SINGAPORE — 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.