Though I’ve lived in Singapore for nearly six years, my visits to Little India have been few and far between: a school field trip with my children, a handful of trips to Mustafa’s, and a cooking course at Expat Kitchen around the corner. A half-day food-focused walking tour sounds like a great idea.
We meet our guide, Rene, from tour company Culture Bites, on the corner of Hastings and Serangoon Roads, and quickly amble to the nearby Little India Arcade. Rene provides a potted history of the beginnings of Little India, how it once had a horse-racing track (hence Racecourse Road) and how it wasn’t unusual to spot cattle being washed in what was once Rochor River and is now a canal.
Our first foodie stop is at Moghul Sweet Shop within the arcade, to try some of the sweets that have just been put out on display. First we sample some incredibly sweet and sticky dried gulab jamun (milk dumplings soaked in rose syrup, $1.50 each) – delicious, though I’m glad to be sharing just one. Also on the countertop is a pile of crispy jalebi, curls of fried sugar syrup and flour; again, they’re super-sweet, but this time with a little crunch.
Moving on through the arcade, Rene regales us with interesting stories about the area and its Indian culture. He points to a few shops whose entranceways are coloured yellow with turmeric and water; shopkeepers do this while opening up for the day as yellow is similar to gold, which signifies luck and prosperity.
Our next food stop is for a late breakfast at Komala Vilas, one of the oldest Indian restaurants in the area, established 86 years ago. Rene orders us the sambar idli set breakfast ($4), which consists of two steamed rice cakes, sambar (a lentil-based stew), and two different chutneys, one spicy, one less so. We wash it all down with a sweet and milky chai masala. Idli (or idly) is meant to be the healthiest Indian breakfast, so we don’t feel much guilt as we polish off the lot so soon after our sweets stop.
Comfortably full, we wander with Rene past some of the colourful shops along Serangoon Road, taking in the sights, the sounds, and the beautiful smell of jasmine from garlands hanging along the roadside. We stop at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the heart of Little India, before our next pit-stop at Kudai Canteen on Kerbau Road. Rene buys us rava vada (semolina fritters, $1 apiece) and bonda (potato deep-fried in gram flour batter), this time washed down with a coffee.
Our main course is yet to come; following a quick walk around the famed Tekka Market, and checking out the various food stalls, we head to the food court where we enjoy a delicious mutton and chicken biryani served on banana leaf, from biryani specialists Hanifa’s, with a lime juice on the side. Rene informs us that, as a sign we have enjoyed our meal, we must fold the leaf towards ourselves once finished. Leaving it alone is no issue, but folding it away from yourself means there was something wrong with the food, which was certainly not the case for us.
Michelle’s favourite moments
“Even though I’ve been living in Singapore for quite some time, it was nice to learn more about an area and culture I’ve never explored much. I really enjoyed trying the Indian sweets from Moghul Sweet Shop and the idli breakfast set at Komala Vilas. These are both places I would have walked past before, because I wouldn’t have had the courage to try these unfamiliar foods.
The colours and smells of the market area in the morning are a pleasant wakeup for your senses. Tekka Market was great; it has everything you could need! During the tour we learned a lot about how Little India came to exist in Singapore and about Indian culture in general. One thing I found particularly interesting was the custom of folding your banana leaf a particular way after a meal to indicate if you enjoyed or disliked the meal.
I’m now really excited about the next time family comes to visit and I can share something new and interesting with them.”
Tours cost $75 per person (free for children aged six and under); this includes a two-and-a-half-hour tour, all food tastings and a bottle or water to help with the heat. For more info, go to culturebitesfoodtours.com/singabites.
This article first featured in the November 2015 issue of the magazine.