Ask anyone who's been through the Singapore education system about the songs they learnt in school or even just imbibed from sitting in front of their television and they'll sing you Majulah Singapura, the national anthem (usually without understanding what the Malay lyrics means because, duh, they've never learnt the language). Otherwise it'll be some patriotic national songs like Count on Me Singapore or even One People, One Nation, One Singapore which have always reminded me of the equivalent of brain detergent.
Ask any Malaysian over the age of 30 and they too will sing you the national anthem Negaraku. Usually not very well, because it goes on too long and is rather weepy. Then they'll move on to their all-time favourite which is Rasa Sayang. Rasa means taste or feel, sayang can be a verb or a noun, to convey love, dear, beloved.
Everybody can sing Rasa Sayang, at least the chorus part. The body of the song is a mix of poems and good advice. The chorus itself is infectious and catchy. Another reason for Rasa Sayang being embedded in our consciousness is the children's variety show by the same name, in those days before internet, Wii, PSP or multi-channel cable TV we really looked forward to this simple entertainment aired during public holidays. For one hour we would be treated to songs and dance performed by little schoolchildren like ourselves, sometimes in a basic stage or sometimes in a picturesque outdoor setting with waving coconut trees in the background. Yeah, we were easy to please in those days.
It's 2009 now. We have everything. Internet, robots, GPS systems and even smartphones. Some things remain unchanged, example, we continue to love the foods we ate growing up. Malaysian hawker favourites like satay, rendang, roti canai, kari ayam etc etc. We accept that outside Malaysia it'll be less authentic, less spicy, less sedap, yet we cannot walk past one without hoping to be proved wrong because honestly it doesn't even have to be very good, just not worse than what any anonymous food court stall in any shopping mall back home can muster.
So it was that just after we had dumped our luggage in C's flat, hopped on the first bus to Dean St in Chinatown and then striding eagerly to HK Diner for our Cantonese food fix when my internal food radar buzzed agitatedly. I looked around, ah, just to the right, along the little side street of Macclesfield St (No 5, T: 020 7734 1382, or next to Leong's Legend) was a boldly-lettered panel of the Rasa Sayang signboard proclaiming that they serve Malaysian/ Singaporean cuisine. Interesting, they even have yee-sang, the typical Chinese New Year fish salad that is wildly popular in both these countries but never really took off in other big Chinese communities elsewhere.
We stepped inside. Ikea furnishings and bright lighting make it seem more like a cafe, reinforced further by black and white prints of typical kopitiam scenes hanging on the wall, and slowly the ears tune in that customers and staff were speaking English with that distinctive Malaysian accent.
We ordered extravagantly. Nasi lemak, char kway teow, sambal kangkong, nam yu chicken wings. Drinks like soybean milk, soybean with cincau, teh tarik. Desserts of pulot gula melaka, ondeh ondeh. When the nasi lemak was placed in front of me, I nearly cried, it looked so beautiful and right. The generous portions of rice and chicken curry, the rich spicing of the chicken and achar, really hit the spot, and it was only GBP 6.50 which cannot buy anything even half as satisfying in Paris. The curry was not as hot as I prefer, but the waitress readily gave out more sambal when requested.
Vera ignored her plain soymilk and slurped up all the grass jelly from my glass. She also ate the whites of my egg with rice and later we shared desserts.
There is also a small snacks menu from which we ordered chicken wings marinated with nam-yu (red fermented beancurd) and deepfried. GBP 3.00 buys you three drumlets and three wings. This was superb, crispy outside and well-flavoured chicken succulence inside.
Sago gula melaka came with proper palm sugar syrup and lots of coconut milk. Lovely. I asked about ice kacang and cendol, the nice young man from Pahang said it is 'akan datang' (in the works).
We ate here again on the first day of CNY because of its yee-sang. They had all the fixings, the lurid green and red strips were actually fried taro, quite tasty, and the waitress took the time to say out all the lucky phrases, as it should be. The salmon was too oily and fishy, and it wasn't the best version of yee-sang ever, but it's better than not having any.
Not every dish here is a winner. We like their beef rendang, the meat tender but not cooked to a mush, and the spicing just right, no shortcuts detectable. Curry laksa came with requisite tau-pok (fried tofu pockets) and the gravy was adequately aromatic and tasty. Nasi goreng was sedap (delicious) too. Misses included fried spring rolls which were just pathetic little cigarettes without much discernible fillings (incidentally, they looked and tasted like those we didn't like at Busaba Eathai's). Char Kway Teow was pale and looked like it wanted to shrivel with embarrassment, someone or something had forgotten about wok-hei here, without the typical fire-smoky aroma this dish should not even be listed on the menu. Ondeh ondeh was also a miss with its odd rubbery texture and even weirder taste.
There didn't seem to be many Singaporean dishes in the menu. Fish beehoon soup and chilli crabs are listed, next time perhaps. Speaking to the young man again, we learnt that they have been opened for only six weeks. I hope they do well, the food is mostly good, authentic and reasonably priced.
We went shopping at Liberty after lunch, at their fabric section I got talking to an old-timer staff whom I recognised from my student days when my mum and I used to buy fabrics to be made into dresses. They also had a wider range of silks, velvets, tweeds and all sorts of beautiful fabrics in those days, now mostly the cottons endure but relegated to a sad balcony space and no longer inside one of the main halls.
This time I got some shirts and let V choose a fabric for her dress, perpetuating our little family tradition. We chatted about fabrics and the better old days, from the way he spoke I asked if he was also a Malaysian and he confirmed that yes, he was. In comradely spirit he told us of two places to eat in London. One was at a very posh place, you don't need to go there he said, everyone is going to this new place in Chinatown instead, it's called Rasa Sayang, and is operated by the ex-owners of the old Bali at Edgware Rd (before it went downhill and had to close some years ago). Flashback! I remember Bali, it was the first Malaysian restaurant we went to when I first arrived as a student, I nearly fainted at paying the equivalent of RM3.50 for a stick of satay which in those days could have bought us more than a half-dozen back home.
Fast forward twenty years later, and well, nothing's changed. We're still paying whatever it takes for a taste of home, the taste we love, this rasa sayang sayang eh!
All together now,
eh rasa sayang sayang eh
eh lihat nonya jauh
Rasa sayang sayang eh