Currently on sabbatical in the UK, Shona Day and her family enjoyed a number of memorable meals in Singapore and India en route to their destination.
In March of this year, we packed our bags and embarked on a four-month long sabbatical to the UK. En route, we stopped in Singapore, India and Italy and, amidst the joy of seeing family and friends again and the mild shock (for my Kiwi kids) of acclimatising to the general chaos in India, we were lucky to enjoy moments in which we slowed down to savour a delicious meal. I often think about what makes such a meal memorable for me. It is certainly more than the sum of flavour and ingredients. More often than not, place and time is just as important as the meal itself.
I can still feel the vibration of a tropical thunderstorm unleashing its short-lived fury outside as we took shelter in a traditional Peranakan restaurant in Old Singapore. This high-ceilinged space with its Dutch wooden shutters, Eastern mosaic tile work and stained glass windows presented a wonderfully coherent aesthetic; one which I like to believe mirrors the cuisine itself. Peranakan (Nyonya) cuisine was borne out of the intermingling of a community of traders, primarily Hokkien Chinese men and Indo-Malay women, who settled along the Malacca straits in the 13th century. This intermingling of cultures resulted in one of the earliest known fusion foods. We ate and ate well – pork stew with the deep umami flavour of fermented bean paste; chicken candlenut curry, the tarry liquid piquant and black; minced pork, prawns and dried fish stuffed in pandan leaves. Some dishes were outright delicious; others, I was undecided about, my tastebuds unused to some of these flavour combinations. The most joyous aspect for me though was that I had never tasted many of these flavour combinations and so the memories of them continue to tantalise.
From Singapore we flew to Mumbai. As we had only three days in Mumbai, we decided to dive straight in and headed to a little place called “Taste of Kerala” which came recommended by a friend. After walking through a tiny back street, heaving with people and the occasional cow, we entered this small and rather dingy looking space with mild trepidation. We were very quickly ushered up to the top floor: a windowless, low ceilinged box, in which every tiny table was crammed with lunch goers. It spoke of practicality and efficiency as our waiter, within seconds, smacked banana leaves and a menu (which boasted an enormous number of items) in front of us. In a decision-freeze, we looked over to see what others were eating and settled upon the most popular item, the vegetarian thali. It turned out to be the right call because soon our waiter came by with stainless steel pots (four to a handle) ready to serve our food, and we proceeded to enjoy a smorgasbord of about 12 of the most delicious vegetarian dishes I have ever tasted, from the pumpkin curry, flavoured with just the right amount of mustard and curry leaves, to the drumsticks cooked in a light coconut curry which we chewed the tender flesh out of. The rice was plump and grainy and between bites we sipped rasam, a digestive pepper curry, from a bowl. We finished with a creamy rice pudding cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with a dark, flavoursome jaggery. Having no cutlery freed us from other etiquette as well, and we slurped our way through this meal!
From Mumbai we went on to Kolkata, my childhood home. While I can’t even begin to explain the joy of Bengali cuisine, I will boil it down to one dish, the ubiquitous Bengali fish fry. This is a perfect example of the type of Anglo Indian cuisine that developed during British colonial times and which is now uniquely Bengali. Locally caught fresh Bhetki (Barrramundi) is portioned and mixed with turmeric and salt. It is then marinated in ginger, garlic, coriander, lemon and green chilli, crumbed and fried. Served hot with a green chutney or simply tomato sauce, it is lip smackingly delicious, and we ate this several times during our few days in Kolkata, often accompanied by a chilled Kingfisher or an iced Bloody Mary (which Kolkata also does very well)!
By the end of our 10 days in India, we felt pleased to have come through with all of our stomachs intact and only delicious memories to take away with us as we embarked on our next leg of the journey.