A Little Like Home: The Unexpected Cultural Intersections Between India & Singapore

(L) Prata shop in Little India ; (r) MahaCo. Taco Bar
(L) Prata shop in Little India ; (r) MahaCo. Taco Bar

A burst of gingery goodness with the aftertaste of sweetened chai, in just the right proportion, is the most delectable morning alarm one could ask for. Yet, as familiar as we are with the absolute icon that ginger is, who would’ve thought that it could be the star ingredient that connects us to an inconspicuous shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown?! 

Sliced thin and candied, the Bentong ginger adds the warm sweetness of home to the milk pudding served at Native - a cocktail bar, known for the magic it creates by combining locally sourced ingredients with a flavour of India. Unassuming as it may be, Native’s culinary craftsmanship placed it among Asia’s top 50 bars in 2023. Grown in the soil of Singapore and referenced from traditional Indian recipes, Vijay Mudaliar doesn’t shy away from researched experimentation. From using Indian curry leaves to salt-baked tapioca, this is a sustainable allegory for the contemporary Singaporean experience. 

It’s indicative of how the contemporary Singaporean experience has transformed and grown from the Singapore of your childhood family holidays. It has evolved to make space for the next generation of travellers. That’s exactly why we are bringing you an experience unlike any other that will transport you to Singapore with all its unexpected travel experiences across food, attractions, cultural hotspots and more, at the Phoenix Palladium Mall, Mumbai from the 7th of March onwards.

This next-gen Singaporean travel experience is extraordinary for more than one reason. More so, for the Indian traveller. It brings them close to home, in a way that is familiar yet unknown. This comes as no surprise given the history of Indian immigration to Singapore, dating back to 1855. An inevitable aspect of immigration of any form is cultural assimilation. And the beauty of this phenomenon is how it manifests itself in everything from food and art to tradition and language.

Home is where language is

There are very few experiences like being in a foreign country and eavesdropping on locals gossiping in a language you know from back home. Except, this isn’t a rare circumstance for Tamil-speaking tourists visiting Singapore.

Growing up in a traditional Tamil household, Rajid Ahmed, stage name Yung Raja, was only ever exposed to the musical genius of Ilaiyaraja, A.R Rahman, and the likes. However, on the intersection of his dual identity as an Indian Tamilian growing up in a multiethnic Singapore, he created a third space - one of Tanglish (a colloquial mix of Tamil & English) rap, something he witnessed only much later in his life. Tamil music was reminiscent of his childhood. But the addition of English paved a path for him to embrace his identity in a language that speaks to international audiences.

It would then make sense to know that Singapore is the only country, besides Sri Lanka, to recognise Tamil as an official language. And, that was how the historic love affair between Singapore and India’s linguistic trajectories was officiated.

The way to a traveller’s heart is through their stomach 

Taste has everything to do with a dish being “gram-worthy”, said no one ever. And, nothing rings more true to this than the hot mess that the Indian Rojak is. Unlike the Chinese Rojak, known for its coating of prawn paste, drizzled with tamarind sauce, the India Rojak is a plateful of fried goodness. Based on your picks from an assortment of cuttlefish and potatoes to fritters and tofu, you are served with freshly fried goodies interspersed with thinly sliced green chillies and raw onions. If you think Indian chaat is the perfect amalgamation of fried and raw gems, the culinary landscape of Singapore has some tough competition to offer. This golden-brown dish juxtaposed with the spicy wetness of Singapore’s famous curries, is testament to the diversity and uniqueness that the Singaporean experience has to offer.

Marinated in a thick paste of spices, and served with steaming hot rice, the Singaporean fish head curry is some Indian nostalgia served on a banana leaf. Taking a cue from the love that local communities in Singapore had for the fish head, in 1949 Kerala-born chef M.J Gomez brought with him the flavours of Kerala fish curries. Unlike the Kerala fish curry, the Singaporean fish head curry packs a spicy punch in the absence of coconut milk. More recent adaptations of the Gomez recipe have also seen chefs steam the fish head in preparation of the curry, adding a twist to a familiar delicacy for Indians & Singaporeans alike. 

Who we are is inextricably tied to what we eat. It is no surprise this rings true for the aforementioned Yung Raja as well. His deftness isn’t just limited to the music he creates. His diasporic identity is pervasive and evident even in the menu of his Indian-Mexican cafe, The Maha Co. Founded in 2021, this cafe was the culmination of a fateful night when Rajid and his partner, Quan, sat eating dosas with Nutella. Served on a creative platter are thosaitacos, an unlikely reimagination of Rajid’s mother’s dosas into Mexican tacos - a near perfect representation of the cultural ethos of Singapore; one that may not look it, but feels a little like home.

Mihir Ghulghule, an Indian engineer who’s lived in Singapore for about two years now, attests to similarities yet distinct differences in the Singaporean and Indian culinary experiences. “Starting with food, a lot of similarities can be noticed in the vibrant cuisine of both cultures, especially when it comes to South Indian food,” explains Mihir.

Much like the flavour-scape in India has a story to tell, so does that of Singapore. The culinary landscape of Singapore tracks the evolution of its demographic over the course of its transformation into the diverse hub it is today.

The Third Space of Creative Expression

There is no way we are getting away with no mention of Little India. It’s one thing to metaphorically refer to the Indian diaspora in Singapore as a little version of India, and an entirely different thing to have a literal locality called Little India. A stroll through this ethnic enclave will draw you in towards large colourful street murals depicting the history of Singapore and its local communities. 

While exploring the bustling streets and quaint in-lanes of Singapore, street aficionados can also trace back this multigenerational melting pot to Kadayanallur Street. Named after the South India town of Kadayanallur, this street holds the history of Tamil Muslims creating a home for themselves.

Over the years, the cultural palette of Singapore has grown to accommodate its second generation settlers. And a local transformation of this kind necessitates an evolution of the travel experience. We experience places through the people that populate them. And, the multiethnic identities interspersed throughout the cultural fabric of Singapore are here to share with you their uniquely multiethnic experiences. So, let Singapore tell you its story.

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