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Singaporeans and Their Food

by Susan Epstein

Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)

Summer Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(2) page(s): 11, 12, 13, and 14

Singapore, a small island-state twenty-five miles long and fourteen miles wide, is located near the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. On a major sea-trading route, the South China Sea/Indian Ocean route, it is a desirable location that has made this country home to Chinese and Indians who joined the Malays already there. Each of these populations has their own unique cuisine. However, the island's history, climate and blending of cultures has created a melting pot of disparate food cultures Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. And there are melded cuisines such as Nonya that mix local ingredients with the foods of the others.

British rule began in 1819 and lasted until 1963; then Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya. