It’s a given that Little India is colourful, vibrant and a hive of activity – but it’s also changing and gentrifying. There’s never a dull moment on this stretch, here are some of our favourite spots.
Eat and drink
For what it’s worth, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife frequent this vegetarian eatery – we were told they were there just days before we visited. Madras New Woodlands serves predominantly South Indian dishes that are lighter than your average greasy piece of prata. Try pongal, a sticky mix of rice and lentils cooked in milk and served with three sauces. You’re supposed to mix them all together and eat it in one go. The paper thosai is also popular – light and crispy, it retains its crunch even after being drenched in curry.
Among the scores of Indian restaurants in Little India, Muthu’s is easily the most dressed up. To boot, the kitchen more than holds up its end. The smell of spices hits you the moment you push through the front door. The menu is small (try the creamy butter chicken, and the crispy onion-flecked brinjal) with a very good vegetarian section, but the star attraction is the fish head curry. Even the small serving is a huge bowl of tart pineapple- scented sauce bathing a fleshy whole fish head. The fancy serving island – dotted with hot trays of luridly coloured curries and a hulking tandoor – offers a takeaway option.
Experience Catalan-inspired cuisine right in Little India at The Great Mischief. Located in lobby of the very picturesque boutique hotel, The Great Madras, the restaurant offers its own rendition of Catalan dishes, tapas-style. Sharing plates include Spanish favourites like croquetas ($9), patatas bravas ($9), and grilled padron peppers ($8). For mains, there's squid ink paella noodles ($22) and yellowfin tuna with a herbed breadcrumb crust ($24).
Another in the clutch of cafés on Rangoon Road in Farrer Park, Brunches Cafe is a vintage-themed spot serving all-day breakfast, gourmet sandwiches and café standards. Their high tea set, with slices of cake, mini tarts and sliders, is limited to ten sets a day, and is served in a bird cage. Apart from brunch staples like the eggs benedict ($13.90), Brunches Cafe also serves vegetarian options such as the truffle-infused mushroom dish ($12.90) and brioche french toast ($11.90). Diners can also buy the furniture that they sit on, or shop at the vintage retail corner.
With over 1,000 bottles of whiskey – from the ultra rare to the award-winning favourites – on its shelves, The Whiskey Library is one of the best places in Singapore to sip and savour a dram. Housed in The Vagabond Club, the luxurious boutique hotel with its red velvet banquettes, a stunning collection of art and locally handcrafted furniture, the bar oozes sophistication to the highest degree. Enjoy a pour of your favourite Scotch – its collection comprises mostly limited-edition single-cask bottles – or get the bartender to whip up an old fashioned to pair with an international selection of cigars.
Home to one of the best wet markets in town, the pasar’s adjoining food centre has become a hawker institution offering great grub from a range of cuisines. Great things are always said about the biryani at Tekka Centre, and The chicken dum biryani ($4) served at Yakader (#01-259) is the reason for its popularity – buttery, yet not greasy, the chicken is impossibly tender and beautifully spiced. Other good Indian cuisine options on offer include the very decent bowls of butter chicken ($3) best with the crispy garlic naan ($1.50) at SJ Tandoori (#01-218); and the mixed plates of shrimp fritters, fishballs and potatoes drenched in a spicy thick orange sauce at Temasek Indian Rojak (#01-254).
Tekka Market is home to dozens of stalls that claim to be the best in the same thing: nasi briyani. Yet among them all, Allauddin’s ($5) comes out top. Its reputation lies in the briyani rice. Perfumed with heady spices, the fluffy basmati reawakens the taste buds instead of weighing down the palate. So despite its generous portion, you won’t have trouble scooping up every single grain of rice and shred of mutton. Special mention goes to the vegetable dhal and achar that add zing to the meat and rice.
This neat coffee spot in the Farrer Park neighbourhood serves espresso drinks ($3-$6.50) to complement café fare like chicken cheese burritos ($9), croque monsieurs ($7.50) and hot favourite popcorn-topped panna cottas ($5). But the main draw for the java-jonesin' are for its cold-brewed bottled coffee and chilled Valrhona dark cocoa brews, which the devoted take home to ration sips.
It’s hard not to get excited by the thought of a good biryani, let alone crab biryani ($16) served with fresh crabmeat, together with flying fish roe that lends some crunch. Served at Meatsmith Little India where the menu is all about barbecue-style dishes but with an Indian twist – seriously, why hasn’t someone else thought of this earlier? Aside from the show-stealing crab biryani, there’s also pork ribs with a coconut chutney ($26), potatoes dusted with a spicy gunpowder seasoning ($6), tandoori chicken ($18) cooked low and slow; all cooked in a tandoor oven, spit roaster or smoker, so the food is next level delicious and juicy.
