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Restaurants | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: SINGAPORE

The tropics on a rainy day in L.A.

Banana Leaf at the Farmers Market brings together the eclectic dishes of Singapore's hawker stalls.

March 05, 2003|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE'S Banana Leaf is as close as Los Angeles gets to an actual Singaporean hawker stall. It's outdoors, at least technically. The roof is translucent plastic, stretched across an aisle in the Farmers Market. Ceiling fans hang overhead, the chairs are faux wicker, and the customers hunker over small tables crunched together in the aisle.

True, a dismal winter day with cold rain beating on the plastic spoils the illusion: Diners shiver around a portable heater instead of basking in a steamy climate. But never mind. The food is as authentic as it can be, made by the Singaporean family that owns the stall. As you'd guess, every dish is served on a banana leaf. Even takeout containers are lined with the signature leaf.

As appealing as it all is, the cuisine has never gotten a foothold in Los Angeles. It incorporates such established favorites as Chinese and Indian food, spicy flavors and vibrant color. Malaysia is next door, and Malaysian dishes are also part of the blend. Nearby Indonesia has similar food and language -- including nasi goreng (fried rice); mee goreng (fried noodles); and gado gado, a warm salad with peanut sauce.

In Singapore, hawker stalls typically concentrate on one, or just a few, items. They're grouped in clusters, and customers wander among them, composing a meal. Because Singapore's Banana Leaf stands alone, its menu ranges from soup to dessert.

The attention is on fresh, light food. There are Singaporean salads such as rojak, a gorgeous mix of fruits and vegetables in a crunchy, dark, sweet peanut sauce with a dash of chile. Along with puffy fried tofu cubes, rojak contains pineapple, jicama, cucumber, green apple, bean sprouts and spinach. The apple stands in for mango, which will appear in season. Spinach is a California innovation.

Gado gado is all vegetables and tofu. A creamy peanut sauce tops the warm mix of green beans, potatoes, bean sprouts, cabbage and soft tofu. Red onion strands, crisp fish chips and hard-boiled egg add texture.

Every hawker center in Singapore includes a satay stand. Here, the choice is chicken or beef, or you can have two sticks of each. The sweet peanut sauce tastes of curry. Cakes of compressed rice accompany the satay, along with red onion, cucumber and tomato.

Malay-Indonesian chicken rendang is a thick, almost dry curry that blends such seasonings as lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chiles and coconut. It's served here with rice and a sweet-sour vegetable relish.

One of the lightest dishes is otak otak, a tropical-tasting fish souffle formed into slim rolls that are wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. The flavor is delicate, not spicy like some Singaporean versions. It's served with sambal, a sweet-spicy chile condiment, and cool slices of cucumber.

On the other hand, the most intriguing of the soups is the rich laksa, a rice noodle concoction thick with coconut milk and Asian spices. Fish balls and sliced tofu add more substance.

The stall also makes parathas -- flaky, golden-brown flat breads. The dough is bought from an Indian baker, then shaped and grilled at the stall and served with an intense vegetable curry dip. One order would make a fine main dish, with limeade, sugar cane juice or one of the canned Singaporean drinks lined up on the counter.

For dessert, there's ice kachang, a snow cone in a bowl. Small dark red beans, fat white beans and shimmery palm seeds cover the bottom of the bowl beneath a mound of finely ground ice. The whole thing is drenched with evaporated milk and red and green syrups. Sliced jackfruit is draped over the top. As you eat, the ice melts into the bowl, forming a sweet syrup.

This is marvelously refreshing in humid Singapore, but on a cold day in L.A., it was just as irresistible.

*

Singapore's Banana Leaf

Location: Stall 122 in the Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 933-4627.

Price: Dishes range from $3.95 (paratha) to $7.95 (fish curry).

Best dishes: Satay, fish curry, tuna sambal, rojak salad, gado gado salad, paratha, ice kachang.

Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; to 8 p.m. Saturday; and to 7 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Validated parking at the market. Major credit cards.

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