The Tampines Spice Man


A deep dive into the history of an inconspicuous spice stall at Tampines Round Market and Food Centre that draws snaking queues every weekend. 

Wet markets nestled in heartlands throughout the island are a fabric of Singapore’s culture. The sights, the sounds and the smells, of local markets are a part of the shared Singapore experience. These marketplaces have long existed, with the earliest markets emerging in the pre-colonial and colonial periods in the 1820s.   

Today, the remaining wet markets which have weathered the test of time are cultural treasure troves reflective of Singapore’s melting pot of cultures. Amongst them is the Tampines Round Market and Food Centre – an iconic landmark in the eastern end of the city that has an illustrious history spanning nearly four decades.

Built in 1983, the compound is an integral part of the neighbourhood’s history. Home to multi-generational hawkers and stall owners who hail from diverse backgrounds, the Tampines Round Market and Food Centre is a hodgepodge of stalls – each with their own story to tell.  

A.K. Kalanidi, the spiceman at Tampines Round Market and Food Centre who has been in the business for more than four decades. / Photo: Kames Narayanan

Along the neatly lined rows of poultry shops stands A.K. Kalanidi’s namesake stall Kalanidi Curry Spices that needs no introduction amongst residents in the neighbourhood. On busy mornings, the stall sees snaking queues. On a particular Tuesday morning, stationed behind tin containers of an array of spice marinades, Kalandi scooped spoonfuls of his blends into plastic bags, weighed, secured them with rubber bands, and meticulously labeled them with stickers before handing it over to customers. Occasionally, he broke into smiles and banter in friendly exchanges.     

70-year-old Kalanidi, amongst the first incumbents of the market, moved into the Tampines Round Market and Food Centre at the time of its construction in 1983. However, it was far from his first rodeo. Kalanidi’s foray into the spice business began in 1973 when he took over his late father’s stall located at a now defunct market in Geylang.

“I initially didn’t want to take over the stall. I already had job offers lined up for me but when my father passed, I decided to give the business a shot. It was a decision fuelled by pride,” recalled Kalanidi.

Despite following in the footsteps of his father – a seemingly tried-and-tested formula for selling spices at the time – success did not come easy for Kalanidi. The next decade was riddled with the struggles of poor business, a trying period that forced Kalanidi to break away from the time-worn practices of his father and forge a path of his own. This led to the conception of Kalanidi’s fuss free menu of spice blends concocted for an array of local curries that range from vegetable lemak to chicken curry and even laksa.

Over four decades, Kalanidi has perfected the art of spices to such perfection that he combines the mixtures purely by his intuition. / Photo: Kames Narayanan

He had cracked the formula that appealed to his customers – ready-made blends that afforded people the ease of cooking and the taste of homemade spices. While he had learnt his recipes through old cookbooks, Kalanidi’s exchanges with customers have been pivotal to his success. 

Kalanidi’s curry spices are ready-made for an array of local recipes from curry chicken to asam sambal – each sold by weight.  

“I have very good customers. Their feedback helps me perfect my recipes. In fact, I learnt how to make devil’s curry from an elderly Eurasian lady who was a customer,” he shared.

Kalanidi’s recipes are tailored to his customers’ tastes. / Photo: Kames Narayanan

The patrons of Kalanidi’s Curry Spices are predominantly Chinese. “Right from the very first day, most of my customers have been Chinese. 75% Chinese and about 15% Malays…on some days I hardly see an Indian customer,” he said.

Having reinvented the spice business since taking over the reins, Kalanidi has made traditional spices accessible with pre-made spice mixtures. / Photo: Kames Narayanan

Given the skewed demographic, Kalanidi has over the years mastered the art of catering to the needs of his predominantly Chinese customer base. “The most important thing about business here is also to be able to speak various languages. I speak Hokkien (a dialect commonly used amongst Chinese Singaporeans), Malay, Tamil, and English,” he added.

“When I speak in their language, it helps them feel closer to me,” explained Kalanidi. It is this closeness that continues to motivate Kalanidi to continue his laborious one-man operation.

Kalanidi’s days at the market start at 5:00am when he starts grinding his spice mixtures and preparing the batch of spices for the day. / Photo: Kames Narayanan

His days at the stall start at 5:00am where he grinds his fresh batch of spice blends for the day before the shutters open at 8:30am. His sales go on for two hours before he closes to customers for the day. The remainder of his time is spent packing mass orders for the day and subsequently cleaning up.

Kalanidi goes above and beyond for his customers. To help them identify the spices, Kalanidi meticulously labels his packets with respective stickers that correspond to the mixtures.  / Photo: Kames Narayanan

“Hopefully, I can carry on for five more years. It’s not set in stone but I mostly continue to do it for my customers, some of whom are now from the second and third generations and grew up eating their mother’s or grandmother’s curries bought from my stall,” he shared.

Kalanidi’s story is but one of the many tales one could tell of the Tampines Round Market and Food Centre and the surrounding area. From a community garden that brings residents and non-residents together to the longest established Rojak place in the area, and a serene escape to Tampines eco park, discover more about Tampines in the Under My Block series.

🎥 Check out the full Under My Block series and discover unique experiences in the heartlands around Singapore:

📍 Wondering what else to do in Singapore? Here’s a handy map of all the locations featured in the articles and videos under this series: 

Author Kames Narayanan

Catch up