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Singapore

A City for the Senses

It's Easy to Indulge an Addiction in the Asian Capital of Street Food

March 17, 2002|JONATHAN KANDELL

I stopped first at Joe Pork and Fish Porridge, food stand 02-069 (fortunately, the stands are numbered consecutively, making them easier to locate on return visits), where I was served a soothing bowl of congee with the texture of cream and flavored with fish, green onions and sesame. Next, I ate at Jolly Yummy (food stand 02-137), where I accepted a plate of Hainanese chicken rice: strips of satin-smooth chicken with rice balls and three dipping sauces of varying spiciness. For the grand finale, I sat down at Zhao Ji (food stand 02-054) to relish an exquisite rice dish: scallions, bitter Chinese spinach, mushrooms and slices of duck and bacon--all cooked in a clay pot and served on top of rice fried in a sweet, brown sauce. The owner was surly, even rude, knowing full well that a culinary libertine like myself wouldn't dare complain because the food was so good.

I returned to the Oriental for a long, restorative nap. When I awoke, I swam for an hour in the pool, washing away sinful calories and working up an appetite for more gluttony. At nightfall, I headed for the Little India neighborhood. Settled in the second half of the 19th century by immigrants from Calcutta and Madras, Little India is a teeming conglomeration of shops selling spices, bolts of silk and satin, and finely spun gold jewelry.

On this visit, I was meeting two friends at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, one of the city's oldest and most important Hindu centers. The occasion was a holiday at which teenage girls, clad in colorful saris, danced barefoot to the sound of cymbals, drums and horns to advertise their availability for marriage. The ceremony was all the more appealing because two participants were nieces of my friends, but all I could think about was the nearby Lavender Food Square, one of my favorite food emporiums.

"I'm afraid I have a headache and must get back to my hotel," I lied. My friends looked grief-stricken because family duties obliged them to remain at the temple instead of accompanying me. Safely out of their view, I doubled back to Lavender Food Square, a covered arcade where even a Westerner can lose himself in the crowds. I gorged on nasi padang--an Indonesian-style dish of rice, peanuts, fish, egg, tofu and a sauce so spicy that I broke into a sweat. I cooled down with a large glass of foamy sugar-cane juice, and then ended the surreptitious meal with popiah--stewed turnips with garlic, fried bean curd, chiles and sweet flour sauce wrapped into an egg roll.

Back at my hotel, there were worried messages from my Indian friends. But I sank into my king-size bed with a sense of utter satiety that only a true Asian street-food addict can appreciate. Who says the guilty cannot sleep?

The following morning i was in a horticultural mood--it's hard not to be on this verdant island. The terminals at Changi International Airport are greenhouses for ornamental plants, and arriving visitors can admire exotic species as they wait at the baggage carousels. The expressway into the city is festooned with white-flowered frangipani and purple bougainvillea. While I don't like to toss bouquets at former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (he's still very much the cranky strongman behind the semi-authoritarian government and gets enough credit as architect of Singapore's remarkable prosperity), he is largely responsible for a 30-year-old state program to transform Singapore into a garden city even as new skyscrapers rise.

Today Singapore has 10,000 acres of parklands, almost six times as much as it had in 1965, when it became an independent nation. The most famous expanse of green is the Botanic Gardens, where I arrived for a 10 a.m. appointment with a knowledgeable guide, Abdul Hamid bin Hassan, who promised to point out the highlights among the tree groves and flower beds bordering limpid ponds and rolling lawns.

A crowd favorite is the cannonball tree whose large, heavy seed pods hit the ground with a thud and smell like skunk cabbage. I preferred an enormous rain tree, majestic as an oak and covered with epiphytes, some the size of small palm trees.

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