The bent little Indian man made his way to our table and plunked down two big rectangles of just-cut banana leaf. A few moments later, another man arrived to scoop a handful of papadams (crispy lentil wafers) from a square metal tin. The parade continued with the condiment man ladling spicy potatoes and saffron rice onto the green waxy leaves that serve as plates. Then the piece de resistance arrived, trailing the fragrant scent of tamarind and turmeric: a big bowl of fish head curry that is the specialty of the Banana Leaf Apolo Restaurant in the heart of Singapore's Little India.
Mention Singapore and what pops to mind are not images of ornate Hindu Temples or 70-story hotels, gold domed mosques or cavernous shopping malls. It's food. Satay sticks in the humid waterfront night breeze or chilli crab amid the bustle of a seaside village.
On the way in from the airport, "Traveling in Comfort with F.M. Choy" in his "Comfort Cab," I'm already scheming how many meals I can squeeze into the next three days. After all, according to the ministry of the environment, this tiny city/state of 2.5 million has 18,875 hawker stalls and almost 900 restaurants.
Singapore has always been a multicultural meeting place. Just five years after Stamford Raffles stepped ashore in 1819 to set up a British trading outpost at the mouth of the Singapore River, a census of the 10,000 inhabitants revealed that a colorful racial and ethnic mix was already well-established.
Its location, dangling off the end of the Malay Peninsula by a causeway, set it in the path of Chinese junks laden with silks and brocades. Indonesian trading vessels brought ebony and camphor. And from Borneo, Sumatra and Java came cargoes of pepper, cinnamon and coriander, all destined for the markets of London.
Today's Singapore, just one steamy degree north of the Equator, is one of the most active ports in the world. Ships flying flags from all corners of the globe cart in goods as diverse as petroleum and VCRs. Although a frantic modernization drive crammed the city full of high-rises, it still has the flavor of an exotic emporium, which translates into interesting cuisines.
Serangoon Road is a slice of India steeped in incense. Sidewalk barbershops offer a shave and a haircut amid a flow of colorful saris and more than 20 major temples honoring Hindu gods. At spice shops it's possible to order curry mixed to order from barrels full of the yellow-and-orange powders. The pungent odors mingle with the sweet aroma of jasmine flowers being strung into leis as altar and hair adornments.
Since many of Singapore's Indians are from the south, the city is home to a wealth of excellent vegetarian cooking (try the Komala Vilas restaurant). A small bowl of fish-head curry is plenty for two and costs--with enough fresh lime juice to set you awash--under $16. As an accompaniment, choose rice or a dosai (a rice flour pancake soured slightly with yogurt and eaten plain or wrapped around a curry potato filling).
Tiny curry stalls along Serangoon Road, Little India's main thoroughfare, vend curry ladled onto small squares of banana leaf to take away. Eat it in the traditional manner with the fingers of the right hand, or wait until a fork is available. (Dining with the fingers requires more skill than you'd think.)
Northern Indian food is subtler, less spicy and often incorporates nuts and raisins into such rich meat dishes as lamb or chicken korma. Much of Northern India's best-known cooking is centered around the tandoori oven in which marinated meats and delicious breads such as naan are baked. One of the best-known Indian restaurants in Singapore is Omar Khayyam.
In the shadow of the Sultan's Mosque with its cluster of golden domes, prayers ring out into crowded narrow streets with names like Baghdad, Arab and Muscat. In the shade cast by striped awnings, closet-size shops are stacked to the rafters with brocades, silks and prayer rugs. Wearing the white head coverings of the Muslim faith, Malay women pick their way through the crowd as shouts of "Indian pizza!" cut through the din.
There are three of them, side by side, vying for business that comes on foot or pulls up at the stoplight on Northbridge Road for take-away Muslim food wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string. The three cafes--the Victory, Zam Zam and Jubilee--each have a murtabak man street-side who stretches and tosses a ball of dough until it's tissue thin, then fills it with onion and either chopped chicken or mutton, folds it and tosses the stuffed pancake onto a huge sizzling griddle. Accompanied by a cup of strong hot coffee sweetened with condensed milk, murtabak is delicious fast food.
The closest thing to indigenous food in Singapore is nonya, the cuisine of the Straits Chinese who have lived throughout Malaysia for many generations. A complex blend of Chinese and Malay family cooking with Indonesian overtones, it also is influenced by the fragrant flavors of Thai food. Nonya represents some of the best food in Singapore. One of my favorites dishes, penang laksa , is a rich noodle soup seasoned with lemon gravy, turmeric, ground macadamias and seafood mixed in a coconut milk broth.
The Chinese are by far the city's biggest and most visible ethnic group, and Chinatown is one of the few old areas that has not yet given way to high-rise hotels. On Club Street, a craftsmen restores a wooden Buddha at the temple deity maker's shop, a traditional letter writer reads mail and writes replies for the dwindling number of Singapore's aged illiterates. And in the medicine shop, roots, herbs and dried snake are painstakingly transformed into traditional potions.
