Whether praying in temples, selling items on the street or hawking food in restaurants and markets, Singapore’s Little India is as real as India gets this side of the subcontinent. It's a great place for a foodwalk if, of course, you are feeling very hungry.
Begin your 3-hour foodwalk at the Little India MRT and head into Tekka Market for roast duck from Heng Gi Goose & Duck (stall 01-335). They’ve been serving up Teochew braised waterfowl for nearly fifty years. Combined with their fois-gras, homemade tofu and a crunchy duck foot it’s a full flavor study in control and balance. But it's a big plate, so share it with a friend or two because there is some good food in your foodwalking future.
Walk up Buffalo Road past fruit and vegetables bulging from storefronts onto the sidewalks until you reach Serangoon Rd. Cross the road, turn left and head North to the corner of Norris Road for Azmi Restaurant (also known as Norris Road Chapati) (168 Serangoon Road) whose slogan: “Secret of good mood; Taste of Azim’s food” is hard to argue with. The menu here is old-school, with everything cooked from scratch since 1944 in the tiny kitchen out back. Their specialties – simple whole-wheat chapatis – are cooked on a round iron griddle by a guy in an izaar wrap standing barefoot on a sheet of cardboard. He’s been making chapatis there since 1956 when the British still controlled Singapore.
To understand just how good Azmi is, order two chapattis and the mutton keema – granules of savory minced meat, peas, potatoes and spices slow-cooked into a mélange of magnificence. Brighten the deep, earthy flavors with a side of shaved onions, crisp cucumber and a squirt of calamansi. The chapatis are soft and warm; thin disks of pure wheat and water, flaking apart like dense tissue paper. Tear it into ribbons and scoop up gobbets of the keema. Then fight to restrain your whimpers of jubilation.
Just a few doors down Serangoon is Valli Flower Mill (174 Serangoon Road), one of the few remaining hand spice grinding and roasting operations in Singapore. Between running spice rakes though the raw umber powder, barefooted men still grind spices in the hundred-year-old mills. The air wafts a smoky perfume of cumin, chili, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and other blended spices toasting gently in a large dry roasting trough.
Continue along Serangoon, ducking under low-hanging awnings and crowded stores selling clothes, jewelry and food. Turn right at Desker Road and walk to Lembu Road to find the unassuming Bangla Square, also known as Lembu Road Open Space. Tall trees shade this bricked plaza, whose perimeter is lined with local shops selling Bangladeshi snacks, folded betel nut leaf and delicious sweets. Cool off with a refreshment at one of the tables while watching young men playing Carom, a sort of tale-top snooker with discs that slide on the powdered surface and knock the opponent’s discs away.
From Bangla Square, stroll past the many brightly colored shophouses along Desker and then right, along Kampong Kapor Road. When you reach Upper Weld Road hang a right and head to Tim Sim Coffee Shop (40 Clive Street) on a triangular intersection of Upper Weld, Dickson and Clive Streets. You may not recognize this wallless, tin-roofed corner of the street as a coffee shop at all. But it’s been there for nearly 100 years, according to the brewer who, by the looks of him, may very well have celebrated its grand opening. He'll make your kopi slowly, shuffle to your plastic table and bark “You try.” The coffee is old-school in the strictest sense: butter-roasted, dark and robust, and very, very strong.
Directly across from you sits the tiny Cettinadu New Restaurant (41 Chander Road). A waiter will ladle from steel pots raita, stewed greens, spiced potato and a dollop of chutney “pickle” onto your fresh banana leaf “plate.” Order the classic Chettinad chicken curry or mutton masala and dive in -- but only with your bare, right hand. The waiter will keep refilling your sides until you beg him to stop. When you’re done, simply fold your leaf in half and wait for the (very small) bill.
Turn right upon exiting the restaurant and head down Chander Road to where it bends right into Kerbau Road. On the corner is North Indian Sri Lakshminarayan Temple (5 Chander Road), with its red beehive shaped Amalaka domes. Across the street, set back from the corner is a courtyard lined with small Indian snack joints offering tasty curry puffs, sweets, teh tarek and fresh-made pani puri.
Across the courtyard is the ornately painted Tan Tang Niah shophouse (37 Kerbau Road), built in 1900 and passed through a colorful history until being designated a preservation building in 1990. From here you can pass through narrow, shaded vegetable stalls between the buildings leading to Buffalo Road and the end of your foodwalk. Turn right a few meters to Race Course Road and the MRT station.
If you reflect over what you’ve just seen and tasted you’ll realize that old-school Singapore is still alive in Little India and it’s utterly approachable and delicious. If you enjoy Indian colors, culture and cuisine, you’ll fall in love with this neighborhood. And if you’re timid to Indian food here’s the good news: there’s no better or more hygienic place on the planet to discover the real thing than right here.