Burt Wolf's Menu: Indian Community of Singapore - #107

Singapore... between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.  A modern city in the middle of Southeast Asia.  A nation that values its ethnic communities and uses their history to plan its future.  Ties to India go back for thousands of years and that influence can be seen throughout the country.  So join me in the Indian Community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

For well over 2,500 years, Indian trading ships have come across the Bay of Bengal to do business on the Malay Peninsula. At some point, the merchants began to set up permanent operations in the region.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first Indians to settle in the area appear to have come here in search of valuable  metals and precious stones.  Amazing -- twenty-five centuries before television home shopping, and there was already a thriving direct-response business in gold jewelry.  The Indians brought the jewels back to India but they brought Indian culture here.  There are Hindu temples north of Singapore that have been standing over a thousand years.  And the name of the city, Singapore, is actually a Sanskrit word; Sanskrit is the ancient language of India. It’s a reference to the story of the founding father of the city seeing a lion when he first showed up in the neighborhood.

In 1816 Singapore became a center for British commercial interests and many Indian laborers arrived as indentured workers.  They staffed the rubber plantations and the coffee growing estates.  Some of the Indians who came here, however, did not come of their own free will.  For a number of decades the English used Singapore as a place to store Indian convicts.  They did the same thing in the American colonies and in Australia, so Singapore was in excellent company.  Indian convict labor actually built some of the more important historical buildings in Singapore, including St. Andrew’s Cathedral, as well as the official residence of Singapore’s president.  When the convicts finished their terms, they were allowed to remain here as free men and many of them did so.  Today the Indian community represents about fifteen percent of the Singaporian population and they make a vital contribution to the community.   With well over two thousand years of interaction between the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula and the provinces of India, it’s no surprise that Singapore has some of the best Indian cooking outside of India.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For hundreds and hundreds of years, Indian cooks have been famous for their use of spices, and that had an interesting linguistic effect in North America.  The original explorers to the New World were looking for spices.  And when they got there, they thought they were near India, so they called everyone they met an Indian.  And that’s why our native tribes were called Indians and were called Indians for so many years.

The regional cooking of India is as different as the regional cooking of China, but in general the most important distinction is between northern Indian food and southern Indian food.  The south has always been home to hotter seasonings.  Fiery curries, and rice as the basic starch to cool things down.  It is also the part of India that developed some of the most famous vegetarian recipes. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The south coast of India is also home to the cooking of the Indian Muslim community.  Poultry, seafood, lamb and the hottest spicing of all.  Thousands of years ago people realized that certain spices would bring moisture to the surface of their body.  As that moisture evaporated, their body temperature went down.  A natural form of air conditioning, used in hot climates all over the world.

The northern cooking of India has more meat and less fish than the south and the starch is often wheat instead of rice.  The traditional cooking method is the tandoor oven.  Part open grill, part oven, the tandoor is used to prepare almost any recipe that is part of the cooking of northern India.  The classic eating style is to set a banana leaf on a flat surface, place the food on top, and eat with your hands.  To the untutored eye it may look like the food is just being picked up and eaten.  But there is actually a very subtle bit of gastronomic skill involved.  The spicier food is being kneaded together with the milder food so the diner gets the precise level of heat that he or she wants at any point in the meal.  Fingers are the ideal tool for this task. One of the most famous and respected Indian restaurants in Singapore is called the Banana Leaf Apolo.  The manager is David Kumar.

DAVID KUMAR:  You see, when you eat Indian, Southern Indian food, it tastes better if you use with hands.  Like -- items like fish, crabs and all that, you have to eat use with hands.  Then you can actually taste the spices and the curry, right?  And the technique of using it is, hold your, your palm like this, you put your four fingers together, you scoop the rice, right, and you use your thumb to push it up.

BURT WOLF:   Ahhhh.  So you scoop it --

DAVID KUMAR:  (over)  So as it goes, it becomes faster.

BURT WOLF:   (over)  -- push it this way.

DAVID KUMAR:  Right.  So when you come to your mouth, you hold it.  And you use your thumb and you push it in.  Not like that!  You see, you have to -- you have to have it here.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, in this part!


