SINGAPORE - As one always eager to learn more about the food-health connection, this opportunity seemed too good to be true: A Chinese herbal doctor takes your pulse, examines the state of your tongue, diagnoses your yin-yang status, and prescribes dinner.
No hoax. After all, this is Singapore, the world's greatest candy store for anyone eager to dabble in the wonders of food, Asian and otherwise. It's all here Ð North and South Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, the local Nonya cuisine and Western.
But back to the herb doctor. He holds court in a second-floor Chinese restaurant fittingly called Imperial Herbal, around the corner from the famed Raffles Hotel.
The predictable interior is straight out of Chinese Restaurant Decor 101, with large round tables, small alcoves for private dining, and endless, endless pouring of hot tea, in our case the prescribed ginseng-root tea designed to balance us out. My pulse and tongue suggested I was a little bit on the yin side, but not so much that a little bit of double-boiled shark's cartilage soup wouldn't cure me. My partner, on the other hand, had too much yang (and was informed he needed more sleep than I, no surprise to either of us). He was prescribed a dish of eggplant and pine nuts to moisturize his lungs, lubricate his intestines, and retard aging.
Healthy and Good Eating
But that's enough of the health angle. A single dinner wasn't going to make or break our future, so we dug into our prescribed meal with our normal gusto. Whether or not you're curious about your yin-yang balance, by all means go to Imperial Herbal for the food. It's light, ethereal almost, and most of all, different from just about any sort of Chinese food you know.
Save for the medicinally fragrant soups that were too bitter to be palate pleasing, a series of dishes here were not only invigorating but memorable.
Begin with the quick-fried egg white with dried scallops, served in a shredded-potato nest. I never knew egg whites could be so otherworldly, tasting like delicately flavored clouds in crunchy, light potato baskets that seemed to have been deep fried in air they were so void of fat or grease. A generous dose of black pepper (as prescribed) left one both amazed and satisfied.
Equally impressive was the velvety braised codfish fillet in fermented rice sauce with fresh lily buds. The buds tasted faintly like a mix between Provencal almonds fresh from the tree and moist water chestnuts.
But the finest dish of the day was the braised eggplant with pine nuts, another greaseless dish with a smooth, soft texture and pure, rich eggplant flavor, almost that of the revered wild cèpe mushroom.
The menu, carefully translated into English, is loaded with curiosities (such as deer-penis wine, deep-fried scorpions and crunchy black ants), but such traditional fare as beggar's chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, sautéed chili prawns with walnuts, and sautéed flank steak with orange peel should keep the average diner more than content.
A visit to Singapore would not be complete without a visit to the Raffles Hotel for a curry tiffin, where the ever-changing buffet offers something for every palate. The elegant room alone Ð stark white with black bentwood arm-chairs, silver vases and brisk, white-jacketed waiters Ð is worth a detour all of its own.
the high art of tiffin Tiffin, the traditional Indian lunch or midmorning snack, has long been practiced as high art at Raffles. Begin with the bold and spicy mulligatawny soup, a certified wake-up alarm for the palate. This traditional Indian marriage (from the Tamil word milakutanni, or pepper water) here consists of no less than 29 ingredients, ranging from blue ginger (galangal) to cashew nuts to cloves, cassia leaves and lemon juice.
The chicken-based soup, which takes its vibrant ocher-orange color from a generous dose of turmeric and curry powder, cooks for a good three hours at a gentle simmer, making for a stew that is a meal all on its own. The buffet, which may include a quartet of starters, the mulligatawny soup, tandoori prawns, an assortment of fish, chicken, lamb and vegetable curries all accompanied by rice, an assortment of pickles and indescribably fresh, fragrant and delicious mango chutney, will send you to an air-conditioned room for a well-earned afternoon siesta.
Singapore's unofficial national dish is simply called ''chicken rice,'' a deceptively simple Hainanese preparation of extraordinary flair and one found at dozens of specialty restaurants about town. The locals unanimously discouraged me from visiting the spot that's often touted as the best, the expensive tourist version found at the Chatterbox Restaurant in the Mandarin Hotel.
