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Friday, August 22, 2008

Man behind 1st Ceylonese eatery dies at 101

HIS regulars called him 'Kanthar', and the foodie's Outram Road eatery 'Kanthar's shop'.
Opened in 1948, it was the very first restaurant here that specialised in serving up the migrant Ceylonese community's favourites like adueraghi - or mutton curry - the restaurant's signature dish.

When the man behind the recipe, Mr Sabapathy Kandiah, 101, died of pneumonia complications earlier this month, he took the coveted secret recipe to the grave.

Remembering their father at a prayer ceremony over the weekend, his youngest son, Mr S.K. Singam, a 54-year-old ship captain, said his father had a fiercely guarded 'secret ingredient' to the adueraghi, giving it a 'special flavour'.

Despite having two cooks and three helpers, Mr Kandiah, who had spent three years as a cook at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), was very hands on with many things to do with his restaurant.

'He would get up at 5am every day and go to the nearby Maxwell Market to select and buy the produce,' his son said, adding that his father would also cook and serve customers until 10pm.

It provided the Ceylonese community here a welcome taste of home.

Among its former regulars was the current treasurer of the Singapore Ceylon Tamils Association K. Ramanathan, 70, who, as a 19-year-old, began stopping by regularly. 'A lot of Ceylonese used to go there because it reminded them of home. There were a lot of South Indian restaurants around at the time, but there's nothing like having Ceylonese food,' he said.

But the sweet scent of Mr Kandiah's curries would often waft out of the tiny Outram Road shophouse, and draw not just members of the community, but also scores of workers from the nearby SGH and the police headquarters.

Besides 'Kanthar's shop', its regulars had a variety of other monikers for No. 6 Outram Road, but the outlet's real name was Ambiga Restaurant, named after his third child - and first daughter - who was born that year.

Takings from the eatery helped Mr Kandiah and his wife raise their eight children.

Home was in the shophouse directly above the restaurant, and every meal was lovingly prepared by Dad, of course.

But even as he did well here, Mr Kandiah, who moved here in the 1930s, never forgot his village of Kavarittey in Jaffna, Ceylon, where many of his relatives lived, and made regular visits back.

In 1952, when Mr Kandiah struck it big in the Big Sweep lottery, part of his $600,000 winnings went towards building a Hindu temple in the village because there was no proper place to worship then, the devout Hindu told his children. The temple was finally finished in 1956.

'He never forgot his roots,' said Mr K.K. Singam, 67, another of his sons.

Then, in 1968, 20 years after it opened, Ambiga restaurant was forced to shut as the site it was on was being re-developed.

Mr Kandiah, then 61, decided to retire to devote more time to his wife. In any case, none of his children were interested in taking over the business.

The family moved to a flat in Kampong Bahru, where Mr Kandiah spent his later years with his wife. After her death in 1994 at the age of 75, he devoted his time to taking long walks and spending time with his 13 grandchildren.

Mr Kandiah eventually developed age-related illnesses, and was moved to the Swami Home for old folks in Sembawang, for round-the-clock care.

He never let age get the better of him, though. Mr Juna Segran, 50, a family friend and regular volunteer at the Swami Home, said Mr Kandiah refused to be wheeled around, and insisted on freedom to move with his walker.

Buoyed by several brushes with Lady Luck, he also remained a fan of betting.

After visits from his children, Mr Kandiah would thrust cash into the hands of volunteers like Mr Segran, who helped him place bets at the nearby betting outlets.

His other love - horses. In fact, when he first moved here, Mr Kandiah could not read English, but taught it to himself by reading the newspapers' racing pages. 'The first thing he learnt to read were all the horses' names,' said Mr K.K. Singam.

But even more than betting, the one thing that remained sanctimonious to Mr Kandiah all his life was his food.

Ms Kunes Dilip Rai, 56, the youngest of his three daughters, said that even in her foodie father's final days, visitors were not appreciated during meal times.

Showing up would mean getting shooed away so 'Kanthar' could enjoy his meal in peace, she said, before adding: 'He loved his food.'

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