Little India has a thali of mouth-watering Indian restaurants but the realm of Indian cuisine reaches out further than that. Everyone has their favourite spot for a North Indian tandoori or a South Indian curry, whether it be fine dining or eaten off banana leaves with your fingers (see the top Indian spots our readers’ voted for here).
North vs South
India stretches over 28 states, so it’s no wonder that there are marked regional differences in everything from food to language. The nuances are complex, but the most basic culinary differences are:
In North India the staple is wheat, so curries are generally accompanied by breads such as naan, roti and chapati. Accordingly, North Indian dishes need to be thick enough to be eaten by hand or scooped up with bread.
Rice is the main staple in the South, so dishes need to be saucy to flavour and be absorbed by the rice.
Spices tend to be used fresh in the South, which also uses more chilli and coconut.
North Indian dishes use predominantly powdered spices.
The South has traditionally had better access to good quality fruit and vegetables, so vegetarian cuisine is more common. For a rundown of great Indian vegetarian restaurants across the island, head here.
Roy orders lime juice ($5.80), I order a Kingfisher ($9.50), and as usual they give him the beer and me the soft drink. It’s gratifying to think I might look like a lady.
Several expat groups are in the house, comfortable in shorts and slippers and quaffing the reasonably priced Chilean house wine ($8 per glass; $40 per bottle) to help them ignore their energetic children.
We start with a couple of fat Punjabi samosas ($4.90), and a selection from the tandoor: Malai minced lamb seekh kebab ($17 for a full portion), chicken tikka ($16) and fish tikka ($17)
There’s a reason Indian restaurants are so popular: the food is so addictive and it requires so much preparation. I may dabble in the odd bean curry, but I’ll never produce a spinach and cheese saag paneer ($12) with such a creamy, fluffy, mousse-like texture. It marries perfectly with succulent lamb dhanshak ($21), a mild Parsi dish cooked with lentils, vegetables and fresh ginger. We also try the Kinara dahl ($12), which contains five different types of pulse. For those who are free to indulge their sweet tooth there’s gulag jamon, kulfi, halwa or dessert of the day ($5 to $7).
Kinara is just five minutes down the road from us, and I wonder: Why don’t we do this more often?
– Verne Maree
North and South Indian: Chat Masala
158 Upper East Coast Road
Robust flavours characterise the honest, traditional cooking at this Northern Indian stalwart. Our eight-year-old devoured the butter chicken ($15.80) while the Mysore mutton ($15.80) and black lentil dahl ($12.80) satisfied the adults’ craving for spice and heat. Crispy garlic naan ($2.50) was enjoyed by all and there was enough food left over to take a doggie bag home.
The interior, while not noteworthy, is comfortably furnished and it’s usually crowded on weekends, so booking is recommended.
Before arriving, I did a quick online search and found out that Yantra has been well decorated in its five years, and was recently lauded as one of the finest restaurants in Asia in the Miele Guide 2013. So I set my expectations rather high and, happily, was not disappointed.
New chef Asif Iqbal has reinvented the fare and in July launched a new, encyclopaedic menu of Indian favourites with a playful twist. From the à la carte menu, the oyster in tandoori marinade drizzled with chilli ice cream is a must-try for the flavour combinations, but the strong contrasts messed with my mind. This was followed by a delicious fried vegetarian asparagus and purple potato zeera, chicken in coriander velvet curry and the show-stopping finale: a street-style biriyani dum with lamb encased in pastry.
Yantra is Indian fine dining with flair and contemporary style. Try to get a seat by the glass wall enclosing the four huge charcoal tandoor ovens, and watch the chefs in action.
Tip: The lunch buffet from Monday to Thursday is unbeatable value at $19, as is the offer of 25 dishes for $25 at lunchtime on Friday and Saturday. Booking is essential.
(branches also at Robertson Quay, Cherry Avenue and Tanjong Katong Road)
Their location and ambience are sometimes better than the food, but this place is good for groups as you can pay individually at the counter. There’s a patio at the Bukit Timah branch – perfect for kids who don’t like sitting still at the table – and they also have a big screen showing sports.
Fans of a good, honest curry have been going to Samy’s in Dempsey Hill for over 30 years. The restaurant is laid-back with some indoor table and bench seating, and plenty more tables outside in the greenery that surrounds the old army barracks. As we sit down for lunch, the restaurant is almost full, with more people queuing to come in.
