Addiction Two is Digestive Crackers, which are sort of like a combination of graham crackers and shortbread cookies, only less buttery. I believe that they are some kind of British tea biscuit -- at least they come from the Biscuit Aisle in the grocery store. I usually don't spend much time with cookies and crackers and the like, but when my flatmate started bringing Digestives around, they were the only edible thing in the Tatooine-like barrenness of our flat. I began to eat them fairly regularly. Now, I eat them incessantly.
But what does one eat on such a cracker? Why, Nutella, of course! And that makes my third addiction. For those of you who haven't seen Nutella before, it is labeled as Hazelnut Spread, which would lead one to believe that it is akin to peanut butter. Instead, Nutella is more like what jelly could be like if Cadbury Milk Chocolate was a fruit. The milk in Nutella is skim, but I think that adds as much positive nutritional value as the fact that it's vegetable oils are only partially hydrogenated. And, though the nutritional information assures me that "Nutella is also a natural source of vitamins & minerals," Nutella can be thought of, without mitigation, as "gelled sin."
What I really love is a baguette topped with sliced bananas and generous helpings of Nutella. When my flatmates have discovered me in the midst of a Nutella-bread-banana binge, though, I have felt like a kid at Fat camp, transfixed by the councilor's flashlight beam, paralyzed in the action of cramming a stack of five Oreo Doublestuff's down the hatch. There is really no excuse to eat such a vile aggregate, except that it tastes so good.
Another Food of Shame are Prawn Crackers, the Pork Rinds of the East. If you have had them, you know what I am talking about. If not, take all of the associations that go with Pork Rinds, and add a slightly fishy taste. Then you, too, will be in on the joke.
But don't get the impression that I am always locked away in my flat, cramming down food that would make a dietician cringe. I can often be found at a hawker's center, cramming down food that would make a dietician cringe. The "hawker's center" concept involves 10 to 50 small food stalls, each with its own specialty, in an open-air (though usually roofed-in) market. You select food and drinks from different stalls, and tell the proprietors where your table's location. When they have finished preparing your food, they deliver it to your table, and you pay the deliverer. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of hawkers' centers in Singapore ; they are the basic unit of food sale in this country. In fact, the concept is so pervasive, that I have even seen a hawker-styled McDonalds. It had separate lines for drinks, fries, and sandwiches.
Upon first arriving in Singapore , it seems that the different types of hawker's stalls are infinite, and that every center that you go to has a completely different selection of stalls. Once you start to recognize the food that is sold here, however, you begin to realize that every center has a few basic types of stalls. You can pretty much count on finding these basic types:
· axis one: thick or thin
· axis two: Flat or round
· axis three: Yellow (with egg) or white (without)
Examples: Thick round yellow mee, thin flat white mee, etc.
Most mee stalls have big lumps of three or more of these types on the counter. Then, there are several dozen bowls of "stuff" on the counter. I can give you a few examples (bok choi, squid, fish heads, meat slices, prawn, tofu, okra, seaweed) but I can not adequately describe the range of "stuff" involved. Much of the "stuff" is unrecognizable to an angmo like me, and labels are Chinese if they exist at all. When you order from the stall, you point to one of the lumps of noodles, and they tear off a big chunk and throw it in your bowl. Then you point at various bowls of "stuff," and they throw that in your bowl. Then they ask if you want it dry or as soup. When you are finished ordering, you sit down and wait to find out how you just fared in your most recent game of Chinese Food Roulette.
You can already see the amount of variety available in mee stalls, but the thing is that this description is a vast oversimplification of the process. I know there is a much greater variety on how to order mee, but I can't figure it out. Mee stalls are all about nuance, much of which I have been unable as yet to discern. I know that some places boil it but others fry it, some places use only fish parts, and others only tofu, and that there are about there are about 30 kinds of soup that they can pour in there. So, planning your order can consist of such internal questions as "Now, which of these 40 different kinds of little fried brown balls is the kind I like?"
So, though there are only about 10 kinds of stalls, that includes grouping all mee stalls into one "type." If you break out all the various types and do the math (2 cubed types of noodles, times 30 types of soup, times 40 factorial types of brown fried balls…), the number is actually closer to 18 quintillion.
