Meet Singapore’s “Spice Queen”

By Sheere Ng - Saturday, Jun 08, 2013

When Devagi Sanmugam conducted a cooking class for the visually impaired many years ago, she made an embarrassing mistake by holding up a chopped up ingredient and said, out of habit, “You cut it like this”. She realised what she had done when silence and blank stares greeted her.


Image courtesy of Devagi Sanmugam


“I learnt the hard way,” says the self-taught cook, cookbook author, food columnist and culinary instructor. But precisely because of such experiences in her cooking workshops, she is mindful of her intended audience when she authors her cookbooks – 19 of them and counting.


“When I write, the face of an inquisitive student I recently had will pop up in my head. ‘What would she ask if I write this way’, I would ask myself,” says Devagi. The clarity in her recipes and thoroughness in her research explains the popularity of her books and led her to win the 1st runner up in the Gourmand World Cookbook Award under the Best Women Chef category for her book Indian Heritage Cooking.


Devagi discovered her culinary instinct at the worst of times. Her father was out of work for three years and her family relied on food rations from the then Ministry of Social Affairs for sustenance. But because the programme was sponsored by the United Nations, they were given ingredients like corn and spaghetti that never featured in traditional Indian families like theirs.


Just as her mother was cracking her brains, wondering what to do with those rations, Devagi came up with an idea to ground the corn into flour to make chapatti. “It is funny because I later realised that’s how the Mexicans do their breads,” she says.


She spent much of her childhood experimenting with ingredients and learning cooking from her mother. When she worked as a clerk, she often brought her cooking to share with her colleagues. They loved it so much that they eventually made bulk orders from her.


Soon, with her husband’s encouragement, she put up an advertisement to teach cooking at home. She fumbled in the first few lessons, but got better along the way, and the attendance grew from four to eight to more than 20, as one of her students turned out to be a magazine writer on an assignment. Today, she appears regularly on local TV channels and cable TV like Asian Food Channel, and is coined “Spice Queen” by local media for her vast knowledge in spices.


Because of her humble background, she sees to it that students of her cooking workshops wash up after the class, even though cooking studios usually provide cleaning service. “Cutting, cooking and washing are part of the whole process. Through washing one realises how much food is wasted,” says Devagi. One will also learn the ingredients’ characteristics: “You’ll realise that bad fats, like saturated oil, stick to the wok,” she adds.


Her modest beginning, however, is a double-edged sword. While she believes in giving details and tips, she did not say no to her TV show producer’s request to give time instead to the “crazy sidekick doing something because they wanted the show funny”. “If I’m very very wealthy, I would have forgo (the show), but I needed the money and the cooking show money is good,” she explains.


And although she also sees the value in cooking food from scratch, and “tries to be a purist as much as possible”, she doesn’t force this philosophy on her students. “The young working mothers or the young ones who are staying on their own? Their one concern is that they don’t have the time to cook, so they have to do fast cooking. I started accommodating to them, but still I will teach them the traditional method so that they can do in bulk over the weekend and freeze it.”


But in her cookbooks, she says, she stays true her convictions, and unreservedly shares her knowledge. Devagi explains: “People always ask me why I share my small deepest secret. I say ‘what am I going to do with it’. I would rather share and have people say ‘wow she’s a wonderful chef’, and enjoy that moment rather than die with all those stuff.”