You’ve heard it before, I’m sure: Someone begins a travelogue entry by stating that “stepping off the plane was like stepping into a sauna… I felt I was swimming through the air, not breathing it.” It’s delicious, of course, that first sensory experience in a tropical country, and I enjoyed it again when I flew from cold, rainy Beijing into muggy, humid and wonderfully sweltering Singapore in August 2006.
In Singapore, I stayed at a hostel in Little India. This was a confusing experience for me, as someone who’s previously lived in India: all the foods were the same, as were the wares available for purchase – and despite the overall order of the city, the neighbourhood managed to be familiarly layered with Indian-style litter. However, even with the bits of litter, the general organisation and clean edge made me feel a little uneasy. Where was I, exactly? What was this, bizarro-India? It was a little similar to the experience of crossing the border between Canada and the United States for the first time: everything is almost exactly the same, but at the same time, something is also very, very different.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed my mini-holiday in Little India for several reasons. I got my eyebrows threaded; I finally bought a copy of the Bollywood film in which I was an extra all those years ago in India and I got myself some South Indian food. I procured the last of those serendipitously – while walking from my hostel to the subway, I saw familiar photos of delicious South Indian delights and I couldn’t resist the temptation. I quickly found a friend at the hostel, and we headed straight to the advertised spot for puri bhaji, a masala dosa, and sweet paan served in tiny sanitary Ziploc bags for dessert.
But although the dosa was crispy and the coconut chutney rich and creamy, I couldn’t help feeling that the organised, tamed experience I was having was affecting the flavours of my food – like a tiger in a cage, although fundamentally still a dangerous predator, my foods had been tamed. They seemed to need a large spoonful of chaos (and perhaps several street-side bartering sessions as well) in order to be once more recognizably wild and lovable.