This leads to an interesting problem when it comes time to pay the piper. I would say that my average lunch at a hawkers' center costs about S$4.00, or US$2.50 (and remember, that is a meal for me, and I eat a lot), but it can vary wildly for completely unfathomable reasons. The formula for the cost of a mee dish does take into all of the things that you asked to be put into it, but also involves such factors as the time of day, wind speed, and the seismic shifts in the San Andreas Fault . I have also heard that the calculation uses the legendary "Chinese Algebra," which is purported to be so hard.
There is also the fact that, when I point at a bowl of squiggly brown things, I may actually be pointing at the bowl of special, magical squiggly brown things that cost twelve times as much as all the others. When ordering, I just kind of point, mumble, and hope for the best. Then, when the guy brings the monstrous creation to my table, I shell out whatever number he comes up with. If he came to the table and said $45, I would pay it, because for all I know I might have ordered Golden Shark Fin Stew.
One thing that you will not find in a hawker's center, however: Napkins. Apparently these are deemed completely unnecessary despite the fact that the food is almost always sloppy, drippy, greasy, or spicy enough to make your nose run. Some places sell pocket packs of Kleenex, but the wiser folks bring their own. Anyone who could convince the Singaporean public that napkins and paper towel were a necessary part of any dining experience could make a fortune in the paper products industry.
Here, as at home, I have a reputation for being "more stomach than man." This reputation has lead several people to ask, "Is there any food you WON'T eat?" After thinking about it, I decided that the answer is yes, there are foods I won't eat, but I would have to go out of my way to find them. For example, every year in southern Mexico , they have a festival where they eat live roaches that swarm in a particular region during the festival. That, I could not do. In general, I could probably not eat anything that was still living, with the exception of small fish and amphibians, because they slide down so easily (I know from experience). Dead bugs are not a problem though. I really liked my brother's infamous bug cookies, and I can't wait to go to Bali where roast dragonflies are a delicacy.
To further qualify, there is also plenty of stuff that I do not eat, because I have tried it and decided that I didn't like it. Most of these, however, you could get me to eat again on a dare, and there are very few things I would not at least try.
Here, the foods that I have not yet had the gumption to consume are century eggs. These are eggs that have been marinated for God-knows-how-long in God-knows-what. The whites are black, the yolks are green, and the whole thing is eerily translucent. I do intend to try those things eventually, but as of yet, I have not wanted to ruin a meal (or a whole day) if they taste as awful as they look.
Actually, probably the worst things about Sing food are the desserts. First is the "grass jelly." It is this slimy black gelatinous stuff which comes "lumpy" or "vermiculate" form. It usually submerged in this murky fluid, and iced. The flavor is kind of like sweetened tea that has mushrooms in it (???). The last time I tried to order it, this withered crone behind the counter hunched over a huge wooden barrel and proudly slid off the top. She stirred the squirmy black soup with a huge wooden paddle, occasionally pulling up scoopfuls of the jelly and cackling "Good, good!" The "eye of newt" vibe was too much for me to take, and I cut out.
There is also a Jello-like dessert made from rice. It looks like sheets of multi-colored translucent plastic glued on top of each other, and then cut into a triangle. It is rubbery enough to make tako seem succulent, and as far as I am concerned, it is well nigh inedible. I can't even eat a little of the stuff without having my gag reflex flexed, and the average serving size is bigger than a Dagwood sandwich.
As a general rule, do not expect any dessert in Singapore to be rich. Many of them are refreshing, but such ingredients as cream and chocolate seem unknown. Much more common are such dessert staples as sweet potatoes, corn, and beans, usually served with tapioca. It seems as though dessert is as likely to involve a Thanksgiving vegetable as it is a fruit. My advice: stick to the pisang goreng (fried bananas).
Lately, I have not really had that much Strange Food, except that two weeks ago in Melakka, I ate frogs steamed in garlic and ginger. which was really quite good. The other night, I had octopus sushi (tako). Tako, along with uni (sea urchin) usually gets the exciting label "Challenging!" on sushi menus in the US , so I have wanted to try it. In the end, I didn't find it all that "Challenging!" Octopus is just a little rubbery, like calamari. This particular incarnation of tako was a little unusual, however, because it was made with fully formed mini-octopi: heads and tentacles and the whole bit. I just kept waiting to get injured on the beak.
