In her 36-year career as a practitioner of the culinary arts, 65-year-old Devagi Sanmugam has seen it all and done it all, with no formal education, other than the cooking lessons she received at home from her parents who were both excellent cooks. Her profound knowledge of the merits and applications of spices is what gave her the moniker “the Spice Queen of Singapore”.

From authoring over 22 cookbooks to training chefs all around the world, on top of opening her own restaurants, judging cooking competitions, collaborating with culinary-based companies and hosting private dining sessions — the list goes on — Devagi is one of Singapore’s most dynamic and talented cooking personalities.

Yet, despite her massive body of work, she remains unperturbed by all the hype surrounding her accomplishments, remaining the same down-to-earth cheery people-person that she has always been, wearing a bright smile and her signature purple Anna Sui bandana. “I like to eat. I like to serve. I like to share with people what I know. I like to see people smile when the food is good,” she says of her passion for cooking.

At 28, with the support of her husband, she left her administrative job as a school clerk to conduct Indian cooking classes out of her home kitchen. She had few students at first, but after a feature in a women’s magazine which credited her as “Singapore’s best Indian cooking instructor”, her students multiplied, and so did her celebrity status. The next thing she knew, she was writing a food column for the magazine, reviewing kitchenware for large corporations and appearing on cooking shows.

She remembers fondly her growing-up years in the kitchen, along with her six brothers and sisters, helping her mother prepare dinner and in turn, learning more about South Indian cuisine. “My mother assigned everyone a task and even my two-year-old brother had to peel an onion. It was such a bonding activity but it was mostly to make sure we don’t get into any trouble,” she recalls with a laugh.

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Those shared moments with her family are something she finds lacking in homes today as people are consumed by work and digital devices, so much so that they have lost interest in cooking. “In the past, we would buy ingredients to send to the mill for grinding and we’d have enough spices to last a month. But these days, hardly anyone grinds their own spices because the markets have pre-packed curry powders and pastes. I find it sad that you don’t have that distinctive flavour or a family recipe because you’re buying commercially-made spices and seasonings,” she laments.

Dining out can be a pleasure but also a pain if the food is not up to standard, which is why Devagi hardly ever dines out these days. She cites an example of her friend complaining daily about eating terrible hawker food. “Eating out and complaining about it is a miserable way to live. If it makes you feel terrible, it’s not going to nourish you at all.”

She worries that people will forget the value of good cooking and the importance of family recipes which form a part of our cultural heritage. That is probably why she feels it’s her responsibility to keep traditions going by immortalising her family recipes in books.

Her wish is for people to reacquaint themselves with their kitchens, start cooking more and acquire a knowledge for spices and herbs, which she believes are the cure to many ailments. “I grew up never taking western medicine and I hardly fell sick. Every medication was made at home — boil this, grind that. In fact, the next book I’m doing is called My Mother’s Kitchen Pharmacy, which focuses on the healing properties of Indian superfoods and how to incorporate them into home remedies,” she reveals.

Concurrently, Devagi is also relaunching Banana Leaf Temptations (her first book published in 1985) and calling it Banana Leaf Temptations 2.0 to include new recipes, updated old recipes and refreshed photography.

Over the past three decades, she has seen a shift in the types of students who attend her cooking classes. “When I first started in the mid-80s, most of them were housewives in their 40s and 50s. Later in the 90s, I saw more younger newly-wed career women. Today, I get all sorts — depending on the cooking school — ranging from retirees to millennials, and 95% are non-Indians,” she shares.

Although her culinary background is in South Indian food which encompasses well-loved dishes like fish head curry, chutneys, vegetarian dishes and thosai, Devagi is well-versed in all aspects of Asian cooking from Malay to Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and more. Her approach when developing innovative menus is to focus on traditional Asian cuisine that’s been adapted with healthier cooking methods and ingredients.

In another interview, she explained how briyani has evolved in terms of taste while sacrificing its nutritional value. “Many people ask: why does cheap briyani taste better than expensive briyani? It all boils down to how it’s prepared. In India, we just use oil to cook the rice, not ghee. In Singapore, many briyani sellers cook their rice with fat in the form of butter or ghee, or sometimes with mutton stock. That really makes the rice aromatic and flavourful but it’s really bad for the heart,” she explains. “Tastes good, but try washing your hands with soap, and imagine all that oil wrapped around your heart!”

I am Rice Cooker - THE EDGE SINGAPOREThe length and breadth of Devagi’s culinary knowledge can be found in her award-winning book, I Am A Rice Cooker! which is a 359-page labour of love that took almost two years to develop. In it, she’s listed 100 recipes representing the cuisines of 10 Asian cultures utilising 40 different cooking techniques like stir frying, double-boiling, grilling, broiling, steaming, and more. The aim for this book is to reach out to a younger audience who may not have necessarily grown up learning those skills at home.

Most recently, Devagi has been roped in by Ivy Singh-Lim of Bollywood Farms as a consultant chef to devise a healthy menu featuring the farm’s fresh produce. “I’ve always loved the rustic environment of the Kranji Countryside of Singapore and like the idea of farm-to-table cooking style of wholesome and hearty meals,” she enthuses.

One has to wonder: How does she juggle her hectic schedule, from countless cooking classes on Zoom and Instagram Live to meetings with culinary advisory boards, plus corporate consultations and book writing, all with enough time to prepare dinner for her family? She shares her secret: “Time management is everything, plus it also helps that I’m very hyperactive. I’m constantly moving and thinking. I write all my cookbooks after midnight!”

Spicy Tomato Dip - THE EDGE SINGAPORESpicy Tomato Dip

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MAIN PHOTO: ALBERT CHUA/THE EDGE SINGAPORE; FOOD PHOTOS: I AM A RICE COOKER!/ORANGE INKK