I have a horrible feeling I know what's going to happen next.
"Just a moment," says my pal Boon Hee, who lays down his chopsticks, jumps up from the table and scuttles through the packed Imperial Herbal Restaurant. I'm left nervously making small talk with Mrs. Wang-Lee Tee Eng, the restaurant owner, between mouthfuls of Shredded Fish With Yam.
My worst fears are confirmed when Boon returns waving two branch-like objects. "This one bull penis; this one deer penis!" he announces triumphantly.
Curious diners watch my expression as Boon and Wang-Lee explain the aphrodisiac properties of the two organs and how they're boiled, dried and sliced to make restorative soups and wines. Wang-Lee is especially explicit. The dainty Chinese restaurateur points to the shriveled testicles and rejoices, "That's where all the hormones are!"
Mercifully, Boon returns the offending objects to the kitchen, and we resume one of the most interesting--albeit peculiar--meals I've ever eaten.
Singapore's Imperial Herbal Restaurant, located a stone's throw from the legendary Raffles Hotel in the heart of old Singapore, serves a full gamut of dishes expressly intended to remedy ailments from arthritis to low sexual appetite.
The restaurant's runaway success in Singapore, where 78% of the population is Chinese, may be attributed to the Chinese conviction that you truly "are what you eat." It was inspired by southern China's "tonic soup" cafes--eateries whose patrons believe they can calibrate their yin and yang through judicious consumption of soups made with ingredients said to possess curative powers. The soups are familiar to Singaporeans--many of whom have roots in southern China--because they are a staple of doting mothers who are thrown into a tizzy if one of their offspring looks even slightly off-color.
During a visit to China in 1986, it occurred to Wang-Lee--a Singaporean freshly graduated from business school in Canada--that she could take the tonic soup concept a step further in her prosperous, food-obsessed homeland.
She opened the Imperial Herb Restaurant in 1988. In contrast to the down-home ambience of traditional tonic soup cafes, Wang-Lee's establishment is decidedly upscale, replete with rosewood furniture and antique silk wall hangings. The restaurant seats 160, and the day I was there it was crowded with tables full of tonic wine-chugging housewives, yuppies scarfing dishes intended to reduce their stress levels, ginseng-gobbling tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan and even a few bemused gweilo (white devils like me).
On Wang-Lee's payroll from the beginning has been Li Lian Xing, a famous herbalist/physician from Tianjin, China. Li worked with head chef Bian Jian Nian, who came from a similar restaurant in China, and master chef Shi Lian Yong, a former winner of China's prestigious National Culinary Competition, to concoct a myriad of health-enhancing recipes that would produce dishes both curative and delicious.
Take, for instance, my shredded fish with yams. The steamed fresh fish was firm but tender and served in a pungent garlic sauce that was at once sweet, savory and spicy. Superb to the taste. But that's only half the story. According to Wang-Lee, the yams will help strengthen my spleen and stomach, thus improving my digestive system, and tone up my lungs and kidneys. The dish also purports to reduce blood sugar and remedy mild forms of diabetes.
As for the Double-Boiled Chicken Soup With Ginseng and Chinese Wolfberry, the hearty dark broth allegedly improves blood circulation and eyesight, lowers cholesterol and helps control diabetes. The chickens they use for this dish, incidentally, are "black chickens," a different breed of fowl whose flesh is as dark as slate. The Singaporean Chinese believe it is more nutritious than your run-of-the-mill white-fleshed variety.
Double-boiling, Wang-Lee explains, is the process of cooking soup in a container that is then placed in yet another caldron filled with boiling water. There is no direct contact with the heat, so it cooks slowly--the low temperature helping to maintain the nutrient content. Tonic soups are usually boiled for at least three hours.
Many items on the menu, which emphasizes Beijing-style cuisine, won't deter the timid of palate. Most dishes feature such familiar ingredients as seafood, poultry, beef and vegetables. It's only the presence of the oddly named curative herbs that is potentially off-putting.
I'm warming to the subject and ask Wang-Lee to recommend something for the aftereffects of a 24-hour, trans-Pacific marathon flight from Boston. She doesn't miss a beat. "Coming from a cold, dry climate to Singapore, which is hot and humid, requires your lungs to be moistened," she says, "and for that I recommend dishes using the bulb of lily flowers."
And jet lag itself? "Ginseng," blurts Boon, and Wang-Lee nods sagely.
"Ginseng in tea, in soup, in main dishes--always restorative," she intones.
Flipping through the menu, I encounter dishes far more exotic than the ones Boon has ordered for us: Monkey-Head Mushroom With Milk Vetch Root ("Improves complexion; enhances memory and all mental functions: sedative prevention of cancer, especially stomach cancer"); Stewed Shin Beef With Plygenum Multiflorum Soup ("Prevents premature graying; promotes longevity"); Fresh Water Fish With American Ginseng ("Prevents spontaneous perspiration"); The Whip Soup ("Aphrodisiac"); Gui Fei Soup "(A lady's tonic soup for a youthful beautiful complexion"); Multiflorum Jelly ("Preserves the original color of the hair").
Some dishes have as their main ingredient scorpions and ants, which are first marinated in Chinese rice wine and deep-fried in a lightly spiced batter until they are a crispy golden brown. Ants, a group of esteemed Chinese scientists recently reported, act against rheumatism, hepatitis-B and other "immunity disorders."
One of the Imperial Herbal Restaurant's selling points is Li himself, who runs a traditional-looking Chinese herbal medicine counter close to the restaurant's entrance, a sight as incongruous as a prescription counter at Spago.
By request, Li will check patrons' pulses, examine their tongues and diagnose their health--and provide a list of recommended dishes. He may also prescribe a package of herbs ($4-$15) to steep in hot water and drink.
The restaurant starts to empty as Boon and I finish our dessert of Menthol Jelly With Honeysuckle Flower ("Good for sore throat"), which frankly makes me feel a little peculiar. It has the look and texture of lime Jello, but the menthol has the same effect on my lungs that old-fashioned chest rubs do, without the smell.
I sit back in my seat, waiting for a wave of well-being to wash over me, sweeping away the detritus of jet lag and an overindulgent night on the town.
"It's not like Western drugs," Wang-Lee says admonishingly. "You must live healthily and eat herbal meals regularly. No quick-fix solution."
Well, at least my "original hair color" has been preserved.
GUIDEBOOK: Salubrious in Singapore
The Imperial Herbal Restaurant is located in the Metropole Hotel, 41 Seah St., across the street from the famed Raffles Hotel; open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6:30-11 p.m. daily. Local telephone 337-0491.
Set lunches for two begin at about $43. An excellent dinner for two runs about $60.
For more information: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Beverly Hills 90211; tel. (213) 852-1901.