I have a soft spot for Singaporean heritage food products in a very specific packaging – with retro typefaces, logos and images that contain just the right amount of kitsch.
For many of us millennials, made-in-Singapore food products with throwback aesthetic probably appeal to us because we are constantly reflecting on our identity in a young country that has undergone rapid changes, at times almost beyond recognition.
In recent years, I’ve been paying more attention to the way I consume – buying local and eating local. Let’s face it, it is hard finding shelf-stable food products that are still made in Singapore today.
Even beloved Singaporean heritage food brand Ayam Brand produces its canned sardines and tuna in neighboring Asian countries.
Below are some Singaporean heritage food products that have caught my eye in recent years.
Their retro-kitsch packaging have not evolved much over the years, perhaps intentionally preserved as the distinctive, even somewhat dated, design plays a vital part in reinforcing their brand identities. Or, perhaps refreshing brand identities was not something on the top of their priorities.
Many of these homegrown food products are so ordinary most Singaporeans might not even give them a second glance. Yet, they do not just represent brands that have shaped Singapore’s food culture; they are also brands that have withstood the test of time in a fast-changing sector.
In any case, some of these food products would make great souvenirs for friends and family overseas. Food souvenirs are always a good idea and perfectly representative of a country obsessed with food. Even better when they come in nostalgic old-school packaging.
Singaporean heritage food products
Rose Brand Rose Syrup
Manufactured by T.G. Kiat & Co since 1935 and exported to many countries, Rose Brand Rose Syrup is said to be enjoyed by royal families in the Middle East. Bandung, or rose syrup with milk, is commonly served in the evenings when Muslims in Singapore break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
ILC Bah Kut Tea Spices
Founded in 1987, ILC Trading specializes in making spice premixes comprising pepper and garlic, known for their healing properties in Chinese food therapy. The convenient spice premix for Teochew-style bak kut teh (pork rib soup) makes a great easy-to-cook souvenir (just add garlic, pork ribs and water) that doesn’t take up much space in the luggage for tourists and overseas Singaporeans alike.
Tai Hua Superior Dark Soy Sauce
Founded in 1947, Tai Hua Food Industries is one of the leading soy sauce makers in Singapore. Soy sauce is a pantry staple in the Singaporean kitchen. You can’t eat bah kut teh without chili rings in dark soy sauce. Chicken rice also tastes better with a squeeze of dark soy sauce over the rice or chilli sauce.
Chee Seng Sesame Oil
At first a coconut oil producer in 1943 during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Chee Seng Oil Factory pivoted to sesame oil 13 years later. It is also the first sesame oil manufacturer in Singapore to mechanize production.
Singapore’s first locally-brewed beer is a light pale lager first launched in 1932 that has become the kind of beer older men in Singapore would drink on ice at kopitiams (coffeeshops). In Singapore, I would never order Tiger Beer if I had a choice. I surprised myself when I started drinking Tiger Beer after I moved overseas. The beer is average but more than anything else, it was my subtle way of displaying national pride.
Marigold King of Kings Full Cream Evaporated Milk
This is the first evaporated milk to be made in Singapore in 1970. As condensed milk is commonly added to coffee and tea in Singapore, evaporated milk, or unsweetened condensed milk, is often touted as a healthier alternative. To earn some street cred in Singapore, here’s how you can order a glass of iced coffee with evaporated milk and less sugar in local lingo: kopi-c peng siew dai.
Swallow Globe Brand Agar-Agar Powder
Jim-Willie Trading Company has been producing agar-agar powder, a plant-based gelatin made from seaweed since 1970. As a child, I remember family gatherings at my aunt’s where she would make her trademark colorful agar-agar jelly dessert cut in rhombus shapes, sometimes filled with canned fruit.
Tortally Jelly Crystals
In 2002, Buan Lee Heng Trading started making Tortally Jelly Crystals, our local equivalent of Jell-O. Because it contains gelatin, Muslim consumers will prefer to buy plant-based gelatin instead.
Khong Guan Assorted Biscuits
In 1947, just after World War II, two enterprising brothers Chew Choo Keng and Chew Choo Han bought war-damaged biscuit-making machines to start a semi-automated biscuit production line that eventually became Khong Guan Biscuit Factory. Most Singaporeans would have fond memories of the iconic Khong Guan cream crackers, dipped in hot chocolate or coffee.
Falcon Moon Hokien Mee Swa
Since 1977, noodle maker Tai Thong Food has been making mee swa, a type of vermicelli made from wheat flour that originated from Fujian Province in southeastern China. Today, Tai Thong Food’s mee swa is still simply packed in old-school cardboard boxes when many other noodle manufacturers have long opted for more durable plastic bags. Chinese Singaporeans whose ancestors came from Fujian would also eat mee swa on birthdays as it signifies longevity.