When eating becomes an adventure
The Singapore Food Festival offers breakfast with pelicans and penguins, and a moonlight dinner with tigers.
Dangling in a stuck cable car while jabbing at a cold steak is not most people's idea of fine dining and entertainment.
That's what happened to me as I recently previewed the ninth annual Singapore Food Festival, which will be held March 29 to April 30. Although my two hours anxiously aloft left a slight aftertaste, the event promises to delight the stomach and the senses.
Up with the birds for breakfast: While colorful macaws, toucans, and tiny hummingbirds flit about the lush tropical rain forest in an early-morning mist, chefs fill roti-prata (Indian pancakes) with spicy mutton curry or fresh fruit.
A movable feast for lunch: In a trendy hotel next to a perfect azure pool, chefs from Ah Hoi's kitchen prepare three themed buffets Spicy Singapore, Velly Happy Singapore, and Seafood Singapore.
Dinner on a jungle express: Young guides in short khakis serve up spit-roasted lamb and tales of the wild by candlelight on a tram that rolls by lions, tigers, and giraffes feeding and frolicking by moonlight.
The cable-car dinner was a nice idea, too. But I hope that for the festival, mechanics will be stationed nearby in case of breakdowns, the meat will be more than barely browned, and a utensil sharper than a butter knife will be provided.
At the crossroads between Asia and Europe, the scrupulously clean former British trading colony located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula has long formed a bridge between East and West. The result is a charming blend of cultures and cuisines.
To be sure, Singapore still has its ethnic Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Quarter. But it also has an eclectic mix, beginning with the Peranakan culture the descendants of mixed marriages between Chinese traders, who arrived in the 14th century, and native Malays.
Add to that the vast number of Indian immigrants, who arrived mainly in the 19th century, and you have a rich blend of spicy, sweet, and pungent cuisine one that is not only delicious, but pleasingly fragrant.
The Singapore Food Festival ties all this together in English. It's been the preferred language since Sir Stamford Raffles and British colonization arrived early in the 19th century. The festival's 48 events from a gourmet four-course dinner at top-notch restaurants to workshops on preparing Singapore's signature chili crab are set around cultural or historical venues.
For example, the Asian Civilisations Museum, home to an exquisite display of Peranakan culture, provides an Asian Beauty Secret Workshop. The Mini Food and Heritage Trail leads you through compact neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Little India. This is where the people who live in Singapore gather to eat.
Don't miss the curry puffs at the Tip Top at 722 Ang Mo Kio Central. It's a tiny shop squirreled away in a large shopping mall. Two men and their wives roll out, fill, crimp, and deep-fry the small crescent-shaped pastries 8,000 of them per day. The puffs are filled with the tastiest chicken curry, potatoes, and a small piece of egg.
Beneath the shade of towering nutmeg, cinnamon, and fig trees, participants pick and sample fragrant cloves, lemon grass, Chinese ginger, wild pepper, and Kaffir lemon leaves.
The paths wind around Fort Canning Park a huge oasis of green in a sprawling city of mostly beige high-rises. It is located on the highest hill in the city from which, legend has it, kings from the 14th century on ruled Singapura (Sanskrit for City of the Lion). It is also where Raffles created the first botanical garden in 1822. It later became a military fortress for the British, then for the Japanese.
After the walk, the enthusiastic student tour guides lead you into a state-of-the-art chrome kitchen. An Indian master chef teaches the students, in pairs, to slice, mince, and use a mortar and pestle to create chili crab.
Offered April 3, 10, 17, and 24.
High up on the western end of the island is the 50-acre Jurong Birdpark.
As well as showcasing a myriad of tropical trees and flowers, such as bright-red heliconias and bromeliads, it is home to more than 600 species of birds 8,000 of them in all.
While seated on a balcony overlooking a lake filled with flamingos, a guide shows off some of the park's avian treasures.
At the same time, two Indian chefs prepare the roti-prata, a thin pancake that is hand-stretched, fried on a hot plate, then stuffed with either savory or sweet fillings: mutton curry, cheese, peanuts, bananas, strawberries, and the fruit everyone seems to dread trying durian. (It tastes like dirty socks smell.)
Offered daily April 1 to 30.
Participants in this event cross the suspension bridge into the 100-acre Night Zoo. It provides a dazzling view of the secondary jungle that grows here, as well as a good place to hear all the wild animal sounds. Inside, you board a tram with candlelit tables for four.
As you are served dinner sumptuous lamb grilled on an open spit a guide talks you through the four stages of the tour: the Himalayan foothills, an island-dotted lake of a Nepalese River Valley, Savanna grasslands of Equatorial Africa, and dense jungles of Indo-Malaya.
Along the way, you view 110 species of animals Cape buffalo, African bongo, striped hyena, golden jackal, and the one-horned rhinoceros among them. The guide also discusses the zoo's conservation center and its attempts to breed and preserve endangered species.
Offered two Friday nights April 5 and 26.
This event a four-course meal at a quartet of premier restaurants was the highlight of the preview.
The evening began at the highest vantage point in Singapore the 70th floor of the Equinox Complex. The food was as heavenly as the panoramic view: a crown of smoked duck breast served atop a Thai papaya salad with coconut curry vinaigrette.
We then motored on to the Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Hotel, portrayed as the best Indian restaurant in Singapore. There, we were served tandoori jumbo prawns enlivened with snappy seafood stuffing. Mmmm.
If you aren't yet salivating, wait until the next course. At the trendy Restaurant 360, we were greeted with pan-seared tenderloin of beef, with creamed morel in sauce perigueux. There just aren't words....
To top it off, we bused to the Asian Restaurant Bar, which is in one of Singapore's oldest restored buildings. Once the Thong Chai Medical Institution Building for Chinese immigrants, it has been refurbished, but contains much of the original, charming 19th-century decor.
We were seated in a sort of covered veranda that runs along all four sides of an open courtyard. Under the pale moonlight, in a tropical sea breeze, we were served cream of pumpkin with black glutinous rice, sago pearls in coconut ice cream.
Ahhh what more is there to say?