Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wings of fire

Seletar Flying Club is at the end of a long drive, some of it on roads that are also runways. There, among the hangar-like offices of airplane companies, around the corner from a casual parking lot for private planes, on a grassy verge by the fence that runs along the airfield you’ll find the Sunset Grill, a bunch of scarred tables and chairs under a yellow plastic awning, where you go prepared to get your hands dirty. And your nerve-endings mauled.

When I say chicken wings, don’t think of those little stubs shiny with sauce. These are whacking great pieces of chicken. That come in 36 levels of spiciness. We ordered Level 3 (we chose Level 4, but the waitress’s eyes widened with alarm so we hastily dialled it down). The first bite was a shock, the second one a recurring nightmare. From the third on it was really an adventure sport. The spice was sharp, with a tangy aftertaste, quite unlike Indian spiciness, which has a sort of rounded edge to it, perhaps from the turmeric, tamarind or curry leaves. The chicken was crisp on the outside, wonderfully juicy on the inside. It was brilliant. It should be listed in the tourist brochures along with the chilli crab. I must mention, though, that the other things on the menu we tried were uniformly execrable, except for the brownie, which was excellent.

The wings rounded off a day at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Singapore distinguishes the natural reserves from the parks by a rigorous lack of gift shops, rides and food courts. It could be because fewer tourists go there but it also serves to centre all your attention on the reserve itself. On one viewing platform, my niece suddenly said “look there’s a fishy”. We started to explain there wasn’t enough water for one, when we spotted a slimy thing flapping about in the mud. While giving her inordinate credit for the discovery, we were riffling through the trivia in our brains, trying to place it. A fish that lived in mud. Jumping from puddle to puddle. Hopping. Skipping. Mudskipper, we said almost simultaneously. There turned out to be hundreds of them, looking like something out of Dune. There were also black crabs, grey lizards, brown birds, unbelievably noisy insects. And crocodiles. There were warning signs everywhere.

In the part where you could walk on the ground, we suddenly spotted a long, low, grey shadow coming steadily towards us with that peculiar menacing gait, short, thick legs swinging purposefully. Worse, it was approaching in a direction that would cut us off from the boardwalk. We were stuck on a narrow path, with water on either side. This time my brain’s trivia archive had no trouble offering myths and facts in rapid succession: Crocodiles can run faster than a horse. I can run faster than a tortoise. They can jump 20 feet. The trees around us were not that high, or even climbable. They react to movement, not smell or sight. I didn’t know what to do with that particular fact. Given a choice between a shark and a crocodile, I would take the shark. I didn’t know what to do with that fact either. And I wished my brain would shut the hell up and let me think.

Meanwhile my brother had noticed it was a large water monitor. We relieved our sheepish feelings by laughing at another group that didn’t notice it until they were almost on top of it. They must have cleared 20 feet easily. But since we’d scared ourselves silly, we couldn’t quite do the water path anymore. So we went hunting for chicken wings.

It was a good day. And I only just got the clever bit about serving wings at an airfield!

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