More interesting than the tako itself was what went with tako. I tried the tako at this Swing party. The people there were simultaneously thinking that I did not know much about Asian food, and being amazed at how much I ate. They jokingly offered me this big chunk of wasabe (the green-flame-of-death horseradish that comes with sushi). When I say big, I mean about the size of a Twinkie, which, in terms of wasabe, is HUGE.
I knew what wasabe was, and knew what the effect of eating it would be. But, the Imp of the Perverse temporarily possessed me. That crazy little guy had me stare right into the eyes of my fellow Jitterbugs and take an immense bite of that wasabe -- as big a bite as you would take from a Twinkie. I chewed it up long and slow, savoring the horror in their eyes. I let my eyes stream with tears, but I smiled and kept chewing. When I finally swallowed, slowly walked over to the counter, and grabbed a Digestive cracker, dipped it in Nutella, and took a small sip of Lychee drink.
They were stunned.
PS: Have you tried the Corn Drink yet? No? I have given you over 3 weeks! Ok, well I got a new recipe for you to try which is a variation on Corn Drink:
D. Webster has kicked his addictions to Lychee and Digestive, though he still occasionally binges on Nutella
doing the things you do in your younger years. Now that my husband had retired and my son was gone a minister in Knoxville, Tenn., I had no reason not to do this.”
A Marshall University program called Appalachians Abroad sponsored her trip. Teachers live in China for 10 months to teach conversational English at Chinese schools.
To prepare for the trip, McTyre studied Chinese culture and learned a little Mandarin, the national language of China.
“I really did not have any fears,” she said. “I simply felt this is where I should be.”
There were surprises. At her school, the teachers switched classrooms, not the students. Each day, she lumbered up 300 steps to teach in three different buildings.
The school never seemed to throw anything away. Students learned to type on manual typewriters. Teachers made copies using the old, hand-cranked mimeograph machines. In Huntington, teachers once nicknamed the machines “purple passion” because they stained hands with purple ink.
When McTyre met her students, she was impressed by their knowledge of English. Many had studied English for at least seven years. But they could not speak English.
“They understood English grammar better than I did, but they spoke survival English,” she said.
If the students wanted to conduct business in English, they needed to pronounce vowels and consonants as Americans, she said. They should know a little slang too. She encouraged her students to pepper their sentences with words like “kick back,” and “awesome.”
“Our language is so intertwined with cliches,” she said. “I wanted them to see how we Americans run our words together. So we broke apart each word in a phrase and studied them.”
Several weeks into the school year, the students spoke enough English to create a phrase mixing Mandarin and English: “Ni-Hough Y’all.” “Ni-Hough” means hello.
As the school year progressed, McTyre noticed differences between Chinese and American education. She found teaching in Shanghai easier because the smarter students helped other classmates. She thinks most American schools discourage that practice.
“The school is highly competitive, but not a ‘kill you’ type of competition,” she said. “You compete against one another, but your basic function is to help your society grow, change and get better.”
The students were more focused than Huntington students she knew. At 17, Steve Une, whom she called “my Chinese son,” had already planned the next seven years of his life. After finishing school, he would work five years at a business and then become an entrepreneur.
Although school came first, the students maintained a life outside of tests and homework. Sometimes it included McTyre. Une, and occasionally another student, planned day trips for McTyre to visit ancient sites outside the city.
McTyre, seated in her living room, picked up a photo album from the floor. Snapshots of her and Une filled several pages. As she flipped through it, she was asked to name the biggest similarity between West Virginia and China.
“Being just plain friendly,” she said. “Very few West Virginians are nonfriendly. The same is true of the Chinese. They are not only interested in you, but they also show you their culture and their family.”
McTyre’s living room looks like a mini-museum of Chinese culture. Vases spanning 600 years of Chinese dynasties occupy two poker-sized tables. Baby-blue plates and Chinese opera masks painted in coal black, deep red, dark green and turquoise also sit on the tables.
More souvenirs are on the way. She is expecting three more suitcases from China.
McTyre captured mementos on film too. She took at least 600 photographs, 300 slides and five hours of video. But they cannot replace the friendships she made, she said.
“Some things you can put in a box and put away. But you can’t put away people.”