BURT WOLF:   Ohh, okay.

DAVID KUMAR:  The rice comes here, you push it to here, and then you push it back up.

BURT WOLF:   Is that right?

DAVID KUMAR:  Yes.  It’s the momentum.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.  I can do this.  Why one hand?

DAVID KUMAR:  The reason is why they use one hand is because they have to keep the other hand free to pick up the glass of beer they have to drink!

BURT WOLF:   I got this -- let’s eat!


For the majority of its early history, Singapore was a trading port with a mostly male society.  A large segment of the population was made up of laborers who lived in communal rooming houses.  No real homes and accordingly, no real home cooking.  Their meals were taken from street vendors who would set up a stove and start cooking. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Eventually the owners of these peripatetic pots and pans equipped themselves with chairs and tables, and became roving restaurants.  They would announce their specials for the day at the top of their lung capacity for which they became known as “hawkers”.  Each hawker had a series of favorite locations for cooking, and each eater had a series of favorite hawkers for eating.  In 1987 the government gathered the Hawkers together into Food Centers.  These centers are hotbeds of gastronomic activity.  And some really great cooking goes on.

WOMAN HAWKER (within montage):  What is this?  (Laughs)  You see the burger dancing in the oil, you see?  Rock and roll! ... Tango!  Breakdance!  Now is popular breakdance.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Even today, Hawker Foods are the favorite foods for many of the people of Singapore.  Thanks.  When I asked one of the cooks here whether he would ever be interested in cooking in a traditional restaurant, his answer was a hard and fast NO.  He says that when people come to a regular restaurant they might be coming for any number of reasons.  It might be decor, or price, or status, or location.  But when somebody comes to his hawker stall, they come for his cooking.  And he likes the uncompromised compliment.  Don’t we all.

Indian dishes are so popular in Singapore that they have become a regular part of the cooking in many hotels and restaurants.  George Fistrovich is the executive chef at the Marina Mandarin, and he makes the point with his recipe for an Indian Vegetable Sautè.  A quarter cup of oil goes into a sauté pan, followed by two bay leaves and a stick of cinnamon.  Then a quarter cup of chopped shallots and a tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger.  Next, a quarter cup of chili paste, plus a tablespoon of turmeric, and a tablespoon of chili powder.  This seasoning mixture cooks over a low heat for about eight minutes.  Then in goes a cup of water, three tablespoons of sugar, and a quarter cup of coconut milk.  What you now have is the spice-based sauce, which is held aside for a few minutes while George prepares the vegetables.  A little oil goes into a second sauté pan, and as soon as it’s hot in goes a couple of carrots cut into slices, a sliced red bell pepper, a sliced green bell pepper.  A moment of cooking.  Then a half cup’s worth of eggplant chunks, some parboiled broccoli flowerets, and some cauliflower.

BURT WOLF:   Mark Twain once said that “cauliflower is just a cabbage with a college education.”

All that sautés for about 5 minutes.  Then the vegetable mixture goes into the spice-sauce, plus about a cup’s worth of Savoy cabbage that has been cut into chunks.  A few more moments of cooking and it’s ready.  It’s served as a main course in a ring of white rice.

Dhershini Winodan is a local authority on Indian culture, and the author of an outstanding book on Indian cooking.  Today she’s taking us on a tour of Singapore’s traditional Indian community.

BURT WOLF:   So this is the vegetable market!

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  This is the vegetable market, and I’m gonna show you some unusual Indian vegetables.  Guess what this is, Burt.

BURT WOLF:   Uhhhhh... I have no idea.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  This is drumstick.

BURT WOLF:   Drumstick.  Do you play with it or just eat it?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  This is drumstick.  Not the chicken drumstick, but the vegetable drumstick.  I had to clarify that in my book.  And that one in the corner there, that’s called Snake Gut.  It’s got no, no special flavor of its own, so whatever you add to it, it absorbs the flavors and it’s very tasty.

BURT WOLF:   What’s it called?


BURT WOLF:   Snake Gut.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And that’s a Ladies’ Fingers, or okra I think that’s...

BURT WOLF:   Uh-huh, right... these are the longest beans I have ever seen.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  Yes.  That’s why we call it Long Beans.

BURT WOLF:   I like that, because you know you have to cut off the ends --


BURT WOLF:   -- on both sides and then you don’t get very much in the middle with the short European bean.  This way, for the amount of cutting I’m gonna get a lot of bean.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  (over)  Yeah.  Yeah.  That’s an eggplant.  It’s very firm, and even after you cook it it does not get pulpy.

BURT WOLF:   That’s a real eggplant, I mean, that looks like an egg.


BURT WOLF:   Now I know where it got its name from.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Suits your shirt.  (Laughs) ... You never find a corner without a Hawker Center, which is part and parcel of Singapore life.  This is the container that’s holding the brewed tea.

BURT WOLF:   Right...

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It’s kept piping hot, okay?  And there’s a little tap there.  Now what happens is the tea flows through that, and he mixes the tea with condensed milk now, and a little portion of evaporated milk.  That’s the secret.  He pours it into two cups; he juggles them (laughing), and --

BURT WOLF:   Fabulous.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And he gets this thick foam that’s right over the glass.

BURT WOLF:   That’s great.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yeah.  And when you drink tea through that, it’s absolutely yummy. 

BURT WOLF:   Can I have a cup?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Yes.  Real good tea.  Cheers.  You like that?

BURT WOLF:   Mmmmmmmm.  Wonderful.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Okay, now I’m gonna take you to the temple.  It’s, it’s one of those small temples that have not come down and been built into a bigger temple, you know?  It’s a place where ladies come, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays, because those are the auspicious days for prayers in a Hindu temple, especially Friday.  So you’ll probably find a little crowd at this temple on a Friday.  And most of the Indian temples have this architecture, that’s called a goperum [?].  And it depicts the various gods that we pray to.  Now, every Hindu has a certain god that he prays to; we pray to everybody, but, you know, there’s one special god that we feel is our, is listening to our prayers. 

BURT WOLF:   Do you make that decision, or is it a result of your birthday, or...?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It could be that, you know, you’ve been brought up in your home, and your parents have been praying to, let’s say Lord Krishna --

BURT WOLF:   Right...

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  -- or you can grow up and you say, “I feel strength in Lord Shiva,” so... I mean, that’s the way I feel about it --

BURT WOLF:   (over)  So it’s your choice.

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  It’s, it’s, it’s our choice, yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Which is your god?

DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Actually, I come a lot to the Shivan temple, and that’s why I brought you here this morning.  And it’s always important when you’re entering a temple to take off your shoes, leave it on the side of the temple door.  And even if you’re going to a Hindu home, because we consider the home to be the temple, always important to take off the shoes.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  We have now entered the Sri Shivan Temple; this is a beautiful temple, and as soon as you enter... as soon as I enter I get this extreme feeling of happiness.  And we have the different sanctums.  These are sanctums, okay?  And you’re not supposed to go too close to these sanctums, so they’ve put a sort of a barrier here.  You stay on this side and the priest will perform your prayers for you.  ... Burt, we are now going to make your offering.  You can take this and your incense sticks, we will give it to the priest, and you will say your prayer. 

BURT WOLF:   I just hand this to him.


BURT WOLF:   Okay.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  All right.  That’s it.  And you can accept that with your right hand.  He says now, pray to the goddess Durgha [?] first, and then we go and do our prayers for the planets, the nine planets.


DHERSHINI WINODAN:  Okay, now here what we will have to do is to go around nine times.  Nine times.  ...  After you’ve visited the temple and you’ve done your prayers, you’re supposed to just stay around for awhile, just feel the holiness and then leave the temple.


