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A short history of Singapore food

Annette Tan
Annette Tan • 7 min read
A short history of Singapore food
To chronicle the evolution of Singapore’s cuisine is to tell the story of its people
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To chronicle the evolution of Singapore’s cuisine is to tell the story of its people

SINGAPORE (Aug 12): Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, Indian, Eurasian, European… The varied cuisines that make up our ever-evolving pot of Singaporean fare are our pride and joy. More than that, they tell our story — a chronicle of how Singapore came to be and where we might be headed, all told through dishes and flavours with origins from lands far away, transformed and rooted by a proud sense of community and a shared identity.

Our many cultural and culinary facets come interlaced with their own subsets and provincial influences. Over the generations, as the patchwork of races and cultures settled into this diminutive -island along the Straits of Malacca, they each added their own flavours to the food of the original natives — the orang laut and the Malays.

The former, sea nomads (the name “orang laut” translates from Malay to mean “people of the sea”), subsisted off the land and the ocean’s bounty. So did the Malays, whose food is heavily influenced by surrounding Indonesian islands such as Sumatra and Java.

Colonial connection

When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, they settled into the region and intermarried with locals. Their descendants were known as the Kristang, or Eurasians as we know them today. The Kristang eventually migrated to Singapore when Malacca was seized by the Dutch in 1641, bringing with them their unique cuisine, rich with ingredients from the Portuguese canon (garlic, onions and vinegar) and tinged with spices from the Straits such as chillies, tamarind and turmeric.

When the British made Singapore a trading colony in 1819, they brought with them the spoils of European living — concrete buildings, town plans and staple produce such as potatoes and peas. They hired cookboys from China, who learnt to reproduce Western standards such as pork chop, roast chicken, pies and butter cake as best as they could with the ingredients they had.

Thanks to these Hainanese cooks, the food of the colonials filtered down to the segregated Asian population, giving us what we refer to today as “Hainanese-Western” dishes. The most well known among these is Hainanese pork chop, wherein the meat is hammered down to a thin strip with a mallet, dredged in crushed soda crackers and fried, then drenched in a thick, soy-based gravy laced with tomatoes and peas.

Mingling with migrants

By the late 19th century, Stamford Raffles had declared Singapore a free port, and ships from all over the world flocked here to enjoy the free trade. Now an important regional entrepot, Singapore beckoned as a land of opportunity, to which droves of immigrants from China flocked on crowded junks. In search of a better life, they were mostly destined to work as labourers along the Singapore River, hauling heavy gunny sacks on their backs from boats to buildings up to several hundred times a day. Others took equally punishing work as coolies, rickshaw pullers and rubber tappers.

The first Indian immigrants to Singapore were also from the country’s south. They, too, worked as labourers, while others became money lenders and traders. Some Indian convicts, brought by the British to build Singapore’s infrastructure, stayed on after serving their sentences and made Singapore home.

The cuisines of these early migrants were thus woven into the country’s fabric and contributed dishes famous in Singapore, such as Indian rojak. Comprising fried fritters served with a thick, sweet sauce, the dish is said to have been invented by the Indians using ingredients that catered to the Chinese palate.

Cultural mash-up

In this new land, ingredients integral to the immigrants’ native dishes were hard to come by. Whether Chinese, Indian or European, the residents of early Singapore had to make do with various tweaks and alternatives to enjoy a precious taste of home. In this way, the flavours of Singapore’s myriad cuisines took on their own distinct characteristics. And as people dug their roots firmly into the soil, these dishes became part of their culinary identity.

Singapore’s Cantonese cuisine, for example, “is spicier and sweeter”, says Mike Ho, the third-generation owner of Spring Court, Singapore’s oldest Chinese restaurant, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

“The flavours of Singapore-Chinese food were influenced by the other races around us, like the Indians and Malays. The food of the many Chinese provinces also influenced each other here — we started out as a Cantonese restaurant, but our food has influences from the Hokkiens and Teochews too.”

Flavours of harmony

The immigrants — mostly single men — began marrying local women and daughters of the merchant class, giving rise to Peranakan culture. This intermingling of races, cultures and castes spawned Nonya cuisine, which is heavily influenced by Malay and Indonesian flavours, but features pork and prawns as its central proteins.

Perhaps the dish most emblematic of Singapore’s cultural intermingling is laksa — that beloved concoction of thick rice vermicelli, prawn, fishcake, cockle and tofu puff bathed in a rich and spicy coconut gravy. While its origins are undocumented, the dish is said to have originated as a result of intermarriage between local Malay women and Chinese traders or sailors who traversed the spice route.

Similarly, fish head curry is a proudly Singaporean invention. It was created in 1949 by Keralan restaurateur Marian Jacob Gomez to cater to Chinese customers who deemed fish head a delicacy. Today, both fish head curry and laksa are dishes so entrenched in the Singaporean canon that every culture boasts its own rendition.

Adding to the pot

In the years since, Singapore has welcomed yet more migrants, foreign workers and expatriates from around the world who now call this little island home. Between 1990 and 2015, the country’s population increased by 82%, which when taken in the context of food translates into a prismatic array of other cuisines that have lain roots in our fertile gastronomic soil.

For example, mala xiang guo (Sichuan stir-fries) and mala huoguo (spicy Sichuan hot pot) are now incredibly popular dishes that have found their way into hawker centres and neighbourhood malls, reflecting the influx of Northern Chinese people into Singapore over the last decade.

Our vibrant restaurant scene has also welcomed chefs from all over the world, who infuse their cuisines with Singaporean flavours and produce. It is, today, as quotidian to hear about an Irish chef serving his interpretation of laksa at his upscale restaurant in Chinatown as it is to find a Sri Lankan-born Australian chef serving oysters anointed with warm coconut milk and betel leaf oil.

Young Singaporean chefs, trained in the finer points of European cuisine, are embracing the harvests that the island has to offer. They, too, are redefining Singaporean cuisine by uniting our traditional flavours and local produce with that of our favourite travel destinations. Today, we can dine on elegantly plated, deep-fried, locally farmed frog legs dredged in fermented prawn paste, and waffles served with local chicken liver pate and goji berry jam.

At its very essence, Singaporean food is a result of our diverse experiences, history, struggles and relationships with the people who share our home. It bears witness to who we are, how we have come to embrace our differences and the rich rewards of welcoming new neighbours and friends into our communities and lives.

Annette Tan is a freelance food writer

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