In the 1960s, a couple of years after Singapore gained independence, there was a large influx of merchants from all over the world, including Indian traders, who brought spices and silk to our shores.
Together with these Indian traders came Mr M. Veerasamy, a humble South Indian cook whose main purpose was to cook authentic Indian cuisine for these merchants.
What started out as simple cooking quickly evolved to sharing home-cooked food with neighbours, which slowly turned into Samy’s Curry, the famed Indian restaurant that’s most well known for its signature fish head curry.
In fact, Mr M. Veerasamy was one of the first few cooks to sell fish head curry in Singapore!
Samy’s Curry first began as a tiny roadside stall at Tank Road in the 1960s, and then progressed to a restaurant located within the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1970s.
After seeing how popular his food was with the public, Mr Veerasamy then decided to relocate to 25 Dempsey Hill, which has been the home of Samy’s Curry for more than 40 years now.
What you see here at Dempsey Hill is a snapshot of the 1970s, because nothing from the building has changed. The restaurant is situated within an old white colonial house, surrounded by lush greenery, tweeting birds and chirping crickets.
The 300-seater restaurant is spacious and homely, filled with lots of natural light from the large teak windows.
Immediately, when I walked into Samy’s Curry, I was hit by an intense warmth. It’s partly because the restaurant kept to its traditional roots and wasn’t air-conditioned. Though it’s also from the steam of the piping hot food that they’ve been cooking and serving non-stop since 11am.
I smelt a myriad of fresh herbs and spices, like star anise, saffron and cinnamon, and walking through the restaurant, I saw almost everybody eating biryani rice on banana leaves with their hands.
There’s not just one, but two walls full of accolades and newspaper clippings celebrating this national icon.
Though it’s been more than 40 years since the restaurant settled down at Dempsey Hill, the famous local Indian name has been around since 1963. That’s a stunning 56 years and counting!
Throughout the years, multiple celebrities (both international and local) and politicians have visited the restaurant.
For example, Singapore’s sixth president, the late S.R. Nathan, dined at the restaurant (you can spot him and his late wife in the top left photo frame), as well as the late Anthony Bourdain, who filmed the place for Netflix’s The Layover.
Samy’s Curry even has a section on its website specially for its awards and accolades — that’s how many it’s achieved!
Samy’s Curry’s current boss is 33-year-old Nagajyothi Mahendran, Mr M. Mahendran’s grand-daughter. She took over the business at a young age of 19, fresh out of junior college and intending to study biotechnology in university.
However, her father, Mr V Mahendran, suffered a heart attack in 2007 and as the oldest child at that time, Nagajyothi had no choice but to take over the business.
Though Nagajyothi grew up running around the halls of 25 Dempsey Hill, she had zero experience in F&B, especially in running a business as a boss.
“I wasn’t meant to be in this business from the beginning,” she admitted. “I was actually a science student and I wanted to do biotechnology. When that happened, I was very confused and scared. I was so young — I was about 19 or 20 years old.”
She had to learn the ropes from scratch and boy, was it hard. From running a family business to customer service, and staff management and ensuring that the restaurant was thriving as it always was, it was a challenge for then 19-year-old Nagajyothi Mahendran.
“It was really like somebody pushed me into a well and I had to learn how to swim all on my own,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. But I slowly learnt all the tricks and trades of the business, for example how to run the restaurant and manage the staff.”
Though the exterior of Samy’s Curry is still intact — complete with pristine white columns, teak ceiling fans and hanging bulbs, Nagajyothi has made some changes to the restaurant.
The first change: installing air-conditioning in a small part of the restaurant. This was a compromise made together with her father, who insisted that the restaurant’s older customers preferred the natural and open setting of the eatery.
However, its dishes and recipes have been preserved as it was when Mr M Veerasamy first created it.
“Samy’s Curry is really a true blue South Indian restaurant. Its recipes are undiluted and original to its taste for the past 40 or 50 years,” said Nagajyothi.
The first and most popular dish is Samy’s Fish Head Curry (S$21/S$28/S$33).
