India Calling

Helene sets down her sweet and looks at me with purpose. “We’re going to India,” she declares.

I take another sip of my tea masala. The writing’s on the wall since three weeks ago, when we arrived in Singapore. Melaka is a strange place to fall in love with India, but here it is.

We’re going to India.

Little Indias

A city like Singapore might sound at odds with India’s vibrant, exhilarating chaos, but it’s actually part of its multicolored fabric. Tamil Indians form the backbone of Singapore’s manual workforce, and their language constitutes one of the city-state’s four official languages (alongside English, Mandarin and Bahasa Malaysian). Singapore’s Little India is a vibrant, chaotic district filled with restaurants and bargain malls, where incense and flowers blend smells with sweat and curry.

The scenario holds truth north of the Johor-Singapore Causeway, where Tamil immigrants have added their spices and ingenuity to Malaysia’s blend of cuisines. The Tamil’s Muslim minority, known as Mamaks, are credited with many dishes that are close to the hearts of Singaporeans and Malaysians alike. As a matter of fact, the sup tulang, about which I previously blogged, was invented in Singapore by Mamaks.

Yantra: Indian Refinement

Audran, artist extraordinaire and fellow epicurean, was my food guide in Singapore. Audran and I share an unbridled passion for food and distant lands. The Indian cuisine in Singapore has accomplished the impossible: convince my friend that there is a better cuisine than Japanese.

“Japanese cuisine is all about the impossible perfection of a single ingredient,” explained Audran when he saw my jaw drop at his revelation. “Indian cuisine is almost the opposite: it’s a near-infinite blend of spices and tastes, expertly blended together.” To prove his point, Audran took us to the cool confines of an Indian restaurant called Yantra.

To call Yantra’s service excellent is an understatement: I’m convinced their waiters are psychic. Our own waiter responded near-instantaneously to our desires, sometimes before we voiced them. “Do you speak French, by any chance?” asked Audran, puzzled at how the waiter kept responding to the comments we had spoken only in Quebecois.

The food itself was spectacular. I’ve had good Indian in Canada, the UK and China, but Yantra’s unique blend of spices and tastes was a new level of taste for me. The dishes I recognized where transcended by Yantra’s cuisine; the new ones were exquisite discoveries.

I commented that if this was the Indian food available in Singapore, I dreaded discovering how good the food could be in India.

Audran grinned. “I really hope India beats this,” he said. “If so, I’m jumping on a plane to check it out for myself.”

Simpler Treats in Melaka

A few days later in Melaka, on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the Little India we encounter is no less vibrant and seductive.

This time, we sit in a small, popular restaurant called Saravanna. Helene and I had spotted the place the day before, and having already eaten at the time, we vowed to come back. We were drawn to the sweets in the window, and had noticed the working class simplicity of the patrons. We came back with appetites intact.

As we considered the menu, I studied the men eating their meal, using the index, middle finger and thumb of their right hand. In India, only the right hand is used to eat, as the left is considered unclean. (You use it to wipe your rear, remove your shoes and – if I’m to judge by the man sitting across from me – talk on your cellphone while you eat.) This might not sound like much of a problem, until you tear a roti one-handed: this is definitely harder than it looks.

Helene and I ordered a thali, a mixed dish including a large roti, into which are folded various ingredients, and a variety of delicious dipping sauces. After a bite, we knew we had stumbled upon something special. We ordered masala tea, and sweets made from coconut and condensed milk. Over dessert, we vowed to go to India next.

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The Road to India

Yantra’s elegance and Saravanna’s rough charm are but two of the culinary experiences we’ve had with Indian food during our stay in Singapore and Malaysia. I have fond memories of the spectacular fish head curry we had at Banana Leaf Apolo, or the Pakistani beef stew at Usman, an open-air Pakistani restaurant in Singapore’s Little India. We spent many days walking down that area, hunting down sweets and enjoying the crowds and lights of Deepavali.

In Melaka, we spent a long evening trapped in an open-air restaurant called Restoran Madinah, where we took refuge from the storm, and indulged in mutton curry and vegetable soup. Madinah was our breakfast joint of choice whenever we craved roti canai – a near-daily occurence.

As I write these lines, Helene and I are relaxing in Bangkok, planning to spend the remainder of the month exploring Thailand, before we make the jump to India’s southern provinces. We’ve dreamed of India long enough.

India’s calling, and it’s time we pick up.

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Where to Go: Singapore

Yantra Restaurant is located at 163 Tanglin Road, in Tanglin Mall, not far from Orchard Road. It’s a fairly pricey outing (and one which I was honored to be treated to by our amazing hosts, Audran and Joëlle) but in my opinion, it is worth it at any price.

Banana Leaf Apolo is reknown for its fish head curry and generous portions served on a banana leaf. Their main branch is at 54 Race Course Road, within walking distance of the Little India MRT Station. Other branches can be found around the city.

Usman Restaurant is also found in Little India, at 238 Serangoon Road. They serve hearty Pakistani meals, including a fantastic beef stew.

Where to Go: Melaka

Restoran Saravanna has a few branches around Melaka, in and around Little India. The main branch can be found at No. 18, Jalan Bendahara.

Restoran Medinah is found on Jalan Melaka Raya 3, around the hostel district. You’ll find it on a street corner, packed with locals, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

6 comments

  1. Have fun in India! The food is fantastic and so so cheap. Let me know where you’re planning on going and I’ll point you in the direction of must-eat dishes.

  2. Thank you! We’re currently considering the south-east… Still got a lot of thinking to do, though. We’re gonna try and focus on one or two places instead of running around.

    Any pointers? 🙂

  3. I’ve always wanted to go to Singapore, friends have been raving about the food! Thanks for the reviews =)

  4. Hi there! I’m a new reader to your blog and love your posts on Singapore & Indonesia. I’m looking forward to future posts on India! I’m hoping I can pick up some ideas 🙂

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