I had never given it a second thought until I read an explanation about the origins of Singapore’s name. According to legend, the English moniker of the island country comes from the Malay “Singhapura”, which in turn is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit term for Lion City.
India’s ties with Singapore date back to the Chola dynasty. Centuries later, British colonial rule brought the two colonies closer, with the exchange of goods, services, soldiers and labourers to fill the empire’s coffers. Today, desi flavours are sprinkled across Singaporean cuisine and kept alive thanks to Little India—from the ubiquitous street food roti prata, a less flaky but dense and satisfying distant cousin of the Malabar parotta, to fish head curry, a hybrid dish of the Indian and Chinese communities.
Over the past few years, though, India’s flavours and kitchen techniques have ventured beyond traditional notions and Little India’s boundaries. There’s a wave of modern Indian flavours, with sleek, innovative restaurants and cutting-edge bars pushing the envelope.
Arguably the oldest Indian restaurant in Singapore is Tiffin Room, at the historic Raffles Singapore hotel ever since it opened in 1892. The Indian Muslim restaurant Zam Zam, which opened in 1908, serves a mix of dishes such as mutton biryani, murtabak (stuffed pancake) and fish head curry. Today’s modern Indian establishments in Singapore, says Nicola Lee—academy chair, South-East Asia (South) for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Singapore local—stand on the shoulders of early movers such as Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Hotel and the now shuttered Song of India, the first Indian restaurant in South-East Asia to receive a Michelin star, in 2016. “The current trend that you are now seeing in Singapore, with the likes of Thevar, Revolver, Firangi Superstar and Ahara, to name a few, is perhaps a progression of the modern Indian culture which chefs like Gaggan Anand started with his iconic restaurant in 2010,” says Lee.
Lee says Bangkok’s Gaggan and London’s Jamavar, launched by the father-daughter duo Dinesh and Samyukta Nair, brought fine Indian cuisine to the international stage, encouraging a new generation to make ambitious leaps with ingredients and flavours.
“When I started cooking about 15 years ago, chefs were heavily influenced by French, European cooking techniques, or the Japanese. Now, I think the tide is turning to India. Many chefs I know are taking time off to travel through India for lessons in our produce and regional techniques and to understand spice and flavours,” says chef Mano Thevar, whose fine-dining restaurant, Thevar, offers a contemporary take on Indian cuisine.
Despite dealing with a pandemic-induced lockdown, the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2021 and two stars in 2022. Thevar, an Indian-origin chef who grew up in Penang, Malaysia, says: “Earlier, people would come in and ask for butter chicken, or say they didn’t want food that is too spicy. Now, our diners understand that Indian cuisine isn’t spicy but spice-forward, and very delicate.”
A short, three-minute walk from Thevar is Firangi Superstar, which opened in 2021 and serves inventive riffs on Indian classics. Bal-ciao Bella comprises a perfectly grilled octopus that sits in a pool of the Goan balchao curry. For the Bombay Elote, grilled baby corn sits on a smokey corn purée and is zhushed up with finger lime. Every Saturday, the restaurant hosts a Champagne-paired brunch, with everything from masala doughnuts to avocado kulchas and roti parata-inspired waffles.
At The Elephant Room, it’s a flavour carnival, with experiments taking on new avatars, such as biryani and chicken curry cocktails. As questionable as they may sound, the drinks at this India-inspired bar display the prowess of the bartending team led by Yugi Susela, an Indian-origin Singaporean who launched the bar in 2019.
On the menu are libations such as a Spiced Crab Rasam, made with flower crab distillate, rasam, tamarind and cherry plum; and a liquid “biryani that blends a housemade biryani tincture with a basmati makeolli or rice wine and ghee sake.
At Revolver, executive chef Saurabh Udinia—who began his career at Indian Accent (Delhi) and moved later to Farzi Cafe (Dubai)—helms a blazing grill and tandoor to churn out rock lobsters, Marga lamb chops and barramundi, paired with sambal, kulchas or pickles. Udinia isn’t catering to those necessarily familiar with Indian flavours, about 60% of his clientele is Singaporean-Chinese.
At Revolver and the relatively new Latin-American-Indian izakaya Barood, he treats international ingredients with Indian sensibilities to build buzzy, “sophisticated-ly casual” spaces that celebrate modern interpretations of India—think Lobster Kerala Rice and Gruyere kulchettes, or mini kulchas with butter chicken.
Udinia is bullish on Singapore. “The competition is fierce and the audience, despite eating out a lot and having high spending power, is very discerning,” he says. Singapore’s geographical location and import policies too make sourcing exotic ingredients from across the world a breeze.
Udinia says the fact that Indian flavours are coming in hot in Singapore is not simply “a trend”. “It helps that the world over, diners are exploring more vegetarian and vegan cuisine. India has so much to offer, we are just at the tip of the iceberg here,” he concludes.
At Native, Vijay Mudaliar, India-origin mixologist and owner, and his team source and highlight indigenous spirits. The Pandan, for instance, blends Goa’s Paul John whisky with pandan and jaggery into a clarified drink that is as dangerously addictive as it is delicious, while seasonal creations include Everything, Every Rice All At Once, made with rice ingredients like rice vinegar, fermented rice shoots and rice vodka. The rise of top-quality homegrown Indian spirits too is helping this wave reach new heights. “Earlier, the general rhetoric around Indian alcohol was ‘this is good for an Indian spirit’. But now, with brands like Stranger & Sons, Pistola and even Tamras in Singapore, our guests are learning to appreciate Indian offerings even more,” explains Mudaliar.
Mudaliar believes this advantage isn’t restricted to vegetarian cuisine. “In terms of F&B trends, we are now smack in the middle of the made-from-scratch era—every bartender and chef worth their salt is trying to figure out how to incorporate more natural, handmade techniques and reduce kitchen waste. I believe Indian cuisine has the answers.”
In just the past year, new India-inspired openings, such as Gaggan Anand’s Ms Maria & Mr Singh, Thevar’s Indo-Korean restaurant Tambi, and Ahara, helmed by chef Vikramjit Roy, have launched, despite the challenges of rising costs and labour shortages. “Singapore will continue to offer a vibrant kaleidoscope of cuisine amidst a challenging economic environment,” says Lee. She’s right.
I am told the country will see eight-nine world-class Indian bars and restaurants launch in the next couple of years. Perhaps it’s time for the Singapore Sling to get a desi twist too?
Smitha Menon is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and is India’s only 50 Best TasteHunter.