Begin your three-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 50 years. Combined with foie-gras, homemade tofu and crunchy duck foot, it’s a full-flavour study in control and balance. But 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 spilling from storefronts onto the sidewalks until you reach Serangoon. Cross the road, turn left and head north to the corner of Norris Road,to Azmi Restaurant (also known as Norris Road Chapati; 168 Serangoon Road). Its slogan, “Secret of good mood: taste of Azim’s food”, is hard to argue with. The menu is old-school, and they’ve been cooking it from scratch since 1944 in the tiny kitchen out back.
The specialties – simple wholewheat chapattis – 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 chapattis there since 1956, when the British still ruled Singapore. To understand just how good this place is, order two chapattis and the mutton keema – savoury minced meat, peas, potatoes and spices slow-cooked into a mélange of magnificence. Brighten the deep, earthy flavours with a side of shaved onions, crisp cucumber and a squirt of calamansi. Then scoop up gobbets with torn ribbons of warm chapatti and fight to restrain your whimpers of jubilation.
Just a few doors down 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, barefoot men still grind spices in the 100-year-old mills. The air wafts a smoky perfume of the cumin, chilli, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and other blended spices that are dry-roasting gently in a large trough.
Continue along Serangoon, ducking under low-hanging awnings and crowded stores selling clothes, jewellery and food. Turn right at Desker Road, and walk to Lembu Road and the unassuming Bangla Square, also known as Lembu Road Open Space. Tall trees shade this brick-paved plaza, whose perimeter is lined with local shops selling Bangladeshi snacks, folded betel nut leaves and delicious sweets. Cool off with a refreshment at one of the tables while watching young men playing carom, a sort of table-top snooker with discs that slide on the powdered surface and knock the opponent’s discs away.
From Bangla Square, stroll past Desker’s brightly coloured shophouses and then turn right along Kampong Kapor Road. When you get to Rowell Road, make a left and head up this former “lane of waiting ladies” until you reach the Museum of Shanghai Toys (MOST; 83 Rowell Road). The world’s first vintage Oriental toy exhibition, it has a whimsical collection dating back to 1910.
Retrace your steps back to Kampong Kapor and continue left, passing the colonial architecture of the Straits Chinese Kampong Kapor Methodist Church (3 Kampong Kapur Road) with its Romanesque styling and towering Dutch façade, built in 1930. At Upper Weld Road, hang a right and head to Tim Sim Coffee Shop (40 Clive Street) on the triangular intersection of Upper Weld, Dickson and Clive Streets. You may not even recognise the wall-less, tin-roofed corner of the street as a coffee shop at all. But it’s been there for nearly 100 years, purportedly the oldest remaining kopitiam in Singapore – according to the brewer who, by the looks of him, may have celebrated the grand opening. The coffee, too, is old Singaporean: margarine-roasted, dark and very strong.
From Upper Weld Road continue toward Serangoon. Cross the road and stroll down Kerbau Street, following it to the left where it becomes Belilios Lane. At the end of the lane you reach one side of the amazingly ornate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road). If it’s open, go in and have a look at this amazing temple and enclosed courtyard with shrines to Hindu deities. Then retrace your path down Belilios Road and follow it the short block to Chander Road.
Directly across from you is 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 banana leaf plate. Order the classic Chettinad chicken curry or mutton masala and dive in – with your bare right hand. But keep a watchful eye on the waiter; he will keep giving you refills of the side dishes 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 on the corner, is one of the few outdoor laundromats in the area; and in the courtyard beyond, small snack joints offer tasty curry puffs, sweets and fresh pani puri.
Across the courtyard is the ornately painted Tan Tang Niah shophouse (37 Kerbau Road). Built in 1900, it had a colourful history before being restored by the government and designated a conservation building in 1990. From here you can pass through narrow, shaded vegetable stalls between the buildings leading to Buffalo Road and the end of our foodwalk. Turn right a few meters to Race Course Road and the MRT station.
If you reflect on what you’ve just seen and tasted, you’ll realise that old Singapore is still alive in Little India; it’s utterly accessible and the food is downright delicious. If you enjoy Indian colours, culture and cuisine, you’ll fall in love with this neighbourhood. And if you’re timid about trying Indian food, here’s the good news: there’s no better place on the planet to discover it than right here.
Parking in Little India can be a challenge, but the MRT station is right at Tekka Market. Or park in the lower level of Tekka Market – take Serangoon Road from Dunearn and turn right onto Buffalo Road. The lot is near the end of the orange market on the left.