Known for its hearty localised pasta dishes and rich indulgent cakes, The Malayan Council is the best place to go in Little India of some comfort food. Dig in a huge plate of smoked duck lemak chilli padi pasta ($28) or share a serving of Singapore chilli lobster ($48) – which comes with the mandatory fried mantou buns for mopping up the sauce. Finish off the meal with a slice of ondeh-ondeh cake ($8.50) which comes with crunchy gula melaka bits and coconut cream.
A Singapore institution, Mustafa is open round the clock, offering 75,000sq ft of bargains. It’s a treasure trove of discount shopping, carrying everything from skincare and electronics to sportswear and luggage. Sumptuous sari fabrics can be found in the basement, and beauty products at ground level, a supermarket with fresh produce and flowers at its uppermost floor and even a corner for London souvenirs, of all things.
It’s hard to miss this four story building on Campbell Lane with its exterior inspired by the baoli (Indian stepwell). Inside the India Heritage Centre holds over 440 artefacts dating the rich history of the Indian and South Asian communities in South-East Asia. Artefacts include wartime publications donated by Singapore’s sixth president Mr SR Nathan, temple jewellery from the Saigon Chettiars’ Temple Trust and personal heirlooms by pioneering Singapore Indian families. Not to be missed as well is the spectacular 3.4m-tall wooden Chettinad doorway from the late 19th century that’s adorned with 5,000 intricate carvings.
What’s a weekend without some #OOTDs? Track down the six murals found on Clive Street, Upper Dickson Road, Kerbau Road, Hindoo Road and Dunlop Street. A collaboration between LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore Tourism Board and the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, the street art depict everything from the changing landscape of Little India, to a traditional dancer by street artist Traseone, and a collaborative work of buffalos amongst colourful flowers and patterns.
Here's where you can pick up a fragrant garland. But if flowers aren’t your thing, they retail everything from coloured rice used for kolam, pooja (offering items), copper goods, Indian cosmetics, and all manner of henna items. They’re also one of the few shops in Little India selling freshly made paan, the red coloured betel leaf liquid.
Singapore’s answer to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – minus the purple uniform- clad concierge and lobby boy. This pastel-hued, tropical-wallpapered dream pad is complete with Instagrammable opportunities at every nook and cranny – even in each spacious cocoon. There are fives beautifully decorated room types adorned with retro furniture and bold wallpaper. Go big or go home with a night’s stay at The Great Suite (from $195), complete with a study and circular bathtub for a relaxing bubble bath.
Down Tekka Lane, look out the kaleidoscopic House of Tan Teng Niah. Built in 1900, this colourful sweet digs complete with eight rooms is the last surviving Chinese villa in Little India. It belonged to the towkay Tan Teng Niah before restoration and conservation in the 1980s for commercial use. Now, it's an eye-catching backdrop fit for the 'gram.
They say everywhere can be a playground – that's certainly the case for Airzone, the world's first indoor suspended net playground. Occupying the mall atrium space between different floors in City Plaza Mall, be prepared to explore the multiple play areas where you can dive in a ball pit, crawl through a maze, climb to the top and try out the slides or just hang out on the suspended nets.
While Lush 99.5FM is no more, the love for local music continues to live on at the Museum of Independent Music ($5 per entry) where Tarmizee Taksen and Anvea Chieu have catalogued Singapore’s music scene in its entirety: vinyls from the ‘60s (The Quest) to cassette tapes made in the ‘90s (The Oddfellows), to more obscure genres like grindcore and screamo. Aside from listening to the artists showcased, there’s also video documentaries and the odd piece of memorabilia like a Yamaha RGX 110 Electric Guitar belonging to the veteran guitarist Suhaimi Subandie of local band Stompin’ Ground.
Blame it on the growing automation of our lives where hands are reduced to just typing and swiping, its no wonder maker crafts like pottery is growing in popularity. To get a feel for throwing pots, slab building and glazing, Mud Rock Ceramics – they do the plates for The Ottomani, Plentyfull and Le Binchotan – run weekly classes (Thur 7pm, Sat 11am and 2.30pm) at its Maude Road space. But if getting your hands dirty isn’t for you, then put in a custom order, or drop by and hope to purchase one of their creations.