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Souvenir of Singapore

Three Decades of Great Meals at Raffles Hotel

September 23, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SINGAPORE — Frangipani trees drop perfumed blossoms at my feet as I stroll toward the entrance of the Raffles Hotel. A tourist snapping photos of the doorman wears a pith helmet called a topee, which once shaded British planters from the noonday sun. It's night now, so the topee is as out of place as the man's chartreuse shorts and black and white running shoes. Outside, on Beach Road, sit empty tourist buses--bas pesiaran, they're labeled in Malay--whose passengers are now inspecting Southeast Asia's most famous hotel.

Super-luxurious--and super-expensive--this is the new, remodeled Raffles, and it's nothing like the hotel that once epitomized the steamy tropics.

The Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was created in 1910, remains in name only. In the hotel's early days the bar was located on the ground floor, a sprawling, well-worn room open to the breezes and the clash and clatter of tropical storms. Now it's a fancy air-conditioned watering hole upstairs.

The porch-like restaurant that once looked out on the Palm Court, a large garden with a swimming pool, has also vanished. It was a pretty place, done up in frilly white wrought-iron furniture, the tables covered with dainty flowered cloths. A green-and-white striped awning kept the sun out but not the hot and humid air.

I used to breakfast there regularly. When it rained, my hands would become as wet as if I had washed but not dried them, and my whole-wheat croissant would turn to paste. I drank endless cups of coffee as an excuse to linger, reading the paper and listening to the songbirds. Each morning, the bird's cages were brought out and hung up high so they could enjoy fresh air until the sun became too strong.

On my first trip to Asia in the '60s, I stayed at the Raffles. My room, which was actually a suite, cost only $13, but in those days, that was expensive. A large sitting room contained a chaise longue, couch and writing table--shades of Somerset Maugham, who always comes to mind when one talks of the Raffles. Next came the bedroom, then a capacious dressing room that opened into the bathroom. This upstairs suite overlooked the Palm Court, where fan-like traveler's palms waved a greeting.

The Raffles lobby, quite modest in the days I first saw it, is now so glitzy that anything less than evening dress seems inappropriate. Indeed, as I sit in the lobby waiting for a table in the Tiffin Room, my eyes are drawn to a woman who speaks with a proper British accent and has such a regal bearing I think for a moment I have encountered Queen Elizabeth.

The Tiffin Room has also changed. Its ceiling fans still turn lazily, but they're only for atmosphere. The air-conditioning is so cold I wish I had brought a shawl.

Other tourists fill the tables, most of them sipping a pink drink topped with a cherry and a pineapple wedge on a pick. This is, of course, the Singapore Sling. And if you want the world to know that you drank one at its place of origin, you can buy a Singapore Sling T-shirt. Hotel shops also sell Singapore Sling coasters, place mats, glasses and packs of premixed Slings.

On Sunday afternoons, the Tiffin Room used to offer a buffet of Nonya food, the Singaporean cuisine that blends Malay and Chinese flavors. The assortment of dishes was amazing, and it's no wonder the buffet was called tok panjang (long table). I remember pork satay that was simmered in spiced coconut milk rather than grilled on sticks, and pulot hitam, a dessert of black sticky rice topped with salted thick coconut cream.

Now the Tiffin Room has switched to Indian cuisine, and not the Anglo-colonial curries of yesteryear. On Sunday afternoons, those curry powder-laced dishes were served in the Elizabethan Grill. There would be lamb, chicken, fish, seafood and vegetable curries and even a beef curry, which you certainly would not find in India, where the cow is venerated and roams at will.

You would heap the curries onto rice, then dress them up with the sort of fancy condiments that once made curry the rage at dinner parties. There would be roasted peanuts, diced pineapple, apple, cucumber and tomato, sliced banana and shredded coconut. More exotic local garnishes included crisp, fried ikan bilis, which is a tiny fish; shrimp chips; Indian pappadums; and mango chutney.

My favorite dessert was gula melaka, a Nonya concoction of sago (it comes from the pith of the sago palm), over which you poured palm sugar syrup and coconut milk. You could also have banana and pineapple fritters drizzled with golden syrup or fresh fruit.

Coffee would be poured from a heavy silver service, and the waiter would add the sugar and cream so you didn't have to stir from your post-lunch lethargy. It made me feel like a real memsahib.

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