Singaporean dishes are a melting pot of influences

Singaporean dishes are a melting pot of influences
Published: 6:10 PM, August 8, 2017
Updated: 11:53 PM, August 8, 2017

SINGAPORE — Chicken rice. Bak kut teh. Hokkien mee. A Singaporean would identify these dishes as “Chinese food”, but try to look for these three dishes in China and you would be stumped.

“The mainland Chinese diners love these dishes, but they don’t see them as Chinese cuisine. To them, this is Singaporean food, and you will find them only in a speciality restaurant,” said Mr Justin Quek.

The 55-year-old chef operates Xingzhou Laoye — a casual chic restaurant in Beijing serving South-east Asian classics.

“Just as you won’t find Hainanese chicken rice in Hainan, you won’t find Hokkien fried noodles in Fujian,” Mr Quek said.

“What we take for granted as ‘Chinese foods’ are actually the products of evolution, and if you look closely, you will find that what we consider ‘ethnic’ dishes actually all have elements taken from some other culture.”

Mr Willin Low, 45, of Singaporean restaurant Wild Rocket, shares Mr Quek’s observation: “Mee goreng, a dish often cooked by Indian-Muslim hawkers, uses noodles that are a distinctly Chinese ingredient. Mee rebus is considered a Malay dish, but dark soy sauce is used in it. Conversely, Hokkien mee incorporates sambal chilli from the Malays.”

“Even our iconic chicken rice is served with achar and sambal, which are borrowed from other cultures,” Mr Low added. “And there is satay bee hoon — a marriage of Malay and Chinese food cultures resulting in a unique dish that you don’t even find in Malaysia.”

How did we get here?

Mr Daniel Chia, 47, president of Slow Food (Singapore) — the local chapter of an international foundation dedicated to preserving heritage foods — lends some insight: “When the CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) structure of classification was introduced, people from all the different Chinese dialect groups came to be known as ‘Chinese’, and people such as the Boyanese, Sumatran and Bugis chose to be identified as Malay.”

As such, he added, “social policies brought about a homogenisation that changed the identity of our racial groups — it also resulted in a more uniform food culture among each group. And along the way, hybridisation happened, bringing about dishes that are, today, commonly identified as “Singaporean”.

Such hybridisation is a defining factor of Singaporean food.

“We have people from Hong Kong, Australia and Dubai ordering up to a hundred of our frozen vadai to take home. To them, it is a Singaporean taste. One that they cannot find anywhere else,” said 28-year-old Daniel James. He helps his mother Gina Rajan at popular hawker stall Gina’s Vadai, which was started by her husband more than 30 years ago.

“Here, mum has been making them with tofu since the early 1990s, and we also have ikan bilis vadai and cheese vadai.”

Some might protest, saying that such inventions are killing the authenticity of Singaporean food. Yet such variations are simply part and parcel of evolution.

“Authenticity is tied to geography and time,” said Mr Low.

“Back then, our forefathers took whatever ingredients were available to them at that point and recreated a taste of their homeland. Along the way, they integrated influences from other cultures which they were exposed to, and it became Singapore food as we know it today.”

And just as early settlers adapted, Singaporeans today are incorporating a world of gourmet produce now easily accessible to them, and putting a new spin on local dishes.

One of Mr Quek’s signature dishes, for example, is the deluxe Hokkien mee, made with an intense, robust stock of big lobster heads, pork bones and Spanish pork belly, and served with Spanish pork belly, half a Maine lobster, and a side of house-made sambal.

“For me, it is about refining the traditional techniques and integrating some of the best ingredients we now have access to,” said Mr Quek.

Taking a different approach, Mr Low has made different iterations of Hainanese chicken rice over the years, and his latest creation does not even use chicken: “The most recent was a beef carpaccio served with ginger paste, spring onion and sesame oil. It had neither chicken nor rice, but people eat it and say: ‘Hey! Why am I thinking of chicken rice?’”

“The spirit of the dish to me is flavour. So even if my ‘chicken rice’ looks completely different, the diner should still be able to get what I am trying to do once he or she tastes it. “This is my way of celebrating the flavours we grew up eating, but in platforms that they’ve never been used before.”

Indeed, to the man on the street, Singaporean cuisine is a part of our life at a place we call home. Simply put, it is a taste of familiarity.

“I hate the word ‘authenticity’ when it comes to Singaporean food,” 59-year-old Damian D’Silva groaned. The self-styled “rebel chef” has spent the last two decades working to preserve heritage foods and the old ways of cooking.

However, he also recognises that there is no single standard when it comes to identifying bona fide local food.

“Authenticity is all tied to an individual’s taste memories.”

So, while an older generation might lament that the char kway teow today is not the real deal because it is no longer made with duck eggs, a younger person might see it differently.

That said, Mr D’Silva — who is operating new Singapore heritage cuisine restaurant Folklore at Destination Singapore Beach Road — highlights the importance of knowing the origins of food. Origins, to him, are also about how things were cooked in the home kitchen.

In the Joo Chiat neighbourhood, for example, where historically all five ethnic groups lived in close proximity, Mr D’Silva said: “You will find that a Peranakan family’s laksa is similar to that of a Eurasian family within the same neighbourhood. An Indian neighbour might try their dish at a home gathering, and then go on to do it in her way that suits her family’s tastes.”

“So what is an ‘authentic’ laksa?,” Mr D’Silva added: “It is what you grew up with and what makes you happy eating. It is what brings a smile to your face when you are 80 years old, because it reminds you of your mother’s cooking.”

While promoting hawker culture has been a hot topic when it comes to preserving Singaporean food, Mr D’Silva feels we should not be leaving it all to those in the F&B industry.

“We need to cook at home more ... recreate a dish that your grandmother used to cook. You might not succeed, but it will bring you one step closer to understanding the soul of the dish. It will also give you the chance to sit down and share a meal with your family, your loved ones. That is the foundation of Singaporean food — one that is made with soul, and one that is shared.”