When I first moved from New York City to Singapore, it was in Little India, a neighborhood to the east of the metropolis's Central Business District, not an American expatriate enclave, that I found an escape from homesickness. It was here that I heard the melodies of familiar languages and ate familiar foods, dishes that my family has cooked and eaten in both the Old World and the New.
Serangoon Road, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, has been for centuries a commercial and community space for immigrants from the Subcontinent. Indians were among the first migrants to Singapore in the early 19th century, and Singapore was part of a larger interlocking colonial network, the hub of which was India.
The area continued to develop as the center of South Asian life (largely Hindu and Tamil speaking), as a focal point for a new migration, and as a growing commercial center. The name "Little India," is a Singapore Tourism Board (STB) concoction—the moniker was not used until the 1980s. That was when Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority earmarked Little India as a conservation area and STB demarcated the neighborhood as a cultural heritage tourism area. Today, the neighborhood is a religious and cultural hub for the South Asian community, both local and foreign, as well as a major tourist destination.
Food is the neighborhood's choice commodity, yet few travel guides detail the rich and unique cuisines found in Little India. Where else can you find the authentic tastes of the entire Subcontinent in the area of less than one square mile? The flavors found in Little India are the real deal and not watered down for Western palates; the neighborhood's restaurants cater to this city's large, diverse and discerning South Asian population.
And now is the best time to visit, as the neighborhood is rapidly changing. Singapore's thousands of transient workers aren't afforded the same rights as the city's other residents and measures have been put in place to keep workers out of the city altogether. In December 2013, according to a New York Times editorial, "frustration among Singapore's unappreciated and underpaid migrant workers" led to the worst riot to hit Singapore since 1969. A bus hit and killed a 33-year-old Indian migrant worker; the government blamed the incident on the consumption of alcohol, which fit neatly with prevalent stereotypes of South Asian men.
Since the alcohol ban was put in place and as more and more restrictions are placed on workers' movements, fewer who live outside the neighborhood congregate here, explains Debbie Fordyce, a Member of the Executive Committee of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage migrant workers. This has had an effect on local businesses. "I don't know how much longer these businesses will survive," she says.
At the same time, trendy newer establishments, such as tapas bars and craft breweries, have found cheaper rents and street cred by locating themselves in this previously-overlooked part of town. Their presence, and the crowd they draw, has changed the nature, both economic and sociocultural, of the neighborhood. For example, with pricier restaurants driving older, more affordable food to the periphery, "bootleg" food service establishments have cropped up in the neighborhood's back lanes and tenements or as home/apartment-based outfits serving their own communities, outside the purview of regulators.
But even if you stick to Little India's established restaurants, you could spend an entire vacation sampling the neighborhood's varied cuisines. To best experience all the vibrant foods that make Little India special, follow this guide.
What to Eat
Little India is bound by Kitchener Road in the north, by Jalan Besar in the east, by Sungei Road in the south, and by Race Course Road to the west. The neighborhood's food offerings differ from east to west and north to south.
For Tamil Specialties: The Southern End of Little India
The large numbers of vegetarian eateries at the southern end of the neighborhood clustered around Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest temples in Singapore, make evident that Little India has long been a Hindu Tamil enclave. Komala Vilas on Serangoon Road opened its doors in 1947 and its menu has changed little since. The eatery is a favorite among recently-arrived Tamils who miss home-cooked food, notes Kokila Annamalai, women's rights activist and third generation Tamil Singaporean.
Order the thosai meal, and you'll get an extra-long, extra-crisp fermented rice crepe (paper thosai) served with three vegetables, yogurt, coconut chutney, and sambar, a tangy vegetable-and-lentil stew, offered on a freshly cut banana leaf. The array of vegetables offers a tour of diverse flavors and textures: choose the paruppu urundai kuzhambu, moist lentil dumplings in a tamarind-spiced curry, keerai poriyal, stir-fried greens that retain their rich, woodsy flavor, and payathangai poriyal, and sweet, chewy stir-fried yard long beans flecked with mustard seeds.
For Regional North and South Indian Cuisine: Near Race Course Road
The restaurants along Race Course Road and Serangoon Road, the streets nearest to the Little India MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station, are most illustrative of the growing importance of tourism on the Singapore economy and recent immigration trends to Singapore from India. Here, travelers find a large cluster of North Indian restaurants, some of them mediocre and offering nothing novel, and branches of regional and international Indian restaurant chains. But there are several gems serving a wide range of regional cuisines along this crowded stretch.
Sunil Deep immigrated to Singapore from India in 1991 and worked as an engineer until 2005, when he and four friends opened Spice Junction, a Kerelan restaurant, on Race Course Road. (His other three partners have since left the business.) The "spice" in Spice Junction refers the legendary spice coast of southern India, from whose ports traders have exported cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and more for centuries—these famous spices are the key to enlivening Spice Junction's food. "Many of the spice profiles we employ are simply not used in any other cuisine," Deep says.
Spice Junction has an extensive seafood menu including meen pollichathu, pomfret seasoned with a tangy, oniony paste of curry leaves, mustard seeds, black peppercorns, and coconut milk that's kept moist on the grill thanks to a fragrant banana leaf wrapper, and meen moily, fish stewed in light, fresh, and creamy coconut milk curry, two Keralan classics.
But the restaurant also carries delicacies I've not seen prepared outside my in-laws' kitchens, such as kappa vevichathu, a savory tapioca and coconut mash; puttu kadala, a breakfast staple of steamed cylinders of ground rice and toasted, grated coconut, served with a smooth, coconut milk-laced chickpea stew; and Malabar chicken biryani, which is made using jeerakasala rice, a sweet, extraordinarily aromatic short-grain rice only grown in Kerala. Spice Junction also serves beef, such as erachi olarthiathu, a beef stir fry with a large dose of black peppercorns and toasted coconut, a Syrian Christian delight. "Most Keralans eat beef, regardless of religion," says Deep. He notes, though, "We don't put it front and center on our menu." (Or on their website.)
