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 , 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.

Here’s a little secret she told me about Indian restaurants: around the world, some South Indian restaurants feel a need to add to the menus a few North Indian dishes to cater to the belief that North Indian cuisine is somehow more superior — and often comes at higher prices. This may go back to old British colonial prejudices. Chef Devagi says that’s too bad because North Indian cuisine can be unhealthy, tending to be heavy, rich, creamy, lots of yogurt, nuts, ghee, milk and cheese.

So let’s looks at the regional foods available in Singapore’s Little India.

Kerala. At the southwestern tip of India, tropical and coastal with wide beaches and shady palm trees, Kerala’s popular foods include a lot of coconut, chilis and peppers, and lots of seafood such as crabs and mussels, as well as both beef and pork, since the area includes both Christians and Muslims. Because banana trees abound, dishes are frequently wrapped in banana leaves. Appams, a type of pancake made fermented rice batter and coconut milk, are common to Kerala and Sri Lanka.

Recommended Kerala restaurants in Little India:
Swaadhisht (Malabar chicken biryani, mutton coconut fry, fish molee, Naimeen mappas)
Spice Junction (Chemmeen vathichathu, Meen Pollichathu, Nadan Kozhi roast)
Cocobay (Appam & Ishtu, mushroom pepper fry, Kerala Parotta, Chicken curry)
Premaa’s (Goat Curry, Jeera Biryani, Appams)

Sri Lankan. Similar to Kerala but can be milder, uses peppers instead of chilis, and green raw vegetables.

Sri Lankan food stall: Raja Bojun (in Tekka Market) (Gotukola salad, coconut roti, fish curry)

Tamilian. Mostly vegetarian and spicy, and unlike Kerala will not use much coconut. Spicy hot biryani is popular. (Each region has its own variation of bryani.)

Recommended Tamilian restaurants in Little India:
Muthu’s Curry (Fish head curry, Chicken chukka, Mysore mutton)
Ananda Bhavan (appam, mock mutton curry puffs, Masala thosai, vegetarian briyani, South Indian Thali). (Thali is an assortment of dishes serve on a platter.)
Komala Vilas (Vegetarian Thali).

(While we’re on the subject of vegetarian restaurants, another popular one is Gokul Vegetarian, which uses mock meat to appear like meats such as chicken or mutton. “I would never eat food like that,” Chef Devagi says. Still, there are recommendations: Fish Curry, Vegetarian briyani, Mysore Mutton)

Andhra Pradesh. Food from this coastal state is spicy, hot, and sour, with a lot of mangoes and an edible leafy plant called gongura.

Andhra Pradesh restaurant in Little India:
Amaravati Restaurant (Hyderabad Biryani)

Bengali, Bangladeshi. An East Indian cuisine, a lot of milk-based foods and seafood is popular, not as spicy, and yellow or black mustard are often the heat-giving element.

Recommended Bengali/Bangladeshi restaurants in Little India:
Mustard (Maacher Cutlet with Kashundi, lamb chops, Kosha Mangsho, Doi Maach)
Raj Restaurant (South Indian and North Indian Thali, Cheese Mysore Masala thosai, Chaats)

Indo-fusion, or Tangra Chinese Cuisine. A mix of Chinese and Indian cuisine — in particular, Chinese style cooking modified to suit Indian tastes, such as Chinese Hakka noodles with Indian spices, or Manchurian cauliflower. (Tangra is a neighborhood in Kolkata with a Hakka Chinese community, hence the emergence of Hakka style Chinese food.)

Tangra restaurant in Little India:
Fifth Season Tangra Chinese (Momos, Chinese Bhel, Veggie Manchurian, Szechuan Mushroom, Chilli Garlic Hakka noodles)

Indian Muslim. Muslims from Western Asia and India formed Mughlai cuisine. Many dishes are rich and meat based, for example biryanis, kebabs and other curries usually eaten with flat breads or basmati rice. Curries are heavy with ground almonds and pistachios.

Indian Muslim restaurants in Little India:
Usman Restaurant (Chicken korma, Tandoori chicken, Mutton Biryani)
Al Bismi Restaurant (Tissue Prata, Mee Goreng Basah, Fish Tikka Masala)

Nepalese. A mix of Indian foods, nothing much particular to its region. Rice, dal, okra (lady’s fingers), naan, tandoori chicken. “It’s the name Nepalese that sells, it’s not the food,” Chef Devagi says.

Nepalese, North Indian restaurants in Little India:
New Everest Kitchen (Chicken momos, Crispy ladies fingers, Kebabs, Tandoori chicken)
Gurkha Palace (ladies’ fingers crisps, Momos, Sukuti (dried meat), Mutton Mustard Balls)

Tibetan. Steamed and Chinese-like cooking, more like Nepali and other North Indian cuisine.

Pakistani. A mix of regional cuisines, lots of rice dishes and kebabs, and Little India restaurants especially imported fish not commonly found in Singapore.

Pakistani restaurant in Little India:
Usman (Chicken korma, Tandoori chicken, Mutton Biryani)
Bismillah Biryani (Mutton Biryani, Chicken Biryani, Shami Kebab, Paya (goat trotters), Haleem (goat trotters))

Punjabi. Wheat and basmati rice is staple in Punjab, hence chapatis, cumin, rice, etc. Liberal use of ghee, paneer and yogurt and lots of pickles. Dishes are not so spicy hot but very rich tasting. Best tandoori dishes are from Punjab, and butter chicken. Famous for carrot halwa (an Indian sweet made by boiling grated carrot, milk, cream, ghee and sugar)

Punjabi restaurant in Little India:
Jaggi’s Restaurant (Chapatis, Palak Paneer, Baigan Bhurta, Seekh Kebabs)

Traditional North Indian restaurants in Little India:
Delhi Restaurant (Butter Chicken, Naans, Bhoona Gohst, Goan Fish Curry)
Kailash Parbat (pav bhaji, vegetable tandoor platter
Khansama Tandoori Restaurant (tandoori chicken, mutton rogan josh, Kashmiri fish curry)
Mumbai Magic (vegetarian; Gujarathi Thali)

Traditional South Indian restaurants in Little India (with North Indian sometimes featured as well):
Gayatri (Fish head curry, Fish cutlet)
Lagnaa Barefoot Dining (where diners sit on the floor, cross-legged),
Banana Leaf Apolo (Mysore mutton, fish head curry, pepper chicken)
Anjappar Chettinadu Restaurant (Mutton Bone Soup, Chettinadu chicken masala, Mutton Uppu Kari, Sura Puttu)

North Indian Sweets. Moghul Sweets, Little India Arcade. (Moti Laddu, barfi, gulab jamun – the latter are deep fried balls made of milk powder and cheese, dunked in syrup.)

South Indian Sweets.
Ganesh Vilas, Little India Arcade. (Halwa, athirasam, jalebi.)

Beverages. Maya Mohan, Tekka Market (ginger tea)

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