Singapore: Clean, safe and a gourmet's delight

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SINGAPORE -- For most leisure travelers in the U.S., Singapore is too small and too far away to be considered a destination on its own.

But it makes a great gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia and it can be a perfect stopover. I'd recommend that clients add a day or two in Singapore on any trip through the area.

Why detour through the "Lion City?" Well, it's clean and safe, and Singapore Airlines is probably the most comfortable way to reach the region. But mostly I like it because the food is awesome.

One of the first questions people often ask me after I return from a trip is, "What did you eat?" I think it's a fair question because food is such a distinctive element in any culture. If you want to understand a place, visit its kitchens.

But it's an unfair question, too, because describing or re-creating a great meal is often impossible.

How do you convince someone who's never been to Ireland that the Guinness really does taste better over there? Food, then, becomes one of the most compelling reasons to travel.

Singapore has given me more than its share of "you had to be there" meals. Sampling Singapore's famous cuisine is a respectable way to pass the time, as the city has relatively few must-see sights.

The first thing to understand about eating in Singapore is that there are three main ethnic groups contributing to the menu: Malays, Indians and Chinese. Each has managed to import its traditional favorites intact.

Those craving an authentic, vegetarian south Indian curry, for instance, should have no trouble finding it. (Clients who have stopped in Singapore on their way to India, however, might might want to wait for the curry and try a bowl of Sichuan noodles instead.)

Thankfully, Singapore's chefs have done a lot of recipe sharing, too. Nonya is the name of a popular style that fuses Chinese and Malay cooking. The combination can be delicious.

For example, there's laksa, which looks like a Chinese-style noodle dish until you taste the spicy coconut gravy recognized throughout Malaysia.

Another Singapore treat is pepper crab. I've seen variations of this seemingly simple dish around the world, but the Singapore version is unquestionably the best.

Imagine fresh crab slathered in a sticky sauce that smells of cardamom and other Asian spices, plus enough black pepper to make a Cajun sneeze. Paired with a Tiger beer, it's a great tropical meal.

Sometimes it's not as important what you eat, but where you eat it. Atmosphere counts, and again, Singapore delivers.

I love to walk the narrow, gritty streets of Chinatown, eyeing the unusual ingredients for a bit before working up the courage to try something.

A fruit vendor in Chinatown tends to his durians, the famously foul-smelling fruits found throughout Southeast Asia. On my last trip, I tried durian. The heart of this notorious fruit tastes a bit like cantaloupe, but the flavor is too mild to compensate for the overwhelming odor that escapes as soon as you slice it.

More inviting is Smith Street, also in Chinatown, where dozens of vendors offer delicious curbside snacks.

If street food is not your clients' style, if they'd prefer a linen-covered table overlooking the river, suggest they head for Clarke Quay.

It feels a bit touristy in places, but the food can be fantastic. Another advantage is that the waiter will probably speak English, which means clients can ask questions and actually learn a bit about the food.

Clarke Quay is also a good place to find Western food, especially American and Italian restaurants.

Clients who really want to understand Singapore and its food should go to the market.

The floor of the fish market I visited was covered with water and fish guts.

But the scene was spectacular: Bare-chested fishmongers slicing tuna and drinking steins of Tiger beer, mounds of shiny shellfish, still-live eels squirming around their tanks as old women pointed out which unlucky one would be tonight's dinner.

I understand most travelers won't become as obsessed with Singapore's food as I have. But for those that do, consider the Singapore Food Festival, a month-long (April) celebration of the island's eats. You can have dinner at the zoo, attend cooking classes, tour markets or just eat your heart out.

For more information on the Singapore Food Festival as well as the Singapore Specialist program (see related story: Tourism board offers specialist program), contact Singapore Tourism at (212) 302-4861 or visit www.tourismsingapore.com.

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