Little India is among Singapore’s most colourful and tantalizing neighbourhoods; here’s our insider’s guide to all the best restaurants, sites, and hidden shopping spots!
The first thing that strikes you about Little India is the palpable buzz in the air, be it day or night. It’s as if the minute you enter Serangoon Road, you are transported to a different land, a uniquely vibrant and colourful neighbourhood — a definitive piece of multi-cultural Singapore.
Here you will find streets lined with stores selling everything from shiny gold jewelry to glitzy Indian outfits, from steel kitchenware to an awe-inspiring variety of Indian spices and groceries. Vendors selling carts of fruit, vegetables and garlands of marigolds and fragrant jasmine sit in the vicinity of Hindu temples with their bright carvings of deities looking down at you. Little India is a delicious slice of the real thing, replicating the same feast for the senses that draws tens of thousands to India year after year.
When to go: To really experience Little India, you might need more than one visit. While there is enough to see and do there on a regular day, the neighbourhood is at its vibrant best during the festivals of Deepavali (Indian festival of lights celebrated in late October or early November) and Pongal (South Indian harvest festival celebrated in mid January). A visit in the weeks leading up to Deepavali will have you milling with the throngs of Singaporean Indians and Indian expats alike who are busy finishing their festival shopping. A word of caution, though: it does get very crowded during that period and it can be overwhelming even to habitual visitors. Luckily, this is a neighbourhood that is equally fun to explore all year round.
How to get there: For a first time wanderer, a good place to start your visit to Little India is the beginning of Serangoon Road, easily accessible by public transportation (Little India MRT stop or the Tekka Centre Bus stop). For those driving there is a convenient parking lot right below Tekka Market.
Little India Arcade
Across the road from Tekka Centre, is the Little India Arcade, a maze of storefronts set in a 1920’s shophouse building. With shops selling Indian souvenirs and imitation jewelry, bangle stalls, henna artists and traditional indian sweets, Little India Arcade is especially abuzz before the festivals of Pongal and Deepavali. Around this time, it transforms into a kaleidoscopic bazaar, music blaring and shops overflowing with all kinds of knick-knacks and delicacies. Moghul Sweet Shop is quite renowned for its spicy Samosas (triangular pastry with savoury filling) and sweet and creamy Rasmalai along with other types of Mithai (Indian desserts).
Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Road, Singapore 217959
Indian Heritage Centre
Adjacent to the Little India Arcade on Campbell Lane, amidst the colorful shop houses with tiled roofs (read photo opportunities) stands the unexpectedly contemporary Indian Heritage Centre. An homage to the multifaceted history of Indians in Singapore, the centre is a treasure trove of artifacts, interactive exhibits and memorabilia. It is a relatively small collection, easily explored in an hour or two, but do save some time for the equally well-curated gift store.
India Heritage Centre, 5 Campbell Lane, Singapore 209924 ($4 for entry), www.indianheritage.org.sg
This longstanding business started off as a flower shop but now houses prayer items – brass and silver trays, vast collections of incense, little bronze statues along with packets of sandalwood and camphor. It is also home to practically every brand of Indian cosmetics, a wide array of natural remedies including medicinal oils such as neem, castor and eucalyptus, capsules of turmeric, amla, triphala and other ayurvedic herbs and spices. This is also a great place to buy Indian kadhais (woks) and the signature item in every self-respecting Indian household – a pressure cooker!
Campbell Lane, No 1, Campbell Lane, Singapore 209882, www.jothi.com.sg
Across from Campbell Lane, this street is lined with stores selling Indian vegetables such as Bhindi (okra), Methi (fenugreek leaves), yams, green beans, gourds of every ilk, many of which wouldn’t be found in your regular supermarkets. They also stock a wide range of beans, lentils, rice, spices, pickles and pretty much any ingredient that would feature in an Indian recipe.
Tekka Centre/Wet market
Tekka Centre houses the largest wet market in Singapore. Head upstairs first, for a vast array of Indian clothes, the perfect place for mamas to source that outfit for the yearly Diwali assembly at school. While you are at it, indulge in an Indian princess fantasy yourself, and if you need an alteration or an additional garment, tailoring shops are conveniently interspersed throughout.
Downstairs, a huge variety of the freshest fruit and vegetables on the island awaits you. Chia’s Vegetable Supply is a popular and well stocked stall – and the place to find fresh herbs and salad greens. Also nestled in this vast market you will find a shop selling freshly grated coconut, a stall dedicated to thai and burmese cuisine, a stall selling bean curd and bean sprouts and even a stall selling all the parts of a banana plant (considered a delicacy in South India) – stem, flower, ripe and unripe banana and banana leaf. The many fishmongers at Tekka will cater to your filetting needs, and Osman’s Meat Shop is amongst the most popular stops on the island for mutton and lamb.
Eat: At the hawker centre where you can sample mutton biryani (a rice dish traditional to the Indian muslim community), while sipping on a drink of fresh coconut water mixed with jaggery.
