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Monday, February 21, 2005

Singapore food safari on the Toronto Star

Friends in church passed us an article cut from the local press just this past Sunday--"guess which country it's about", they say. It makes a good read--the amusement factor is high, so I thought to reproduce it here. See whether you can spot all of the 'funny' bits, factual errors and colloquialisms (I'll post my answers later). Just one (the very first)--no, Arab St. is not where "most of Singapore's Muslim citizens call home" (caption to first picture).

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The Toronto Star (Sat Feb 19)

A full plate
Visitors to Singapore kept busy on city's appetizing nightly food safari. Tour an easy way to digest great neighbourhoods, writes Marc Atchison

SINGAPORE--The scent was fresh on the trail as we headed out on our safari.

Strange noises could be heard in the night.

Eyes stalked us in the darkness.

There were times I wondered if some in our small group had the stomach for this adventure. But we all swallowed hard and continued our trek--along Singapore's world famous "night food safari."

This is one tourist tour that's easy to digest--one that introduces visitors to this island nation's incredibly appetizing variety of food and spicy neighbourhoods where its Chinese, Indian and Malay (Malaysian) peoples live.

"Come and try my food," barked one vendor as we started our hunt for food on Smith St., (a.k.a. locally as Food St.) in the city's vibrant Chinatown.

Smith St., and several other main streets in downtown Singapore are closed each night between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. so the food hawkers can set up their makeshift stalls and sell their tasty, unique dishes that reflect the blend of cultures living in this most beautiful of Asian cities.

Garry Koh, our fearless guide, directed our attention to the last of 18 food stalls set up on Smith St.

"They have the best fried carrot cake on the street," said Koh. 'We’ll start with that."

Hmmm. Start the meal with dessert. Must be a Singapore tradition, I thought

The fried carrot cake arrived looking more like an omelette. Koh addressed my confusion.

"The word carrot in Chinese actually means radish," Koh told me. "This is a radish omelette. It's very good.”

Actually, it was delicious!

Okay, what's for dessert?

"We'll have some rojak," said Koh, who disappeared into the street bedecked with coloured lights and awash in a sea of diners. He returned a few minutes later carrying a large bowl with a dark gooey substance in it.

"Rojak is a combination of fruit (pineapple), vegetables (cucumbers) and fried fritters that are blended together in a peanut sauce and then served with sprinkled peanuts," Koh explained.

The rojak didn't look very appetizing but proving once again that looks can be deceiving, the dish turned out to be spicy hot and very tasty.

"Many visitors to Singapore at first resist street food like this because it is unusual said Koh, who told of a food writer who was hesitant to sample the food on Smith St., and asked Koh to try dishes and then describe the taste so she could write a story.

As we ate, an old man appeared at our table and asked if he could have our empty can of Tiger beer.

"Let him have it--he makes sculptures with them," said Koh.

The Smith St. dishes, including beer, amounted to about $10.

It was time--to move oil--to Boon Tat St., which sits near Singapore's famed financial district. Here, businessmen loosen their ties and negotiate the price of the sizzling satays that are served up in the shadow of some of the tallest buildings in Asia.
Once again, Koh had a favourite location among the dozen or so stalls--the one run by an Indonesian man named Halin.

"This place is known for its secret dipping sauce," said Koh as he asked Halin to bring us 10 beef and 10 chicken satays."

As advertised, the satays and especially the dipping sauce, were terrific--the highlight of the safari. Try as we might, though, we could not get Halin, who serves up "over 3,000 satays a night," to reveal the recipe for his secret sauce.

"The recipe was handed down from my great grandfather to my father and now tame," said the man with the dark complexion and weathered features.

"The recipe must stay in the family," said the tired-looking man who bemoaned the fact his son had elected to go into the investment business. "He (the son) does not help we any longer and now my business may close soon."

Other hawkers approached our table offering us a variety of dishes, but Halin waved them away--all except one. He insisted the man, selling the fried stingray leave a sample for us to try. The fish, while tasty, offered too many needlesharp bones for my liking,

Boon Tat St. is especially busy on Saturday nights and Halin said, he works until the wee hours of the morning because "Saturday is when Singaporeans like to come out and play"

There are more than 3,600 restaurants in tiny Singapore because, as Koh explained: "the national pastime here is eating,"

We paid Hadin what we owed him--total cost of the satays and stingray amounted to about $15--bid him a hearty goodbye and headed for the east side of Singapore and a restaurant famous for its Chinese noodles.

Along the way, Koh pointed out Duxton Ave. and told us there were 72 pubs located on the narrow street--holdovers from the city's colonial days under British rule.

The east side of Singapore is the working class section of the city where working girls patrol dimly lit streets and locals congregate with tourists in small outdoor restaurants noted for their noodles.

The eatery located at No. 9 Gaylang Loring (loring means street) is the most noted of all, according to our guide.

For just a few dollars, a heaping plate of beef noodles was delivered to our table. Once again, the food was prepared perfectly and the one plate served three people for a cost of under $8.

"Now we'll go to Sims Ave., for dessert because it is famous for its tropical fruit creations," said Koh.

We told Garry to cancel dessert because by that time we had had our fill of Singapore's fabulous food safari.

*Singapore Airlines (www.sinagporeair.ca) offers a daffy non-stop flight from Newark to Singapore. The 181/2-hour flight has become very popular and shaves about six hours off other stopover flights to the island nation. For more information on Singapore, go to www.visitsingapore.com Tour East Holidays offers package tours to Singapore that include air, hotel meals, tours and much more for prices starting at 1$11769. For information, go to www.toureast.com or call 416-929-8017.

Marc Atchison is the Star's Travel Editor.


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