Little India is the heart of Singapore’s Indian community. The concept is similar to Chinatown, except instead of your mainstream chinese restaurants and red paper lanterns, the streets are decorated with floral garlands, filled with traditional indian spice shops, and restaurants dishing out servings of aromatic curry and thosai.
I’d decided to make the walk down from Farrer Park train station to the next stop, Little India station, which was located towards the end of Serangoon Road.
It was a short-ish walk along the main road of Little India, and i’ll say it literally- at some point, I found myself in the middle of an intersection, dodging cars while walking on the road itself.
I arrived at a large corner of the intersection, where a medium coffee shop sat, complete with flimsy ceiling fans and red plastic chairs, and of course, filled with people (mostly Indian families and workers)
As I crept closer, I saw patrons hunched over eagerly, feeding off large, flat trays lined with pieces of light brown takeaway paper.
Every corner I glanced made me salivate, and the wafting aromas lured me in. Every tray held a different combination- half charred naan with chicken tikka, rice with fish curry, mutton curry, thosai with masala, chickpea curry, dahl, lentil curry, the list was as endless as the supply of authentic Northern Indian food this shop seems to be dishing out to the looooong line of people. It was too crowded in the shop, so I opted for a takeaway.
I eventually stumbled upon an outdoor sitting area which was loosely barricaded off with a thin plastic banner. There were heaps of Indian men and women sitting in there enjoying snacks and drinks however, and no one seemed to be stopping them- I didn’t see why I had to be stopped either.
Ducking under the tape and securing myself a seat, I happily tucked into a serve of naan and hot chickpea (gotta get those proteins) curry, garnering a few surprised (but not contemptuous) looks from the group of male Indians sitting around.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t really understand the nice lady who took my order (language barrier) or read the menu properly, and it didn’t matter that I, a naive, yellow-faced Chinese ignorantly sat smack in the middle of what I now realise was most probably an all Indian-only zone (I cant be sure if it was an exclusive zone, but im pretty sure I had just broken the social norm they had going on there oops).
I enjoyed my curry and naan, thoroughly savouring and appreciating the warm flavours of this exotic culture in my mouth, letting it seep straight into my heart.
As I ventured further in, the scene began to bustle with even more life and activity.
It was noisy, it was crowded, it was humid, it was hot, but it was awesome. (Such a stark contrast from the still streets due to Chinese New Year)
Shops were open in full force left and right on each side of the road, particularly Indian grocers and spice shops.
People squeezed and shoved their way through the tiiiiny little pathway (behind the little concrete step that demarcated the asphalt road), bags of groceries hitting each other, sweaty shoulders brushing, a few grumpy looks and mouthfuls of “excuse me”s.
I stepped out of the flow of bodies along the cramped path and darted into a small shop lit only by sunlight spilling in from the entrance.
I immediately caught a whiff of a musty, earthy smell, boldy accentuated by Singapore’s good ol’ humidity and heat.
It was the smell of dried lentils, chickpeas, mhong dahl and nuts, the jumbled scent of tumeric, coriander powder, ragi, curry powders and chilli.
And as if the pathway wasnt cramped enough already, this store also managed to place rough sacks and plastic buckets of dried chilli, coriander seeds and herbs along its front entrance, which somehow managed to remain upright amidst the crowds, contents intact without a horrendous spillage.
…so this was the beginning of every dahl, curry and tikka. The depth and body of flavour, the spicy hit all boils down to the harmonious melding of all these traditional Indian spices over a stove into a luscious, satisfying curry.
First came the spice shops, then the grocers where all sorts of tropical fruit and veg were sold
then I stepped into flowerland- a stretch full of floral garland artists, standing at their stalls with chrysanthemum, rose, and about 10 other type of flowers that I can’t name, all segregated into separate containers like beads in a jewel box. It was refreshing to see such vibrant colour all in one place.
Of course, there were also jewellery and textile shops, newspaper stands, postcard shops, Indian painting and statue shops- it was unstoppable.
Feeling a little overwhelmed by the crowd again, i’d decided to try and find a nice cold drink. And I just walked, letting the suburb take me wherever.
…and it sure did.
Perhaps not having enough cellular data for google maps navigation (I just walked and prayed for the best really), wasnt entirely bad, for it enabled me to saunter into little back lanes, to see a whole different side of Little India.
I turned a couple of corners here and there, not bothering to look at the street signs. By now I really just needed a cold drink, but no such luck- i’d found myself in the underbelly of little India. I sauntered through a seedy little alleyway where I seemed to be in the attention of many middle aged Indian men, having a midday drink in a crusty, claustrophobic pub.
I eventually wound up near racecourse road, where a corner of colour enveloped between two buildings caught my eye.
My throat was now scratching for a cold drink, and it was starting to drizzle- but my good friend Curiosity certainly didn’t let this one slide. I walked towards yet another back alley to be pleasantly rewarded with realistic wall murals, and a little bit of history about Racecourse Road.
(in case you were wondering, Racecourse road gets its name from being an actual racing course, about 174 ago. In 1842, Racecouse road was home to a robust Indian commuity, and also the nerve of European social life in Singapore back then. On days where there were no horse races, the land doubled as a grazing pasture for cattle.)
I exited the alleyway, and very thankfully arrived at Little India Arcade, where I knew the train station would be. There were more shops, stands and moveable shelves sprawled all along the court yard. People were everywhere.
As I walked along the main court, cheerful Indian music blasted loudly from speakers in every shop, warranting little dances from several tourists. Young Indian women inked intricate hennas on their female customers, and shopowners touted noisily for business.
It was crowded, it was somewhat mess.
But it was awesome.