Neighbourhood Highlight: Little India, Singapore

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Since its days as a market for cattle traders in the 1800s, Little India has been the heart of Singapore’s South Asian community. Beginning with Tekka Market at its southern end, the bustle unfolds upward along Serangoon Road, punctuated by houses of worship, pre-WWII shophouses, pocket-friendly lunch rooms, old-time grocers and, of course, the famous Mustafa Centre.

But recent years have brought hip new entrants to this historic neighbourhood. The Michelin-starred Sri Lankan restaurant Kotuwa, impeccably decorated Podi & Poriyal and industrial-chic Meatsmith Little India have introduced new alternatives to the traditional dining landscape, while picturesque hotels such as Owen House and The Great Madras inject a sense of luxe into this otherwise budget traveller-friendly locale.

It’s an exciting time to experience Little India. Four locals share their insider knowledge on how best to do it.

Mathangi Venkatesh

Docent, Indian Heritage Centre 

Mathangi Venkatesh, Docent at the Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore

On pedestrian-only Campbell Lane, the impressive glass-and-concrete facade of the Indian Heritage Centre contains an impressive collection of artefacts that tell stories of Singapore’s South Asian diaspora. And docents such as Tamil Nadu-native Mathangi Venkatesh bring them to life for visitors.

“This place is a slice of my hometown,” she says of Little India. “When I first came here, I was impressed at how the sounds and smells were straight out of Chennai. It’s nice to have a place where our children can be immersed in our native culture.”

The glowing facade of the Indian Heritage Centre along Campbell Road. Photo: Indian Heritage Centre

“I’m most taken with the area around Tekka Market,” observes the mother of two, referring to the epicentre of Little India, where mutton butchers, fish mongers and vegetable sellers rub shoulders with dozens of hawkers. There’s even a shopping centre on the second floor, where you can purchase ready-to-wear garments or even order a new sari.

Venkatesh recommends the year-end season as the best time to visit Little India, when the festivals of Navaratri, Theemithi and Deepavali are held. “That’s when our traditions are on full display,” she adds.

 

Kenneth Lim 

Founder, Generation Coffee

Founder Kenneth Lim in his element at Generation Coffee

Little India is the kind of neighbourhood that loves its caffeine the traditional way: think kopi and masala chai. So it’s surprising to see Kenneth Lim’s specialty coffee stall nestled within Tekka Market and Hawker Centre.

The former air force technician and his business partner started Generation Coffee in 2020, with a mind to sell gourmet espresso-based drinks at hawker prices. “After working here, I’ve learned to respect our food hawkers – this environment is hot, sweaty and intense. And there’s always a long queue so you have to serve quickly.”

When it comes to eating in Tekka Market’s hawker centre, he recommends having a holistic view. “The Indian stalls are good, but so are the Chinese and Malay hawkers – this is multicultural Singapore, after all,” he offers. 

“Personally I’d go for Lim Kee Chicken Rice, Heng Gi Duck Rice and 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles.”

 

Regunarth Siva Thyagarajan

Third-generation owner, Jothi Store and Flower Shop

Regunarth Siva Thyagarajan: from helping to stock items as a child, to running the show at Jothi Store and Flower Shop

From a tiny hole-in-the wall in 1960, the Jothi Store and Flower Shop has grown to become a five-storey heritage institution a stone’s throw from the Indian Heritage Centre, selling not just religious items, but also pots, pans and pressure cookers. 

“We will be here for as long as the Indian community needs us”

Having spent his childhood days here, Regunarth Thyagarajan now continues his grandfather’s legacy as the store’s third-generation director. “We will be here for as long as the Indian community needs us,” he declares. “We see it as our duty to provide the materials needed for religious and everyday life.”

“Though the infrastructure has greatly improved and the streets are more orderly now, the close-knit community where I grew up is still around,” Thyagarajan reflects. 

He points out longtime neighbours Komala Vilas – one of Singapore’s oldest restaurants – and Tiffin Bhavan, where he used to eat as a kid. For a dose of nostalgia, he recommends hitting up nearby old-school provision shops Thandapani Co. and Selvi Stores.

 

Kavitha Chakravarti 

Co-Founder, Podi & Poriyal

Kavitha Chakravarti enjoys a spice-infused cocktail at Podi & Poriyal’s alfresco bar corner

Standing out against a backdrop of bustling curry houses, upscale vegetarian restaurant Podi & Poriyal serves up lavish thali spreads and spice-infused cocktails inside a charming pastel-inflected postwar shophouse.

Its co-founder, Kavitha Chakravarti, envisions her establishment to be more than just another stylish F&B joint: “I plan to collaborate with South Indian artists, chefs and performers to showcase Indian culture in Singapore,” the Bangalore native shares. 

The swish interior of Podi & Poriyal. Photo: Podi & Poriyal

Chakravarti suggests checking out the nearby places of worship. “There are three Hindu temples and two mosques within walking distance of Podi & Poriyal,” she says referring to Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and the historic mosques of Angullia and Abdul Gafoor.  

“Anyone can visit them all – come and see for yourself how tradition is still a big part of everyday life in Little India.”

 

All photos by Lester V. Ledesma unless otherwise stated. 



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