Since the only reason I travel is to try out new cuisines, I never go to Indian restaurants when I’m abroad. On a recent trip to Singapore I broke the rule; despite the Singapore Tourism Board putting together a very engaging itinerary. I opted out of breakfast at a Chinese neighbourhood for lunch at an Indian restaurant: The Song of India.
The reason was simple: in 2016 when the first Michelin guide for Singapore came out, The Song of India (SOI) was the only Indian restaurant to receive a star. This makes it the only Indian restaurant in South East Asia with a Michelin star. Naturally, I was very curious. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and I’ve eaten food cooked by Indian chefs who own Michelin-starred restaurants, but I’ve never eaten at an Indian Michelin starred restaurant.
Indian food is not new to Singapore, considering Indians have been living there for over a century and make up around 7.5% of the population. There is no dearth of Indian restaurants in the city-state. So what was this eleven year-old restaurant doing to be awarded a star?
That’s the question I put to Chef Mural Manjunath, the chef behind Song of India’s success. Manju, as he is popularly known, had a simple answer: most Singaporean Indian restaurants offer generic North Indian, Punjabi-Mughlai or tiffin-style South Indian.
At SOI, they offer a pan-Indian menu that draws on different regional cuisines. The kebab platter I was served had a kothimbir wadi, chicken basil kebab, fried fish with a prawn bharta topping and a sarson cod tikka. But don’t expect strong, punchy flavours. “I have customised the taste for my local clientele, not too much spice. Compared to the Chinese, Indians like more salt, which raised a lot of complaints from the customers. So though I, and my team, found the salt levels perfect we started putting 25% less salt in the food,” says Manju. (Interestingly, the previous day when I mentioned to my local Chinese guide that I’d be eating there her only complaint was that she found the food to salty.) Singaporeans use much less salt in their food my friend Jenny Tan explained, partly because of an aggressive campaign by the Singaporean government advising citizens to do so.
While Manju describes his cooking style as Asian-Indian gastronomy and draws on concepts and techniques from South East Asia, when it comes to flavouring, he follows the Lucknowi tradition. All the curries and soups are strained before serving, which means you get the flavour from the spices, but never ever bite into the spices themselves. This also ensures the gravies have the same velvety-smooth consistency that you would expect from a sauce made using French culinary techniques.
As with most modern Indian restaurants, the dishes are individually plated. No pots are brought to the table. The crockery too is very modern. The thali is served in a platter that resembles an artist’s palette. He’s probably one of the few, if not the only, chefs to pair his food not just with wines but Japanese beers.
Before joining SOI , Mumbai-boy Manju worked with hotels across the city and with chefs like Ananda Solomon, Sanjeev Kapoor and Milind Sovani. While at the Renaissance he worked under executive sous chef Reynold Fernandes, a classmate from my hotel management days. “Today I can handle a banquet of any size thanks to Reynold. He told me, ‘Your job is not to cook, but to ensure the quality of the food and that everything is served on time. When you’re working with a vendor for a finished dish and your function starts at 8 pm, tell them you want delivery at 2 pm. So even when it comes at 6 pm, your event is not delayed’.”
What I found refreshing about SOI was that Manju has stayed away from the theatrics of modernist cuisine preferring instead take a new direction by marrying Indian with Asian. It’s an approach other Indian chefs should consider adopting.
THE SONG OF INDIA
33 Scotts Road
Tel: 65 6836 0055