Tower of Pain
It’s been an incredibly busy week with the planning and practise for the show on Friday, the arrival of my bestest friend in the whole wide world, and the planning of the new workshops coming up in April. I’ve hardly had time to eat, what more cook.
Since Graeme has been away from Singapore for so long, much of his itinerary has been to reacquaint himself with Singapore and more specifically, the food! Having lived here for many years before, he’s savvy enough to know that the best food is in the hawker centres and has been making a determined pilgrimage to as many as possible.
The experience has been rich and fulfilling but it is inevitable that we would encounter a bad apple in the wondrously sweet culinary bushel. We made the decision to visit an old band and friends at their new gig, which just happened to be near Orchard Towers - also known as The Tower of Pain for the sado-masochism required to traverse down the different levels of girlie bars. A couple of musician friends had informed me that lurking in the basement of this notorious den of iniquity is a food court which serves fairly good local and Thai food. We decided to brave it and give it a try before visiting our old friends.
Finding the entrance to the SBC Food Court is as much of an adventure as dodging the many dodgy characters trolling Orchard Towers. Tucked between the bright neon signs of a 711 and garish other signboards, is the rather innocuous signboard and a short flight of stairs leading you into a dingy basement filled with tourists, their companions of the night and some locals.
I was fairly disappointed to find only a few food stalls there. For some reason, I had expected more. What I should have anticipated is more disappointment. Graeme sighted a nasi padang stall and made an instant beeline for it since he missed his beef rendang fix that afternoon. Oscar, being a more health-conscious type, headed to a stall with numerous food porn advertising delectable looking stir-fried beef, fried fish, fried noodles, stir-fried vegetables and other drool-inspiring local fare. I vacillated between the nasi padang stall, the laksa stall next door and the wanton noodles stall right at the entrance. In the end, genetics ruled and I found myself irresistibly drawn to the surly Chinese stall keeper to order a bowl of laksa – extra hamful please.
My food came first, costing me the usual $4.50 (the extra 50 cents for the extra ham or cockles). Graeme came bearing a large, red lacquered plate filled with rice, beef rendang, a mountain of sambal ikan bilis and string beans cooked with sliced chillies. I thought the beef rendang and sambal ikan bilis were strange in colour. They were just too orange and the ikan bilis looked much too soggy.
I was just winding up to tease Graeme about his earlier intentions to have a light meal when he revealed the cost of his dish - $9! He was rightfully annoyed at being a victim of tourist discrimination. When confronted by a snarky comment from Graeme about his duplicity, the stall keeper tried to justify himself. He explained the extraordinarily high cost was due to the double portion of beef rendang which costs $2. By my calculation, the dish could not have cost more than $6. In fact, a plate of nasi padang typically costs $4-4.50 max. Graeme had every cause to be riled, especially as the beef rendang was quite inferior. The strange orange tinge was only the harbinger of an under-braised, under-marinated, under-spiced yet tough beef curry.
Oscar and I commiserated vehemently when Oscar was suddenly struck by the thought that the same might happen to him too. Like the nasi padang store, the stall keepers had not inform him of the price of his stir-fried beef and vegetables dish. The smart cookie immediately hightailed it back to the stall to check out the cost. I was breathing a sigh of relief that I had ordered at a stall with the prices printed in big, bold font. So my stall keeper was a little grouchy but I much prefer that to dishonesty.
A bemused Oscar returned to inform us that he almost suffered the same fate as Graeme. The highway robbers disguised as food stall keepers had tried to fleece him too, by charging $9 for his stir-fry beef. And they were mightily pissed off when Oscar cancelled his order and were casting evil eyes at our table till Graeme snarled at one of them. I started eating my food very quickly in preparation for a fight – food before fists, I say.
Following in my example, Oscar ordered lor mee from the same stall. His huge bowl of lor mee was only $4. All in all, he seemed to enjoy his noodles while I groused that my laksa was a let-down as the broth was too thin and insipid with a strange tang as if it could not decide between being a lemak or a Penang laksa. Still, I didn’t grumble too much in light of Graeme’s misfortune.
We were very happy to depart from this bastion of inferior food and inflated prices. SBC Food Court should be ashamed of themselves. In food paradise Singapore, they really do the country an injustice by leaving a distinctively bitter taste for tourists.
On a much lighter note, we noticed a particular humorous signboard while walking the streets of Orchard Road. I just had to take a picture.