India is often described as a sensory overload, with just so much to see, smell, hear, taste and feel – most of it foreign to non-Indians. The same can be said of Little India in Singapore. And Tekka Centre, where the Little India district starts off on Serangoon Road, is where everything about Little India comes together in one place.
“Tek ka” means “foot of bamboo” in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, in reference to the bamboo groves growing in the area many moons ago. The area has long been known by this Hokkien name.
When the centre was built in 1981/82, it was christened using the Mandarin version of “Tek ka”, which in Chinese-English phonetics (“pinyin”) is “Zhu jiao”. The government at the time was trying to discourage use of the many Chinese dialects in Singapore in favour of Mandarin, also known as Standard Chinese, the intent being to unify the diverse Chinese dialect groups in the country.
The name “Zhujiao Centre” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue however and many people struggled with the complex consonant. In 2000 the authorities relented and changed the centre’s name to “Tekka Centre”, much to the relief of the older Chinese folks who had always called it that anyway.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that the name change might be due to people misinterpreting what “Zhu Jiao” means. Without the benefit of Chinese intonation, “Zhu Jiao” in English sounds the same as the words for “pig’s feet”, and I have heard people mistakenly translate it to Chinese as such even. No wonder the unfortunate name got changed.
The nondescript looking building houses a wet market and food centre on the 1st floor, and on the 2nd floor a whole array of Indian clothing shops as well as tailors, shoe and accessory shops, plus a mish mash of other shops such as haberdasheries (shops that sell all kinds of sewing paraphernalia), antique shops, home wares, toys and what have you. Lining the outside of the centre on the ground level are some goldsmith and jewellery shops (South Asians are big on gold), Indian grocers and other shops.
Take note of the opening times of each area. Also, try to avoid visiting on Saturday evenings, Sunday of public holidays – see notes below.
Singapore’s largest wet market, Tekka market offers an amazing variety of fresh and dry produce. There are 284 stalls in all, organised according to their wares. You’ll find the freshest produce here and often at lower prices or at least at better value than in the supermarkets. You can buy hard to find produce such as fresh grated coconut, banana leaves, betel nut leaves and the buah keluak nut, as well as more exotic seafood such as whole baby shark. “Chia’s Vegetables” is well known for selling “western” produce.
Many restaurant chefs shop here too. I managed to get all that I needed for my dinner of salmon with pesto and an arugula and avocado salad. The pine nuts weren’t cheap (S$5 for 100g) but still cost a less than at a supermarket. The best part is that the market is open till late afternoon, unlike most wet markets in Singapore which wind down by about noon time.
As a word of caution, the wet market tends to be, well wet and sloshy. Also, the smells from the butchers (lots of mutton here) and fishmongers can be overwhelming (vegetarians: Stay far away from the meats section!). A consolation is that all meats in Singapore are required by law to be stored in refrigerated cases, unlike in many wet markets in Asia.
There are 119 food stalls, and as with most food centres the stalls are grouped according to ethnicity of cuisine. So you have your Indian and Muslim food on one side, and the Chinese and Western fare on the other. This being Tekka Centre in Little India though, the selection of Indian food stalls here is much larger than you would find in other food centres.
I am not a food blogger nor am I a gourmand, although like every Singaporean I am serious about my food and I do know what’s good and what’s not (in my view at least). When in doubt about what stalls to patronise in any food centre just look for those with people queuing, or else look for any photos or certificates proudly hung up declaring any celebrity endorsements or food awards the stall has won.
A couple of stalls have photos with the ex-President of Singapore S.R. Nathan. Looks like he really liked his Nasi Briyani (Indian rice dish with meat and spices).
Be aware that Tekka food centre is not the cleanest in Singapore though. At the peak lunch hour it is also crowded, hot and humid, and food remains on the tables may not be cleared by the cleaners in time. Most stalls use styrofoam containers and plastic cutlery, which also detract from the dining experience, but hey. This all sounds very off-putting I’m sure, however hawker food dining in Singapore is a very raw experience. If you can stomach it, the whole earthy experience, you will be rewarded with delicious food, for cheap.
Even if you aren’t shopping for a sari, a Punjabi suit, kurta or any other type of Indian style garment, it’s still fun to wander the cramped aisles chock-a-block with clothes bursting with every colour. There are some very inexpensive items here, and you are adventurous you might try teaming Indian tops or bottoms with regular wear. If the clothes don’t fit you well and you need a little quickie alteration, there are plenty of shops with tailors who can take in a waistline or shorten a hem in a jiffy.
665 Buffalo Rd (junction of Bukit Timah Road/Sungei Road and Serangoon Road)
The “Little India” MRT (mass transit) station is right on the doorstep of Tekka Centre.
- Wet Market (1st floor): Stalls open from about 7am or later depending on the stall owners
- Food Centre (1st floor): Stalls open from morning to evening, however each stall has different opening hours. Most focus on the busy lunch time crowd.
- Shopping Centre (2nd floor): Shops open around 10.30am and shut early evening.
HOW MUCH TIME
It’s fun to walk the many aisles and poke around the mind-boggling array of stuff, especially if it’s your first time. If not you can of course just dive straight into your grocery list, or perhaps just grab a quick bite.
1. The area was a major cattle trading centre more than a century ago, and was home to many cattle pens and accompanying slaughterhouses. Buffalo Road is the name of the side street at the back of Tekka Centre, and the Malay name for the area is “Kandang Kerbau”, which means “buffalo pens”. The Asian water buffalo is more akin to regular cows, unlike American buffaloes which are actually bison.
- Avoid visiting on a Saturday evening or any time on Sunday or a public holiday. This is when Little India gets reeaallly crowded. Many guest foreign workers from South Asia have their day off on Sunday and their favourite place to hang out is Little India naturally, Tekka Centre included. The boys can get a little rowdy on Saturday nights when they chill with their mates after a hard week’s work over a few beers.
- If you are squeamish about toilets then I suggest you give the one in the food centre a miss. If you need to go, use the one in the MRT station a few metres away instead.