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ASIA PACIFIC SPECIAL : Taste of Travel: Singapore : 3.3 Days, 10 Meals : Making a mad, multiethnic dash through the delicious cuisines of Southeast Asia

<i> Jenkins is an author, free-lance writer and television producer. </i>

If you’re a food lover, the tiny, multiethnic city-state of Singapore is the most exciting travel destination on Earth.

Admittedly, I’m biased--I was born, raised and fattened up on that Southeast Asian island. But it’s a reasonable bias. The food here is plentiful, inexpensive, diverse, of high quality, and there are strict hygiene standards (Draconian health laws ensure you are safe eating in the most ramshackle food stall.)

Singaporeans themselves are food mad. The Chinese equivalent of “How’re ya doin’?” translates as, “Have you eaten your fill today?” (Chinese of many different dialects and cuisines comprise 78% of the population, Malays 14%, Indians of both Muslim and Hindu faith 7%, and the remainder is a hodgepodge of other ethnic groups.)

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Eating here is serious business, the main form of social interaction. Unless a restaurant is very good, as well as competitively priced, it’ll go bust.

I recently challenged Juliet David, one of Singapore’s best-known professional gourmets and founder of Singapore’s Wine and Dine magazine to help me create a fantasy restaurant tour encompassing Singapore’s most distinctive cuisines. We decided to limit our tour to 3.3 days, or 10 meals, about the average stint of visitors to Singapore. We almost got into a food fight, squabbling over whose favorite back-alley stall would make the cut, but we eventually came up with what we felt was an exciting introduction to Singapore food and restaurants.

Here are our recommendations (costs are for one person, drinks not included):

Day One

Breakfast: In Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, locals and budget travelers pack Komala Vilas every morning for a southern Indian vegetarian breakfast of dosai (rice flour pancakes). Choose among three types of dosai , each of which is displayed in photographs on the wall. All three are served with tart yogurt, dal (lentil stew), minced onion dip and grated coconut dip. Wash it down with a lassi (yogurt milkshake). Cost: about $1, plus $1.50 for the lassi . Address: 76/78 Serangoon Road; local telephone 293-6980.

(Note: If you’re feeling adventurous, the “rustic” corner coffee shop downstairs serves dosai for 30 cents, about half the cost of an hour’s city parking.)

Lunch: Swee Kee on Middle Road, two streets down from the Raffles hotel, serves Singapore’s finest “chicken rice.” This Hainanese Chinese meal is an exercise in simplicity: rice steamed perfectly in chicken broth, poached chicken that melts in your mouth, small portions of ginger and chili sauce, and a large bowl of clear soup. Sublime. A traditional Hainanese cafe atmosphere completes the experience. Cost: $3. Address: 51 Middle Road; tel. 338-6986.

(Note: I rate Swee Kee’s the highest, but you can find cafes all over the island serving chicken rice. Just look for the poached chickens hanging on hooks in front.

Dinner: For the legendary Dutch/Indonesian Rijstaffel (rice table), there’s no more spectacular venue than the Alkaff. This meticulously restored 1920s mansion is perched on Singapore’s highest point, overlooking a dense canopy of tropical vegetation and the twinkling lights of Singapore harbor. The Rijstaffel is served under slow-turning ceiling fans by a caravan of women wearing sarong kebaya (traditional Malay dress). The multi-dish meal may include soto sayuran (vegetable soup), rendang ayam (chicken curry), and ikan kurau gula assam (local fish in a tamarind sauce) Cost: $35. Address: 10 Telok Blangah Green, Telok Blangah Hill Park off Henderson Road; tel. 278-6979.

Day Two

Breakfast: Liang Heng on Mosque Street is one of the best places in Chinatown for a classic Teochew breakfast of muay . This savory porridge can be eaten alone or with an array of side dishes, such as ter thau chang (pig’s head jelly), ter khar (pig’s trotters) and bah ee ( fish and meat cake). If you can’t wait till Liang Heng opens at 10 a.m., a couple of doors down is Seng Hua, a Cantonese breakfast joint dishing up delectable tofu snacks stuffed with different meats and vegetables. Directly across the street is a tiny dim sum restaurant called Tai Tong Hoi Kee. This humble establishment serves steamed dumplings, buns and pastries beginning at 4 a.m., perfect if you’re suffering from jet lag and wake with a start before dawn. Cost: All three are less than $5. Address: Liang Heng, 48 Mosque St.; no phone. Seng Hua, 50 Mosque St.; tel. 223-3894. Tai Tong Hoi Kee, 3 Mosque St; tel. 223-3484.

