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A vegetarian haven in Little India

The distinctly South Indian vegetarian cuisine of Komala Vilas is devoid of aggressive spices or seasoning. Yet that simplicity has commanded a following of foodies of all stripes since 1947


FOR most Singapore Hindus, visiting the temple invariably entails abstinence from meat, fish and eggs as well as foods that contain eggs such as cakes and most pastries - a 5,000-year-old tradition of going purely vegetarian.

After prayer at one of the three temples along Serangoon Road, it is with great relish that we make our way to Komala Vilas, Singapore's oldest vegetarian restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1947.

On temple days, Hindus are advised to have a light meal that doesn't "excite the senses''. This means Ayurvedic sattwic food.

Sattwic food is one of three types of foods in Indian cuisine that corresponds to the Ayurvedic and yogic medical systems called doshas (weaknesses of the body). There are rajas (foods that excite passion such as heavy use of garlic and onions as well as hot spices), tamas (foods that invoke darkness of the psyche such as a heavy meat-based diet, which also extends to snake meat, turtle meat, and meat of slaughtered rats, dogs and cats) and of course, the more palatable sattwic diet of fruit, vegetables, pulses, grains, dairy products and even fragrant flowers such as hibiscus and rose petals.

But sattwic food tends to be bland, as the use of overly heaty spices and flavour enhancers are forbidden. So it's no mean feat to serve up a sattwic meal which hordes of Hindus - and non-Hindus - queue up for at the Serangoon Road main outlet of Komala Vilas.

Since its inception, Komala Vilas has spawned three other outlets in Little India, including a store on Serangoon Road that is devoted exclusively to North and South Indian sweetmeats. (Komala Vilas, which is now run by R Gunasekaran, is not to be confused with Komala's, which include one flagship restaurant in Upper Dickson Road and seven branches in both the heartlands and the Central Business District. They are run by Mr Gunasekaran's brother, R T Shekar.)

In fact, the main restaurant at 76-78 Serangoon Road has become such an institution that in November 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat down to a late-night supper there with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, after Mr Modi delivered his 37th Singapore Lecture and also to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties with Singapore. The entire second floor was closed to accommodate the security retinues of both dignitaries.

So what exactly is the draw of sattwic food? For starters, the idli - pillowy discs that are made by steaming a mixture of rice flour and husked black gram flour with a smattering of fenugreek seeds and dosa (made with the same flour but diluted just a tad to make paper-thin, crispy pancakes) which are served piping hot with a fragrant thick stew of potatoes and turmeric - are crowd-pleasers.

The idlis, because they have been steamed and contain no oil, are a hit with everyone from tiny tots to toothless octogenarians who love the slightly sour taste of the fermented black gram flour mixture. Of course, onions and garlic are used in Komala's, but very judiciously and in their most caramelised states. Incidentally, idli has also been declared the world's healthiest breakfast dish for its high protein and low glycaemic index in a study conducted by Kellogg's in 2013 which covered Mumbai, Kolkatta, Delhi and Chennai.

Next comes the more than 12 side dishes that accompany your rice meal which include poriyals (sauteed, dry vegetable dishes which feature mostly diced or finely cut vegetables paired with grated coconut), koothus (rich stews spiced with mild spices such as cardamom, cloves and cinnamon) and sambars (fragrant lentil-based gravies that feature the distinctive taste and aroma of asafoetida, a resin made from the dried sap of the asafoetida tree).

When the food is served piping hot on a lush, freshly prepped banana leaf, the combination of vegetables, grains, pulses and dairy products such as paneer (cottage cheese) and unctuous clarified butter meld together to make every mouthful almost ambrosial. As you chow down, the textures of the poriyals and crackly pappadom washed down with homemade yogurt and fragrant stews collude to induce a near-euphoric state that simply lingers, urging you to take another mouthful, and yet another.

Weekly vegetarianism, which Hindus practise, is now taking the world by storm. Originally meant to discipline the sense of taste, which is considered one of the most powerful as it is situated so near the brain, abstinence from overly seasoned and rich foods has its roots in yogic meditation and the 5,000-year-old system of Ayurveda, which extols the virtues of herbs, fruit and vegetables which should ideally make up the bulk of one's diet.

Today, the Western practice of Meatless Mondays is fast gaining currency in a world of fast food diets, fad diets and diets rich in both red and white meat, which usually entail some degree of cruelty to animals. More people are questioning time-honoured but inhumane practices such as producing foie gras from overfed and bloated fowl and serving up fish while they are still gasping for breath. The proliferation of videos on YouTube on how cattle are slaughtered is also disturbing millennials - who are now embracing plant-based burgers instead of the minced beef patties that used to line supermarket shelves. So realistic have plant-based burgers become that Bill Gates has backed a meatless burger that actually bleeds (beetroot juice that is), made by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods.

I relish my vegetarian days, having visited Komala Vilas since my teens in the early 1970s. It's not exactly easy when you're rushing to meet deadlines and all your tummy really wants is a chicken sandwich, but the last 40-odd years of being a part-time vegetarian has helped me say an emphatic "No'' to cravings, which can get quite out of control when you're dealing with stress at the workplace.

When I'm just about to fall off the wagon, I make a quick trip for lunch or dinner to the Serangoon Road main restaurant and inhale the glorious aroma of fresh batches of vada (vegetarian doughnuts) to be chomped on with fresh green chillies - and I'm back on the right track.