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11.7.07

Singapore Food History

What is Singapore food? Briefly, It has its origin in Malaysia, Indonesia, China and India. Many claim that there is no such thing as Singpaore food for that reason. They are only partially right. You'll still find the most authentic and tastiest of each of the cusines. What has been happening to the various cuisines since their first arrival a century or so ago is what we now proudly call Singapore Food.
Nonya food has been over publicised it'll be a cliche to say anything more. What I'd like to hightlight to you here are the equally wonderful but less acknowledged cuisines that have their origin in Southeastern China. Apart from Cantonese Cuisine that is famous the World over, what's special in Singapore are these Southern Chinese cuisines not commonly found elsewhere. If you're really into tasting something new, these are the cuisines that I recommend, for you won't find anything quite the same elsewhere, certainly not so convenient anyway!
For those of you who're accustomed to "Wine and Dine", Singapore has a wide variety of fine restaurants to choose from, much like many other cosmopolitan cities. To most Singaporeans, however, what Makan entails is not the quality of the service nor the presentation of the food, but very simply the quality of the food, the spontaneity, the cosiness, the convenience and most importantly, the affordability. In other words, it's good company and a bit of sweat and noise thrown in without hurting the wallet. It's a hot plate of Char Kway Teow after a half an hour wait in a hawker centre amidst all the screaming and shouting in the middle of the afternoon when even gold fishes find themselves hot in the bowl!
As a large portion of the population are muslims, halal food is available everywhere. There are Malay Muslim and Indian Muslim food, you'll know when you see one as there's always a sign written in Arabic prominently displayed. Nasi Padang, a style of cooking originated from Sumatra and popular in Singapore is a must try for the visitor. While you may find at least one Chinese or Indian vegetarian food stall in every food centre, you're not likely to come across fine elaborate dishes, especially Chinese vegetarian food. Good Taoist/Buddish vegetarian food seems less easily available. One simple reason is the complexity in vegetarian food preparation. Unlike Indian vegetarians and vegetarians in the West, Taoist/Buddish vegetarians do not eat garlic, onion, leek and those related vegetables. Vegetarian food, in this case, does not mean cooking with only vegetables, but rather, the art of shaping and texturing flour into mock meat and fish dishes. it's worth the trouble to give it a try, for good Chinese vegetarian food is rare, even in Singapore. If you're lucky, you may come across a Chinese temple that serves vegetarian food(only on certain days).
Indian Muslim food, or the so called Mamak food, is very popular in Singapore, roti prata, mee goreng, Indian rojak, nasi padang, mutton soup are some of the more popular dishes.
Seafood is of course a social food that tops many people's list. Chili crabs, black pepper crabs, drunken prawns and deep fried baby squids are just some of the endless yummy dishes that one shouldn't miss. Lobsters, glamourous as it may sound, is not as popular or as fun as Chut Chut(a kind of cone shaped sea shell that has to be sucked) or raw cockles(despite the risk of Hepatitis). And eating barbequed sting ray from a piece of banana leaf at a food centre is definitely a truer Makan experience than having Salmon on China at Maxim's. If you do not know where to begin, East Coast Seafood Centre is worth a visit. If you know your way in Johore Bahru, it's definitely much cheaper!!
Before I end, I must not forget to mention Cristang cuisine, or so called Eurasian food started in Malacca of Portugese origin. Unfortunately, no Cristang restaurant exists as far as I know. So if you're fortunate enough to have a friend of Portugese descent, do invite yourself as that will truly be a rare occasion!
Now, what truly constitutes a true great Makan experience? Food is well-loved in Singapore. Coffee shops, hawker centres, restaurants, food courts, cafes and snack shops hug the numerous well-ordered streets of Singapore city and its suburbs.
All types of delicious food are sold at all times, from hearty hawker fare to fancy gourmet meals. Waking up in the morning at 6am, you are as likely to enjoy a breakfast of kaya toast or congee just at your doorstep. When midnight strikes and you feel peckish, you can always find comfort in a 24 hour coffee shop nearby with crispy roti prata and curry, or Teochew porridge.
