After the huge fiasco that is the NYT take on the Singapore Chicken Curry, I thought it my duty, as a proud Singaporean home cook, to educate the world on Singapore cuisine.
Yes, Singapore is indeed a land of immigrants, much like the United States and many other new nations. Founded in 1819 by British colonialists but having a rich thriving entrepot trade much earlier before the British came, Singapore has always been a place where different people from everywhere would gather.
Originally called Temasek or Tumasik, this little island at the tip of the Malay peninsula was home to the Orang Laut, a group of indigenous Malays. The Malay diet then was full of fresh ingredients – think of fish and fresh coconut cream and water. When traders came, the Indians and the Indonesians contributed more spices to add on to the richness of the cuisine. And later when more Chinese came (there were Chinese already in Singapore or most then were Peranakans) Chinese food was introduced but later adapted to local tastes.
When one thinks of Singapore food, inevitably other countries will be offended and claim their food is theirs originally. I can never understand food wars between nations. Have people forgotten that prior to sovereign nations having complete autonomy, people from everywhere would settle together and well, eat together. The food creations were shared joint ventures and frankly, I am getting very tired of all the hubris surrounding food.
Take for example the humble nasi lemak. Malaysian’s signature national dish. In Singapore, nasi lemak is enjoyed with equal fervour. And why not? 16 percent of the population in Singapore are Malays. And prior to Singapore’s independence in 1965, Singapore was a part of Malaya. Obviously, there will be many cuisines which we share.
Similar to rendang. Indonesians claim rendang, and rightly so. But rendang is also a very much loved dish in Malaysia because many Minangkabaus and Javanese travelled to the North to call these lands home.
But with the passage of time, the original creations get innovated to suit local palates. For example, in Malaysia, nasi lemak is almost always served with a boiled egg, but in Singapore the egg is always fried, either in the omeletter form or a crispy sunny side up.
Chicken rice is another favourite in Singapore and has been claimed as a national dish here. However, the Southern part of China’s (where many Singapore Chinese hail from) version is much simpler and less complex. In Singapore, because of the availability of chilies here, chicken rice without the spicy chili accompaniment is almost unheard of.
Singapore is not just made up of Chinese and Malays. Our Indian and Eurasian friends have made Singapore very much their own and contributed their rich cuisine to the nation. What is one breakfast dish that any Singapore or Malaysian child would call their favourite? Roti prata or roti canai. In India, parotta is not quite the same as how it served in this part of the world. And even though roti prata and roti canai is essentially one and the same, how it is eaten differs. In Singapore, curry is the gravy of choice with prata but in Malaysia, roti canai is almost always served with dhal.
Eurasians are a very small minority here but boy, do their food burst with lots of flavour. Growing up, my family (which is not Eurasian at all) would eat devil’s curry thanks to a relative who loved to make this spicy chicken dish.
The best dish people say that is a true representation of all the different cultures in this region is the rojak. A hodgepodge of different ingredients mixed together in a spicy piquant peanut sauce. Now, this is one dish where Singaporeans and Malaysians can identify with and is not found outside the region.
In my blog, (I know that it is such a mess and I am still trying to figure out how to create buttons and dropdown menus) I have tried creating some Singapore and Malaysian cuisine (and Indonesia too). Below are the links to my blog pages that show homecooked meals from the region here. I’ll update more when I have the time to cook more dishes and update them in this blogsite. 🙂