A history of Singapore cuisine
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Singapore is one of those renowned world cities that you must visit at least once in your lifetime. Lying just one degree north of the equator (it is incredibly hot and humid here), the city state is immensely proud of the unique urban metropolis it has built.
No doubt you have already heard of the exceptionally clean streets, the beautiful gardens, green plants on every corner and the striking, modern architecture that has created an iconic skyline. But how about the food?
Singaporean cuisine is an unsung highlight that has developed every bit as rapidly as the surrounding infrastructure. It is profoundly unique, encompassing the diversity of its citizens. Most prominently, the triad of Malaysian, Indian and Chinese food have all majorly influenced Singaporean cuisine. All of them hold their own.
For some context, early history of the city indicates its passing between various sultanates. In the 14th century it was known as Temasek, a trading port under the influence of the Majaphit Empire and the Siamese Kingdom. This small trading port existed on the island before, in 1613, the Portuguese burned it down. The island faded into obscurity for two centuries, by which point it was part of the Johor Sultanate.
What was it that the Portuguese did not see in 1613? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say. On 28th January 1819, A British governor by the name of Stamford Raffles arrived in the area and, as the British so often did during these times, quickly identified the island as a natural choice for a new port.
As established in our previous articles looking at the history of spice in London or the history of cuisine in Hong Kong,the British were in the Empire-building business at this time. Once they set their eyes on something, they did not stop until they got it.
As we have also learnt, the British were exceptionally cunning and devious in their exploitation of others. It was a trait that brought them nearly a quarter of the globe. Recognising the instability under the Tengku Abdul Rahman (the Sultan of Johor), Raffles found a way in.
The chief minister and all his officials of the Sultan were actually loyal to Tengku Abdul Rahman’s older brother – Tengku Long. He was currently living in exile. With this knowledge, Raffles, with the help of the chief minister, managed to smuggle Tengku Long back into Singapore. The catch? If Raffles was to honour and recognise Tengku Long as rightful Sultan of Johor, Tengku Long (operating under the name Sultan Hussein) must allow the British the right to establish a trading port in Singapore.
Raffles played things perfectly and a formal treaty was signed on the 6th of February 1819, just a few days after his arrival. In 1824, a further treaty with Sultan Hussein ceded the entire island to British possession. In 1826, the city became part of the Straits Settlements – a group of islands in this part of the world where all territories are controlled by the British East India Trading Company. You would be forgiven for thinking this story sounds familiar.
By 1936 Singapore was the regional capital, flourishing with the prosperity of trade. When Stamford Raffles had first arrived, there were only around 1000 people living on the island. By 1960, that number had swelled to over 80,000, with more than half being Chinese. These early immigrants came to work on the gambier and pepper plantations. Throughout the 1890s the rubber industry also took off, making the city the centre for rubber sorting and export.
Throughout the twentieth century, the city followed a familiar pattern of passing between different states and occupancies. Singapore survived unscathed by the First World War as it never truly impacted South East Asia. During the Second World War however, it was vulnerable and wide open to attack. The Japanese took control on the 19th of February 1942 and occupied it until the war ended in 1945.
The British resumed control but their failure to defend the city had changed the view of many Singaporeans. On 1st April 1946, it became a separate ‘Crown Colony’, thus beginning its divorce from Britain. By 1956 Singapore was granted the right to full internal self-government on all things except defence and foreign affairs. In 1959, the PAP (People’s Action Party) won by a landslide victory.
The PAP felt strongly that the future of Singapore lay with Malaysia due to the naturally strong ties between the two. With the spectre of communism and political infighting overhanging, the state of Malaysia was formed in 1963 with Singapore one of several states. The city had a relatively high level of autonomy when compared with these other states and looked set for real growth.
However, the Singaporean government still had many disagreements with the central Malaysian government, especially regarding economic policies. Despite an agreement to establish a common market between the two, Singapore continued to have difficulty trading with the rest of Malaysia. Just like every other trade disagreement throughout history, in a tit-for-tat scenario, Singapore retaliated with their own restrictions. Talks broke down and relationships soured, eventually culminating in the 1964 race riots.
The problem lay with the fact that the Singaporean Government (PAP) were pursuing a political ideology of non-communal politics. In other words, everyone was equal, regardless of race or religion. Meanwhile the central Malaysian Government (UMNO) advocated for the provision of special rights and privileges for the ‘bumiputeras’ (indigenous Malays in Malaysia). It was felt that the population of Straits Chinese in Singapore had always been economically better off whilst the Malays were poorer.
The race riots of 1964 highlighted this political rift. Acts of violence as Malays and Chinese faced up against each other spread through the city like wildfire. To avoid further bloodshed and seeing little to no alternatives, the Malaysian parliament voted to expel Singapore from the country on 9th August 1965. Finally, Singapore was an independent nation, becoming the Republic of Singapore.
Since then, the city has continued to grapple with racial differences and spats with Malaysia but, for the most part, it has experienced a period of explosive growth. The city shifted toward high-tech industries, and the service and tourism industries bloomed with the opening of its world-class airport and the launch of Singapore Airlines. The Port of Singapore continues to be one of the busiest in the world.
In terms of food then, it is clear to see that a unique combination here has helped to build Singaporean cuisine. There has been terrific economic, political and social change over the course of several centuries. Its chequered history as a world port has exposed it to the many comings and goings associated with international trade. This has been aided by its central position in South East Asia: sat between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with Indonesia to the south, India to the West and Malaysia, Thailand, China and the Philippines located to the north.
