I had guessed that my tour group of journalists would be wined and dined at stuffy, white-linen restaurants courtesy of government aides bent on showcasing Singapore's big buck, high-brow cuisine. Wrong.
What we got instead was so much better. Local food stalls, nestled dives and outdoor markets catered scrumptious ethnic dishes, exotic fruits, bizarre food combinations and the authentic ambience of the streets.
As we walked about the city on this sun-drenched island of 5 million people, we stumbled upon a crowded flea market where vendors peddled T-shirts, shoes and cotton dresses at tempting prices. But I spied an even better Singaporean gem across the street: a hawker center, one of the many government-inspected, open-air food courts that offer locals and tourists alike cheap, traditional ethnic dishes.
Inside the center, the scent of Malaysian fish ball satays, Indian curried beef, Chinese boiled and chopped chicken and noodle soups swirled through the food court as freely as the many languages of its vendors and customers. Cooks in ridiculously small kitchens fried, whipped and boiled veritable feasts for dirt-cheap prices. Bright colorful pictures of each dish blazed from awnings above.
Unsure where to start, we joined the longest line, and pointed to a picture of a $2.20 ($ 1.60 U.S.) plate of fried "carrot cake," a traditional Malay radish dish that looked like scrambled eggs, without a single carrot in sight.
In minutes, the cook chopped, tossed and fried up a large steaming plate of goodness. We found a free table and dug in with chopsticks to the savory dish of soft white radishes, egg and rice flour spiced with coriander and garlic. We eyed each other with heads bobbing in pleasure.
We visited another vendor who spooned Chinese fish noodle-soup into a large bowl, topping it with scallions, mild chilies and needle mushrooms. The neatness and cleanliness of the stalls was as admirable as the tasty $2 soup. When SARS threatened to become a global epidemic in 2003, Singapore's strict, rule-laden government redoubled its hygiene efforts, so risk of food poisoning is scant.
I've had two overseas vacations marred by street food misadventures, so I rarely opt for such fare, But this trip proved a safe and delicious exception.
New fruit for the basket
After our hawker stall meal, we returned to the street where the pungent odor of durian fruit draped the hot sticky air of this equatorial city like a blanket. To me, durian, a spiky, prehistoric looking fruit, smells like cantaloupe encased in funky socks. I wasn't surprised to learn that it is barred from buses and trains.
Regardless, it is adored by locals who swarm the fruit stands that line many streets of downtown Singapore. Trip leader Marilyn Li, who grew up in Hong Kong, adores durian and bought some from a sidewalk vendor who invited us to sit and eat at his adjacent tables and chairs. Three Indian women awaited their order. The merchant sailed over with a machete, giving three swift whacks to their football-shaped fruit to expose wet-looking yam-like sacs inside.
Marilyn dug into the orange innards, offered me a piece and swore it tasted nothing like it smelled. I tried it, but it did taste like it smelled: tart and horrid.
I tossed my piece into the woven refuse basket on the curb -- being careful not to miss since littering carries a $1,000 fine -- and bought a bag of hairy red rambutan fruit. I peeled and munched and the sweet, chewy plum-sized delight soothed my insulted tongue.
Except for the durian, the fruit served in Singapore is divine. Nearly every piece is imported into this space-craved country, but it's still plentiful, cheap and fresh. To my delight, my hotel room came with a large plate of mangoes, star fruit, crisp and honey-flavored pears, and a sweet, seedy dragon fruit that looks like a red and green artichoke with overgrown petals. Those sweet crunchy bites proved the perfect end-of-the day treat after sightseeing.
My trip to Singapore included a lovely boat tour through the cafe-lined Singapore River in the financial district. But we made no stops for food. Instead, Abdullah Bin Abdul Rahim, our city guide, waited for the ride to end and headed for the Muslim section of the city, which is simply known as Arab Street.
After visiting the gold-domed Sultan Mosque, we dodged traffic to cross the street and marched to the second floor of the Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant. It felt like we'd entered another country. The large dining hall was filled with young families and women in head scarves speaking Malay, the language of Singapore's indigenous people, now just 15 percent of the population.
Abdullah quickly ushered us into plastic chairs, took our orders and brought cans of fruit juices while the sole proprietor dashed off to cook our meal. Hot and hungry, I focused on the large wall menu with enticing pictures of Nasi Biryani, a traditional Muslim dish that pairs saffron basmati rice with a choice of chicken, lamb, cuddlefish or vegetables. I chose the chicken with a side of boiled shrimp and giggled when the proprietor returned with heaping trays of food. My shrimp were the size of bananas.
We found hidden joys like this all over the island. Our best snacks were the $2 shrimp dumplings and $3 "Laksa" coconut soup at the cantinas inside the new Sentosa Casino just 40 minutes from downtown. The Bintan ferry terminal in southeast Singapore harbored the best rice noodle soup I'd ever had.
For our last dinner, we went to the premier hawker stall on the island, the Newton Food Centre. It was nearly 9 p.m. but the place was packed. Our guides deftly ordered and plied us with hard-to-get paper napkins (Singaporeans bring their own hankies) for a wonderful and messy feast of Singapore Chilean crab: massive red crabs bathed in an egg and chili gravy that, to my relief, was yummy, not spicy.
A dozen other dishes soon arrived: stingray fillets slathered in a painfully hot chili paste, delicate sautéed spinach, fried egg with oysters, strips of octopus, fried carrot cake, chopped chicken, Indian lamb satays, Chinese rice balls wrapped in grape leaves, and knotted wheat buns for dipping. Including bottles of Tiger Beer and Coca Colas, the seven of us ate like royalty for about $75 U.S.
The exotic meal was as delicious as it was cheap. I would leave Singapore a happy and well-fed American tourist. And I never once needed Pepto-Bismol or a linen napkin.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725