In Singapore, housewives are blessed with bountiful fresh produce of seafood, meat, vegetables and fruits in more than 150 wet markets throughout the island, dishing up delicious home-cooked meals for their families. If it be a Chinese household, steamed fresh fish, stir-fried Chinese choy sum, pork rib with winter melon soup and loh bak (braised pork in black soya sauce) may grace the table. An Indian family may tuck in heartily to chicken curry, rasam, dal, spiced cabbage and cucumber pachadi, while a Malay family will eat as well with beef rendang, stir-fried vegetables, sambal beans and fried tempeh.
Yet as different as they may seem, the various communities of Singapore have come to share a culinary tradition that fuses and celebrates its ancestral cuisines. In less than two hundred years since modern Singapore was founded by the British as a trading port, the people that inhabit this island has created a distinctive cuisine.
Food in Colonial Singapore
When Sir Stamford Raffles and his contingent from the East India Company (EIC) landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819, they found on this island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, a small population of about a thousand, consisting of some 900 native people, 20-30 Malays and a similar number of Chinese.The inhabitants lived a simple existence growing fruits but no rice, and depended on their livelihood on collecting jungle produce, fishing, small scale trading and piracy. Little was known of Singapore before that, though archaeological digs have found evidence of it being a prosperous trading port known as Temasek in the 14th century.
Very quickly, people from various lands came to trade and work. The Chinese from the region and southern China arrived in droves to work as traders, artisans, coolies, craftsmen and itinerant trades; the Arabs from the Hadramut region came as traders and mercenaries, the Jews and Armenians came as traders; the Indians came first as sepoys of the Bengal Native Infantry, and later as convicts, indentured labourers and in the early twentieth century as clerks, educationists and traders; the Malays from the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian islands came as traders and workers; and the Eurasians from the region came to work in commerce, law, medical services, government and trade.
By 1824, the total population of Singapore rose to over 10,000 and by 1850 to over 60,000.
These immigrants brought with them the food of their own lands. As early as 1837, Howard Malcolm, an American missionary in Singapore wrote of partaking in a Chinese wedding banquet at the home of a wealthy Chinese merchant, with Chinese delicacies of shark fins, bird nests and fish maw.
Agriculture did not dominate the Singapore economy even then. Rice being the staple of all it immigrants was only produced in tiny amount on the island as there was little suitable land available for rice cultivation, leaving its population having to import most of its rice from Siam, Java, Manila and the Riau archipelago. However there were small farms growing vegetables, sweet potato, plantains, Indian corn and tropical fruits on the outskirts of Singapore town.
Buying and selling of fresh food according to many British anecdotal accounts was a colourful affair. The first market with its unique octagonal structure was built in 1820 in Telok Ayer, very close to the commercial area and the Chinese quarters. It soon became overcrowded with vendors selling, meat, vegetable and fruits sprawling to the surrounding areas. By the end of the 19th century, there were five big markets on the island - the Telok Ayer, Ellenborough, the Rochore, the Clyde and the Orchard Road markets.
Yet all these itinerant vendors or hawkers are not confined to these spaces. John Cameron in his rare book, “ Tropical Possessions in Malayan India”, gave an eye-witness account of how these hawkers predominate the landscape in 1860s Singapore, adding chaos and bustle to the town.
"There is probably no city in the world with such a motley crowd of itinerant vendors of wares, fruits, cakes, vegetables &c. There are Malays, generally with fruit; Chinamen with a mixture of all sorts, and Kling with cakes and different kinds of nuts. Malays and Chinamen always use the shoulder-stick, having equally-balanced loads suspended at either end; the Klings, on the contrary, carry their wares on the head on trays. The travelling cookshops of the Chinese are probably the most extraordinary of the things that are carried about in this way. They are suspended on one of the common shoulder-sticks, and consist of a box on one side and a basket on the other; the former containing a fire and small copper cauldron for soup, the latter loaded with rice, vermicelli, cakes, jellies, and condiments; and though I have never tasted any of their dishes, I have been assured that those they serve up at a moment’s notice are most savoury, and that their sweets are delicious. Three cents will purchase a substantial meal of three or four dishes from these itinerant restaurateurs.
