As he poured me a warm bowl of his world-famous walnut cream, Mr. Doh asked me casually, in Mandarin Chinese, that ever-familiar question about where I’m from. Out of one eye, I could see him eyeballing the hubby, probably thinking that I couldn’t have picked up such a fine-looking specimen locally. I told him America, and he said he already knew that part, duh. What part of America, he wanted to know.
“South Carolina,” I said.
Mr. Doh looked utterly confused. “Is that in California?”
I tried again, this time explaining that South Carolina is near Atlanta, where the 1996 Olympics were held. He shook his head, embarrassed. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about American geography. Is At-Land-Tah a state, or a city?”
Foreground: Mr. Doh’s dessert soupy goodness. Background: Mr. Doh’s old-school nut grinder
I chuckled a little at the sweet man’s ignorance, until I remembered that, up until a few weeks before we moved to this region, I didn’t know that it’s possible to drive between Singapore and Malaysia. Learning this tiny but significant piece of information had enabled us to take the bus to Singapore — a lovely little five-hour jaunt that we’d used to catch up on our favorite American television shows, downloaded from ITunes. How could I fault this man for not being familiar with my little corner of the world, when I still can’t pinpoint where Kuala Lumpur is in relation to the rest of Malaysia?
Singapore has moved hawker stalls indoors, cleaned up the enterprise, and made it more accessible. Brilliant.
I looked at the hubby, wondering if he’d caught on that Mr. Doh and I would be the biggest losers at the National Geography Bee, but he was too busy inhaling our little bowl of walnut cream, a sensual, earthy delight, heartwrenchingly elegant in its simplicity. The walnut cream was our third dessert of the morning and one of twelve hawker stands we’d managed to eat during our 24 hours in this charming little authoritarian city-state.
Our experience with Mr. Doh wasn’t the first of its kind. Everywhere we went in Singapore, which was really only the insides of eating establishments, everyone was warm, friendly and curious to know about us and how we’d discovered them. Everywhere we went, the answer was the same: Makansutra. K.F. Seetoh, a Singaporean food enthusiast, wrote Makansutra to carefully chronicle all of the local eats in Singapore, assigning each dish a taste rating and noting whenever hawker stalls change or deteriorate in quality. The book is organized not by type of cuisine, but by dish, with each entry containing a photograph of the dish and a short description. It is the single greatest culinary tome for a Type-A organization freak and food lover like myself. For months before we arrived in Asia, the hubby and I drooled longingly over its pages, planning and dreaming about when we’d get to taste all these delectable wonders.
The Singaporean government takes sanitation at its hawker centers seriously, and invites diners to report any health issues they experience with the food there
And finally, finally, we were here, in this educational mecca of street food. As we strolled through stall after stall of delightfully basic but astonishingly clean stalls, I realized that the questions we’d gotten from locals were not about me. Everyone was curious about the hubby, who was the only non-Asian face in a sea of diners. He was the anomaly, not me. People were asking me questions because of his utterly rapturous enjoyment of every single little dish that passed in front of him. What’s a foreigner doing here, in our place, eating our food, every face seemed to be saying. The joyous expression on the hubby’s face carried the obvious reply. Because it’s amazingly delicious and oh my God there’s so much of it and it’s all so cheap, that’s why.
The famous Singapore spicy chili crab. Saucy, spicy and delicious, just like yours truly.
I turned back to Mr. Doh. He’d moved on to showing the meat of his operation to the hubby, an old-school nut grinder that he used every day to make his delicious soups and creams. Mr. Doh explained that very few dessert makers used these old hand-grinders anymore, turning instead to purchasing commercially made powders. He spat that last part of that sentence with disdain, laced with the kind of superiority usually only found by the cardigan-wearing upper-middle class at a Whole Foods when discussing grass-fed beef or Marcona almonds. He wasn’t one of those people. Mr. Doh believes in doing things the old school way, as his family has been doing for more than 50 years. He walked us through his other soups, churning through each pot with a ladle as he described each one. Almond cream. Cashew. Peanut. Black sesame. Each one was sexier than the one before it. The hubby pointed out that desserts in soup form were rare at home, and I wondered aloud why we didn’t eat more of them. They make so much sense when displayed lovingly by a man whose livelihood has revolved around making them.
We thanked Mr. Doh for our lesson, and promised we’d return soon. He smiled, knowing he’d hooked another set of diners, and returned to his gleaming, spotless stall.
115 Tang Shui | Chinatown Complex | Block 335A Smith Street | Singapore
(Walnut cream is only available on Saturdays, until Mr. Doh runs out)