Saturday, October 31, 2009

Asia for Beginners

SINGAPORE - If I was advising first-time visitors to Asia where to stop first, Singapore would be the place. The island city-state is well-organized, safe, clean, English-speaking and modern, and things typically work well. Yet, it is deeply Asian, and very much itself, presenting a blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and expat cultures that still seem exotic to non-Asians. All this makes Singapore interesting to outsiders and relatively easy for outsiders to get accustomed to. Culture-shock is minimal.

That stands in contrast for much of Asia, which can be considerably more challenging for travelers, especially first-timers. So, go to Singapore first, then work your way through other places in the region.

My very brief - not much more than a day - stay in Singapore didn't leave me much time, so I cut straight to the chase and homed in on Singaporean comfort food.

I feasted on stir-fried chili crab, with steamed buns for mopping up the gravy, at Jumbo, a delightfully named restaurant on Singapore's East Coast Parkway (block 1206, not far from Changi airport). Jumbo came well-recommended by several locals and experienced travelers; they were not wrong. Treat number two, savored at a hawkers' court in central-city Singapore (or S'pore, as local publications call it), was chicken rice, sometimes referred to as Singapore's national dish. Brought to S'pore from Hainan, China, the flavorful rice comes in fist-sized balls soaked in stock, and is served with boiled chicken - usually an older hen, sliced up with skin still on it and slightly yellow in appearance. Dipping sauces arrive with the meal, enlivened by the tang of garlic and ginger. This is downhome Southeast Asian comfort food, and it is delicious.

You can find fine expense-account restaurants in this great food town, but the great thing about Singapore is you can eat just as well in no-frills places, like the locals do. For foodies, Singapore is a magical destination.

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