Monday, September 06, 2004

For the Pleasure of Their Company

31 Dec 1999. The eve of the next Millennium. The tele was showing these islanders from Kiribati who had rowed for weeks across the Pacific Ocean to get to some god-forsaken island that would be the first to greet the sunrise. We were all expecting the cable to go off, the lights to go out, and satellites to fall from the sky, at precisely midnight (thanks to the much-feared Y2K bug). Dinner was home-made spaghetti alfredo, courtesy of HM. I remember that fondly. How often do you eat an alfredo sauce that has been prepared with a $20 hunkola of parmesan reggiano? More importantly, it was a celebratory meal at the end of a particularly impoverished period of minimal income. I had a new job, we were under our own roof (albeit a rented one) - things were looking up.

Anthony Bourdain's search for the epiphanous meal is something that resonates with me. Which meals do I remember best and which do I cherish the memory of?

The freshness of the ingredients, the skill of the chef, the aesthetics of the presentation - these culinary qualities notwithstanding, it is context that sets the best of meals apart from the others. The time, the place and the company - all play a part in the creation of the perfect meal.

Eating at Princess Terrace today was memorable for reasons other than the food. That's not to say that the food was anything to sniff at. The Princess Terrace Penang food buffet is an institution; its reputation for authenticity certainly precedes it. Put to the test, I really couldn't quibble. The choice of menu items was spot on - Penang laksa, Hokkien prawn mee, Penang-style char kuay teow, duck leg mee sua, asam prawns, kerabu bee hoon, everything was there. And the taste was distinctively Penang, with ample use of shrimp paste and Nonya-inspired flavours.

So the food was good, but what set the meal apart was who I was eating with. I gather everyone was a regular, from former Penangites hankering for some hometown food, to "salary" men and women in the ugliest of officewear, to white-haired academics discussing anthropology, to Peranakan families in full force. Imagine visiting your Peranakan classmate's home during a Christmas or Chinese New Year gathering. As you check out the buffet table, total strangers come up to you and tell you, with all the familiarity of long-lost relatives, to try this or that. You overhear everyone's life stories, as they chat merrily away at the top of their voices. The room was positively FRIENDLY. Even the chef was out front, working the room. It was entertaining to say the least.

There aren't many places like this left in Singapore today. The only other restaurant, with that old-world feel and charm, that comes readily to mind is Shashlik. That sort of ambience, if you will, cannot be created with money.



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