Memoirs of a Migrant Culture In The Heart of Singapore

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, but it was a time when they did not lose hope and grabbed every silver lining.

2020 has been a rough year for everybody but the bar industry has shown a special resilience in the face of adversity, and we at The Dram Attic believe that every little victory must be celebrated and given due credit.

One such story is that of The Elephant Room, Singapore. Yugnes Susela and his team opened their bar in September 2019 and it was only a matter of months before CoVid rolled along and played spoiled sport with the world as we know it. But that didn’t stop Yugnes and his team from keeping at it, and as they proudly turned one last week, they ushered in their second year with a new menu and renewed sense of hope.

Chai at The Elephant Room

The Elephant Room has all the makings of a warm multi cultural experience in the comfort of the bustling Keong Saik Road. Modelled on and inspired by the famous Little India district of Singapore, Elephant Room is India’s love for spices and colour, presented to Singapore in what feels like a warm hug.

An ethnic Indian himself, Yugnes began working in Little India at the age of 16, selling VCDs
at the back of a barbershop. It was then that an impressionable Susela fell in love with the
unapologetic amalgamation of a neighbourhood where migrants across the sub-continent were as
plentiful as stakeholders of family businesses. In his continued effort to sustain dialogue between Elephant Room and the district’s diverse group of residents, Yugnes and the team make weekly visits to Little India, not just in search of spices, but also in search of experiences that tie them together in a close weave. This takes place in various forms – through uncovering stories of the district’s colourful past and incorporating the European trade influences on Little India into their menu.

The Elephant Room seeks to give guests a peek into Little India’s culture through a plethora of narrative touch points – dark vermillion and gold (colours commonly seen in the
district) make up the main colour palette, from the walls to the hue of perforated stone blocks – an
essential part of North Indian architecture known as Jaali, – that the bar rests on to the shiny lamp
posts between tables and the glint of the spice boxes that decorate the tables. Metaphorically speaking, the spice box is the heart of the Indian home. The spice box at the Elephant Room holds quintessential Indian spices, such as cardamom, clove, black pepper, and vetiver,
to provide a sensorial experience to the guest as the team details their role in each flavourful cocktail.

The attention to detail in each element is a commendable effort to keep alive the culture of Little India in the heart of Singapore and pay homage to the influence of migrant peoples on the socio-economic weave of a megapolis like Singapore.

Another key feature at The Elephant Room that thoughtfully incorporates elements of Little
India is the Cultural Wall along the bar, where guests can indulge in bite-size pieces of
information about the ethnic enclave as well its inhabitants. Modern glassware aside, cocktails are
served in traditional vessels as well. For instance, Indian A.F. – a rum-based twist on the clarified
milk punch with yogurt, pistachio and saffron – comes in a brass cup traditionally used in religious
offerings. As a finishing touch, leftover materials that go into male sarongs are fashioned into
coasters while women’s saris make an appearance as menu covers.

Indian AF at The Elephant Room

The new menu is a deep dive into the flavours that dominate Indian households and cultural events. Highlights of the menu update include The Mango, a boozy take on the mango lassi. Mango
distillate is stirred with toasted milk liqueur infused with cardamom and curry leaf, before it is
carbonated and topped with a ginger meringue. A celebration in itself, Banana King utilises the entire banana fruit, Little India’s fruity symbol of prosperity and abundance. Made with roasted banana gin, banana oleo, juice from the stem for acidity, and sandalwood liqueur for that nostalgic aroma, it is topped off with a banana blossom sugar shard and sustainably served on a banana leaf coaster.

Inspired by toddy tycoon Mr. S Rasoo (1895-1961), who supplied to government shops in
Singapore and the Federation of Malaya, King of Toddy aptly consists of arrack (obtained by
distilling toddy, the fermented juice of coconut flowers) and spiced clarified buttermilk. Garnished
with a pickled palm seed and fried Amarnath leaf for texture, patrons can sip on history with Mr.
Rasoo – his obituary was acquired from a microfilm reel from The Singapore Free Press – who
decorates the aforementioned Cultural Wall.
Refined for Menu 2.0 are three signature cocktails of the first menu. The popular Tekka will
continue to whet appetites for a flavoursome biryani – a mainstay of Tekka Food Centre – with its
fat-washed coconut rum, Indian jaggery and lacto-fermented banana and now, a spiced cucumber
garnish.

If this doesn’t work up an appetite and allow you to experience India at a time when travel is impossible, we don’t know what will.

While we are always reserved in our opinion when it comes to concepts that have a tendency to become gimmicky, what Elephant Room is not, is an overt fetishisation of Indian culture – a common trap one tends to fall into with concepts so rooted in ethnic cultures. Instead, it serves as a destination for education about a migrant people and their impact on a city and country through their culinary and trade history. If you live in Singapore, we urge you to go show them some support for the fantastic job they are doing in keeping their head above the water, feet firmly planted on the ground, and spreading the good word about migrant cultures and their rich histories.

Follow The Elephant Room on Instagram

Bottled cocktails and spirits are available at https://www.theelephantroom.sg/shop.

Have something to say? Write in to editor@thedramattic.com

Follow The Dram Attic on Instagram.

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