Eating around the Indian subcontinent — in Singapore

By Tom Benner
Mainichi Weekly, 5 December 2017

The following is a longer version of a column I did for Mainichi Weekly on Singapore’s Little India. For this piece I interviewed Chef Devagi Sanmugam, the Spice Queen of Singapore, and I am greatly indebted to her for allowing me to access her vast store of knowledge as well as the food recommendations for specific restaurants and favorite dishes that she shares below.

DSC_0066 Chef Devagi Sanmugam, the Spice Queen of Singapore

You can eat your way through the whole Indian subcontinent — just by walking around one neighborhood in Singapore.

Singapore’s Little India is many different things to many people.

It is a shopping paradise, for everything from hard to find Indian spices to colorful flower garlands, beautiful sarees and men’s shirts, colourful bangles, even henna designs.

It is a gathering place for South Asians living in Singapore — including the foreign workers from all over the region who spend their one day a week off (Sundays) by meeting and socializing in Little India.

It is a cultural center, where you can see performances, learn about Indian culture, or just walk about taking in the sounds of the of the latest Bollywood songs or classical Indian music.

And it is a food paradise, with restaurants that specialize in the various regions found in and around the Indian subcontinent.

As a resident of Singapore, I quickly learned that restaurants in Little India differ vastly, depending on regional cuisines. You don’t go out for Indian food — you go out for different kinds of regional foods from around the Indian subcontinent. I started out knowing little, other than to equate South Indian cuisine with spicy with lots of rice-based dishes, and North Indian not so spicy with lots of wheat based breads.

So I turned for expert opinion to Chef Devagi Sanmugam http://spice-queen.com , the award-winning author of 22 cookbooks, to teach me some of the differences. Chef Devagi — called the Spice Queen of Singapore — has family roots going back to Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of Indian Peninsula, and she is a self-taught cook.
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Lost Horizon: The Shangri-La Dialogue

Amid a rising China, the big questions coming into this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue surrounded the Trump administration’s intentions in the Asia Pacific.

Published by Fair Observer, June 5, 2017

By Tom Benner

The lobby of the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore — with its high ceilings, marble interior, massive columns and crystal chandeliers — pulsed on the evening of June 2 with anticipation and excitement. People were well-dressed, many in military attire, and they strode purposely by the television lights and camera crews jostling for images and b-roll that might capture the scene.

They were gathered for the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue, which happens every year at this hotel, generally on the first weekend in June. Defense ministers, security types and journalists from around the world pack into the hotel for Asia’s largest annual defense summit.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, started the Shangri-La Dialogue back in 2002, as a way to initiate a regional discussion on peace and security amid the dangers of the day.

The schedule typically follows the same format — participants arrive on late Friday afternoon in time for a gala dinner and a keynote address. Saturday and early Sunday are filled with talks, addresses and panel discussions, with private meetings and media availabilities on the side. By midday Sunday, the dialogue comes to a close. Commentators and journalists rush to meet deadlines, and participants head home until next year. Continue reading …

Water-short Singapore charts a course toward self-sufficiency

The island nation has little water of its own but is determined to shed a reliance on water imports. One key is water recycling, alongside desalination and catchment.

Published by the Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 10, 2017

By Tom Benner

SINGAPORE—Singapore may seem like an unlikely model for the rest of the world when it comes to water management. The island nation has no natural water resources to speak of, and as a newly independent nation half a century ago it was dealing with open sewage, taps running dry in the hot season, and rationing of clean drinking water.

But now, at a time when climate change is making water security an increasingly urgent global issue, Singapore is pointing a path toward self-sufficiency. Continue reading …

The Phenomenon of Donald Trump Will Live On

The causes that have put Donald Trump so close to the White House must be addressed.

Published by Fair Observer, Oct. 18, 2016

I am not worried about Donald Trump winning the US presidential election on November 8. He won’t, the experts keep telling us. And right-thinking people all over the world want to hear that.

But I do worry that Donald Trump, the phenomenon, is bigger than Donald Trump, the candidate. And that his impact will last long after he concedes defeat—or plays the poor loser—on election night. Continue reading …

The causes that have put Donald Trump so close to the White House must be addressed.

Singapore’s Road to Multiculturalism

What lessons can multicultural Singapore offer America in light of the latter’s ongoing racial and religious tensions?

Published by Fair Observer, Sept. 27, 2016

little-india-heritage-centre_hr_01

Little India Heritage Centre. Photo: Singapore Tourism Board

By Tom Benner

Raw feelings over race and religion dominate the American political season. The talk is of walls and deportations to keep some out, “extreme vetting” for immigrants of a certain faith, and a debate over whose lives matter that is playing out in mindless violence on the streets.

The conflicting feelings over people of a different race, color or creed cannot, of course, be resolved to any one person’s or group’s satisfaction. But good answers to the divisiveness seem elusive. How can Americans see past their differences and get along?

As an American, I watch from afar where I live in Singapore, one of the most racially and religiously diverse nations in the world. This small country offers an approach.

Continue reading …

Tensions escalate over South China Sea claims

At security summit, Beijing vows to ignore pending international court ruling while US steps up military patrols.

Published by Al Jazeera English, June 5, 2016

By Tom Benner

Singapore – Asia’s largest defence summit concluded on Sunday amid growing fears of a legal and military showdown in the South China Sea over China’s rapid construction of artificial islands with ports, airstrips and helipads in one of the world’s most bitterly contested waterways.

Admiral Sun Jianguo of the People’s Liberation Army

At the weekend-long Shangri-La Dialogue , Chinese military officials vowed to ignore a legal ruling expected in the next few weeks by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a Philippines’ challenge to China’s growing assertiveness in the key sea route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

“We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble,” said Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, who led the Chinese delegation at the summit.

Sun added: “China will not bear with the arbitration award, nor will it allow any infringement of its sovereignty.” Continue reading …

Singapore voters ask: How much change do we want?

Published by Al Jazeera English, Sept. 10, 2015

By Tom Benner

Singapore – Election fever is in full swing on this island nation with Singaporeans turning out by the thousands in recent days for heated rallies and stump speeches in the lead-up to Friday’s snap election.

Social media is abuzz with partisan banter, betting with bookies is brisk, and an air of unpredictability surrounds the outcome in the first national election since the death last March of founding father and political patriarch Lee Kuan Yew.

Facing its greatest challenge after half-a-century of ruling party domination, Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is up against nine opposition parties in the first election in independent Singapore in which every parliamentary seat is being contested. Continue reading …