Various eye-witness accounts wrote of the proliferation of hawkers throughout Singapore in the 19th century. Among the snacks and meals offered were perhaps cakes of agar-agar, soups, rice with Chinese-styled dishes and noodles. Hawker food was popular in these early days because it provided a cheap and delicious meal to many who had come to work without their families. Indeed, the gender ratio for the Chinese, Indian and European communities was extremely unbalanced before the 1870s. From this humble beginning, hawker fare had become an indelible part of Singapore food.
Beyond this humble street fare, food seems to be eaten mostly at home. Restaurants were not in abundance in Singapore. A Chinese, Li Chung Chu, wrote in 1887 of the very few Cantonese and European restaurants. Feasting in wealthy Chinese homes was done in the gardens of private homes with Chinese food and European food!
Due to the paucity of materials on the written accounts of food served at the homes of the various immigrant communities, one is left to conjecture what they ate at home. But it may not be far to say that most stuck to the cuisine they were used to in their homeland. Besides fruits and vegetables that were grown locally, there was plentiful fish, poultry and pork, and excellent mutton which would satisfy the dietary needs of the various communities.
The British in Singapore however ate handsomely. Their meals reflected the culinary mores of Victorian England, with a vast number of dishes for either breakfast, lunch or dinner. Being in the east, curry, rice, sambals and tropical fruits were often included in the rather substantial dinner that most would be used to. John Turnbull Thompson wrote of these ample dinners in his 1864 memoir, Some Glimpses into Life in Malayan Lands. In one such dinner, after the soup came the fish, joints of Bengal mutton, Chinese capons, Kedah fowls, Sangora ducks, Yorkshire hams, Bombay ducks, salted turtle eggs and omelettes all washed down with pale ale. This was followed by a dessert of macaroni puddings of all shapes and custard downed with champagne. Then came a huge round of cheese, and finally a variety of tropical fruits.
Such a grand style of dining predominated the British colonial society in the 19th century, with food prepared by Malay or Chinese servants.
Although Singapore colonial society was largely segregated with each community living within their own quarters, good food was able to cross boundaries. Over time, the main communities of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians adopted strains of each others cuisine, so that Chinese condiments of soya sauce is as common to the other households as Indian curry powder is to the rest.
The food of the British filtered down to the Asian population, thanks to the Asian cooks they employed. Many Chinese cooks were Hainanese, who over time learnt how to prepare British standard fare of pork chops, roast chicken, butter cake and chicken pies, though some with a local twist to it. Other British products of the era, including, luncheon meat, canned sardines, condensed milk, toast and tomato ketchup became a part of Singapore’s culinary landscape.

Singapore Cuisine
Deriving from the rich culinary traditions of each community’s ancestral lands with flavours that are often robust, it is natural to follow that the food of Singapore is extremely flavoursome, frequently spicy, and consist regularly of a mix of Chinese condiments, with Indian spices and Malays ingredients of tropical herbs and fruits of chillies, coconut, lemongrass, galangal and the like.
Singapore cuisine was often described as parts Chinese, Malay and Indian. This is somewhat true, yet certain dishes that seems to be “Chinese” or “Indian” are now distinctly Singaporean in character, and far different from their original cousin.
The Hainanese chicken rice with its ubiquitous ginger-garlic chilli sauce, is as different as its Hainanese counterpart; black pepper crab and chilli crab in many Chinese seafood stalls are native inventions; while roti prata and curry is quite unlike its Indian cousin, and Indian rojak is really an alien dish to anyone from India.
Yet when we speak of Chinese of Indian food in Singapore, this is to be further specified by their regional origin. The Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine that flourishes and inspires Singapore food is intimately linked to the regions from which the various communities were from. For the Chinese, it is the food of southern China, including the cooking of Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow people. For the Indians, it is south Indian food from the areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Malays derive their food from their ancestral lands of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java.
