Little India, Singapore food tour: Home of the city's healthiest breakfast and more

"The chocolate pudding fruit looks ugly and has inedible green skin, but open it up and – oh! – you find a pulpy interior that tastes just like chocolate mousse, especially if you add a bit of whipped cream.

"And these Indian gooseberries, you can candy them in syrup for desserts, or preserve them in spices and salt to make pickles. And see this cucumber thing? It"s belimbing buluh and provides the sour flavour in sweet-and-sour Malay dishes but – oh dear! – those Filipinos rub it on their itches."

My guide Abdul Rahim bin Mohammad pushes on through the humidity and piles of unfamiliar fruit and vegetables of Singapore's Little India, dabbing at his brow. I follow behind, marvelling at lumpen vegetables and odd-coloured fruit.

"And what about the moringa?" Rahim cries, not waiting for an answer, having already gauged my profound ignorance. He's determined that I make up for it by learning far more than six improbable things before breakfast.

"Moringa comes from the drumstick tree and is the new wonder veg, high in potassium and iron and so especially good if you don't eat meat, which is the case for many Hindus. And these plantains? Very hard, you only use those in curries. Jackfruit seeds you can boil and eat like chestnuts. That spiky grenade? That's soursop, you can turn it into ice cream. The Koreans drink tea made from its leaves."

I'm on a tour of Little India, one of Singapore's most vibrant and interesting neighbourhoods. I meet Rahim at a taxi stand on Bukit Timah Road, which almost conceals the Rochor River beneath. This river is the reason Little India emerged. It provided fresh water and a transport artery, and most of all encouraged the early dhobi (clothes washing) business. One of Singapore's MRT stations is called Dhobi Ghaut after its riverside steps.

Little India was never just for Indians, Rahim explains. He points out the hospital where many Singaporeans of his age were born, which is called Kandang Kerbau, the Malay word for the cattle pens that once stood on the site.

"Still, the British brought Indian police, soldiers, civil engineers and cheap labour to Singapore, and many of the first buildings here were in the southern Indian style, which quickly gave rise to the Little India name."

Little India's Tekka Centre, where we're heading for breakfast, is unique among Singapore's 110 hawker centres in its heavy emphasis on Indian food. In the adjacent, curry-scented wet market, pork is only sold at two stalls, hidden at the back end of the building so as not to offend Indian Muslims. Chinese Singaporeans skulk there as if dealing in illicit goods. One of the stalls, as if in defiance, is infamous for playing loud salsa music.

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It"s still early morning, but already Singapore's humidity presses down on us like a damp duvet. Fortunately, ceiling fans clank in the hawker market, moving sluggish eddies of spice-laden air over workers slumped at their breakfasts. We have to eat, says Rahim, so we have energy for the tour.

"See this stand called Westmangan? That's Javanese for 'Have you eaten yet?' and is a classic greeting there. It's good to know the answer, because hungry people are angry people, and who wants to deal with them?"

We have dhosa pancakes – voted by Singaporeans as the city's healthiest breakfast option – and roti prata, called roti canai in Malaysia after the griddle it's cooked on. Most people eat it plain, or with egg, so roti is often pre-made, says Rahim. His tip is to ask for it with egg and onion, which guarantees it's cooked on the spot.

As we munch, the effervescent Rahim imparts more improbable information about coffee beans (traditionally wok-roasted with sugar, pineapple skins and margarine) and local spices that he produces from his bag in sample packets, challenging me to name them. Cinnamon, star anise, coriander seeds, galangal (called blue ginger here) and turmeric (yellow ginger), which young Indian ladies apply to their faces to prevent acne.

I'm stumped when Rahim presents me with a strange-looking, brittle pod which, when cracked open, reveals a row of large seeds covered in pasty flesh. It's called tamar hindi (Indian date) in Arabic, or tamarind. But I recognise his final sample, cloves.

"Indonesians have so many cloves they can afford to put them in their cigarettes!" marvels Rahim. "Hoteliers don't like it, the smell sticks to all the fabrics and curtains and never comes out."

Fortified with breakfast, we wander into the wet market. There are stalls here that mix curry paste for you. Others sell coconut oil to strengthen your hair. You can buy bamboo stems which, when shredded, make a fine salad. Flower crabs are short on meat, but perfect for making delicious stock. There are no prices on the fish, I note. Rahim says you have to ask the price. That way, you interact with the vendor, and build up a rapport, and then once you become a repeat customer there"s no need to ask any more.

We emerge from the covered market via another entrance, into Little India's art-daubed alleys. Stalls sell garlands of flowers used as temple offerings "flown in fresh from India, so the bees are still buzzing!" adds Rahim. Lotus flowers represent purity since they produce beautiful buds from muddy water. Red is for love, yellow for loyalty. Green garlands are for elephant-head god Ganesh.

We trace the development of Little India through its arcaded shophouses. In the old days, property tax was based on width, so houses were narrow and deep. But second and third generation shophouses became wider, and have additional floors. Mango leaves adorn doorways, and mango trees – thought to bring good luck – are planted nearby.

In busy Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple,‎ locals leave offerings of fruit, milk and betel leaves. They smash open coconut shells as a symbol of breaking the ego – "very necessary if you're a teenager," according to Rahim.

We finish across the road from the temple at Suraya Restaurant, which isn't just blissfully air-conditioned but has fans blowing like tornados. On Sundays, says Rahim, overseas construction workers on their day off queue right out the door and around the corner. We order thali, a platter of seven vegetarian dishes served with rice.

"Eat each individually, don't mix it all together like a cement mixer," says Rahim, expertly scooping up his food in his fingers. "Oh! You see, this is another joy of Little India."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/singapore

visitsingapore.com

FLY

Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Scoot and Emirates Airlines fly direct from Australian cities to Singapore.

STAY

The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore has a great location on Marina Bay and is the glamorous, contemporary, boutique counterpoint to the colonial-era The Fullerton across the road, with which it shares excellent restaurants. Rooms from around SGD 680 (A$700) per night. Phone +65 6333 8388. See fullertonhotels.com

TOUR

Wok 'n' Stroll Tours has many food-related tours in Singapore, including a three-hour "Wet Market Adventure in Little India" for SGD 85 ($88) per person. Phone +65 8338 3571. See woknstroll.com.sg

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore and The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.

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