“In true blue South Indian cuisine, there’s no such thing as fish head curry. They actually throw away the fish head and only use the fish’s body for cooking. So the concept of fish head curry is really uniquely Singaporean — it’s our creation,” said Nagajyothi.
Served in a piping hot claypot, the fish head had been cooked with more than a dozen spices, herbs and vegetables, such as turmeric, tamarind, coriander, fennel seeds and a special blend of chilli powder.
Samy’s Curry only uses red snapper for its legendary fish head curry because of how tender its meat is.
I’m not even joking when I say that this was one of the best fish head curries I’ve had, and I’m talking about fish head curries across all different kinds of cultures, restaurants and cuisines.
When I first tasted the curry, an intense charcoal smokiness hit me. Then, a pleasant roasted sweetness took over, and finally a sour spiciness, which made my eyes water.
It was so addictively fragrant and piquant, with a nice balance between its strong sweet, sour and spicy flavours. Although its texture was a little oily, it was light and fantastic for pouring over long grain basmati rice. I confess, I ended up drinking it like soup because it was just so delicious.
The red snapper meat was so tender and soft that as I chewed on it, it seemed to meld into a silky smooth paste. It was that good.
Because the fish head curry had been cooked over a blazing hot fire and then simmered in a claypot, the spices and herbs had enough time to work its way into the fish, resulting in mildly sweet meat that was aromatic and tangy all at the same time.
There’s a reason why you see every single table feasting on Samy’s Curry’s fish head curry — it’s really one of the best in Singapore.
The Butter Chicken (S$9/S$13), a crowd favourite, had been braised with butter and cream, resulting in a thick and smooth gravy with a glorious shiny sheen.
The gravy was mild, sweet and tangy, with a tinge of spice from the added chilli and pepper. It was comforting and soothing — the kind of butter chicken I’d have with garlic naan or crispy papadum.
I loved it that Samy’s Curry’s rendition of this Indian classic featured bite-sized pieces of tender boneless chicken. If this dish wasn’t already absolutely addictive, these tiny chicken pieces just made it easier for me to pop them into my mouth non-stop.
Last but not least, we tried Samy’s Curry’s Sambal Prawn (S$6 onwards).
The tiger prawns were huge and firm, and handpicked by the staff at Samy’s Curry to ensure that each piece was fresh and sweet. It was paired with its homemade sambal sauce, which was smoky and spicy, with a tinge of sourness from tomatoes.
I loved it that I could taste the star anise clearly the minute I ate the sambal prawns. It was heady and fragrant, with a subtle sweet taste, and went hand in hand with the aromatic tanginess from the chilli and tomatoes.
Samy’s Curry’s authenticity boils down to even the way its guests are served — on banana leaves.
“It’s South Indian tradition to serve our guests using banana leaves. If a guest comes to your house, it’s very rude to serve them with plates because it’s the same plate you’ve eaten on all these years, but banana leaves are fresh and new, and you’ll throw it away after every use,” explained Nagajyothi.
“This is the reason why my grandfather adopted this in our restaurant as well, because guests need to be served with honour and respect,” she said.
Despite being thrown into the family business, Nagajyothi shared that she had absolutely zero regrets about how everything had turned out.
“I’m very proud to say that it’s rare to find a restaurant with such an old world charm,” she said. “It’s so difficult to find such a restaurant in Singapore nowadays, and especially restaurants that serve food in such a traditional way. It’s slowly disappearing in the local food scene.”
When asked to share about several memorable moments throughout her 14 years of running the family business, Nagajyothi said: “Being featured on shows and winning awards is one thing, but sometimes I hear heartfelt stories from customers, and that really makes my day.
For example, if their father passed away, they’d say they want us to cater for the funeral because their father loved our food. Or sometimes they migrate overseas and they come back after 13 years and they just can’t believe that after 13 years, the whole place still looks the same.”
Price: $ $
Our Rating: 5 / 5
25 Dempsey Hill, Singapore 249670
25 Dempsey Hill, Singapore 249670