It was the search for paella that brought me to this overlooked corner of Dempsey. But what I found instead were memories of my past; a trigger that brought back residual images of brothers-in-arms and an uneventful yet much remembered night.
But first the food.
My love affair with paella started out strangely enough in Syracuse, at Dante’s where I tasted fideuà, a sister dish made with thin noodles instead of rice. It was hauntingly good and an introduction to Spanish food. A trip to Madrid my junior year during a semester abroad in London cemented my love for paella.
Unfortunately I’ve always had sub-par paella in Singapore. I was hopeful from reading the article in The Straits Times about the farmers’ market that this paella would be different.
The rice was very good, not the usual soggy mess that passes off as paella here. It was imbued with the very simple but distinct flavors of the abundant seafood, chorizo and saffron. My disappointment in this paella was that it lacked socarrat, the slightly burnt crusty crunchy bits of rice at the bottom of the paella pan, one of the defining characteristics of good paella.
The market itself was a festive but quaint affair. There were gluten-free cupcakes, a butcher selling cut and marinated meats, two friendly Australian women who tricked out their table in pink and turned it to a decadent tablescape of baked sugar and flour treats. Sandra Lee would be proud. Solymer, the Spanish purveyor responsible for cooking the paella, was also selling Jamón Iberico and wines. There were surprisingly more products that produce. Most of the stalls were selling the sort of gourmet products, like pasta and olive oil, that were more for stocking the pantry than the fresh fruit and vegetables I associate with a farmer’s market. I only saw one vendor selling vegetables.
I would have thought that this would be the perfect occasion for our farmers (we actually have around 220 farms in Singapore) to showcase their produce and for us to shop and eat like a locavore. It is after all called a “farmers’ market,” but it was more like a small food fair.
As I left the market, there was a group of Caucasian children sporting camo paint on their faces and armed with toy “laser tag” guns. Almost ten years ago, I was in that exact location dressed in my camouflaged army fatigues and armed with very real assault rifles. My unit, specifically Bravo Company was tasked as a quick reaction force for some World Bank or International Monetary Fund event.
We had just spent the night in the derelict buildings of the decommissioned Tanglin Camp on Loewen road and were waiting to load up on to our three-tonners for our ride back to camp.
I remember the men bitching and moaning about having drawn what was essentially glorified guard duty when we arrived the day before. We sat tight. We were just muscle if anything happened, boring but a necessary precaution.
It seemed that Bravo Company was always getting the short end of the stick. The other companies in the battalion were back at their bunks in camp, or at the canteen having it easy. But it was rare to be on an actually operation. (This was before / around the time of 9-11, before it became commonplace for units to conduct security operations.) And I think the men were inwardly proud to be entrusted with such a mission, although no one would have admitted it. Bravo Company had proven itself time and again that it was the best company in the regiment. No doubt we were locked, cocked and ready to rock and roll if higher HQ ever pressed the button.
The night was uneventful. The soldiers tried to sleep on the bare, dusty floors, at least there was a roof over our heads and the abandoned building was five-star accommodation compared to being out in the field. There were pockets of friends who talked into the night and there was always someone at the smoking area. The only excitement came from a car that got stuck in the ditch of the building we were housed in.
An elderly couple had gotten lost and had asked us for directions. What they were doing here was beyond me. This was before the Dempsey area was developed. They attempted a U-turn on the narrow road and drove their car into the ditch. An officer, our company Second-In-Charge arrived at the scene and started shouting for a squad, I think it was the 84 mm recoilless rifle anti-tank section, to help push the vehicle out. I’m amazed how vividly I remember the incident now that I’m looking at that same road.
We assembled the next morning where those kids were, and started to load up onto our tonners for the ride back and a much-anticipated shower and duty rest. While waiting for the lead vehicle of our convey to move out, a car driven by an expatriate woman from one of the big colonial houses got in between my vehicle and another platoon’s. Someone joked (it might have been me) that we should lase the driver. A laser red-dot on the chest emanating from a M-16 would dissuade anyone from following. Anthony, a fellow sergeant, sitting across from me at the tailboard waved to get the lady’s attention. Then he pointed to the explosive sign hanging from the tailboard (which had to be displayed because of the ammunition with us.) Once she saw the explosion graphic on the sign, her eyes went big as dinner plates and she peeled out of there in double quick time. Even through the fog of fatigue from the lack of sleep (or because of it) we both started cracking up uncontrollably. And as I look at that exact place where it happened, I think back to those good old days and bad old ways.
I’m reminded of my time spent in the army and the company of some very fine men.
To the men of Bravo Company:
It’s been a privilege and honor to serve with you all.