The food of the Straits Chinese (Nyonya) and Eurasians too dabs vibrant colours on Singapore’s culinary landscape. These fusion cuisines, forged in the throes of inter-marriage in the region from the 16th century are utterly delicious and are perhaps a precursor of the marriage of flavours now present in Singapore cuisine. Straits Chinese cuisine is the union of Chinese-Hokkien cooking with Malay cuisine. While Cuzinhia Cristang (Eurasian cuisine) is a robust blend of Malay cuisine with Portuguese and Dutch cooking in the 16th, 17th and 18th century, yet with a good sprinkle of Chinese and Indian influences from fellow immigrants.
This diversity of cuisines, flavours and aromas have made Singapore food what it is today. A peek at the Singapore pantry will find it well-stocked with a myriad of condiments and produce from these cuisines. A sample of which can be seen from the following :
The Singapore Pantry
Curry Powder
Soya Sauce (Light & Dark)
Coconut Milk
Whole Spice (eg. cinnamon, Star Anise, Cumin, etc.)
Oyster Sauce
Lemongrass
Rice
Fermented Bean Paste (tau cheo)
Belacan (shrimp paste)
Yellow (Hokkien) noodles
Chinese Five Spice Powder
Ikan Bilis (dried anchovies)
Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli)
Curry Leaves
Dried Shrimp
Kway Teow (broad rice noodles)
Tofu
Tamarind (assam)
Rice Flour
Chilli
Pandan Leaves
Sago
Tomato Ketchup
Galangal
Mung bean vermicelli (dang hoon)
Chilli Sauce
Agar-agar (seaweed jelly)
Glutinous Rice
Fish Sauce
Flour
Bread
Butter
Jam
Pepper
Tomatoes
Onion
Shallot
Garlic
Ginger young
Thai chilli peppers

Teochew classics such as the mashed taro dessert- oh nee, the mixed seafood and vegetable soup – chap huay tng, Teochew steamed fish and braised duck. The hallmark of Teochew cooking, unlike Cantonese or Sichuanese cooking, is its delicate flavours and preference for steaming and braising. At the same time, I also learnt of two of the more obscure dishes, the first which is the kow lak ar, the braised duck stuffed with chestnut, mushroom and carrots, which I is a Teochew restaurant favourite in the 1950s. The other is nak yee kia, the Teo-Yeo Meat Balls, which is more like a savoury confection and for which is fairly unknown in Singapore today except among a select group of elderly Teochews who hail from the Teo-Yeo district of Chaozhou.
Ceylonese Tamil recipes, such as chicken curry, mutton curry, fish curry and appam, a rice flour crepe. Ceylonese Tamil cooking has close roots to South Indian Tamil cuisine. Popular dishes include coconut milk based curries, and rice flour based snacks such as thosais, idlis and appam. Ceylonese Tamil cooking is also influenced by the Sri Lankan Sinhalese preference for dark coloured curries due to their predilection for roasted spices of cumin, coriander, fennel and the use of cinnamon. Today, I have made a dark dried curry of lamb for you which is distinctly Ceylonese Tamil in flavour.
Singaporeans have created a food culture of its own over the years. Undoubtedly, hawker fare, which is Singapore’s traditional fast food takes its pride of place in Singapore culinary pantheon. To many Singaporeans, the best food is often found in these very humble abodes.
Despite individual food proclivities at home, Singaporeans of all communities have come to share a common food experience in many aspects. At a party with typical Singapore food one will usually find a varied menu of popular dishes such as chicken curry, nyonya chap chye (mixed vegetables), Chinese sweet and sour fish, samosas, fried noodles, popiah (Fresh springrolls), Malay bubur cha cha and agar-agar. These common foods continue to extend to those indulged during festivals. Be it Hari Raya Puasa (end of Ramadan), Deepavali (Indian festival of lights) or Chinese New Year, one is almost certain to find pineapple tarts, kueh lapis , various festive cookies and moon cakes.
Singapore cuisine is more than just a sum of Chinese, Malay and Indian food, a notion that used to be popular. It has evolved over the years to become a cuisine of its own, providing Singaporeans with food memories unique to themselves.



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