Lahore-born, Kolkata-raised Deepali Ray founded Fifth Season on Race Course Road in 2005 after a long career as an accountant. She began her business as a stall in her Central Building District office building. The restaurant focuses on 'Tangra Chinese cuisine': Tangra, in east Kolkata, was once home to a large population of Hakka immigrants from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China. It's where "Indian Chinese cuisine" is said to have originated. "Some patrons enter our restaurant expecting 'Indian' food," says Ray. "Others expect 'Chinese' food. They are all pleasantly surprised by the fusion of flavors and cooking techniques."
But what is most unique on Fifth Season's menu are its Tibetan delicacies, including the momos, half-moon-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground meat or cabbage, ginger, garlic, and onions and served with a spicy tomato dipping sauce. Tibetans have been in exile in India for generations, and their foods are cultural cousins to dishes from the Indian Himalayas, Bhutan, and Nepal. The steamed momos at Fifth Season are remarkably tender, and their moist filling bursts with the flavors of ginger, nutmeg, and cilantro. The pan-fried momos, bathed in a fiery garlic, Sichuan peppercorn, and red chili sauce, have a smoky, singed flavor and are best washed down with a hearty and spicy thukpa, or Tibetan noodle soup.
Just as Ray did, Ranbir Kaur, a factory line operator, her husband Gurcharan Singh, and her mother-in-law, Gurmit Kaur, opened a lunch stall some twenty-five years ago to serve a growing clientele of expatriate Indians working in the information technology sector. Today, the family runs the unassuming restaurant Jaggi's Northern Indian Cuisine, which is a must-visit for Punjabi specialties that you're unlikely to taste elsewhere. Jagwinder Singh, Ranbir Kaur and Gurcharan Singh's son, fell into the family business at a young age. "At eight or nine years old, I was delivering ingredients to my mother and grandmother in our stall in the morning, or washing dishes in the evening," he says.
He now oversees the restaurant, where patrons order at a glass counter stocked with an ever-changing array of delicacies, such as dal makhani, smooth and buttery lentils cooked with fresh cream, and rarely-seen bharwan karela, bitter gourd stuffed with a pungent, tangy mix of spices. (The bharwan karela tends to sell out; arrive for an early lunch to enjoy this labor-intensive dish!) Chicken makhani, a luxurious dish of yogurt-marinated chicken in a velvety, buttery curry accented with cumin, and cinnamon, is a must-order at Jaggi's.
The restaurant I frequent most in Singapore's Little India is Kailash Parbat, a branch of an international chain. While the restaurant is known for its delicious Mumbai street food, it is the Sunday menu that carries special delicacies from the Sindh region of present-day Pakistan. After Partition, which cleaved the Subcontinent, these dishes were preserved in home kitchens, and are rarely, if ever, served in India's restaurants.
For the dal pakwan, a thick split chickpea stew is flavored with sharp and slightly bitter carom seeds and scooped up with pieces of flaky, crispy deep-fried flatbread (pakwan). Crunchy and fibrous lotus stem features prominently in Sindhi cuisine. Try it in the bhee patata, a mildly bitter, firm lotus stem and soft potato curry that offers the perfect juxtaposition of textures. Kailash Parbat's Sindhi kadhi, a tangy chickpea flour-thickened vegetable curry, is resplendent with chunks of cauliflower, carrot, and earthy, nutty drumstick tree seed pods, brightened with sour kokum.
For Home Cooking and Halal Food: The Northern End of Little India
While many of the restaurants on Race Course Road are somewhat upmarket, the restaurants at the northern end of the neighborhood, around the Anguila and Abdul Gafoor Mosques and Mustafa Centre (a 24-hour shopping mall), are less so, with bare fluorescent lights and nary a tablecloth. But don't let the lack of amenities be a deterrent: there are great eats here.
Duck into Swaad Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, a nondescript joint with a laminated menu and a glass case of food on wheels, for its Gujarati thali, a meal made up of a selection of various dishes from the western Indian state of Gujarat. Their thalis are laden with undhiyu, an earthy mélange of fresh lentils and winter root vegetables, including green bean pods that retain their crunch, Gujarati kadhi, a yogurt-based sweet and spicy curry whose key ingredient is jaggery (made from the sap of palm trees), and dhokla, a savory, crumbly semolina cake, along with chapati and rice. This is the place for rich comfort food that tastes of home: the chapatis are slathered with ghee, and chaas, salty buttermilk seasoned with cumin and fennel seeds, is served over ice, tableside.
At this end of Little India, close to the mosques, you'll also find the best halal food. While Tamil is the language of trade at the southern end, you're more likely to hear Urdu and Bengali here in the north.
Karachi-born Singaporean Syed Arif Salahuddin, a former journalist, opened Bismillah Biryani on Dunlop Street twelve years ago across the street from Abdul Gafoor Mosque. Over the years he's learned where to source the best spices (he goes to Mustafa Center to score cinnamon sticks from Sri Lanka and black cardamom from India), how to best prepare basmati rice from his native Pakistan, and the ideal temperature to ferment yogurt so that it will not sour. The results of his obsession with precision are moist, tender meats and fluffy-not-sticky grains of rice that he still wakes at 5:30 a.m. every day to prepare.
Pershawari pista kulfi is a relatively recent addition to Bismillah Biryani's menu: the pistachio-heavy frozen dairy-based dessert is made by simmering milk for hours. "Lick, don't bite," Salahuddin says, so you can savor the complex flavors in the caramelized milk.