about Nigerian food from one single experience. Any responsible reader ought to understand that. And that it would be uninteresting to spell out every nuance of the subtext of anything you express. I agree that the anonymous reader has gone overboard with his/her reaction, and that this is precipitated by the weight of a long history and cultural memory of denigration, and paradoxically, it is the reader who is stereotyping Indians. Neither does the reader seem particularly respectful of women. Any identity is defined by differentiation, and stereotyping is only an extreme expression of this process, and so proceeds unawares. I would hope against hope that your reader would someday appreciate this.

Anonymous said...

Homeboy,

I'm not screaming racism...I'm screaming WTF!!

See, I have "friends" from India too (and most of everywhere else) and once in a while they might pass a misinformed remark. Mostly, I just smile and let it slide. So if you think your african friends are super cool with your article, then i'd say you are quite naive, oh my little brother.

Its just like you go to some seedy russian bar in panama city and you immediately jump on your computer to announce how you did not feel welcome and how you just had the worst vodka ever. You said yourself it was more like a meeting place...why would you go about intruding? Some need to write such article perhaps??

Just maybe the fact that you did not feel welcome made you pass negative judgement on the people, the food immediately. Yes, its a shitty place but what would you expect?

Knowing zero about them, you judge that "clearly there were immigration issues involved" and "they were not familiar with wide angle".

You want to know who I am? lol.

Its me - your biggest fan (and sorry, but i got no connetion with that restaurant).


@Prithviraj

I wasn't refering to the president's kids. Lower-to-middle class is okay enough. But most nigerians (not all) who go around asia are there to do shaddy deals i.e. drug trade or grand hustle. They might even be middle class. "Never have had any problem with any of them" and hence "what Mma Ramotswe thinks about Nigerians??" When did this group of whatever they are in some shitass food joint in singapore represent people of nigerian :S


@Durba

No respect for women?! Cos I used the word vagina?! Clutching at straws..

Over and out.

Durba Basu said...

The anonymous reader could do much worse than look up racism and sexism and suchlike terms on the internet. Indeed the anonymous reader is doing worse than that. The most random search would lead one to pellucid even if basic glosses of these terms. Not only does the anonymous reader not appreciate the sheer irresponsibility of careless reading before proceeding to comment on someone else’s writing, but s/he does not have the willingness to learn a few things from others that s/he clearly has no idea about.
Another important lesson that the anonymous reader badly needs to learn is that commenting in a public space calls for some responsibility in excess of merely typing out one’s half-baked knee-jerk reactions, as also the courage to put one’s name to what one has to say, to refrain from taking advantages of ways to hide, for otherwise all declarations of opinion remain hopelessly puerile.