Takeaway

Stopover manna

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018
Under wraps: Xiao long bao, steamed pork dumplings served with broth — one of the many things you can treat yourself to if you have some time to kill in Hong Kong.

Under wraps: Xiao long bao, steamed pork dumplings served with broth — one of the many things you can treat yourself to if you have some time to kill in Hong Kong.   -  Shutterstock

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’Yeah   -  BusinessLine

There’s nothing like local food and brew — worlds away from insipid airport fare — to help you refuel for the onward journey

A couple of years ago I formed a habit of stopover snacking. It started when, for some reason, my wife and I were booked on separate flights to Australia — hers was almost direct, whereas mine gave me half a day to kill at Changi.

They say Singapore’s airport is the best in Asia, but how much fun is it to sit around and wait? Besides, I had heard that the Singapore Sling (originally named Raffles Gin Sling) was invented a hundred years ago at the Raffles Hotel by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. Being so near, I enquired at the immigration counters and found that I could pop into town for a drink without applying for Singaporean visa.

The uniformed aunty briskly stamped my passport and sent me off. The metro (SGD 1.9 = ₹90 approx) took under 30 minutes and the Raffles was around the corner from the station. I wasn’t hungry thanks to the delicious airlines brunch I had had just before touchdown — Thai grilled chicken with tamarind sauce, scrambled egg radish-rice pudding served with juicy prawns, and fried carrot cake. And it was anyway post-noon, so cocktail hour. Within minutes I was sipping on that legendary drink at the Raffles’ legendary Long Bar, while nibbling on the legendary groundnuts and — following the legendary tradition — chucking the shells on the floor.

I was paying through my nose and everything screamed tourist trap: the SGD24 (₹1,125 approx) per pop highball was ready-mixed, too sweet for my taste, served in a branded glass, the bar was jam-packed with only foreigners. Singaporeans, if at all they drink slings, get them in any of the next-door bars at less than half the price. But at least I got it ticked off the to-do list.

Apart from the classic 1890s bar, the hotel maintains a fine museum in its heritage wing with photographs, letters and other ephemera detailing visits by all manner of illustrious personalities who lodged here when it was the finest boarding house east of Suez.

Sufficiently soused, I next took a cock-eyed saunter around town — a bright, sunny and hot day as is normal in Singapore, which soon made the sling gin ooze out through my pores. I inspected various colonial leftovers such as Clarke Quay, now a fine-dining waterside district, and Orchard Road, once a posh address lined with bungalows, but a giant shopping centre now.

Towards early evening I was back where I had started and took the escalators up into Raffles City, a multistorey shopping mall with one of the ‘hawker courts’ I had heard of. These were originally introduced as a way for the municipality to regulate roadside food vending by setting up AC halls with good standards of hygiene and clean bathrooms. They soon became foodie attractions, specialising as they do in gourmet Chinese, Malay and Singaporean cuisine at affordable rates.

Despite the fancy Raffles City location next to Raffles Hotel, I enjoyed a gently spiced noodle soup with thinly sliced fish for SGD4 (₹190 approx), served in a strange pot that kept boiling as I ate, before I shuttled back to the airport on the MRT.

That yummy quickie made me rethink my travel planning, which earlier had included insufferably tasteless meals of dishwatery potato soup and boiled cabbage with mummified spaghetti while waiting for a connecting flight at Sheremetyevo or rubbery doughnuts at JFK. I vowed then to make my stopovers memorable, so whenever there’s a chance I dash into the nearest town — to eat local, drink local, and make merry.

On a recent trip, when my wife and I had a few hours to kill at Kai Tak, I proposed a dim sum lunch because, as luck has it, almost nobody needs a visa for a brief visit to Hong Kong. (Incidentally, Indian passport holders can visit 49 countries without a visa.) Within minutes we were on the airport express, paying HK$100 (₹850 approx) for single-day return passes.

As first-timers in Hong Kong, we marvelled at the skyscrapers that the archipelago city is covered in, some so tall that their top floors disappeared into the clouds. Between them stood old churches with tombs of long-dead colonials, but cash-making dominated every other nook and cranny and had us giggling at signs like Hung Fat Pawn Shop.

After walking uphill and downhill, we eventually got hungry and started asking locals where to get good dim sum. Finally a young man well-versed in English understood the quest we were on and directed us to the upper floor of a shopping mall. There, an ordinary-looking restaurant known as La Mian Xiao Long Bao specialised in translucent-skinned dumplings steamed in bamboo baskets and served with tasty broth.

Except for the signature xiao long bao, the Chinese menu items meant nothing to us. So ordering became a gamble. However, the proximity to Canton, the dim sum capital of the world, meant that this shouldn’t be too bad. Besides, a tableful of dim sum allows for hit-and-miss experiences — so apart from the pork dumplings we got Shanghai-style seafood dumplings, fried wraps stuffed with assorted vegetables, braised eggplant in soy sauce, and Mandarin thick veg soup.

Total damage: HK$231 (₹1,950 approx). Satisfaction: Priceless.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on March 24, 2017

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