Tekka Centre, 665 Buffalo Rd, Singapore 210665
No visit to Little India is complete without a visit to Mustafa, a department store that stocks anything and everything you could possibly need (or not need!). While it’s home to well priced electronics, a plethora of health supplements and beauty products amongst others, the single most compelling reason to visit Mustafa is it’s grocery store. Here you will find everything from dates and dried fruit, to the largest variety of Bob’s Red Mill organic products, the widest variety of spices, aisles of dried lentils, baking goods, dairy products and frozen food. Mustafa also carries fresh fruit and vegetables. The best time to visit is on a weekday morning/ afternoon. Evenings and weekends can get very crowded making navigating the aisles a real challenge so it is worth avoiding that time of the day. The best part about Mustafa? It’s open 24/7 so a 10.30PM weekday shop might well become your activity of choice!
Mustafa Centre, 145 Syed Alwi Road, Singapore 207704, Tel: (65) 6295 5855, www.mustafa.com.sg
While for all Indian women, the love of jewellery goes beyond the rational, for South Indians, the love affair with gold almost defines them. Serangoon Road is lined with a number of jewellery stores which stock a spectacular variety of 18k and 22k gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings. Many are very traditional designs catering to quite specific tastes, but well worth a visit to see if something catches your fancy. Further down Serangoon Road is Joy Alukkas, a very well reputed jewellery store chain from Kerala which again specialises in all things gold.
Joy Alukkas, 412 Serangoon Road, Singapore 218124, www.joyalukkas.com
MTR – Mavalli Tiffin Room
About a 10 minute walk from Tekka Market is MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms), a South Indian vegetarian restaurant chain from Bangalore that serves the most delicious dosas & idlis (a variety of rice and lentil pancakes) and different kinds of rice dishes. Our favourite is the Set Dosa, Rava Idli, Neer Dosa and Bisibelebath (a spicy rice). Best for breakfast or lunch, it does get quite crowded at the weekends but the turnaround of tables is quick, and the food is worth the wait.
MTR, 438 Serangoon Road (opp. Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple), Singapore 218133, www.mavallitiffinrooms.com
Well known for its delicious North Indian food, Khansama is a favourite amongst the expat Indian crowd which can make this restaurant quite busy, especially in the evenings. But fret not, they have a second outlet in Science Park, and they do home delivery, so you can well taste their succulent kebabs in the comfort of your home.
Khansama, 166 Serangoon Rd, Singapore 218050 and 171 Syed Alwi Rd, Singapore 207704, www.khansama.net
Kebabs & Curries
On the rooftop of Mustafa Centre is this hidden gem that serves delectable kebabs, naans (breads) and Biriyani (highly seasoned rice with mutton, chicken or vegetables). The must-haves here include the malai murgh kebab, butter naan, haleem (mutton stew) and any of the chicken curries.
Kebabs & Curries, 171 Syed Alwi Rd, #07-00 Mustafa Centre, Singapore 207704
Across the road from Mustafa Centre is this South Indian vegetarian chain from Chennai. Known for their signature idlis (rice & lentil steamed pancake), masala dosai (crispy rice & lentil pancake with potatoes) – both served with a variety of spicy chutneys and sambhar (a tomato and lentil broth) . Also available here is a traditional South Indian vegetarian lunch served on a banana leaf which is a gastronomic experience in itself. Be prepared for canteen style seating, this is not the place for a leisurely meal and the focus is literally fast food.
Murugan Idli, 81 Syed Alwi Road, Singapore 207660, www.muruganidlishop.com
With two branches in Little India, this restaurant chain from Bombay is best known for its chaat (Indian street food). Recommended here are the Paani puri and Sev puri. Or if you are feeling adventurous, try something from their “Indian-Chinese” menu, a genre of food unique to the subcontinent but with a very strong fan following!
Kailash Parbat, 493 Syed Alwi Road, Singapore 207669 and #01-03 Hotel Grand Chancellor, 3 Belilios Rd, Singapore 219924, www.kailashparbat.com.sg
This is an institution in Little India and has its draw of regulars who swear by the home-style Punjabi food on offer here. Go for the chicken tikkas, mutton curry, punjabi kadhi (yoghurt curry with lentil dumplings ) dals and kulchas (stuffed bread).
Jaggi’s, 34 Race Course Rd, Singapore 218553
Mustard allows you to take a deeper foray into Bengali and Punjabi cuisines. The Bengali maacher chop (spiced fish cakes) & koraishutir kochuri ( little puris stuffed with peas) are evenly matched by the Amritsari matchi (Spiced Fish Fry) & Saag Gosht (Mutton in a spinach sauce) from Punjab.
Mustard, 32 Race Course Rd, Singapore 218552, www.mustardsingapore.com
Banana Leaf Apolo
The spot for Singapore’s famous fish-head curry, which is served on a banana leaf-lined plate accompanied by rice and wide array of curries and condiments. Also popular is the nasi biryani, chicken masala and mutton mysore. With two locations it is a good spot to sample some authentic Indian-Singaporean fare.
Banana Leaf Apolo, 54 Race Course Rd, Singapore 218564 and 48 Serangoon Rd, Singapore 217959, www.thebananaleafapolo.com
Not unlike the country which this neighbourhood represents, it’s hard to pin down all one can see and do in Little India into one guide. Other important stops include the beautifully decorated Hindu temples in Little India – for instance, the Srinivasa Perumal Temple and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, both on Serangoon Road. Do note that both have a prescribed conservative dressing etiquette to enter. This is but a small taste of Little India, some inspiration to get you started on your own cultural adventure.
Many thanks to Swetha Ramakrishnan and Sumangali Krishnan for sharing their insights and wisdom!