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Articles, features and write-up's on NRI life in the US, Canada and North America >> Features Achieve >> Prashanth's article

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Featured Article: Of Indian Food – Singapore style

Ever wondered what the book of globalization will say about Indians and their contribution to the world? Sure, we’ll have an entire chapter dedicated to the IT success story. We might even manage a chapter on religion, languages and immigration. But the one section that will make our collective conscience rise up and sigh with pleasure will be the food section. 

With the exception of Bollywood, India’s greatest cultural export to the world has been – our cuisine! Whichever country in the world you are likely to go to, there are bound to be a few Indian restaurants and hawker centres doing roaring business. And I’m not talking about established immigration destinations like the US, UK, Canada and the Gulf. Try Cambodia. I had the pleasure of dining in ‘Curry Leaves’ – an authentic Indian restaurant while on a brief trip there. Or Japan – where the Raj Mahal has an ever-expanding chain of restaurants. Or even the Taj Mahal restaurant in Seoul. Patrons include, not just desis, but also kimchi-obsessed, Bae-watching Korean matrons and businessmen! 

If the taste of India can penetrate and thrive in these countries with their own established, and zealously promoted culinary heritage, then countries like Singapore, which count a large number of people of Indian origin as citizens for nearly two centuries, will surely have a thriving Indian cuisine culture, right? Well, I wasn’t so sure. After all, Singapore is not known as the Food Capital of Asia for nothing. Eating out is a national pastime here. And if you see the Singaporeans go at it, you could be excused for confusing it with a religion! Being a first world country in a predominantly third world continent has made Singapore the hub for an endless variety of cuisine. And this is cuisine not restricted to the boring East-meets-West kind of fare that passes for fusion cooking. Not only is the multi-racial country a melting pot of cultures, its cuisine is a unique blend of the cultural, political, historical, idealogical and even spiritual flavours of the region which come together to provide uplifting gourmet fare. 

I realized this the very first week in Singapore. A colleague of mine introduced me to the famed Hainanese Chicken Rice. Although the colourless, insipid looking dish did not make much of a visual impression, one mouthful later, I was hooked. Small wonder that the dish finds pride of place as Singapore’s National dish! Next on the list was the Chilli Crab – a strong contender for the top spot. At the Singapore Food Festival 2005, more than a million promotional Chili Crabs were consumed by visitors in the span of just one month. And this is not counting the crabs the Singaporeans paid for as part of their usual eating out experience! Other dishes I tried and liked were Laksa (a kind of fat noodles, stewed in coconut gravy and garnishing) and of course, Satay (although the Malays and the Thai lay claim to this delectable skewered food).

I was disappointed with the Chinese cuisine though. Having been reared in India, where neighbourhood Nepalis run thriving ‘Chinese’ stalls (red coloured push carts, nonsensical ‘Chinese’ writing, overdose of MSG and all!) I found the authentic Chinese food bland to say the least. The Bak Kut Teh (pork ribs an chunky liver pieces, simmered in a cheng soup base) put me off while the porridges (Teochew or otherwise) left me craving for my daily dosage of sodium chloride. Most of the food looked peculiar, tasted uncooked and smelt awful. My biggest grudge? Huge succulent prawns, cooked shell and all, making them a pain to eat! So, my wife and I sought out Indian stalls and tried savour the familiar. 

Singaporean Indian cuisine is in a class of its own. Nearly 200 years of Indian influence has added much to the local cuisine. There’s the unique, transmogrified version of the good old Indian paratha. Only here, it is called the Roti Prata! It is a fairly simple dish of crisp, fluffy maida parathas served with a thick, delicious curry. But the craving among the local populace needs to be seen to be believed. In fact, Singaporeans are so enamoured by this humble dish that they serve it up, not only with spicy curry, but also with ice cream, chocolate chips and even sweetened yam paste! You can find at least one Roti Prata stall in every hawker centre and food court in Singapore. 

Speaking of hawker centres, there was this hawker centre near my workplace that had one splendid attraction. The resident Peranakan-Indian eatery called ‘Spice Central’. Come lunchtime and you could find the longest queue – Indians, Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos and even a few Ang Moh’s – waiting patiently for resident chef Seghar to dish out his delectable Indian food. He was wildly famous for his spicy Fish-head Curry, a veritable passion among lovers of Singaporean-Indian food. The curry in question is a Chettinad spin on a literal fish head, served in a spicy flavoured broth of assorted vegetables and aromatic herbs. It goes well with Briyani or with plain, steamed rice. 

Good as they are, these tropicalised dishes can never compare to the fare found in India. I drool each time I think about the fabulous Hyderabadi Briyani or the Murg Mussalam. Not to mention simple traditional fare like the Gongura pickle, curd rice and Aavakkai. Or even paani puris being hawked on the roadside and the constant tussle with the vendor for the all-important onion bits. And the scintillating aroma of garam irani chai drunk in the most squalid of surroundings, accompanied by Osmania biscuits! Some things simply cannot be replicated 

Whenever the wife and I feel nostalgic thus, we trundle off to good old Mustafa Shopping Centre in little India to stock up on all the masalas, spices and a carton load of Haldiram’s. While we are there, there are innumerable restaurants – from Khansama through Anjappar’s and Banana Leaf to Juggi’s Dhaba and Muthu’s Curry – where we can satiate our craving for hearty Indian fare. Sure, the raita is often made from synthetic yogurt, the paneer sometimes switches places with tofu and all the dishes could do with a tad more spice. But it’s the closest we can ever get to authentic Indian cuisine in this island nation. 

Back home however, (home will always be Hyderabad) my twelve-year-old niece is assimilating globalization in her own way. She insists on corn flakes with fruity loops for breakfast and anaemic, cold-cut sandwiches for a snack and will not condescend to look at any Indian fare that is served. Should we intervene to nip this unhealthy eating habit in the bud? I don’t think so. I’ll just sit pretty and wait for her to grow up and go to college in the UK. When she sees that it is Tandoori Tikka Masala that’s a permanent resident on all self-respecting food charts across Britain, her parents and I will have the last laugh! 


Glossary of Singaporean terms

Peranakan – Straits-born Chinese. Their exotic Nonya style of cooking is reputed to be the best kept secret of the cookery world.

Ang Moh –  Literally, ‘Red Hair’. Laconic reference to the white man in Singapore, which has made its mark on the street nomenclature. Ang Mo Kio (or Red Hair Bridge) is a large residential area with a healthy white presence.

Prashanth Kumar

 Prashanth Kumar is a professional marketing copywriter from Hyderabad, India who currently lives and works in Sunny Singapore. When he is not busy trying to make a living from his writing, he tries (all too seriously!) to tickle the funny bone of Indians worldwide. More details about him and his work can be accessed at You can send the author your feedback at


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