On Sago Lane, the effigy business thrives as models of paper houses, cars (Mercedes is the favorite) and even apartment blocks are commissioned so that they can be burned and sent into the after-life to make it more comfortable for the deceased.
One Chinatown tradition still carried on each Sunday morning is the gathering of men at small outdoor cafes to sip coffee and read the morning paper beneath a chirping and whistling symphony of songbirds they have brought to show off. The exquisite hand-carved bamboo cages, some adorned with delicate porcelain seed dishes, are themselves works of art.
Singapore's Chinese residents arrived primarily from Southern China, but are from several provinces and their dialects and food are wildly different: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, spicy Sichuan and Hainan, an island in the South China Sea that is known for tender chicken served with rice cooked in chicken broth (sample it at the Swee Kee Cafe on Middle Road).
Chinese food varies from the tasty breakfast rice porridge called congee, to which prawns, chicken, barbecue pork or duck are sometimes added, to elaborate banquets of a dozen or more courses. In Singapore, the best restaurants are by no means necessarily the fanciest. In fact, some are little more than cafeterias.
Chinatown's "wet" markets (the floor is invariably wet from the washing of produce) sell everything from snakes to turtles to flying foxes. Browsing in places such as the Cuppage Road Market, the Jurong Fish Market and the biggest and--locals say--the best, Kandang Kerbau, is a favorite Saturday afternoon pastime and a colorful place to see Singapore's food before it reaches the table.
One of the most popular places to try a variety of Chinese-style seafood dishes that are swimming just minutes before dinner is at the Seafood Centre on East Coast Parkway. But for character, my favorite seafood meal is an outing and a meal rolled into one afternoon.
Catch the No. 83 bus downtown and take a 40-minute ride into the countryside for a rare glimpse into Singapore's suburban face. There are mammoth self-contained government housing projects, farms and glimpses of jungle.
At the end of the line is Ponggol Village on Singapore's north coast. There travelers find a cluster of open-front cafes on the waterfront overlooking the Straits of Johor. Choon Seng is the local favorite for the Singapore specialty of chilli crab smothered whole in a distinctive spicy sauce. Noisy and cluttered with the staff shouting orders, it's a cheery, informal place, great for groups ordering several dishes. Dinner for two with Anchor Beer is about $25.
Western-style Malay restaurants are just becoming popular in Singapore and one of them is Aziza on lovely restored Emerald Hill Road, a street peppered with traditional pastel-painted row houses. Among the most popular Malay food in Singapore is satay: charbroiled kebabs of beef, chicken or mutton sold in hawker centers and often served with sliced cucumber, squares of pressed rice cake and a bowl of spicy peanut sauce for dipping.
The hawkers who at one time pushed their food carts about the Singapore streets have been corralled into sanitized hawker centers throughout the city. The oldest is the Satay Club on the waterfront Queen Elizabeth Walk, but there are many others: Boat Quay Centre on the banks of the Singapore River, the Bugis Street Hawker Centre and Newton Circus.
The great thing about the centers is that they make it possible to indulge in a variety of local specialties as diverse as nasi goreng (Malay fried rice), Indian biryani (saffron-scented rice casserole) and fried murtabak at a single meal .
At the fruit hawker's stall, a roll-call of exotic fruit such as mangosteen, papaya, jackfruit, starfruit and the very smelly durian are lined up ready to be made into fresh squeezed juice. For a refreshing drink after a steamy day, ask a vendor to slice open the top of a green coconut and sip the cool and clear sweet juice inside.
The British Empire keeps a staunch foothold in the Colonial Hub of downtown Singapore, where the grand imperial architecture of the old City Hall, Supreme Court and St. Andrews Cathedral--transported brick by brick from the English countryside--stand guard over a playing field dotted white on weekends with cricketers who are politely applauded by ex-patriots sipping pink gins on the porch of the Singapore Cricket Club.
Another tradition left behind by the British is yet another excuse for eating. Proper high tea is easy to find each afternoon at many of the city's fine hotels. If the palate cries out for something familiar, how about a visit to the Oriental Singapore hotel for a snack of finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets and Dundee cakes served on silver trays with a choice selection of very British tea?
Singapore Dining Out
Recommended: Banana Leaf Apolo, 56 Racecourse Road; call locally 298-5054. Komala Vilas, 76 Serangoon Road; 293-6980. Omar Khayyam, 55 Hill St.; 336-1505. Zam Zam, 699 Northbridge Road, 298-7011. Swee Kee Cafe, 51/53 Middleroad. Seafood Centre, 1202 East Coast Parkway. Aziza, 36 Emerald Hill Road, 235-1130. Satay Club, on the waterfront Queen Elizabeth Walk. Choon Seng, 892 Ponggol Road, 288-3472. Oriental Hotel, 6 Raffles Blvd., Marina Square.
For more information: Contact the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Beverly Hills 90211; (213) 852-1901.