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FOOD & TRAVEL

Melding Indian spices, she's in a class by herself

Chef Devagi Sanmugam, known as the Spice Queen, presides over a cooking demonstration. Chef Devagi Sanmugam, known as the Spice Queen, presides over a cooking demonstration. (photos by Epicurean World)
By Vijaysree Venkatraman
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2009

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SINGAPORE - The bustling streets of Little India, an ethnic quarter in this city, seem removed from the other orderly neighborhoods. Here, hit Tamil tunes spill out of record stores, which makes passersby want to dance, and sidewalk flower sellers weave ropy garlands of jasmine and orchids. The quarter is also home to many Indian eateries. In the midst of all this activity, the newly opened Spice Queen - with its burnt-orange glass-and-chrome front - stands out.

Chef and owner Devagi Sanmugam is an established figure in the Singapore culinary scene. "I started by giving a cooking class out of my kitchen 27 years ago. Five people showed up, three of them my sisters," she says. Shortly afterward, a rave magazine review (written by a food writer who had attended the class incognito) put Sanmugam on the map. Today, as resident chef of the Asian Food Channel, Sanmugam has a vast audience. "When I ran an upscale spice store, the media labeled me Spice Queen," she says. "That venture folded but I decided to keep the name."

Spice Queen suits her because myriad spices play together in most of her cooking. The menu has standard items from the Indian subcontinent - biryani, naan, and chicken tikka masala - but the specialty here is Singaporean-Indian food. One dish is the fish-head curry in which a whole head of red snapper - with cheeks, eyes, and lips intact - is cooked in a tamarind sauce with okra. "You will not find this dish in restaurants in India; fish heads are typically thrown away as waste," says Sanmugam. Eaten with steamed rice, off broad banana leaves, this poor-man's curry is now sought after by tourists and locals.

Sanmugam, 54, is not a professionally trained chef. But now she runs Epicurean World, a food consulting company, has written 17 cookbooks, and still teaches classes. She learned cooking at home. As the eldest of eight siblings, she was expected to pitch in and help her mother in the kitchen. In the process, she discovered a passion.

In the '60s, Singapore was in the throes of a depression, she recalls. "Our family qualified for food rations from the United Nations: spaghetti, clarified butter, corn, and wheat flour. With these limited ingredients, our creativity reached new heights." Traditionally rice-eaters, mother and daughter rolled out tortillas and made corn bread before they even learned the names of these exotic staples; they also came up with innovative desserts.

Sanmugam is still experimenting in the kitchen, mixing ingredients from different cultures. "But you just can't just throw whatever you feel like into the pot and call it fusion food," she says. A Singaporean with ancestors of Indian origin, she describes herself as "cautiously adventurous" when she borrows ingredients from the other ethnic traditions of the island, namely Malay and Chinese cuisines. Her sauteed cabbage with dried shrimp is a case in point. Dried shrimp is used in Chinese cooking, but Sanmugam adds it for texture and flavor. "That is not like adding soy sauce," she says.

The dessert menu, which includes non-alcoholic drinks, showcases the chef's creativity. It boasts a lesser-known Indian classic, the fragrant falooda, which is vanilla ice cream topped with vermicelli, basil seeds, and rose syrup. She has taken the traditional panchamritam - a mixture of dates, bananas, and honey (it's given out in South Indian temples much like the symbolic wafer of the Catholic Church) - and turned it into a chunky dessert topping.

You'll encounter many new words on the menu. Singaporean cuisine can seem baffling because of the range and diversity of influences. Sanmugam, who understands all these traditions, offers ethnic food crawls and spice-appreciation workshops (50 Singapore dollars, or about $32.50 in US currency).

She no longer has to ask her sisters to pad the class.

Spice Queen Restaurant, 24/26 Race Course Road, Singapore City, Singapore, 65-6255-2440, www.spice-queen.com. For information about cooking classes, go to www.epicureanworld.com.