People ordering food at a small Indian food stall.
Travel & Culture

Pani Puri in Singapore’s Little India

“Takeaway or eating here?” asked the man behind the stall.

I opted for the latter, not fully understanding what it would encompass.

My husband and I were in the middle of a self-guided audio tour that would take us through the streets of Little India in Singapore when hunger pangs hit us.

I wasn’t sure why we were so hungry that day. It was still early in the evening before dusk had set in. Perhaps we had grossly overestimated our ability to walk on an empty stomach.

Our route had just taken us past a takeaway food stall in an alley I had never noticed before. Two cloth-wrapped urns sat atop a counter next to a chiller of neatly-displayed sweets and puri (bite-sized deep-fried hollow dough balls). I would have probably missed the stall if I weren’t so famished.

There was no harm grabbing a bit of food before we continued the tour—mango milkshake and vada pav (spiced potato sliders) sounded like just the energy boost we needed. We paused the audio on our MP3 players. 

This was my first time seeing vada pav sold in Singapore in the streets. I had read about vada pav not too long ago and had regretted not trying them when I was last in India. My interest was piqued.

Singaporeans of Indian or South Asian ancestry make up eight percent of the country’s population, the majority of whom are descendants of Tamil migrants from India and Sri Lanka. While there are many Indian restaurants in Singapore, sometimes I wish we have more of a vibrant Indian street food scene here. 

Unfortunately, Singapore had clamped down on itinerant hawkers in the past decades. Today hawkers are licensed and have been allocated stalls in open-air hawker centres, putting an end to the organic growth of street food culture.

“I popped it into my mouth and was blown by the complex concoction of flavors and textures—spicy, sweet, savory, sour, crunchy and refreshing all at the same time.”

In contrast, my fondest memories in India include tearing apart juicy crispy-skinned tandoori chicken with my hands in a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery in Nilgiri Hills as well as scarfing down peppery, spicy schezwan noodles, a popular Indian-Chinese street food, from a food cart at a railway station in Bengaluru.

Never mind that I probably resembled a caricature—an ethnic-Chinese person eating Chinese-style fried noodles in India, they were so delicious I had a second helping before we boarded our train. 

I have been to India twice. Each time I’m there, I quietly rein in my usually adventurous street eating ways. You can still find me in small eateries but I’m more cautious when it comes to food prepared in the street. I stick to two rules—no pre-cut fruit and no ice cubes—which have served me well so far.

Back home, in that alley in Little India, I must have ordered pani puri by accident when the vendor misheard my order for vada pav. Pani puri wasn’t even listed on the menu.

In any case, he gave me a small plastic bowl, then slipped a disposable glove on his right hand. In double quick time, he pressed open a hole in the puri using his thumb, filling it with a curried stuffing made of white peas and mashed potatoes.

As a final step, he dipped the stuffed puri into flavored waters in the two urns—spicy green teekha pani and meetha pani which was brown, sweet and sour—before handing it to me.

I popped it into my mouth and was blown by the complex concoction of flavors and textures—spicy, sweet, savory, sour, crunchy and refreshing all at the same time. It was almost impossible to stop at one.

As I stood there, the vendor prepared another pani puri and placed it in my bowl. He patiently waited for me to finish each pani puri before making a new one. This went on for about six times before he went on to serve his next customer.

I felt slightly awkward to hold up his time by not eating faster yet I also loved the experience. This was a strangely luxurious way to enjoy street food, made to order and served at my pace.

Last week, I was back in Little India once more, this time with my four-year-old. Deepavali decorations were already up although Little India is noticeably emptier these days without the familiar throngs of migrant workers.

I had to show her my new favorite hidden spot, what’s probably one of the last vestiges of street food culture in Singapore. She had a big bite of a pani puri, decided it was too spicy for her and did not want more.

When I finished eating my pani puri, the vendor scooped some teekha pani and meetha pani into my bowl to drink. I’ve never had anything like it before, a refreshing chilled thin broth that was not quite soup and not exactly a drink either. I loved it.

I asked if I should pay for the pani puri first.

“It’s ok. Pay everything later.” 

One day, when the pandemic is behind us, hopefully I would get to show my child a bit of India while enjoying pani puri together in the streets of Mumbai even if that meant living life on the edge and risking traveler’s diarrhea.

As I sipped my small cup of hot masala chai (masala tea), my child and I shared a couple of crispy chewy jalebi, deep-fried spiral-shaped desserts coated in sugar syrup, before heading off.

For now, annoyingly, she picks jalebi over pani puri, asking for more.