Customers can visit the counter inside to see the dishes available, and pick from the à la carte menu. Food is eaten off a banana leaf, with cutlery on offer for those who don’t want to eat with their fingers.
The restaurant’s North and South Indian cuisine promises a variety flavours, from the exceedingly spicy, dry and meltingly tender Mysore mutton ($4.50) and juicy masala chicken ($5) to the white snapper fish cutlet ($2). In fact, for the quality of the food, the prices are hard to beat. Chicken tikka and curry mutton are $4.50 a portion, and gobi 65 (fried cauliflower) comes in at $3.50.
The Singapore staple of fish head curry ($20) is served in a hot claypot on the table, and has a lightly spiced sauce with plenty of okra thrown in. For the adventurous, the waiter will dissect the eyeballs and brain for you to eat: they’re purported to aid eyesight and brain power!
Round the meal off with a deliciously sweet, almost chocolaty chai tea and there’s no need for a dessert.
Shahi Maharani has been around since 1997, and with food like this, no wonder it remains popular. Now, I’m not usually a fan of okra, but the bhindi ($10) – finely sliced okra, dipped in gram flour and fried – which was recommended by our waiter, was surprisingly moreish. Another good recommendation was the spicy, sizzling tawa jheenga ($34) – four large, spice-marinated griddled tiger prawns.
The tandoori milawat ($35) is a great option if you like to try a variety of dishes. It’s a mixed tandoori grill of chicken tikka, fish tikka, lahsuni jheenga (tiger prawns) and seekh kebab (spiced minced lamb on a skewer), served sizzling on a griddle. All the meat was deliciously tender and had just the right amount of spiciness. The murghi (chicken) tikka masala ($27) is one for spice-lovers; even the medium-spicy version of this was pretty hot. If you’re not too keen on spicy food, or you want something to calm your palate, try the prawn korma ($30) which has a very mildly spiced creamy sauce of crushed cashew nuts and cottage cheese.
The standout dish for me, though, was the baingan burtha ($19); smoky grilled eggplant that is mashed and then cooked with spices. It would make a wonderful dip. Sides of white rice ($7.50), saffron rice ($9), butter naan ($7.50) and sweet Kashmiri naan ($8) topped with a paste of cherries, almonds and cashews, completed the mains.
The Nutty Delight ($11) – pistachio, almonds and cashews folded into vanilla ice cream – was the perfect end to the meal.
This authentic North Indian restaurant has been a favourite of mine since I first heard about it four months ago. I’ve been there over 20 times; not just for the divine dishes, but also the chilled-out vibe, friendly staff and incredibly wallet-friendly prices.
The unpretentious curry house doesn’t overwhelm you with pages and pages of similar curries – it focuses on around 25 core mains, all of which are delightfully different. Start with the papdi chaat ($7.90) – the lovechild of tangy Indian fast food and crispy nachos – and a kick of spicy meat with the tandoori sizzler ($20.90). My old faithful main is the saag mutton ($12.90), creamy, fresh and spinachy with succulent pieces of mutton. And, naturally, I get a glass of wine – the house white and red are surprisingly good (and cheap-as-chips at $8.50 a glass). With the help of fresh homemade yoghurt ($4.90) and piles of moist butter naan ($3.50), I can just about manage the fiery murgh vindaloo ($12.90).
Going for a bunch of sides at Tandoori Corner is a great option too – I thought I hated cauliflower until I was talked into trying the tangy aloo gobi ($8.90). The cauliflower and potato chunks, sautéed in tomatoes, ginger and green chillies, go particularly well with the slightly sweet lentil dish Punjabi dhal ($7.90).
Speaking of sweet bites, you wouldn’t normally associate curry-houses with dessert, but their gulab jamun ($4.90) reminds me of treacle tart from my childhood days. Save space for this warm, syrupy morsel!
This fine-dining restaurant by gastronome Jiggs Kalra is a sophisticated spot for a date or some MBS post-theatre dinner. Its must-trys are the delicious degustation menus – both vegetarian and meat. These belly-filling ensembles include grilled items, kebabs and biryanis, served with amuse-bouches and palate-cleansing breaks of sorbet plus a dessert platter. Service is excellent, too. And don’t miss the minty Paan Shots.
Earl of Hindh has just joined Quayside Isle and offers fine-dining in a 1900s-style interior – think maharajas, intricate wood-carvings and lots of mirrors. There’s even a tandoor oven on display to spin out naan breads.