A hawker centre in Smith Street, Singapore. Eating in the hawker centre is a prevalent culinary culture of Singaporean people.
A hawker centre in Smith Street, Singapore. Eating in the hawker centre is a prevalent culinary culture of Singaporean people.

Singaporean cuisine derived from several ethnic groups which have developed through centuries of political, economic, and social changes of this cosmopolitan city-state.

Influences include the cuisines of the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians as well as Indonesian, Peranakan and Western traditions (particularly English and Portuguese-influenced Eurasian, known as Kristang). Influences from neighbouring regions such as Japan, Korea, and Thailand are also present.

In Singapore, food is viewed as crucial to its national identity and a unifying cultural thread. Singaporean literature declares eating a national pastime and food a national obsession. Food is a frequent topic of conversation among Singaporeans. Religious dietary strictures do exist; Muslims do not eat pork and Hindus do not eat beef, and there is also a significant group of vegetarians/vegans. People from different communities often eat together, while being mindful of each other's culture and choosing food that is acceptable for all.

Other than local Singaporean cuisine, it is also common in Singapore to find restaurants specialising in cuisine from a great variety of countries around the world.

History

Chinese soup travelling street hawker in Singapore circa 1880.
Chinese soup travelling street hawker in Singapore circa 1880.

Since its founding as a British port in 1819, Singaporean cuisine has been influenced by different cultures due to its position as an international shipping port.[1] Singapore is geographically located in between the Pacific and Indian oceans but it also has the shape of a peninsula and an island at the same time, where various cultures and trades used to and continue to occur. Indonesia is located to the south, Thailand, China, the Philippines and Malaysia are located to the north and India is located to the west. Since Singapore's geographical position is surrounded by various Asian countries, there is much diversity in food and culture.[2]

The culture of Singapore is made up of diverse influences from different continents and countries. Hence, the Singapore cuisine can be said to be culturally enriched. Singaporean cuisine has also been influenced by its colonial history, as it established as a British colony from the early 19th century until the mid-20th century when it became part of Malaysia before becoming independent; Singapore was also occupied by Imperial Japan during the Second World War.[3]

It is believed that certain dishes that are part of Singaporean cuisine today predates the arrival of Raffles in 1819, some of these dishes include laksa, biryani and betel quid. However, it is unknown when these dishes arrived in Singapore, as historical records on them are largely scattered and inaccurate as these dishes were largely made by early Singapore immigrants at home and not served in an establishment.[4] Adaptation of various dishes that were prepared by early Singapore immigrants to suit the ingredients and taste preferences were how some of the dishes were created,[4] some examples of such dishes are Fish head curry,[5] Kaya toast[6] and Hainanese chicken rice,[7] which are culinary staples to Singaporean cuisine today.[8]

Hawker centres

Hawker center in Bugis village
Hawker center in Bugis village

A large part of Singaporean cuisine revolves around hawker centres, where hawker stalls were first set up around the mid 19th century, and were largely street food stalls selling a huge variety of foods[9] These street vendors usually set up stalls by the side of the streets with push carts or bicycles and served cheap and fast foods to coolies, office workers and those that did not cook at home.[10][11] Although the street vendors provided early Singapore immigrants with cheap and fast meals, these stalls were unhygienic, due to the lack of supporting infrastructure such as waste disposal, a steady supply of fresh water and limited sanitation practices.[11] Starting in the 1960s, the Singapore government started enforcing more rules and regulations for street hawkers and relocated these vendors to more permanent locations with the construction of wet markets and hawker centres across the country.[12]

Today, when dining out, Singaporeans often eat at hawker centres, coffee shops or food courts rather than restaurants, due to convenience, a wider range of options and affordability. These hawker centres are widespread, cheap and usually feature dozens of stalls in a single complex, with each stall offering its own speciality dishes. Well-known hawker centres among tourists include Telok Ayer Market, Maxwell Food Center, Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre. Coffee shops are non-air conditioned versions of food courts and are commonly found island-wide, usually at the bottom of blocks of HDB flats. Hawker centres are the place where people can experience all kinds of different cultural food in one place. Hawker centres, or open air food courts, have come to define Singaporean food culture. Popular markets like Old Airport Road Food Centre in Geylang, Golden Mile Food Centre on Beach Road and Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown offer the best of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cooking, melded into foods that are uniquely Singaporean.[2] Some well-known Singaporean hawker or kopitiam dishes includes kaya toast, chilli crab, fish head curry, laksa, roti prata[8] and Hainanese chicken rice, which is widely considered to be one of Singapore's national dish.[13][14][15]

