Monday, June 07, 2010

Chilli Frog and Kway Teow at Geylang

Some of my most cherished memories of Singapore are associated with Geylang, the city's largest red-light district. After the thumping success of our first visit, I found myself acting as unofficial tour guide to the area, so strong a curiosity did it evoke in my friends. My second trip there was especially memorable. This was quite some time ago, nearly two years. (So why didn't I write about it earlier? Difficult to say.) My friends Lakshmi and Wangui were winding up their stay in Singapore, and we thought a visit to Geylang would be a good way to round things off.

Actually, there was more to it. We all of us were keen to try out frog, arguably Geylang's best known speciality. And that's chiefly why the trip was so memorable. It was the first time I tasted frog. So we met up at Geylang directly, and lost little time making our way to Eminent Frog Porridge and Seafood at Lorong 19, certainly among the most famous if not the most famous of frog-porridge outlets.

A word of explanation here: Conventionally frog (in its various iterations) is eaten with congee or rice porridge, hence the name 'Frog Porridge'. We were in no mood to fill our stomachs with semi-solid rice. So we went straight
for the meat. The "Eminent" menu had an interesting price structure. The base price was eight (Sing) Dollars to a frog, but there were two "special offers" advertised. Buy-two-get-one-free (at sixteen Dollars or S$ 5.33 a frog) or buy-three-get-one-free. Even though this offer was priced at twenty-two dollars (or S$ 2 less than the normal twenty-four), the price per frog came to S$ 5.50, marginally more than the three-for-the-price-of-two offer. Clearly they needed to revise their math a little. Both "special offers" were fake, incidentally. I have seen them being advertised without the slightest alteration right through my two years in Singapore.

We ordered sixteen Dollars' worth of chilli frog, also iced tea and some sweet-and-sour chicken. The tea was good, if a little too lemony for my liking. The chicken wasn't so bad either. The frog came doused in a thick sauce and covered with spring onion, inside a steaming, slightly sooty claypot. The claypot is a cooking vessel with a distinctive stubby handle and made of unglazed ceramic. It absorbs water well and is capable of withstanding very high temperatures. Both these characteristics are critical to the cooking process. The pot is first soaked in water for extended periods. Next, the raw materials are arranged inside, and a lid placed on top and sealed. Then the whole thing is placed on very high heat. The absorbed water turns into steam and ensure that the stuff being cooked retains its moistness throughout the process; this combination of moisture and high heat is what imparts to claypot cooking its distinctive flavour.

That said, we didn't find the frog all that great. Oh, it was edible all right, that is, once we got over our inhibitions (I managed to photograph Lakshmi struggling over hers). The meat was soft and tender, and didn't smell at all contrary to what we had assumed for some obscure reason. On the other hand, it didn't really taste of anything much. The sauce was nice, hot, sweet and gingery-pungent at the same time. Nice and fresh the spring onions were. But the meat itself was curiously, well, bland. The second reason we remained unimpressed - it was too bony. Too little flesh, too many bones (and sharp also). All in all, it wasn't too bad, but not the culinary revelation I had thought it would be.

On this trip I had another agenda. I wanted to take some pictures of the girls who worked here, something I hadn't dared to on my last trip. The problem was, how to go about it? Finally I thought of trying the most obvious strategy. On an adjoining table I saw this guy sitting with two girls skimpily dressed and festooned with blingy ornaments. I went over to him and said I was a tourist from India and could I take their picture, please? He took one look at me, another look at my camera (I had an inexpensive point-and-shoot those days), looked back at me, smiled, and said, "Umm, sure, go ahead!" So that was all there was to it.

We were still hungry, though. After some deliberation, we decided on the famous Beef Kway Teow stall at Lorong 9. This was another first for me, even though I had heard so much about it.

The walk down to Lorong 9 was pleasant enough itself. Geylang is one enclave of Singapore that never seems to lack for life. And not just of the seamier sort. You get pretty strange shops out there. (On another visit there, I once came across a shop that sold nothing but soya milk in a bewildering variety of flavours. I tried out some almond-flavoured milk. A waste of almonds it turned out, sadly. Then there's this other shop that sells herbal infusions. Herbal as in Chinese herbs, none of whose names made sense to me. Many of these infusions were being sold chilled in small plastic bottles. Out of misplaced curiosity more than anything else, I chose a purplish bottle which claimed to be refreshing. It was worse than the soya milk.)

