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If you're headed for Southeast Asia, chances are you'll wind up passing through Singapore at some point. One of the region's major transportation hubs -- the country's Changi airport is one of the most efficient in the world -- a great way to spend a day or two in Singapore is simply to eat.

Amazing food is one of Singapore's greatest assets, ranking right up there with the country's famously clean, safe streets and efficient by-the-books infrastructure. Comprising a rich stew of ethnic groups -- Chinese, Malay and south Indians mostly, plus Japanese, Koreans, Indonesians and others -- it should come as no surprise that Singapore offers an incredibly staggering variety of Asian food. You can go as local or as mainstream as you want. While there are no shortage of McDonald's and Starbucks in this cosmopolitan city, it's a crime not to sample the native fare. Follow the locals to the ubiquitous hawker centers and food courts for cheap, fast and totally tasty eats. From chicken rice to fish ball soup, fish head curry, chili crab, pratas (Indian flatbread served with curry), laksa (a spicy Malay soup of coconut milk, seafood and noodles) and tons of other regional staples, the typical hawker center has food stalls serving up chow from all over the region. The stalls with the longest queues speak for themselves. As omnipresent as the corner deli is in New York City, many hawker centers and food courts are open air and found on the ground floor of apartment buildings and shopping malls all around the island. They're no frills for sure (bring your own napkins or tissues), but who's complaining about eating like a king for less than US$10 per person. Though most food courts are generally clean and hygienic, to be on the safe side, only eat from stalls with an A or B rating (grades, from A to D, are given out after unannounced inspections and must be displayed prominently).

Now, if sitting on plastic chairs and slurping your soup from a plastic bowl in a bustling family-style setting isn't your cup of tea, Singapore also offers no shortage of high-end hotels and restaurants to choose from as well. Of the many options, a visit to Singapore really isn't complete without heading to the historic Raffles Hotel for high tea (1 Beach Road; offered daily). Sir Stamford Raffles himself, the founder of modern Singapore, resided here and the likes of luminaries from Somerset Maugham to Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward were visitors. The historic 19th century colonial style hotel, dating back to 1887, offers two elegant venues for high tea: the Bar & Billiard Room where you're given a choice of tea from an encyclopedia-sized tea menu as well as either a set of lovely Asian or western style savory and sweet finger foods on a traditional tiered tray. The hotel's Tiffin Room offers similar light fare in a buffet-style setting. In both, service is impeccable and tables are set with heavy silver and crisp white linens.

Otherwise, to negotiate the bazillion eateries in Singapore, hardcore foodies may want to invest in an eating guide called the Makansutra, which covers more than 700 street food outlets and restaurants around the island and offers an unbiased chopstick rating system -- one pair of chopsticks is "good" and three is "die, die must try." The sixth edition comes out in fall of 2006.

If you can't be bothered with books and just want a quick handle on some great places to eat on the cheap, then here's a short list of hawker centers, food courts and small restaurants you can easily digest. In no particular order:

  • Zion Riverside food centre on Zion Road near Great World City shopping mall. Grab a plate of Char kway teow, and savor the delicious, if not a bit greasy, fried flat rice noodles.
  • Great World City food court, between Zion and Kim Seng roads, is a modern shopping mall with a great food court in the basement, offering everything from roti prata (fried flat bread served with curry) to kimchi dishes (spicy Korean cabbage) and your basic won ton mee (noodle soup with pork dumplings).
  • Chinatown Complex hawker center, in the heart of old Chinatown, on Smith Street, is a place to go for local color and to try specialties like glutinous rice balls (which taste better than they sound).
  • Sin Huat Seafood restaurant, at Geyland Road/Lorong 35. Looks (and service) can be deceiving. The red plastic chairs, sleeping dogs and grumpy service of this hawker-stall-style restaurant belie the delicious seafood cooked up here; no surprise sea-foodies are on to this place (especially since it was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain's travel shows). Best known for crab (apparently flown in from Sri Lanka) and bee hoon noodle dish, and other seafood specialties like scallops in oyster sauce. Don't expect hawker stall prices, though Sri Lankan crabs are very expensive.
  • Roxy Laksa, a stall toward the back of the East Coast Lagoon hawker center at East Coast Parkway, at the northern end of the bicycle path, serves up delicious bowls of this favorite coconut milk based soup.
  • Five Star Chicken, on River Valley Road (near Zion Road), is an ultra casual dive that's easy to miss. But don't. For the price, it serves up some of the tastiest chicken rice in the city. Often called Singapore's national dish, the steamed chicken and fragrant white rice combo sounds awfully basic, but nevertheless, totally delicious, especially when eaten with chili sauce and dark soya sauce. Order with a side of steamed kai lan (local greens).
  • Taman Serasi Food Garden, at the Tanglin Complex along the southeastern corner of the Botanic Garden. Newly opened, this food court replaces the beloved original hawker center of the same name that used to exist across the street. Sample the usual suspects -- mixed rice, noodle soups, meat dishes and pratas -- from Chinese, Malay and Indian food stalls.
  • Deli Moroccan at 30 Bussorah Street, near the Sultan Mosque. This inexpensive little treasure has just a handful of tables, but freshly prepared food is to die for (and cheap too), from the melt-in-your-mouth still-warm hummus to the delicious chicken kebabs (served off the skewer in a delicious marinade) and chickpea salad.

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