While there are many upscale Indian restaurants catering to the western palette with specialties from all over the subcontinent, the absolute best place to get great Indian food is none other than in Little India.
The back alleys and side streets teem with life almost 24 hours a day (in fact, Mustafa Centre, opened 24 hours, is located there for all your shopping needs). Indians account for just a little more than seven percent of Singapore’s population, and they come mainly from the south where the food is spicier, like in Tamil Nadu. The Malayalees from Kerala (in Southwest India) are the most numerous and have been here the longest, but you’ll also find restaurants catering to the Bengalis, Punjabi and Gujerati taste buds as well.
Indian cooking uses a lot of the same spices, like fennel, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom and cumin, but there is a world of difference in how the north and south use them. Northern dishes are rich with yogurt and creams and lots of freshly chopped herbs and chilies. Tomatoes play a bigger part as well, creating a thicker curry, which clings better to breads like chapatti and tandoori-baked naan. Wheat plays a bigger roll in North Indian meals than in the south where rice dominates and the coconut milk based curries are thinner. Dosai, a great flatbread made from fermented rice and dhal is a welcome part of every meal, and comes in a variety or forms, thin and crispy, thick and fluffy, they’re even served with stuffing, delicious!
Vegetarianism plays a big role in Indian cuisine, as it is one of the guiding principles of Hinduism. Another is the respect of the cow, which means you’ll never find beef on the menu. But with all the great options, you won’t miss it, and trust me; you’re better off not eating beef in the first place. Another meat you won’t find is pork, because Indian food is always halal (conforming to Muslim dietary laws).
So don’t be afraid about hygiene, Singapore’s restaurants are regularly inspected and have high standards. But if you’re still feeling nervous and craving Indian, try Tandoor in the basement of Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre. Named after the Indian cooking style, this award-winning Tandoor north Indian restaurant serves excellent spicy food. Notable is the palak paneer (spinach cooked with cottage cheese) with garlic naan and they do have some of the best curries in town.
A really great Indian dining experience awaits your in Clarke Quay with Ivory, the Indian Kitchen, and for more gourmet, check out upscale Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific, serving north Indian cuisines at their best, the food here really packs a punch. In terms of quality and taste, this is one of the best Indian places in Singapore. Try the lamb kebab dish, it’s spicy enough to make your taste buds tingle but not hot enough to give you a heart attack. The rest of the Indian staples like rogan josh and saag paneer are all worth trying too.
Komala’s Restaurant is a great place to take a break during your explorations around Little India and stop in for some vegetarian delights. A locals’ fave, this is a good option for exploring Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Indian and Thai foods as well. They have four outlets in Singapore, the best one being on Serangoon Road.
Little India is really the best place to find your favorite restaurants, and you can be sure that if the food is served on a banana leaf and without forks, you’ve hit the real deal. (If you’ve never eaten rice with your hands, give yourself a good wash and try it, it’s liberating to eat sans fork). Heaped high with rice and surrounded by a selection of several types of vegetable and dhal curries, crisp pappadams, creamy yogurts and tangy resam (pepper water) on the side, as well as your choices from a delicious range of entrees offered daily.
Among all the back-alley “banana leaf restaurants” one stands out as an all time fave: Iniavan’s on Chander Road. The proprietor Martin has brought to Singapore the best of India’s taste bud tantalizing and head-spinning cuisine from Kerala. Try the mutton masala, chili chicken, ghobi Manchurian and fish with pepper masala and feel your stomach fill to bursting as you overindulge. If you’re in the mood for a special treat, try the Jumbo Chili prawns. Cutlery is supplied but is optional.
Tandoor North Indian Restaurant, B/1 Holiday Inn Park View, 11 Cavenagh Rd. Singapore 229616, Tel: +65 6730 0153
Ivory Kitchen, 3A River Valley Road Clarke Quay #02-04. Singapore 179020, Tel: +65 6333 4664
Rang Mahal, Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore, 7 Raffles Boulevard Level 3, City Hall, 039595, Tel: +65 6333 1788
Komala’s Restaurant, many locations throughout Singapore, (see their website for the one nearest you)
Iniavan’s, 37 & 39 Chander Road, Tel: +65 6296 5915, fax: +65 6296 4221.
Text by Jeffree Benet for The American Club Singapore. Photos courtesy of Ivory-The Indian Kitchen