Lunch: Like the culture itself, Peranakan cuisine is a blend of Chinese and Malay (it originated centuries ago when Chinese settlers--forbidden by law to bring women from China--married Malay women). Peranakans have always prided themselves on their home cooking. At Nonya & Baba Restaurant, the kitchen is run by “Auntie” Dolly and the floor by her husband, Johnny Yeo. Peranakan specialties here include ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with black nuts), otak otak (spicy barbecued fish paste) and chap chye (stir-fried vegetables). Cost: $8-$12. Address: 262 River Valley Road; tel. 734-1382.

Dinner: Locals--Singaporean and expatriate alike--head to the island’s east coast and, while the breeze rustles the palm fronds and the waves lap the beach, chow down on seafood. Singapore is justly famous for its range of seafood (Juliet David claims seafood doesn’t taste as good anywhere else in the world), and there’s no better place to sample the variety than at the UDMC Seafood Centre on East Coast Parkway. Eight virtually identical restaurants offer almost identical dishes with identical delectability. Whichever restaurant you choose, try to sample local favorites such as shark’s fin soup, steamed garoupa with ginger, barbecued sea bass, deep fried calamari and the legendary chili crab. Come in a group, if possible, so everyone can share a large selection of dishes. Cost: $10. Address: 1202-04 East Coast Parkway; no phone.

Day Three

Breakfast: Start your third day with bak kut teh served al fresco at stall No. 77 at Newton Circus, one of Singapore’s best-known “hawker centers” (a conglomeration of food stalls). The literal translation of this stick-to-your-ribs breakfast is “pork bone tea.” It supposedly originated with rickshaw pullers who believed the hearty meal gave them strength through the day. You’ll be served a bowl of pork rib soup, Chinese crullers, pickled vegetables known as kiam chai , steamed rice and a pot of tea. The ribs and soup you eat with chopsticks and a spoon, occasionally dunking the crullers. Eat the vegetables with the rice, also using chopsticks (though don’t be afraid to ask for a fork and spoon). On a stand next to your table will be a kettle of boiling water. Use it to fill your teapot. Drink plenty of tea to cut the richness of this meal. Cost: $4. Address: Newton Circus Hawker Centre on Newton Circus; no phone.

Lunch: One of the more unusual lunches you’ll ever eat is a curry served on a banana leaf at Muthu’s or Banana Leaf Apolo (a soothsayer warned the proprietor to spell it with only one “l.”) These neighboring South Indian restaurants, owned by brothers, are hugely popular among locals. The specialty here is fish-head curry. You’ll have to trust me--it’s delicious. Sit down at the communal Formica tables and dhoti-clad waiters will materialize and slap down a banana leaf “plate” in front of you. They’ll load it with rice, your choice of curries (chicken, prawn, mutton, fish) and vegetables. Make your decision quick--these guys don’t like to linger! Fish-head curry is served separately, and you’ll need at least two to tackle it. Use a fork and spoon or wade in with your fingers (using your right hand only because the left hand is traditionally considered unclean). Beware, the food’s spicy. Wash it down with a lime juice or a cold bottle of the excellent local beer. Cost: $5-$10 will stuff you to the gills. Address: Muthu’s, 76 Race Course Road; tel. 293-2389; Banana Leaf Apolo, 56 Race Course Road; tel. 293-8682.

Dinner: My dears, the Raffles Hotel is the only place one should take “tiffin.” After all, they’ve been dishing it up in their tiffin rooms since the 19th Century. Tiffin curry refers to mostly Malay and Indian dishes that were adapted to suit the early Colonials’ palates. Instead of an identity being lost though, a new one was created. In a quintessentially 1920s ambience--teak tables, “parlor back” chairs, white linen and silver flower vases--feast on a buffet of dishes and a galaxy of condiments. The buffet is presided over by one Chef Goh, whose association with the Raffles Hotel dates back to the 1930s. Cost: $18 ($25 for dinner). Address: 1 Beach Road; tel. 337-1886.

Day Four

Breakfast: You want to lose some of the weight you’ve put on these last few days, so you’ll probably want a fruit breakfast before leaving for the airport. Forget it! Have nasi lemak at the venerable Shangri La Hotel’s coffee shop. This Malay favorite has as its centerpiece a mound of coconut milk-cooked rice. With it you receive a choice of beef or prawn curry, fish barbecued in banana leaf fronds, dried crispy anchovies, and on top of the rice, a fried egg. The beauty of this dish is it lets you sample several distinctive Malay flavors. Cost: $6. Address: 22 Orange Grove Road; tel. 737-3644.

(Note: The Shangri La’s nasi lemak is a delicious but upscale version. More modest versions of the dish can be found at many Muslim food stalls in hawker centers for about $2.)

For more information on Singaporean cuisine, pick up a copy of “Feasts and Fun,” an excellent guide to eating and carousing in Singapore (including simple maps), free from the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board at its Raffles city branch, or by calling its Los Angeles office at 848 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (213) 852-1901, fax (213) 852-0129.


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