It is hard to talk about Singapore without talking about food. Our convenient geographical location in Southeast Asia aside, what really differentiates Singapore from other moneyed cosmopolitan modern cities is, of course, our food. For a country that prides itself on multiracialism, it is near impossible to pick one representative dish in Singaporean cuisine when faced with diverse offerings from Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan cultures. The permutations are endless, ranging from soupy noodles, meat and seafood dishes eaten with rice to steamed savory and sweet cakes and pastries. Many Singaporean dishes are also either spicy or have their own chili-based condiments be it fresh chili rings in soy sauce or a blend of fiery chili, garlic, ginger and lime juice.
Over the centuries, along with aspirations for a better life, immigrants brought along their culinary traditions – comfort food in a brave new world – to Singapore. They adapted dishes by tailoring them to local preferences and invented new ones using regional ingredients on hand. Some of these foods eventually evolved to become uniquely Singaporean dishes that we call our own – heavy on flavors derived from ingredients like coconut milk, chili, pandan leaves and soy sauce that are found across the multi-ethnic cuisines of Singapore.
Prior to the founding of colonial Singapore in 1819, Singapore was inhabited by indigenous Malays and seafaring Orang Laut. The Malay population in Singapore surged as a result of the movement of Malays in the region. Malay Singaporean dishes tend to be influenced by food from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, as such liberal in the use of coconut milk and rempah (spice paste). For the Peranakans, descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malays, the Malay influence is obvious: the foundations of their cuisine are built on Chinese ingredients cooked with spices and Malay techniques.
When Malay Indonesians came to Singapore, they brought food like sate with them. Satay, as we call sate in Singapore, is a Malay dish comprising grilled meat on skewers that is believed to have originated in Java. Indonesian satay is usually served with a kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)-based dip while Singaporean satay comes with a mildly spicy peanut sauce dip, with some Chinese Singaporean satay vendors adding a dollop of pineapple purée to the dip and offering pork as an option, a meat that is not found in traditional satay since Malays are mostly Muslims.
Likewise, rojak, a fruit and vegetable salad that Singapore is known for, came from Indonesia. Today, the rojak we are familiar with in Singapore uses vastly different ingredients, mostly vegetables with pineapple and you char kway (dough fritter). There exists a local variant, barely recognizable even, called rojak bandung which consists of boiled kangkung (water spinach) and cuttlefish dressed in a sweet and tangy sauce.
Chinese Singaporeans are mostly descendants of immigrants from the southern China’s coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan. Chinese ingredients like taupok (tofu puff) and tauhu (tofu) have long since been integrated into Malay Singaporean food.
Immigrants from Guangdong’s Chaoshan region, my late grandfather among them, first popularized fishball noodles, a common dish of bouncy fish paste balls and flat rice noodles in broth, in the Malay Peninsula. Today, the dish has come into its own in Singapore: a smorgasbord of egg and rice noodles to choose from, an option to have the noodles tossed in a savory spicy concoction of black vinegar, soy sauce, sambal chili and fish sauce. What separates Singapore’s version of fishball noodles tossed in sauce from neighboring Malaysia’s: a dollop of ketchup is added to balance out the spice.
Similarly, dishes like Hokkien mee were born out of enterprising immigrants. A quick street-side meal of excess noodles made by Fujian-born noodle factory workers after work gave rise to Hokkien mee, slippery rice and egg noodles stir-fried with fish cake, prawns and squid sometimes served on opeh (betel nut palm) leaf with lime and sambal chili on the side.
The majority of Indian Singaporeans are Tamils and Malayalis who trace their ancestries to South India and Sri Lanka. Roti prata, typically sold by Indian-Muslim hawkers in Singapore, is a South Indian-style flatbread probably originating from Malabar parotta that is prepared plain or with eggs on a greased griddle, dipped in curry or sugar.
Among the numerous dishes of Indian origin that were invented in Singapore, the most famous would have to be fish head curry, created by a Malayali restaurant owner from Kerala who had adapted a South Indian fish curry recipe to appeal to Chinese Singaporean customers with a taste for fish heads.
There is also sup tulang, a Singaporean dish accidentally created by an Indian-Muslim hawker selling mee kuah – mutton bones in a thick sweet-spicy red stew where marrow is sucked out from the bones using a straw and slices of local baguette used to mop up the sticky sauce.
Somewhat like Hong Kong’s soy sauce Western cuisine, an affordable and local interpretation of Western cooking, Singapore’s take on Western cuisine is best described as old-school British food adapted to the local palate by Hainanese chefs who had worked in British households, ships or restaurants when Singapore was a British colony.
Singapore-style Western food is commonly found in kopitiams (coffeeshops) and hawker centers. For most of us who had grown up in this city-state, we have fond childhood memories of grilled meat drenched in brown sauce served with no-nonsense crinkle-cut fries, baked beans and coleslaw on the side as well as Hainanese curry rice, a more fusion rendition of pork chop, eaten with chap chye (braised mixed vegetables) and rice drenched in curry and gravy.
As for the origins of roti john, the story goes that a Malay hawker said “Silakan makan roti, John,” meaning “Please eat this bread, John,” when he served an omelette baguette sandwich to an Englishman who had asked for a burger. Funnily enough, what he said could also be interpreted as “Please eat this dish, John’s bread,” and the name stuck ever since.