New eateries boasting minimalist designs and exotic flavours may be popping up every other day but Indian restaurants with at least 35 years of history are standing their ground by keeping their flavours traditional.
The newest old-school entrant to the scene is popular South Indian restaurant chain Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, more commonly known as MTR 1924, which opened its first overseas branch two weeks ago in Serangoon Road. First set up in 1924 by two brothers in Bangalore, India, the chain now has seven outlets there and was brought in by Bangalore-born Singaporean Audrey Cunliffe, who has been familiar with the brand since her childhood days.
She says: "It was my dream to bring quality South Indian food here. Many tourists who come here are familiar with the brand. Singaporeans also eat well and appreciate good quality Indian cuisine."
The team of cooks include three chefs from Bangalore who are based here. Ms Cunliffe also plans to open three more outlets at Changi Business Park,
VivoCity and in the Alexandra area. The restaurant's roots in Bangalore are prominently displayed in the outlet, something that strikes a chord with diners, she says.
It is the same for other Indian food institutions in Singapore - their history and traditional recipes play a key role in their identity.
SundayLife! found no fewer than eight restaurants which are steeped in at least 35 years of history, such as Islamic Restaurant, Muthu's Curry and Komala Vilas.
Mrs Veshali Visvanaath, 35, director of marketing for Muthu's Curry, is concerned about becoming "too modern". For its revamped outlet at Suntec City, the Indian restaurant is going back to basics with handmade tiles and special pillars. She says: "We want to bring back the old charm and rich culture from India. We want people to remember what the older times were like. We have realised that over time, diners don't like the new ambience because they are very nostalgic and emotional when it comes to food."
Once the Suntec City outlet takes off, Muthu's is likely to replicate the old-school look at their other two restaurants - at Dempsey and Race Course Road.
Sticking to the tradition of serving food on banana leaves has worked for Samy's Curry at Dempsey Road.
On innovating the menu, the restaurant's director, Ms Nagajyothi Mahendran, 29, says: "Diners do not request new dishes as they love our signature dishes. However, they are also keen to try new dishes and we have constantly expanded our menu over the years."
For Mr Kalil A. Wahab, 52, chief executive officer of Islamic Restaurant and third-generation owner who took over 20 years ago, retaining the nostalgia is important for the dining experience. He says: "The history of our outlet gives people something to talk about. A lot of young diners come in, and we want them to understand our heritage too."
Already, plans are in place for his 32-year-old son to take over the business one day, for the restaurant to last "another 500 years", says Mr Kalil with a laugh.
Fine-dining restaurant Rang Mahal at Pan Pacific Singapore, which recently re-opened after an extensive overhaul, showcases its Indian heritage with antique bronze artefacts flanking the walls. But in the kitchen, the chefs now cook with olive oil instead of ghee and the menu features food with ingredients such as quinoa, a grain from South America.
Still, the restaurant's operations manager Kaustubh Mahajan, better known to diners as Monty, 36, says: "We may be pushing the boundaries to give the market something new but our chefs have gone through extensive cooking and presentation trials to ensure that authentic flavours are not compromised."
While it has a long heritage in India like MTR 1924, two-year-old restaurant Punjab Grill at Marina Bay Sands also ensures that the various styles of cooking stay traditional. The methods are using the tandoor oven, sighri (an open fire grill used for kebabs), tawa (flat iron platform for kebabs), and kadhai (a deep cast iron wok-like pot).
Its director Chiranjeev Singh , 41, says: "It is important to find and adhere to the fine line that exists between constantly reinventing and developing and sticking to some traditional constants that define your cuisine."
Financial consultant Rini Rajan, 29, says: "I go to Muthu's Curry and Samy's Curry every few months for a nice family meal. You know that the food is consistently good and the flavours don't change. It gives a sense of comfort, especially to my parents."
Retired engineer John Jacob, 63, says: "Diners place more trust in a restaurant that has been around for 50 years, as opposed to five. They may be nothing fancy, but I'd prefer recommending them to my friends from overseas. Chances are when they come back to Singapore, these restaurants will still be around."
OPTIONS WITH TRADITION
What: More popularly known as MTR, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms was set up in Bangalore by two brothers. The chain, which now has seven branches in Bangalore, opened their first overseas branch here two weeks ago.
Menu items here are the same as those in the Indian city. Highlights include rice idli ($1.50), which is steamed rice cakes with bits of ginger, served with coconut chutney and lentil sambar, and bisibele bhath ($5), a rice dish made with lentils, assorted vegetables and tamarind pulp. For the best value, order the MTR Set Meal ($7.50) which includes curd rice, pickles and a variety of dhal.
