I have a rule for eating overseas in developing countries: at some point I will get sick and I when it happens, I won’t think too hard about what food was responsible. If I have been eating well then whether it was dirty water or old eggs that did me in, it just doesn’t matter- when the stomach cramps are gone all I'll remember is that the food was delicious.
It was with that in mind I ate every plate in front of me on a recent afternoon spent with KF Seetoh, the leading expert on Singaporean food. And with the help of that mantra (and some pills) I toughed out the next twenty-four hours of intestinal cramping, aching limbs, and pounding headache. Less than one day after that I was back out on the streets of Indonesia, sitting crossed legged on a plastic mat at a local joint eating a bowl of spicy mie goreng.
One could not have a more expert guide to eating in Singapore than Seetoh. Seetoh and his wife Patricia, supporters of the charity John founded, Room to Read, were equally eager to have lunch with us during our 36 hour stopover in Singapore. Hidden up seven stories in a concrete building we found Red Star, the oldest dim sum restaurant in town, and one of only a few still doing cart service. Over a pot of tea, Seetoh and Patricia filled our table with steamed shrimp dumplings, crisp spring rolls, fried balls of taro with tasty meat and vegetable centers, and some of the best Peking duck I’ve had.
When Seetoh suggested dessert at Old Airport Road hawker center, I could not say no even though my stomach was already beyond capacity. He and Patricia introduced me to Singporean coffee laced with sugar and sweetened condensed milk. An old dessert of sweetened soy bean curd had recently been updated so that the soy milk congealed in a perfect pane cotta texture of silken jellied sweet tofu. The signature salad of the hawker center, rojak, a beautiful mess of cucumber, bean sprouts, and fried dough squares comes smothered in a sweet and tangy sauce heavy on tamarind and covered in crushed peanuts. Picking up pieces with toothpicks I could understand why writer Calvin Trillin could not stop eating this when Seetoh introduced him to it several years. It was a “delicious chaos” of flavors, color, and texture. A bag of battered and fried vegetables and fruit ranging from bananas to red bean paste fairly put me over the edge. However, if it weren’t for the flight we had to catch that afternoon I would have been more than happy to eat myself to death hanging out with Seetoh and Patricia all day, swapping stories and food.
The day that followed, starting with the flight to Jakarta, was one giant aching cramp in my middle. But that is what drugs are for. Rest was difficult with the thumping of the base in the nightclub rattling the walls from five floors below our room at the Swiss-Belhotel. But it passed. And with the passing of illness, the hunger for street food immediately returned.
Luckily some of the main foods of Java- meat long simmered in clear broths- is the sort of food on which I would be happy to be nurse back to health in any country. Soto ayam, a broth of garlic, chicken broth, and glass noodles is the Chicken Noodle Soup of Indonesia. Sop buntut is a heavily spiced clear broth cooked with oxtail, a nourishing balm when eaten rice after several missed meals.
Indonesian food helped return me to health and it was Indonesian food with which I would prove back in the game. A little over one day after my lowest of low points, John and I sat cross-legged in a fluorescent lit room under the shadow of Borobudur, a 8th century Buddhist temple, devouring plates of rice noodles sautéed with chili and garlic, chicken and cabbage- mie goreng- the noodle version of the classic Indonesian fried rice dish, nasi goreng. We ordered lamb in a rich and spicy sauce with several bowls of rice to easy the capsaicin pain and speared chunks of grilled spiced lamb sate with our forks before going in for more mie goreng noodles. The chilies stung our eyes and caused a fit of coughing when they hit the hot pan- we were going back for seconds.
In Yogyakarta the following night our quest for street food continued, this time more out of the realization there were not many food options outside of our hotel that not involve a charcoal fire and raw animal parts hanging from the rack of a street cart. We picked our location with calculation: the cart should look busy indicating the locals eat there and ensuring sufficient turnover of inventory that our chances of food poisoning would likely be diminished. That the meat be fully cooked was a necessity.
Our cart of choice offered birds- chicken and duck- deep fried, ordered by part. The man at the fryer translated the menu to us miming the upper half of his body for chicken breast and pointing to his leg for duck thigh. We ordered a few of each with rice. At our request the owner sent a man out to bring us back two large, warm Bintang beers with mugs of ice (we pushed those aside). The sambal that filled blue mugs on the table was sweet, smoky and spicy. We tore off hunks of fried chicken breast and confit like duck leg burning our finger a bit while we dipped in the sambal and pinched a bit of rice.
Our few days in Indonesia and Singapore were brief but the food seared my mind like the spice of the sambal and burn of mie goreng. I ate the street and the street bit back. It may have won a battle, but as long as there are still hawker stalls to explore and fluorescent lit stalls on the streets of South East Asia I will keep eating, and the war will be mine.