In 2016, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle became the first two street food locations in the world to be awarded a Michelin star.[16] The former also gained the title of the world's "cheapest Michelin-starred meal".[17][18]

In 2018, Singapore hawker culture was nominated by Singapore's National Heritage Board (NHB), National Environment Agency and Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore for inscription into UNESCO's Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[19] The nomination was submitted in March 2019 and approved and inscribed on 16 December 2020.[20] UNESCO described the hawker centre as "‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner."[21]

Food culture

Chinese Singaporeans families gather in a restaurant in Suntec City for Yusheng yee sang (prosperity toss), a symbol of abundance and prosperity during Chinese New Year celebration.
Chinese Singaporeans families gather in a restaurant in Suntec City for Yusheng yee sang (prosperity toss), a symbol of abundance and prosperity during Chinese New Year celebration.

A common greeting for many Singaporean Chinese comes in the form of the question "Have you eaten?", asked in various Chinese dialects. It is one way of expressing a greeting to another person. It is also possible to assume that this is how Singaporeans think about meals and food. Since Singapore is a multicultural nation there is a diverse range of people who might have different and restricted diets, such as Muslims and Hindus.[22] Since Singapore is influenced by many different regions, religions, and cultures, there are also many events or anniversaries. During the Lunar New Year, people eat nian gao, which is originally from China, and is traditionally eaten around the Chinese New Year. It is an extension of Malay cuisine but influenced by the Chinese and Indians – not to mention the Arabs, British and other immigrants who have contributed to making Singapore one of the world's most important trading ports.[citation needed]

Singapore food internationally

Bak kut teh, one of the foods often associated with Singapore
Bak kut teh, one of the foods often associated with Singapore

Singaporean food is a significant cultural attraction for tourists and visitors. Some Singaporean dishes have become internationally known. In 2011, four Singaporean dishes were included in the list of 'World's 50 Most Delicious Foods (Readers' Pick)' – a worldwide online poll by 35,000 people held by CNN International. They are Hainanese chicken rice (13th), chili crab (29th), Katong Laksa (44th) and roti prata (45th).[23]

Anthony Bourdain brought international attention to local food available in hawker centres on his show, No Reservations. He featured Tian Tian Chicken Rice and Maxwell Food Centre on the programme. Bourdain also publicly spoke about hoping to feature four Singaporean dishes in his upcoming food hall in New York City.[24]

Gordon Ramsay participated in a 'Hawker Heroes Challenge' held in Singapore in 2013, in which each competitor made three dishes. Ramsay's chili crab was voted the best, but he lost on the other two dishes. Losing to Ryan Koh representing 328 Katong Laksa and Foo Kui Lian representing Tian Tian Chicken Rice, he graciously accepted defeat. He mentioned being in absolute awe of the hawkers, and was humbled by how they welcomed him into their kitchens and taught him to cook.[25]

YouTube personality Mike Chen, better known by his username Strictly Dumpling, has created several videos bringing attention to local cuisine on his channel. Over the course of 13 videos he highlighted Singaporean street food, hawker centres, local buffets and restaurants. These videos have a combined view count of over 17 million views.

Singaporean cuisine has been promoted as a tourist attraction by the Singapore Tourism Board. The Singapore Food Festival, held every year in July, is a celebration of Singapore's cuisine. The Overseas Singaporean Unit also organises Singapore Day in major cities around the world as a platform for Singaporeans living abroad.[26] One of Singapore Day's major draws is the local Singaporean hawker food, which is prepared on-site by well-known hawkers specially flown in for the event.

Types of food and some world popular food

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Hainanese chicken rice is considered one of the national dishes of Singapore
Hainanese chicken rice is considered one of the national dishes of Singapore

Singaporean food can be divided into six types: meat, seafood, rice, noodles, dessert and snacks. Singapore is especially renowned for its seafood. Chili crab and black pepper crab are two quintessential dishes that dominate the scene and are greatly recommended to tourists. Another favourite is sambal stingray. In the meat category, Hainanese chicken rice is the most popular dish. Essentially, it is rice cooked with chicken fat, served with boiled chicken, accompanied with chili sauce. Three noodle dishes stand out in Singapore cuisine. "Fried Hokkien mee" comprises fried egg noodles with prawns, sliced pork and gravy. "Nyonya laksa" is composed of rice noodles served in a coconut prawn broth, and "Char Kuey Teow" is stir-fried rice noodles with prawns, Chinese sausage, lard and cockles. In the dessert category, tau-suan is one of many types of desserts commonly found in hawker centres around Singapore. Tāu-suàn (split mung bean soup), is a dessert of Teochew origin. It is a sweet and starchy soup made from split mung beans, usually eaten with Youtiao. In the snack category, kaya toast is the representative dish, primarily due to the use of kaya. "Kaya kopitiams" are a common sight on the island. These affordable coffee shops dish out bread toasts, spread with coconut egg jam and butter, served with coffee and tea as well as two soft boiled eggs.

