A bowl of Orang Laut cuisine.
Travel & Culture

Saving a Fading Food Heritage

“Every weekend, my cousins and I would be on our best behavior, competing to be among the ‘chosen few’ as the boat could only carry six people. At the island, we were taught many things—how to identify fishing spots and venomous fish, forage for mollusks at low tide, fish in the open sea, and sometimes how to maneuver the boat and when to drop the anchor.”

Firdaus Sani’s most treasured childhood memories are made of these weekend trips to Pulau Semakau, an island off the southern coast of mainland Singapore, where his grandparents had lived before they were resettled on the mainland in the 1990s. 

The reward of a tiring but fun day out was their grandmother transforming the foraged siput ranga (spider conch) into a delicious sambal (chilli paste) dish.

Orang Laut, or Malay for sea people, are nomadic seafaring people living in Singapore, southern Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia’s Riau Islands. They are considered to be one of the indigenous people of Singapore. 

Today most of them have converted to Islam and are urbanized as a result of Singapore’s rapid industrialization and modernization in the past decades. Descendants of the Orang Laut identify as Malay, a broad ethnic group in Singapore encompassing indigenous communities as well as immigrants from Indonesia and Malaysia.

21-year-old Muhammad Nasir Bin Roslan identifies as Orang Laut but confesses he still has a lot to learn about his roots. “Growing up, my dad would always tell me that his father was a fisherman and a native Malay Singaporean, from the Orang Laut community.” 

History teacher Mohamed Shahrom Bin Mohd Taha’s late paternal grandmother was an Orang Laut from the Biduanda Kallang tribe while his late paternal grandfather descended from the Bintan Penaung tribe. 

To this day, he and his family do not consume pomfret as legend has it that a school of pomfret had helped bring his ancestor Laksamana Bintan safely back to the harbor when his ship was damaged.

He remembers eating lightly-heated turtle eggs as a child, a seasonal delicacy that his late grandmother had enjoyed, but does not know of any Orang Laut recipes in his family. 

In a podcast interview last year, Firdaus described the moment when he had to explain gulai nenas (pineapple in prawn broth), a staple in his family, to a Malay friend. It made him realize that Malay cuisine is not homogenous. This prompted him to launch Orang Laut Singapore, a home-based food delivery venture, with his mother and aunt in August 2020 in a bid to raise awareness of Orang Laut cuisine, where the use of particular ingredients and how they are eventually cooked can differentiate even the same dish cooked by other Malay communities.

Anthropologist Vivienne Wee recounted a conversation she had with a former villager from Pulau Sudong, another one of Singapore’s Southern Islands, who could not understand why most Singaporeans do not differentiate between the different types of squids such as nos, prized for its ink used in making sotong hitam (squid in squid ink).

Wee had carried out field research on Pulau Seking, a small island not far from Pulau Semakau, before its islanders, most of whom identified as Orang Selat, were evicted and the island merged with Pulau Semakau in the 1990s to become an offshore landfill.

“You can’t call everything ‘sotong’ (squid). Even ingredients themselves have been lumped together,” Wee exclaimed in frustration.

“There will always be a special bond between us and the sea, and in Malay, we call that jiwa laut, or spirit of the sea.”

In the past, Orang Laut tribes such as the Orang Seletar, the Orang Biduanda Kallang, the Orang Selat and the Orang Gelam could be found in various parts of Singapore either in houseboats or in littoral dwellings.

The heart of the Orang Laut’s cultural identity inevitably is tied to the sea. They lived off the sea and mangrove forests, on a diet of vegetables and mostly seafood. Firdaus explained, “There will always be a special bond between us and the sea, and in Malay, we call that jiwa laut, or spirit of the sea.”

As Shahrom pointed out, unfortunately the Orang Laut did not leave behind any native chronicles. Their food heritage has also not been fully explored in existing academic research on Singapore’s Orang Laut community.

“We can’t just rely on documented history as most of what was documented is now lost today, especially Singapore’s indigenous island traditions and culture. One way we can preserve our traditional food heritage is to document what’s left of our cuisine and conduct oral interviews with older people in the community,” Firdaus said.

Kerabu ikan buntal (pufferfish salad) is a traditional Orang Laut dish that is facing the threat of dying out because ikan buntal (pufferfish) is hard to come by these days and not many people know how to de-poison the highly-toxic fish.

Asnida Daud shared with me her mother’s recipe for kerabu ikan buntal which involves mixing shredded boiled ikan buntal meat in a chilli paste of ginger, garlic, onion, belacan (shrimp paste), turmeric, tamarind, and lemongrass. 

Asnida’s family used to live on Pulau Sudong before the island was converted into a military live-firing zone. Her mother is Orang Laut, tracing her ancestry from the Orang Galang tribe in Indonesia.

