Singapore at Jhamsikhel...

Features Issue 16 Aug, 2010

Singapore is a long way from here but that does not mean that residents of Kathmandu are denied the pleasures of a typical Singaporean dining experience - at least not since August 2001, when Singma, the Singaporean food court, opened.Located near Saint Mary’s school in Jhamsikhel, the establishment is plainly furnished, and the exteriors do nothing to suggest a place that is in any way up market. In fact, on entering Singma, the place looks a bit bare, but then it’s the food that brings people here, not the ambience. The layout of the establishment is one of an open kitchen and a dining area, making for a ‘classless dining environment where everyone is equal while eating’ - according to Erick Tan, one of the partners at Singma.

Styled along the lines of food courts commonly found in Singapore, Singma differs in the fact that here, the customers are served at their tables after placing their orders and paying for their food at the counter. In traditional food courts, it’s a self-service operation that works out quite well for diners in a hurry. In fact, the whole idea of a food court is to provide a quick and efficient dining service - unlike the traditional restaurant experience where one enters, sits down, is shown the menu, orders the food, waits to be served etc etc. Singma was also originally conceived on the lines of a food court, but the proprietors felt that the local clientele preferred to be served at their table and so they introduced table service.  The operation of this food court is thus a fusion of Singaporean catering efficiency, fused with local requirements and tastes.
Fourteen staff, all trained by the partners themselves, work together here, with the bulk being involved in the cooking process itself. A single order can have a majority of the kitchen staff working to produce the food, and this means that service is quick.

It can be said that in terms of the variety of food available per square kilometer of a nation, Singapore probably beats any other place on earth. This variety is attributed to the fact that its citizens consist mainly of a migrant population made up of Indians, Chinese, Malay and a host of other Asian nationalities. The food culture there is thus primarily Asian, and combines elements of different Asian styles and ingredients in a unique blend that can be called Singaporean cuisine.

Although the menu at Singma is nowhere near as vast as one would find on the streets of Singapore or in its food courts, this fact can be understood, as most of the ingredients that make up the variety there are not easily available here. And even if they were, they would probably cost a lot more than what Singma management considers ideal. What this place does do however is satisfy the cravings of those that miss the gastronomic delights of Singapore streets, and introduces those that have not had this experience to the delights of dining on such food.

A large section of the regular clientele at this place consists of Nepali, ex-Singapore police personnel, and their children who are used to such food, and are delighted to be able to have an opportunity to eat it without having to travel too far south. The name Singma itself suggests ‘Singaporé Mama’, a term used colloquially to describe Nepalis who served in the police force there. However, Jason, one of the partners at Singma, says that this wasjust a happy coincidence, and that Singma means ‘New horse’ in Chinese, and the name was chosen as this was a new venture in Nepal and the name went with it. A sizeable section of the regular clientele meanwhile are also local expatriates that live in the Jawlakhel area, and all in all, the place has garnered a regular following since its inception.

Besides Erick, a former engineer working with Apple at Singapore, there  are three other partners that own and run Singma. There is Jason, an ex-air force avionics engineer, Guan Chen with a construction background and Christine, a Malaysian with a background in cooking. Though not exactly catering school material, they have managed to run a fairly successful establishment and Eric attributes this to a systematic approach to the business, and the inherent skills that all the partners bring to it. Christine is the only one with a cooking background and in a sense; she is the person behind the food that is served here.

The food on the menu here is divided into six sections with one dedicated to the famous chicken rice and its varieties, one to the fried stuff, another to Malaysian food items, a noodle section, a snack section and a drink section. No alcohol is served and the drinks are mainly soya, lassi and carbonated ones. Each of menu sections feature names that are typically Singaporean. For instance, the drinks section is called Koppitam – ‘kopi’ being Malaysian for coffee and ‘tam’ being Chinese for shop. Koppitam is also what coffee shops are referred to as by most Singaporeans. Similarly, ‘Shiok’ is a Malaysian slang that would mean ‘ very satisfying’, thus the Shiok Snacks sections would mean very satisfying snacks. And they can be for those that have a taste for Chicken Satay, fried wantons and Goring Pisang, or fried banana fritters. The owners also claim that the french fries that they sell are as good as any McDonald fries, if not better!

Besides the snacks, there are a host of items to make a meal out of with a total of around 45 items on the menu. The flavors are a blend of Indian spices and curries, Chinese ingredients and techniques, with Malaysian and other Asian influences. The end results are items like Malaysian style roti, with an Indian style chicken in cocoanut gravy - a typical item on the menu. What Singma lacks in variety, it makes up for in the range and mix of culinary styles represented in the fare served there.

Erick, speaking on behalf of his partners, says that they are quite happy with the way things are running and although its not exactly a booming business, he feels that the pace is pretty much what they are comfortable with, and does not have big expansion plans. They had thought of a bigger place initially, and had considered Bhat-Bhateni as a possible venue, but in the end, Jhamsikhel panned out best for their budget and so Jhamsikhel it was.

Words like fusion, quick, hygienic, economical and Singaporean best describe the dining experience here. As food courts are a new concept in Nepal, the partners hope that this new culture in dining will catch on more here.

Meanwhile, for those looking for a light meal, the first food court in Nepal is a good place to go to. Those with larger appetites will however often have to order about two items to be able to walk away contented! It is nevertheless an interesting dining experience as far as the type of food here is concerned, and in the end, makes for a refreshing change in taste.