The company, which has a line of condiments and sauces, will also sell its products at the restaurant from next month.
Where: 438 Serangoon Road, open: 8am to 3pm, 5 to 10pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays
Info: Call 6296-5800
What: Formerly from the now-defunct Oberoi Imperial Hotel, this fine-dining Indian restaurant moved to the Pan Pacific Singapore in 2001. In line with the hotel's renovation programme, the eatery also went through a face-lift with a high ceiling and a brighter interior flanked with antique Indian bronze artefacts. The food is lighter as olive oil has replaced ghee. New dishes include spiced gobi and truffle soup ($18), and smoked salmon ($44), which is salmon steaks spiked with bishop's weed and cooked in a clay oven. They also have naan - truffle oil ($12) or Roquefort Kulcha ($16) filled with French blue cheese, onions and chilli.
Where: Pan Pacific Singapore, Level 3, open: noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily
Info: Call 6333-1788 or go to www.rangmahal.com.sg
ANANDA BHAVAN VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
What: This vegetarian restaurant chain's first outlet was in Selegie Road, and it has since opened five more over the years. Highlights include kebabs (from $6.35), thosai (from $3.60) and tandoori sets (from $7.35). There are also other set meals such as South Indian set meal ($9.15), which includes mini chappathi, vadai and vegetables, and North Indian thali ($9.60), with basmati rice and masala papad. It also has a comprehensive menu for home deliveries and catering, which includes breakfast and high tea.
Where: Six outlets including at 221 Selegie Road; 95 Syed Alwi Road and Changi Business Park, open: various opening hours
What: First located in a small coffee shop along Klang Road, the South Indian restaurant has grown under the second- generation owners. The third outlet at Suntec City is being renovated and is slated to re-open in August. They are also looking to start a home delivery service soon. Popular dishes include masala prawns ($7 a piece) which use tiger prawns, fish head curry ($20 to $30) and lamb chops ($10).
Where: Two outlets at 138 Race Course Road and 7 Dempsey Road, open: 10.30am to 10.30pm (Race Course Road), 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (Dempsey Road)
Info: Call 6392-1722 (Race Course Road) or 6474-5128 (Dempsey Road). Go to www.muthuscurry.com
What: Since it opened in Tank Road in the 1950s, Samy's has stuck to the tradition of serving food on banana leaves. The eatery has moved over the years too, to Pearl's Hill, and then Dempsey Road in 1975. Signature items include masala chicken ($4.70) and fish head curry ($18). A new menu is in the works.
Where: 25 Dempsey Road, open: 11am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm, Wednesdays to Mondays, closed on Tuesdays
Info: Call 6472-2080 or go to www.samyscurry.com
What: Considered the "grand-daddy" of briyani, this Indian Muslim institution has hosted generations of families, as well as served royalty from Brunei and Malaysia. Tuck into set meals ($11 each) such as the Beryani Set, with a choice of chicken, mutton or fish briyani, served with dalcha, achar, vegetables and pappadam, or the Tandoori Set, with pilau rice, naan, tandoori chicken, dhal and chutney. The company has also expanded into other cuisines. It owns Sanur Bundo Nasi Padang at Asia Square and halal Mediterranean eatery La Paella at 735 North Bridge Road.
Where: 745 North Bridge Road, open: 10am to 9.30pm daily
Info: Call 6298-7563 or go to islamicresto.sg. For home delivery, call 6296-1161
What: This popular chain serves South Indian and North Indian vegetarian meals such as vegetable briyani ($8) with saffron rice and vegetable curry. Others include paper thosai ($3) and idli set ($2.40) with two steamed rice cakes, sambar and chutney. Komala Vilas is not to be confused with fast food chain Komala's Restaurant, which opened in 1995 and has more than 10 outlets across Singapore.
Where: Four outlets at 76-78 Serangoon Road, 12-14 Buffalo Road, 24-26 Race Course Road and 82 Serangoon Road (Sweets & Savories outlet), open: various opening hours
THE BANANA LEAF APOLO
What: Originally from Cuff Road, it moved to its current location in Race Course Road in 1984 and opened a second outlet in Serangoon seven years ago. Menu highlights include red snapper fish head curry ($22 to $30), and nasi briyani with chicken ($11) or mutton ($12).
Where: Two outlets at 54 Race Course Road and 48 Serangoon Road, 01-32, open: 10.30am to 10.30pm daily at both outlets
Info: Call 6293-8682 (Race Course Road) or 6297-1595 (Serangoon Road). Call 9225-3535 for catering
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 9, 2013
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