Asnida’s mother revealed that sometimes ikan buntal caught in the traditional bubu fish traps would be released because it was too tedious to de-poison the fish. 

In Firdaus’ family, boiled ikan buntal is stir-fried in a thick gravy of belacan, chili, garlic, onion and black peppercorn. Only one uncle knows how to de-poison the fish and Firdaus’ mother is the only one who knows how to cook it. 

Firdaus’ late great-grandmother was a midwife on Pulau Semakau who had relied on foraged plants and marine life believed to have medicinal properties including gamat (sea cucumber).

Gamat is traditionally eaten by women after childbirth to reduce internal bleeding and aid healing. It can be cooked in rice porridge, eaten raw with a sambal belacan dip and even made into an ointment to treat cuts and burns.

In her comprehensive ethnohistorical study of Singapore’s Orang Laut, Siti Nur Aisha Omar noted that mangroves and shorelines were a source of traditional healing. For instance, kedabu (mangrove apple) fruit is used to cure coughs while nyirih (cannonball mangrove) is used to treat skin diseases and wounds.

Treats for the islanders back in the day were simple. As a way of giving thanks, Firdaus’ late grandfather used to collect latok (sea grapes) and mix them with grated coconut for one of the teachers to snack over coffee. Firdaus added that young sea coconut was also paired with sambal belacan, making for a sweet and spicy snack.

For Asnida, one of her favorite food memories has to be that of her late grand-aunt’s spicy asam pedas (sour and spicy fish stew) made with ikan pari (stingray). She even immortalized the dish in a poem: “Lada Hitam dibatu giling / Pari Sembilang tak sedap kalau digoreng / Buatlah gulai” (“Of black peppercorn sprinkling on the mealing stone / And stingray, catfish are not tasty if they are fried / Fit for spicy and luscious stew”).

Unlike the majority of the Orang Laut tribes who assimilated into the urban Singaporean population, the Orang Seletar made the decision to move across the Johor Strait to Malaysia to preserve their traditional way of life when Singapore was rapidly developing in the 1960s.

The last Orang Seletar moved out of the Seletar area in April 1986 to make way for development projects.

According to Shahrom, following their relocation, the Orang Seletar were still traversing the Johor Strait freely to Singapore as recent as in 2008 just before maritime borders were tightened after a terror suspect’s escape from Singapore into Malaysia.

Jefree Salim is the son of the tok batin (village chief) of Kampung Sungai Temon, one of the nine Orang Seletar villages on the southern coast of Johor. He explained how food traditions and hunting practices are still kept alive across the strait.

The Orang Seletar are animists, unlike most Orang Laut who have since converted to Islam. Said Jefree, “Pork is the main food for the Orang Seletar today as it was before since the time of our ancestors.” His older brother and uncle still go hunting for wild boars every week, using dogs, nets and spears. The village would also come together to prepare babi bakar (grilled pork) for big feasts like weddings.

Moreover, ontel is still commonly eaten in his village of 400 inhabitants. A traditional Orang Seletar food staple made from wheat or cassava flour that is kneaded then boiled, ontel is typically accompanied with sugar, babi bakar, fish or crab sambal, belacan or ubi kayu (cassava).

Other traditional foods include boiled or grilled ubi kayu, spicy biawak bakau (mangrove monitor) curry, and even grilled dugong. According to Aisha’s research, Orang Seletar children who were unable to swim by age four were known to be fed sand shark meat in the hopes that it would induce them to swim.

“Other than the stories that we have, food is the only thing that keeps us together.”

Contrary to common belief, there are some Orang Seletar who still live in Singapore although they have long been urbanized. Jefree knows at least one Orang Seletar elder whose son had married a Chinese woman and lives in Singapore.

Wee lamented the only trace of Orang Laut culture left in Singapore today is the small enclave at West Coast Park where former Pulau Sudong islanders moor their boats and gather on weekends.

“The only tangible thing that we have left in the family is actually the food. Other than the stories that we have, food is the only thing that keeps us together,” Firdaus said in a recent interview. “When we come together, most of the time, it’s actually for the food.”

As descendants of the Orang Laut try to preserve their food heritage, the rest of us have much to learn from the Orang Laut way of life. 

Asnida said, “Deemed primitive and backward for centuries, these people were actually more advanced because they were in tune with nature and could survive simply taking what they needed from the sea.”

Shahrom, who has four children aged between two and nine years old, agreed. “Environmental education is something I can pass on to the next generation, teaching them to be more aware of food wastage and our carbon footprint.”

To this end, Orang Laut food culture is as much about respecting nature as promoting sustainable consumption. Firdaus said, “Their lives were guided by only having what they needed for the day. It’s important to practice this in today’s context as it’s so easy to over-consume.”