Is it any wonder that the food is so good here? Rightly so, they are proud of it too! Due to the multi-ethnic background of the city, food is seen as a unifying thread – a way to really identify yourself as Singaporean. Local literature declares eating as a national pastime and obsession (shouldn’t every country follow suit?). It is common to greet someone with the question ‘have you eaten?’, rather than ‘how are you?’.
No matter what dish you prefer, the place to find the best food is one of many infamous ‘Hawker centres’. These giant food halls are the live, beating heart of the city. Locals prefer to eat here due to the great range of choice and affordability. Chefs from all over the world have lauded these places as Meccas of the food world. The stalls may seem humble and simple enough but make no mistake, some of the world’s best cooks can be found right here.
This fact was confirmed when, in 2016, two noodle stalls became the first two street food locations in the world to be awarded a Michelin Star. In 2018, meanwhile, the Singaporean Hawker Culture was nominated for inscription into Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So, what exactly can you expect to find in this foodie heaven?
When Raffles established Singapore as a new trading post for the British East India Trading Company, immigrants from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Europe and the United States flocked to the island. As mentioned previously, there are three main influences on the city: Malay, Indian and Chinese.
Firstly, Chinese. As seen similarly in Hong Kong, Chinese immigrants from the mainland brought with them local cuisine and traditions. Most Singaporean Chinese dishes have names deriving from South Chinese dialects. Indeed, the national dish of Singapore itself is of Chinese heritage.
As with all great dishes, Hainanese Chicken was born from these immigrants making do with the ingredients they had and trying to maximise the flavour of chicken. When the Japanese occupied Singapore during World War Two, a lot of Hainanese lost their jobs as servants to the British. Therefore, chicken rice restaurants began to pop up. This helped popularise the dish and now, it is eaten everywhere every day.
Today, as seen on Netflix’s superb show ‘Street Food: Asia’, at ‘Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice’, Niven Leong follows his father’s special recipe of poaching the chicken. He immerses it in a water bath and leaves to drip dry. He then serves with rice (seasoned with crushed garlic, ginger and salt) and chilli sauce, which is often made using a mix of ginger, garlic, sambal paste and sriracha sauce.
Another classic Singaporean Chinese dish is Bak Kut Teh – pork ribs cooked in a simmering broth of Chinese herbs and spices including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, fennel seeds and dang gui. You may also find several sides including lightly salted ‘youtiao’ (golden-brown, deep-fried strips of dough) meant for dipping into the soup, as well as braised pig’s trotters and a condiment of dark soy sauce with chilli padi.
Given its proximity and brief fling together, Malaysia plays a key role in Singaporean cuisine. One dish you are guaranteed to find throughout hawker centres is ‘Sambal Stingray’. The stingray is slathered with spicy sambal chilli paste and wrapped in a banana leaf before being left to grill on the barbecue. The sambal paste itself is made of dried shrimp, shallots, Indian walnuts and a number of spices including fresh and dried chillies, ginger, turmeric, garlic, tamarind paste and lemongrass.
Speaking of a good sambal paste, you also cannot miss out on ‘Nasi Lemak’. This is a very traditional Malaysian coconut rice dish. Again, wrapped in banana leaves, you will find rice steamed with coconut cream, often served with fried anchovies, peanuts, egg and of course, sambal chilli paste.
Then, we come to the Indian cuisine. As they were both under British occupation at the same time, it was inevitable that a steady stream of Indian immigrants made their way to Singapore. This was spurred on by unrest, instability and famine in India. Many Indian men came in search of peace, looking for work whilst others were serving military duties or prison terms before deciding to settle.
Fortunately, they brought their cuisine with them. One of the most common dishes you are likely to find here is Biryani. This dish comes straight from India. Made using Basmati rice, it is cooked together with fragrant spices like cardamom, turmeric, cloves and cinnamon to give it real flavour. The rice is served alongside moist, tender and succulent stewed chicken or mutton, perhaps topped with a small portion of spicy and tangy achar pickles. It is every bit as delicious as it sounds.
Naturally, as with any great port city, it has acted as a melting pot, facilitating the blend of different cuisines and creating fantastic new dishes. A classic Singaporean Indian dish that can only be found here is fish head curry. It was invented in 1949 when an Indian restauranter set out to create a South Indian-style dish to cater to Chinese customers who considered fish head a delicacy. The dish uses traditional Indian spices to give it a spectacular curried flavour. These include a generous amount of tamarind paste, shallots, turmeric, garlic, dried chilli peppers, curry powder, ginger and curry leaves.
Another of our favourite blends is Laksa. It is believed that this dish originated from the marriages of Malay women to Chinese sailors and labourers. It’s a soup-like dish of thick rice vermicelli with prawns, fishcake, tau pok (tofu puff), and see hum (blood cockles) in a rich, spicy coconut-based broth, garnished with roughly-chopped daun kesum (laksa leaves). For the spicy broth, you will find dried red chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, cashews or candlenuts, coriander, cumin and sweet paprika. Yep, it is spicy!
These dishes are mere tasters of the huge variety on offer in Singapore. Alongside Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine you will also find influences from Thailand and Indonesia, as well as Europe and many other parts of the world. Whatever you eat here, we guarantee it will be delicious.