Each year Conde Nast Traveler magazine asks its readers what they like and don’t like about their travels.  For six consecutive years the readers have told the editors that Singapore Airlines was the “Best Airline in the World”. Since I spend a lot of my life flying around the world I was quite curious to find out what it was about the airline that put it in first place.  They let me nose around a bit and I came up with some interesting facts.  The company got started in 1947 under the name Malayan Airways.  In the beginning it built its route structure in Southeast Asia.  For a number of years, controlling interest in the line was owned by both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments.  By the 60’s its worldwide business was growing but its real takeoff took place in 1972, when the airline was divided in half.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Part of it went north to become  the Malaysian Airline Systems and part of it stayed south to become Singapore Airlines.  The government of Singapore decided that the airline had to make it on its own without financial support from the government, a tough thing to do in a competitive industry.  So they did some research to find out the ten most important things to an airline traveller.  And they discovered that there was one of them that they could do better than any other airline in the world.  And that was inflight service.  So they mastered the art, and told the world about it in a campaign that became famous as “The Singapore Girl.”

In Singapore, most young men and women are brought up to help their family entertain guests.  And those family traits became the basis of the airline’s training program. Within a few years they really did have the most devoted inflight service in the business.  They also decided that they wanted to have the most modern aircraft possible.  Because Singapore is at the other side of the world for travelers in Europe and the United States, they felt that their equipment had to be the most dependable.  And the newer the aircraft, the fewer the problems you have with maintenance. Of all the major international carriers, Singapore usually has the youngest fleet.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   However, I would like to take a moment to point out that the theory that younger things don’t break down as often as older things may be true for airplanes, but it’s not necessarily true for people.  A good maintenance program for an older person will often give that person a better performance record than the record held by younger people.  You see, people get smarter as they get older and equipment doesn’t.  So there.

During the training of their cabin staff they have classes in, among other things, dress, make-up, service, diction, and water-safety.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Life-saving is important, but so is flavor-saving.  What’s for dinner?

Chef Mahendran is a member of the team that prepare the foods for Singapore Airlines. He specializes in the dishes of his native India and the following is his recipe for Indian Lamb Curry.  A half cup of oil goes into a hot sauté pan.  As soon as the oil is hot, in go two tablespoons of cardamom, cloves, and star anise. Followed by two sticks of cinnamon.  Then two tablespoons of fennel seeds and three bay leaves.  The traditional cooking techniques of India call for the cooking of the spices before the dish begins.  It’s a method that changes the taste of the spices and brings those flavors to the surface by heating the volatile oils in each spice. It does quite a job of enhancing the flavor of the dish.  Next a cup of chopped onion goes in, followed by two tablespoons of minced fresh ginger, two tablespoons of minced garlic and two tablespoons of turmeric.  Some stirring.  Then the addition of two tablespoons of coriander.  Up to now all of the ingredients have been things that are indigenous to this continent.  But the three tablespoons of chili powder and half a cup of pureed tomato that go in next are both foods that came here from South America with European traders during the 1500’s. The last ingredient at this point is chopped lamb, two pounds worth.  All that is mixed together, then simmered for 25 minutes.  When the simmering is over, ten ounces of peas go in and finally a cup of chopped cilantro.  It’s served with slices of onion, tomato, cucumber and a few rice puffs.

One of the attractions of Singapore is the zoo.  The space has been designed without traditional cages.  The animals are separated with hidden moats, or, in the case of those that live in the water, sheets of glass through which you can see.  In some spots they are allowed to interact with the visitors.

UNSUSPECTING TOURIST:  Oh, isn’t he adorable? 

The most famous attraction is the regular breakfast with an orangutan.

ZOOKEEPER:  Okay, why not try to offer some of these tropical fruits to Beetie, and at the same time put your arms around her so she feels much more comfortable with you.

BURT WOLF:   How’re you doin’?

ZOOKEEPER:  Okay.  You want her phone number, sir?

BURT WOLF:   (Laugh)  I’ve noticed that basically your diet has been fresh fruits in the last couple of months; do you feel that that’s been helping you to control your weight, and the complex carbohydrates are better for you?


Will we be sharing later?... Maybe, maybe not -- but if you’re in Singapore during July you can share an extraordinary selection of foods from all over Asia at the annual Singapore Food Festival.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That’s our report from Singapore.  It is as clean and green as the tourist brochures say it is.  The people are friendly, the food is great, and they let me go swimming with the Singapore Girls.  What else can a middle-aged journalist ask for?  Clearly that was a high point in my career.  But I want you to know that I’m not going to rest on my laurels -- no pot shall remain covered in my continuing quest for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.