At Lorong 9, we asked for three servings of Kway Teow (we were still that hungry), and some stir-fried mushrooms and broccoli. Then we settled down for a longish wait. At this stall, they process each order separately. No doubt this contributes to the excellence of the final product (and we weren't complaining one bit!) but, well, it's not exactly fast food.

I decided my camera and I needed a walk. Leaving Wangui and Lakshmi wasn't an issue - Geylang must be one of the safest red-light districts in the world. Ended up taking several nice photos that night. One of a Durian seller, taken handheld in ambient light, is a favourite.

Further north along Sims Avenue, I came across a table occupied by a couple. The girl was very pretty, didn't look like a "working girl" apart from her horrible tinsel-y clothes. Her companion was elderly, clad in a crumpled, not too clean white shirt, briskly fanning himself with a tattered paper fan, altogether nondescript. Till he asked me in a deep baritone, "Yes, and what can I do for you?" - British accent, grammatically flawless, not a trace of Singlish - I was impressed and surprised. Perhaps this was what education in Singapore used to be once upon a time? I launched into my usual "harmless tourist" spiel. The gentleman thought a moment and said, "A tourist? Hm, all right, then." If I had more time on my hands I'd have liked to talk to him a bit more. Notwithstanding his appearance, there was something about him - a magisterial air - that intrigued me.

By the time I returned, the food had been served. Three steaming plates of er, what? Kway Teow? Like as in flat, ribbon-like noodles, right? Not this stuff - if anything, it looked like like some sort of dismembered lasagna floating in a thin brown gravy. But then, that was hardly cause for complaint. The portions were plentiful and with lots of meat in them and, most important, the concoction smelled pretty good! Wangui and I opted to split a beer, Lakshmi the abstainer settled for her usual lime juice. Then we began to tuck in.

I am not exaggerating a bit, the noodles were nearabouts the finest thing I've ever eaten in Singapore. The noodles were al dente, as the Italians call it; the meat was succulent and oh-so-soft. Simple though the preparation was (meat, noodles and very little else), it seemed to contain several secrets. One was the quality of the raw material used. The meat was easy - fresh, good quality beef - but apart from flour, what in hell did they make the noodles out of? Then the cooking method. This is just speculation, but I think the juiciness of the meat is due to some special technique they use. Lastly, how do they achieve that unique flavour of the meat. Do they marinate it in ambrosia? Rarely in my experience has a foodie adventure been so successful. Lakshmi's expression in the accompanying photo says it all!


ani said...

Hmmm.... froggies as a meal are out, then? Wouldn't have minded trying, but then if they're so bony, then probably not worth it, eh? And looks like you guys had a good experience with the noodles, but since they aren't given away the secrets, no point my lusting after those... SIGHHH!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for the comment, Dix.

Agreed frogs are bony and the noodle-chefs are secretive. But hey, you forgot the photos! And those are mine for keeps!!!

So there!

Kanak said...

Interesting write-up. Especially liked the inter-twining of "pretty working girls" and "food" - I cannot justify a better combo :)
I have had frogs before, but I do not recall them being bony. I will agree that the bones splinter easy, but in general you should have enough substance to poke at with a knife and fork. I am sure to go back to SG soon - I'll give it a shot. As for kuay teow - that is the strangest kind I have ever seen.....looks like a gravy boat!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for the comment, Kanak!

> inter-twining of "pretty working girls" and "food"

Oh, this intertwining is actually intrinsic to Geylang! One of the first things I learned about the place was, "Chicken" carries two different meanings. As a friend put it, "Over there, be very, very careful while ordering chicken!"

> I am sure to go back to SG soon - I'll give it a shot.

I'd suggest you scratch the frog (not literally of course), and go all out for the Kway Teow. Strange looking, I agree, but seriously it's the best I've ever had.

WK said...

Lovely blogpost Abhik! It makes me nostalgic for Singapore. The Kway Teo was definitely something not replicable in other contexts.