In the two blocks between our hostel and the streets of Chinatown it began to rain. Big rain. The kind of rain that comes down in sheets and soaks through your skin, never mind your clothes, in two seconds flat. In the humidity of Singapore evenings it carries the smell of palm oil trees on the back of it, just to remind you that there is no doubt that you are in South East Asia. The low rumble of thunder echoed the hollow rumble of my jet-lagged stomach and rattled through my bones as we slipped and skidded across sleek pavements in cheap flip flops.
Flourescent lights attracted puffs of tiny insects as we crossed the threshold from towering grey skyscrapers into the wooden pagoda-roofed shambles of Chinatown. Ducking under canopies bulging with rainwater, we tried to ignore the gentle caw of women reclining behind rows of knicks knacks, eyes glinting with the hope of commerce. We were not there for souvenirs – we were there to find our first dinner in Singapore.
Temple Street was lined with little restaurants and Mark began his slow, methodical assessment of every single menu on display. The rain was still coming down fast so I grabbed him by the arm and into the closest little eatery with the two most recognisable words on the street. Dim sum.
Plumes of steam rose from wicker baskets behind a dull metal counter, the smell of meat and spices added to the humid rain. The gentle “click click” of plastic chopsticks marked time amidst a medley of chatter in Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese. A serious-looking pair of elderly ladies rolled, tweaked and shaped white dough at lightning speed before placing the parcels neatly and carefully in woven baskets for steaming. Glancing around the other tables, Mark quickly assessed the situation. He snatched up the tiny pen and what looked like a Bingo card from the table. We always fight over who gets to look at the menu first. I had swept in before him but, seeing it didn’t have any pictures, handed it over – defeated. Mark scrutinised it like a trainspotter over a timetable and ticked off four little boxes on the bingo card, tongue out in concentration. He let me choose the beer though.
Sipping on a couple of expensive bottles of Tiger beer we surveyed the scene outside. The rain was still coming down in sheets and neon lights with foreign characters shone through steam billowing from hot-wok noodle stands. It looked like the opening scene from Bladerunner. Without a minute to contemplate where we were and how we had got there, the waitress placed our dumpling baskets on the table. She laughed at us looking outside at the rain.
“It is the same everyday,” she said, giving us a crinkly old smile “The same time everyday. Good appetite.”
As we tore into fat dumplings with piping hot centres, char sui quickly became my favourite. Fluffy and sweet with slow-cooked pork in the middle. I burned the roof of my mouth trying to eat as fast as possible, not wanting to wait another minute for second helpings.
We lived on dim sum in Singapore. The low rumble of thunder became more than an announcement of the daily evening storm, but a dinner bell that my stomach would reply to. Sheets of rain brought the promise of Char Sui, not just clearer skies. Now, when I need my dim sum fix and pop to Stack just around the corner in Edinburgh, I don’t just taste fluffy Char Sui and sweet pork, but Singapore storms in each bite as well.