Few clues remain of the Singapore that greeted British explorer Sir Stamford Raffles when he claimed this tropical island for the British East India Company in 1819. The once-steamy jungle rain forest where tigers prowled and parrots nested has given way to a skyline that's about as exotic-looking as a warehouse of Sears, Roebuck & Co. kitchen appliances.
With its gleaming skyscrapers, broad flower-trimmed boulevards, showy parks, and streets so clean you probably could eat off them, Singapore stands as an Asian economic miracle, in stark (and sterile) contrast to its neighbors. To this traveler, it has become disappointingly Westernized.
One slice of culture that has survived the modernization is the uniquely Singaporean palate. (Not even years of British rule were able to spoil the broth here.) These people take their dining so seriously that each year the entire month of July is dedicated to the world-renowned Singapore Food Festival.
With a population of 2.8 million comprised of 76 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 6.5 percent Indian, and a sprinkling of Arabs, Armenians, Jews, and Europeans, this is not your burger-and-side-of-fries country.
Although I had many superbly prepared and presented meals in some of Singapore's outstanding new hotels, nowhere is the flavor of Singapore cuisine more versatile (and cheap) than in its many outdoor food markets.
At the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market, the street is closed to traffic from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when dozens of food hawkers wheel mobile kiosks along the sidewalks while the center of the street is strewn with tables and chairs.
Before long, the steamy air is heady with pungent curries, chilies, coconut, fish, citrus, ginger, and spices as street cooks fire up their woks, barbecues, and bubbling pots of broth. Locals pour out of flats, taxis, and buses and meander from vendor to vendor choosing alfresco dinner delights.
Indian vendors offer hot curries, coconut milk, rice-flour breads, and Hindu vegetarian dishes. Malays busily prepare barbecued, spiced satay brushed with peanut sauce. At Chui Chin Pow, I filled my paper plate with freshwater mussels and crystal dumplings stuffed with turnip, dried shrimp, and mushrooms. I washed this course - one of many - down with a papaya milkshake.
Next I tried fried stingray wings served on a banana leaf and a uniquely Singaporean-Indian delight, fish-head curry with vegetables and dangerously hot green chilies. Not the prettiest of dishes, but an explosion to the palate.
Other tourists in my group brought orders of huge chili crabs fried with egg and tomato sauce; curried prawns the size of slippers; and devilishly delicious frogs' legs sauteed with spring onion, ginger, and garlic, to our long wooden table.
So many frogs' legs, so little time.
We cooled our throbbing tongues with endless glasses of icy, tart Kalamansi lime juice and foamy, semisweet sugar-cane juice.
``We call it `Muslim beer' said a waiter, ``that's because it's frothy on top but nonalcoholic, so the Muslims can drink it.''
Tapes of ABBA blaring over loud speakers brought the only touch of Western civilization.
``Singaporeans eat out often,'' said one local Chinese woman who shared our table ``And why not?'' she continued, ``We can have dinner for just a few dollars.'' Truly, I've seen few countries where such quality and variety of food was offered at such reasonable prices.
We ate well into the night, going back to different kiosks time and time again, and finally rolling back to our hotel.
Did I say Singapore looks like a forest of towering new refrigerators? I should add that you never know what's inside until you open the door. Singapore may look a little bland, but you can't say that about their fabulous cuisine.
The following recipe is based on one served at the elegant Beaufort Hotel on Sentosa Island, Singapore. Duck is served at the Beaufort, but the recipe could also be made with small chickens or goose.
It works well to simmer the duck in a good-sized fish poacher. A roasting pan is another alternative. Make sure there is enough liquid to just cover the duck while it cooks. If necessary, add small amounts of hot water while simmering.
A four-pound duck serves two hungry adults, or more if you fill in with plenty of other offerings. You may also double this recipe using two ducks. Exact quantities are unimportant. The idea is to flavor the simmering water with plenty of soy and enough Asian spices.
The leftover stock can be strained, cooled, de-fatted and made into a tasty soup by simply adding chopped napa cabbage or bok choy, sauteed mushrooms (shiitake are best), and white rice. DUCK IN FRAGRANT SOY SAUCE
1 duck, (about 4 pounds)
1 teaspoon Chinese Five-Spice Powder (available in Asian-food markets)
3 cinnamon sticks (each about 3-inches long)
6 whole star anise (available in Asian-food markets)
10 whole cloves
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 cups light soy sauce
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 stalk lemon grass, crushed (optional)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Remove giblets, neck, neck skin, and excess fat from duck. Rinse duck with cold water, pat dry, and rub with Five-Spice Powder.
Refrigerate overnight, or about 8 hours. Rinse duck and place in large pot, roaster, or fish poacher.
Add remaining ingredients and enough water to cover duck. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, until duck is very tender - about 1 hour. Test for tenderness by piercing thigh with a skewer.
Remove duck to large serving platter. Garnish with cooled garlic cloves, onion, and pieces of star anise and cinnamon.
Serve with white rice and steamed snow peas.