Monday, 14 December 2009:
Strolling past a few Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown, I looked at their menus. Indeed, a few of them had something called Singapore Fried Rice and/or Singapore Fried Noodles. I have been warned about these beasts by Chris Hansen, with whom I am staying. “It’s ordinary fried rice with curry flavour. Something you’d never find in Singapore.”
Although I’m not the sort that hankers for Chinese or Singapore food wherever I go, today I decided I had to pop into a Chinese restaurant to try this exotic dish.
I chose the Singapore Noodle, which the Chinese translation on the menu named Xin Zhou Chao Mi (literally: Singapore Fried Beehoon). It was almost exactly as Hansen had described it: dry-fried (i.e. gravyless) beehoon with slivers of chashao (char siew), shrimp and shredded lettuce. The whole thing had been stir fried in curry-flavoured stock, mildly spicy. The surprise was the powder dusted on top of the dish. I thought it was curry powder, but on hindsight, it was probably chilli powder. I didn’t pay much attention at the time because I was seized by a coughing fit from the first mouthful.
The curry flavour was really strange to me. If such a dish appeared in Singapore, we’d probably call it Bombay Fried Beehoon or something like that, and tourists from India would be trying it in our eating places and blogging about how wierd it was.
* * * * *
Dinner was miles better. Andy’s Tavern at 81 Bayham Street, Camden Town, is a Greek Cypriot restaurant. Between John Malathronas – whose published books include Singapore Swing, a quirky personal travelogue – and me, we ordered three appetisers and two uniquely Greek Cypriot main courses, accompanied by a lovely white wine from the volcanic island of Santorini.
The three starters were Melizanes (baked aubergines), Halloumi Saganaki (fried squares of curd cheese) and Spanacopitta (thin pastry packets of spinach and cheese, lightly fried).
The main courses were a lamb and a beef dish. The lamb dish (Kleftico) was baked till the fat had mostly all melted. The meat was extremely tender and came with a light, fragrant sauce. I’m no food writer, alas, and am unable to tell you what likely went into the sauce. The beef was slow-cooked with onions, resulting in a texture very like what we see in good Beef Rendang, only that here it had a cooked-onion gravy.
* * * * *
With Hansen and his partner the night before, at another (Belgian) restaurant, I asked him, “Where do you think the waitress comes from?” I had noticed an unfamiliar accent.
“Oh, Eastern Europe, probably. They’re all from abroad,” he said. Indeed, that seems to be the norm in London. Very much like in Singapore, the locals don’t want to do such jobs anymore.
“There was a time, around 2005 or 2006,” said Malathronas, “when suddenly, all these East Europeans came over, and service in restaurants took a nosedive.”
“How exactly?” I asked.
“Oh, your dish would arrive at your table with a thud, and the wine bottle would be plonked down. They brought with them service standards from their own countries behind the iron curtain.”
In 2004, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and six other countries joined the European Union (Romania and Bulgaria also joined in 2007). By August 2006, it was estimated that nearly 600,000 new migrants had entered the UK from these countries, 447,000 alone from Poland (BBC, 22 Aug 2006, Link). About 37 percent took factory jobs, but the catering, cleaning, warehouse and packing sectors each attracted about 10 percent of the new migrants.
“Things are much better now,” Malathronas was quick to put the matter into perspective. Restaurant service “was only bad for about two years.” Evidently, migrants have learnt and perhaps management cared enough to insist that they do. They’ve also acquired English rapidly, though, unsurprisingly, accents have endured.
Yet, new migrants don’t only come from the newest members of the EU. The Italians from poorer parts of ther country are still coming to look for work in the UK, even though Italy was a founder member of the EU.
“Let’s go get some ice-cream,” I said to Zhengxi of The Online Citizen.
“What, in this weather?” he protested. The sky was overcast, the wind acting up and we were in overcoats and scarfs.
“But it’s real Italian gelato,” I said, managing to persuade him. “That’s the beauty of immigration; we get the real thing even though we’re in London.”
Not only was the ice-cream made by Italians, the front of house was also manned by Italians. The girl behind the counter was probably fresh off the boat; she didn’t understand when I asked for decaf to go with my triple scoop of ice-cream. It took three tries saying ‘decaffeinated’ slowly before she understood. “Oh, cafe decaffeinato,” she said, beaming a victorious smile when she finally got my meaning.
Another Italian incident took place at Foyle’s, a reputed bookshop on Charing Cross. A customer noticed that the guy manning the information and payment counter on the top floor spoke with a thick accent and asked him, “Is Italian your first language?”
“No, it’s my second language,” he said.
There was a pause. The customer seemed unsure whether he should ask if English was his first language. Surely, that could not be.
Helpfully, the counter clerk added, “My first language is Sardinian, and English is my third language.”
That was an interesting reply, I thought. When is a dialect a language?
Meanwhile, near the Elephant and Castle tube station, the Chinese restaurant uses students from mainland China for wait staff. It also uses MSG, though at least it offers a “no MSG’ option when you order.
Even more considerate is this stall (picture below) near Camden Locks, selling Thai take-out. It is proud that it doesn’t resort to MSG at all. But “why is the sign that says no monosodium glutamate only in Italian?” I asked the young man at the stall.
“We have plenty of Italian customers,” he said. “They want to know.”
Left unsaid perhaps is how his Asian customers don’t care to know and don’t care if they gradually poison themselves with MSG.
* * * * *
“They are all foreigners!” exclaimed Zhengxi, when he told me about what he noticed at Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. Yes, more foreign invasion. “Even the imam was an American.” Here’s a picture of the imam (mounting the fence) addressing his audience of four.
Another speaker was going on about the Jewish festival of Hanukkah while a third was having an argument with his audience (of about 10) over some Christian stuff. At least he had ten people to harangue. This guy (below), well prepared with his Jesus signs, had just one.
It’s all about religion – that was the other thing that struck both Zhengxi and myself. Speaker’s Corner, like so many things in political traditions, has seen a descent into farce. The thing about farce is that most people know it when they see it, and so they stay away. They won’t waste their time over it. There is however one class of people who cannot see when they themselves have become the prime actors of farce – the religious nuts. They are the ones who stand on soapboxes at Hyde Park or who brandish a book saying “I am on page 73!”
Meanwhile, serious protests take place elsewhere, such as in Trafalgar Square, which I wrote about in a previous post, and this one that is just a stone’s throw from 10 Downing Street.
It’s about Iraq closing a refugee camp and possibly deporting the refugees back to Iran. Apparently, the refugees face severe persecution when sent back. Exactly what Britain’s role in all this is, I can’t figure out; maybe the protestors want the British prime minister to put pressure on the Iraqi government to keep the camp open.
But my point is this: When we say Singapore is gradually opening up and allowing demonstrations, why do we copy the farce (and boast about it), but not the real freedom to protest where it has impact?