I opted for the admirably simple, full-flavored version found at the Lee Fun Nam Kee family restaurant along the trendy Clarke Quay. Here, in a bright, spotless, modern restaurant adorned with blond wood, pretty white china, quiet jazz and helpful waiters dressed in pale green uniforms, diners literally feast on this ''why-didn't-I-think-of-it'' delight.
AWHOLE chicken is poached in a rich, double-boiled poultry stock and hacked into pieces; then rice is cooked in that same double-duty broth. The dish is always served with a ginger and chili sauce to expand the palette of flavors. Flavors are pure and rich and not the least bit bland, and the aroma alone makes one salivate.
Diners vary the dish by dipping the chicken in soy, or ordering the same variation prepared with roasted goose, stewed beef brisket, suckling pig or roasted pork ribs. Do try the irresistible chicken-rice ball, a hardball-size portion of compact rice, formed by hand, with a flavor that's infused with the essence of the wholesome broth. Other excellent dishes here include bok choy in oyster sauce and the crisp roasted-duck rice.
Unquestionably, some of the most exciting food to be found in Singapore is not in the hallowed dining rooms but at the hundreds upon hundreds of hawker's stalls, roadside restaurants and mom-and-pop establishments scattered throughout the metropolis. In this food-obsessed world, Singapore is a veritable food lover's paradise, for any cuisine is available at any time of the day.
As Raffles's executive assistant manager, M.P.S. Puri, explained over dim sum one morning: ''The world is into eat-ertainment now. People are looking for drama. Food is no longer what brings people to a restaurant.''
Day or night one can drop in at the scruffy looking, always busy Garden Seafood Restaurant, which is little more than a few plastic tables on the sidewalk, where customers help themselves to the dozens of fresh, delectable dim sum offerings stacked at the counter.
One of the freshest and most memorable meals in Singapore included a 7 A.M. breakfast at Le Garden, where restorative bites of giant shrimp wrapped in delicately thin rice paper and carefully steamed were paired with rich, steaming puff-pastry-style buns filled with plum sauce: tastes to warm the heart and tide one over until lunchtime.
Equally curious, equally savory are the morning snacks found at the Komala Vilas, where the array of eat-with-your fingers Indian vegetarian crepes, or dosai, offer a distinct change from a Western breakfast. Here one can feast on some 15 varieties of dosai Ð prepared with a fermented batter of ground beans and rice - cooked on stone griddles. Fillings might include fiery spiced potatoes, green chilies and ginger, or cumin and pepper flakes.
Fabulous, inexpensive south Indian fare can also be found at the wildly popular Banana Leaf Apollo, so named because banana leaves are substituted for plates, and though forks and spoons are provided, most diners eat with their right hand, cupping bits of rice along with the fiery curries. Don't miss the fish-head curry (the head of the red snapper cooked in a spicy curry sauce).
Typical of many Singapore restaurants, this one began as a hawker's stand, and grew into a multistory cafeteria-style restaurant in just a generation.
All prices are per person, not including beverage:
Imperial Herbal Restaurant, 3d floor, Metropole Hotel, 41 Shea Street, Singapore; tel: (65) 337-0491; fax: 339-5273; 50 Singapore dollars ($28). Reservations recommended.
Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road; tel: 337-1886; fax: 339-7650; 50 Singapore dollars.
Lee Fun Nam Kee, Chicken Rice Restaurant, 3D River Valley Road, 01-09 Shophouse Row, Clarke Quay; tel: 255-0891; fax: 255-7833; 15 Singapore dollars.
Le Garden Seafood Restaurant (open 24 hours daily), 275 New Bridge Road; tel: 223-3888; fax: 225-0822; 5 to 10 Singapore dollars.
Komala Vilas, 12-14 Buffalo Road; tel: 293-6980; fax: 293-9385; 5 Singapore dollars.
Banana Leaf Apollo, 54-56-58 Race Course Road; tel: 293-8682; fax: 293-1381; 15 Singapore dollars.
This is the first in a series of articles. Next week: Shanghai.