Suruchi Mazumdar is an epircurian and I got to know her over a dinner at Assam Bhavan, Delhi. She is currently pursuing doctoral research in Singapore and has been a journalist in India.
In this guestpost she takes itiriti readers on a tour of Canteens of NTU which she calls ‘the culinary heaven’. Happy reading!
A cousin who had just become a mother had once told me, “I forget the pains of life and hardships of the world when I look at my baby.” Not long after I too experienced similar feelings – and not once but many times over five years. In my case the surge of emotions fortunately did not entail the effort of motherhood. But the world suddenly seemed very beautiful and I felt blessed every time I entered a favourite canteen at my university in Singapore. The culinary heaven, otherwise also known as NTU, where I spent past few years in graduate programmes, hosts countless canteens – more than 17 approximately (plus numerous restaurants and cafes) – across its expansive campus that serve delightful food round the clock.
I was among the rare breed of fortunate graduate students for whom the key part of higher education entailed the joy of discovering new canteens across a beautiful campus and trying out new specialities every now and then. I became a woman of many loves and loyalties, a woman who had many choices and who felt torn between her choices in times of appetite. For instance, when New World Canteen opened sometime back I felt naturally drawn towards its Chinese stall. I stood spellbound in the queue as chef-cum-waiters kneaded ramen (hand-made Chinese noodles) out of flour mound in playful artistry in the open kitchen. The scene was straight out of one of National Geographic Channel’s exotic food shows. The extraordinariness of my experience was primarily because this extravagance was not a rare/occasional affair but a part of my very “mundane” (well!) existence as a graduate student. I loved my beef ramen – hand-made noodles in a clear beef stew. But as succulent pieces of tender beef melted in my mouth I almost always felt guilty – guilty of ignoring good old canteen 1, another paradise of Chinese food in the campus. I missed the cheerful owner-cum-waitress at a stall in canteen 1 that used to be known as Local Delight and offered delicacies from the mainland. The waitress, who came from the mainland and spoke no English, served me the stall’s popular pick Ban Mian – minced pork balls and poached egg in hot noodle soup. She never forgot that I loved my Ban Mian with a sprinkle of dry fish.
Eating out at no-fuss food courts, comprising of hawker-run stalls, is fairly common in Singapore. The food courts that comprise of hawker-run stalls are a conspicuous feature and somewhat represent the globalised city-state’s signature culinary culture and local heritage. The canteens – which are like a microcosm of the food courts – host stalls around large semi-circular courtyards. The options include Indonesian, Nasi Padang (Malay), Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Beijing, Sichuan, Hong Kah or Hong Kong) and Indian (Singaporean Tamil and common north Indian varieties) fare. The stalls are renovated every now and then for quality food service.
While compulsory renovations usually meant better options of food and services, the process also translated to great personal losses. I permanently lost favourite stalls and relationships with the owner-chef-waiters – many of them very elderly, and fondly addressed by students as aunties and uncles. For instance, when I recently went to canteen B after a long term break I was pleasantly surprised. The service of the canteen had been outsourced to Koufu, one of the three market players that monopolised the local hawker food business. The much-loved siew mai (traditional Chinese dumplings), meat-stuffed big and small buns (pau), spring rolls and crispy prawn dumplings were on the menu, thanks to the outsourcing. But cute Malay aunties and their old Nasi Padang stall were missing from canteen B. I found out later that some stall owners who lost their business because of Koufu found employment in other canteens. But I never knew if our Malay aunties could still serve their signature delightful coconut-flavoured yellow chicken curry and the spicy sting ray fish, the old stall’s all-time favourites, eaten with rice.
With the food being subsidised, a decent meal (including juices/ beverages) would come for about 5-6 SGD (approximately Rs 225-260) or lesser. Some canteens are costlier than others. Extravagant foodies like me routinely spent more than graduate students’ standard budget of food. Finally, at the heart of this personal story of epicurean pleasure and culinary indulgence clearly works a certain process of professionalisation and bureaucratisation in a system that seeks to offer the best service to customers – in this case students. This principle (corporatisation) that sums up the spirit of many ‘global’ campuses in present times has translated to a meticulously-planned localised outcome in our campus – great food across great canteens. And some of us were spoilt!