The foodie community reeled from the news over the weekend: the Sid Vicious of the culinary world, Anthony Bourdain, 61, had apparently committed suicide. He hung himself in his hotel room in France, where he was filming an episode of the Emmy Award-winning CNN show Parts Unknown, which he hosted and produced.
The whip-smart, darkly funny New York native, who’s mother was an editor of The New York Times and dad a Yale uni grad and music executive, dropped out of Vassar college before attending the Culinary Institute of America. He then cooked for two decades in several restaurants, struggling to make ends meet, before publishing his gripping NYT best-seller Kitchen Confidential, which revealed the gritty underbelly of the restaurant world with wicked humour. It spawned several TV hosting gigs, and along with it, fame and fortune.
He transferred that nervous energy spent cooking and abusing substances into devouring the cuisines of the world with fervour, curiosity and open-mindedness. He often touched on political issues in places such as the West Bank and Congo as he broke bread with its residents, listening to their stories, humanising them when few others would. While he often made us hungry with vivid descriptions of whatever he was eating (it was because of him that we made a trip to Spain to seek out El Bulli and its genius chef Ferran Adria) — his shows weren't just about food. He inspired wanderlust by opening our eyes to real people, places and issues not typically covered in other travel shows.
He was especially fond of street food and he fully appreciated what we had to offer in Singapore. This was, an “ang moh” as he good-naturedly calls himself in a New York Times article he penned, who knew his bak chor mee from sup tulang. He made us look cool by telling the rest of the world that beneath our shiny veneer of skyscrapers and bland efficiency, there’s humble, sweaty, cheap and good eating to be had, cooked by hawkers with their own tales to tell.
Here are some choice quotes, gathered during his visit here to the inaugural World Street Food Congress in 2013, shows like The Layover and Parts Unknown, plus his NYT article about Singapore.
On being a clueless “ang moh” eating sup tulang: “For lunch, I found myself clumsily manhandling a sticky, slippery yet utterly wonderful heap of sauce-dripping bones [sup tulang, bone marrow soup), all the while wishing I’d wrapped myself in a dropcloth. The red mutton bones, stewed in a spicy sweet chili, tomato and mutton stock, arrived with a useless fork, a spoon, a little cabbage and some fried bread slices to mop up the sauce. The idea, apparently, was to pick up the bones with your fingers and tap them repeatedly until the buttery marrow slid out. Naturally, this didn’t happen. I tapped and banged in vain. I gnawed on the shreds of exterior meat. I dropped my bones, splattering myself, finally settling on spooning a little soup forlornly into my mouth. The proprietors, taking pity on the ang moh (foreigner — literally, “red head”), presented me with a straw, to the amusement of my fellow patrons. I jammed it in and sucked, striking the good stuff immediately. I came away with red-stained fingers, a ruined shirt and a feeling of happy, somewhat guilty stickiness.”
A few of his favourite things to eat in Singapore: I really like chicken rice. And I love the crab bee hoon at Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang.
On laksa: “It’s a classic “hurt so good” experience, requiring only a spoon — and a towel to mop the sweat from your face. For some time, I sat alone enjoying the sweet, relative coolness of the coconut milk against the sting of the chilies, with hearty bass notes of seafood and shrimp paste, while happily watching the morning commuters and fellow devotees slurping their breakfasts around me. Pure pleasure at around USD$2.”
On Singapore’s food scene: “Singapore is possibly the most food-centric place on Earth, with the most enthusiastic diners, the most varied and abundant, affordable dishes — available for cheap — on a per-square-mile basis. The hawker centers (basically, food courts where individually-owned mom and pop operations serve street food from tiny shops and booths) are wonderlands of Chinese, Indian, and Malay specialties. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel making food porn in Singapore.”
On tau hway: “It was late at night, and we were sitting at Rochor Original Bean Curd, a busy storefront. Frankly, I didn’t get it. Soy milk and tofu (unless it’s fried in animal fat) just don’t do it for me.”
On the Singapore Sling: “I would say a huge proportion of the Western tourists who come here all march into the bar at Raffles to get their obligatory Singapore sling. Tip to travelers: Skip that. No one in Singapore drinks Singapore slings. It’s a disgusting drink, don’t waste your time."
On Instagram food porn, during the World Street Food Congress 2013 in Singapore: “Why do you take a photo of a dish in a restaurant and Instagram it? Of that beautiful soup dumpling? To inspire people? No. You want them to feel bad about their food choices. You don’t want them to eat in a nicer restaurant and post photos of better-looking food. You want them to be looking at your pictures while sitting on the couch in their underwear eating Cheetos and drinking a cheap box of wine.”
On authentic street food: “If it’s not on a street, no it's not the same. You don’t want your chicken rice pre-sauced and served layered with frisée leeks on top. You don’t want to eat it in a sanistied cubicle and not on the street with accompanying sounds and smells. Real street food is our last best hope.”
On whether he would take his date to a hawker stall or food truck: “No, ’cos you’re not getting laid in a food truck.”
On why he finds Singapore irresistible: “So it was another day in foodie paradise. And that is Singapore’s singular danger. It is easy to get sucked in, to get used to the little things on your daily table — the tiny dishes of sambal or chopped red chili peppers, the soy sauce, even the moist towelettes. You begin quickly to expect them, to take them for granted. And once you get used to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes, there is no going back. Western food becomes eerily bland and flat. You find your soul kidnapped by the memory of condiments. And, of course, of the people who introduced you to them. If you like the idea of getting lost in Asia, Singapore is the perfect place to start.”