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THE TASTES OF ASIA IN ONE CITY

When Gary Forbes's U.S.-based boss visits Singapore, he insists on eating only Asian cuisine. So they pile into Forbes's Volvo 960, pull up to a roadside ''hawker'' stall, and dig into heaping bowls of fish-head curry, chicken-claw soup, and steamed rice. ''We go out early to beat the crowds and stay out all night long,'' says Forbes, CEO of Sundstrand International's Singapore aircraft parts factory.

Traditional street food from all over Asia is literally at your fingertips in Singapore. If you don't mind squatting on child-size stools and sharing a table with strangers, you can taste what you're advised to pass up at the food stalls of Bangkok, Bombay, Jakarta, and Ho Chi Minh City--where succumbing to temptation can mean flying home in a stretcher with hepatitis, cholera, or typhoid. Thanks to strict health codes, Singapore's street food is clean and safe to eat. The government rents 20,000 tiny stalls to vendors at open-air hawker centers, the most popular of which are at Newton Circus, Telok Ayer, and Gay World. Health Ministry inspectors deduct two points from a vendor's record whenever they detect filth. A vendor who racks up 12 points in a year loses the stall.

TIME WARP. Every night, Newton Circus is packed with diners. Generous helpings of boiled lobster cost $20 per 100 grams, a bargain compared with restaurant prices. But the hawker centers are vanishing fast to make way for skyscrapers and shopping malls--and Newton Circus may be the next to go. According to Sam Wee, a Chinese cook who fries a sumptuous squid and garlic dish for $5.30 at his Newton Circus stall, a building is slated for construction on the site.

Happily, much of Asia's old-world cuisine is safely preserved at restaurants with decor and menus that time appears to have forgotten. From a culinary standpoint, this tiny island nation of 3 million people is Asia in microcosm. In Little India, you can try 15 varieties of dosai--spicy curried potatoes rolled in deep-fried rice-flour crepes--at Komala Vilas (76 Serangoon Rd., tel.: 65-293-6980) for $1 each. Bistro Chez Moi (217 East Coast Rd., 65-440-3318) serves such Vietnamese delicacies as deep-fried shrimp wrapped in sugarcane for $7.30. Parkway Thai Restaurant (Centrepoint Building, 176 Orchard Rd., 65-737-8080) makes a mean tom kha kai, a spicy soup of coconut milk, chicken, chili, and lemongrass, for $10. Then there's the bitter black Cantonese gelatin dessert made from ground tortoise shell and swimming in pancake syrup for $4.60 at Village Delights (25A Lorong Liput, Holland Village, 65-467-8783). Book in advance, and bring cash, as not all credit cards are accepted.

MINI BUDDHA. Some of Asia's rarest cuisine is preserved at a few upmarket restaurants. The Imperial Herbal Restaurant on the third floor of the old Metropole Hotel (41 Seah St., 65-337-0491) serves hearty soups with healing properties and fetching names like Mini Buddha Jumps Over The Wall ($25). On a recent Saturday night, the place was full of regular customers, all Chinese, several in wheelchairs. A huge wooden medicine chest on one wall, presided over by Dr. Li Lian Xing, the Mandarin-speaking resident pharmacist, displays the salad-bowl-size toadstools, knotted roots, and trays of dead ants and scorpions that flavor the more expensive dishes.

One of his most interesting concoctions is Imperial Herbal Wine ($312 per 2-liter jar, or $16.60 a glass), intended to enhance male virility. Every few hours, he takes out a jar, unscrews the lid, pulls up a foot-long deer penis, and uses it to stir the brew. If your virility is fine but your lungs and kidneys aren't, you can try the double-boiled snow frog's glands with rock sugar dessert, which tastes like sweetened egg whites, for $18.60.

Perhaps snow frog's a bit venturesome for you? No problem. There are plenty of tamer traditional eateries that are just as enjoyable. No matter how you slice it, Singapore is a trencherman's dream.

By Michael Shari
EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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