I have always thought that Little India starts to lose a bit of its shabby charm as soon as you venture north of Mustafa. Faceless condominiums dilute the character of the area, Chinese karaoke bars become more frequent, and the roads become a bit busier, a bit more vehicular than pedestrian. Shining then, like a diamond in the sand, is MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) 1924. Its been around for a good 60 years longer than I have, and time and time again provides enough justification to roam into the blandlands of the north. I have been thrice, and every time I sit at the same table, eat the same food, and leave with the same sense of stomach-swelling satisfaction.
Originating in – guess? – 1924, MTR specialises in South Indian vegetarian food. Over the past nine decades it has expanded its reach beyond Bangalore (its birthplace), into Singapore and Dubai as well. It has been around for so long that it doesn’t sound ridiculous when it claims to have invented the rava idli as a response to the rice shortage during World War II (semolina is used instead). Now if that isn’t a feather in the cap, i’m not quite sure what is.
This was my first time trying the vegetable pulav (SGD 5.00) – so much for “eat[ing] the same food”! – and probably my last as well. The taste was actually quite thrilling, thanks to the heavy-handedness of the chef when adding the mustard seeds and cardamon, but the ingredients appeared to have been little more than stale leftovers. Wizened carrots and runner beans were intermixed with overcooked pulav rice (the kind that clumps together a little too easily). The flavours overpowered (the raita was essential), whilst the ingredients underwhelmed.
Back into safe territory with the rava masala dosa (SGD 5.50), thank goodness. This thing is immense – not in size, but in character. The first thing that hits you are the wonderfully enticing wafts of ghee drifting upwards from the delicate, honeycomb-like outer shell. If that smell doesn’t get the pulse racing, I’m not sure what else can. Being made with a semolina rather than sourdough gives this thing a lighter taste and more crispy texture that goes perfectly with the chutneys. It comes stuffed with luminescent spiced potatoes and is, in every sense, a joy to eat.
The chapathi set (SGD 4.00) is another no-brainer of an order; one that never fails to please. The chapathi’s themselves are made with an experienced hand – thick and chewy and wheat-sweet, these things would be good enough by themselves. But no, they come paired with the most complementary wingman of a curry. It’s smooth and creamy (almost Northern in taste), but not stultifyingly so, as the spices provide a spark that invigorates the vegetable base. And if that wasn’t enough, much-needed refills are freely available.
Another off-piste selection here, and not one I will be ordering again any time soon. I had no idea what chandrahara (SGD 4.00) was before ordering, and have not much interest in trying it again. The menu promised “a fried Indian sweet made from flour & served with a syrup of evaporated milk, sugar & spices”. Sounds promising, right? A bit like sponge and custard, or an Indian variant thereof, no? Actually it tasted a lot like how it looked – a bit bland, a bit greasy. The “fried Indian sweet” part was floury and tasteless, whilst the “syrup” was a cross between the taste of soil and that of cloves. This could be my ignorance speaking, but it tasted borderline rancid. Definitely the wrong end to the right meal!