Common dishes and snacks

Chinese

The dishes that comprise "Singaporean Chinese cuisine" today were originally brought to Singapore by the early southern Chinese immigrants (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese). They were then adapted to suit the local availability of ingredients, while absorbing influences from Malay, Indian and other cooking traditions.

Most of the names of Singaporean Chinese dishes were derived from dialects of southern China, Hokkien (Min Nan) being the most common. As there was no common system for transliterating these dialects into the Latin alphabet, it is common to see different variants on the same name for a single dish. For example, bah kut teh may also be spelt bak kut teh, and char kway tiao may also be spelt char kuay teow.

Malay

Mee soto
Nasi goreng (fried rice)
Nasi goreng (fried rice)
Mee rebus

Situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, Singaporean Malay dishes are influenced by the food of the neighbouring Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and the Riau Islands. Despite absorbing regional influences, it tends to be adapted to local tastes and differs from their counterparts in neighbouring countries. Although Malays, such as the Orang Laut, are native to Singapore, most Malays in Singapore today are descended from native Indonesians or native Malays from present-day Malaysia. .[28] Hence, Singaporean Malay cuisine features a unique set of influences, especially from Minang cuisine. Spices and coconut milk are common ingredients, although Chinese ingredients such as taupok (tofu puffs) and tofu (known as tauhu in Malay) have been integrated. Many Chinese and Tamil Muslim adaptations of the following dishes also exist. As almost all Malays are Muslims, pork is not used as it is prohibited in Islam.

Indian

Indian rojak
Indian rojak
Rice served with papadum on a banana leaf
Rice served with papadum on a banana leaf

Like other Singaporean ethnic cuisines, Indian Singaporean cuisine has been influenced by multiple cultural groups. Dishes from both North India and South India can be found in Singapore.[32]

Cross-cultural

A typical serving of Singaporean-style laksa
A typical serving of Singaporean-style laksa
Katong Laksa and otah

A number of dishes, listed below, can be considered as truly hybrid or multi-ethnic food.

Seafood

Chilli crab

Singaporeans also enjoy a wide variety of seafood including fish, squid (known as sotong in Malay), stingray, crab, lobster, clams, and oysters.

Popular seafood dishes include:

Fruit

A durian stall in Singapore
A durian stall in Singapore

A wide variety of tropical fruits are available all year round. By far the most well known is the durian, known as the "King of Fruits", which produces a characteristic odour from the creamy yellow custard-like flesh within its spiky green or brown shell. Durians are banned on public transport, elevators, certain hotels, and public buildings because of their strong odour.

Other popular tropical fruits include mangosteen, jackfruit, longan, lychee, rambutan, soursop, pineapple and mango. Some of these fruits also are used as ingredients for other dishes: iced desserts, sweet-and-sour pork, and certain types of salad such as rojak.

Desserts

Tangyuan
Tangyuan
Chendol

Singaporean desserts have a varied history. A typical food court or hawker centre dessert stall will usually have a large variety of desserts available, including but not limited to:

Ice cream sandwich

Wafer ice cream sandwiches are a popular dish sold by street vendors operating carts on busy street corners. These carts carry a variety of flavours, including but not limited to vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, sweet corn, coconut, and durian. While some vendors sell their ice cream in cups or cones, as is common in the West, the more popular variant is on slices of bread or between wafers. The ice cream consists of sealed blocks which are sliced to order and then placed on a single slice of over-sized, often multicolored bread. This can be either white bread or a slice of multicolored, slightly sweetened bread (dyed with food colouring and flavoured with pandan leaf extract). A sandwich costs around S$1 but may cost up to S$2 or more in downtown areas and tourist spots.

Drinks and beverages

A typical open-air kopi tiam in Singapore
A typical open-air kopi tiam in Singapore

Popular Singaporean drinks include:

Singaporean dishes uncommon in Singapore

See also

References

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