Any culture that asks ‘have you eaten?’ as a form of greeting is bound to like food.
The real appeal of Singapore for food lovers isn’t just the noodles or the sate or that crab – it’s the feeling of being surrounded by 5.4 million like-minded people who are truly obsessed with eating.
You know that friend (or maybe it’s you), the one who thinks about dinner at breakfast, who will base an entire day around where they want to eat, and will argue to their last breath about the city’s best laksa? Now imagine an entire nation of people like that, and you’re some way to understanding just how much Singapore loves food.
A history of good food
This national obsession is hardly surprising given the three great eating cultures that combine to form the basis of Singaporean food: Malay, Indian and Chinese.
To understand Singapore’s food, you have to understand its history.
The similarity with Malaysia’s cuisine makes sense when you consider Singapore’s position, an island city-state that sits at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, with an indigenous Malay population.
Modern Singapore was only established in 1819 by the British, who used the colony as a trading port, and it was in this period that Singapore’s Indian and Chinese populations grew – brought by work, military service, indentured labour or trade.
Add to that the fact that Singapore was colonised by Japan during WWII, became part of Malaysia before gaining independence, and has long been at the intersection of many ancient sea routes, and you end up with a national cuisine that has borrowed from all over the world.
As simple as it sounds, the thing that makes a borrowed food Singaporean is the mere fact that it is made and eaten in multi-ethnic Singapore.
Singapore's favourite national dishes
Singapore’s line-up of favourite national dishes shows the diversity of influences on its cuisine.
Choosing a national dish is a bit like choosing a favourite child for Singaporeans, but Hainanese chicken rice certainly tops many lists. Brought to the country from Hainan, China, there are versions of the same dish found across South-east Asia, but none so widely loved as the Singaporean take.
Another dish to thank Hainan migrants for is kaya (coconut jam) toast with soft boiled eggs and a kopi (coffee), the undisputed national breakfast of Singapore and mainstay of Singapore’s kopitiam – traditional coffee shops that are basically smaller versions of hawker centres, often with a number of stalls selling food.
While most of the crabs eaten in Singapore’s famous chilli crab are actually imported from Sri Lanka, it’s that chilli sauce – sweet and hot, soured with tomatoes and flecked with ribbons of beaten egg in the southern Chinese tradition – that makes this dish a Singaporean creation.
Similarly, satay bee hoon is a uniquely Singaporean street food dish that was created by Teochew Chinese migrants, coating vermicelli noodles in a spicy satay sauce, and Hokkien mee, bak kut teh (meat bone soup), and fried carrot cake are other Singaporean favourites with Chinese ancestry.
Ask a Singaporean the best place to get any of these dishes, and they’ll probably point you to a hawker centre, places that are proudly at the heart of Singapore’s strong food culture.
The centres – hundreds of which can be found in Singapore – tend to have a central eating area, with a whole range of stalls under the one roof. This set-up dates back to after WWII, when roaming street-food sellers, or hawkers, were causing traffic jams and public health issues, and authorities pushed to move them into centralised buildings.
The result is a food wonderland, where prawns sizzle in woks, charcoal sparks fly, roti are tossed in the air, noodles are thrown into bowls and hundreds of people queue and eat and then eat some more.
Hawkers usually specialise in just one dish, and cook them to traditional methods that are often time and labour intensive, and sold very economically.
As rents rise and being a hawker becomes increasingly difficult, there is growing concern that these traditions won’t last, and so the best time to eat in Singapore may be right now.
Still, many young entrepreneurs are trying to preserve hawker foods by modernising business practices and making them profitable. And of course, this tax haven with an increasingly rich population and a large ex-pat community also has its fair share of world-class fine dining and international foods, if you’re into that.
The culinary landscape of this global city is ever changing, as it always has been.
Lead image by Jeremy Carver via Flickr.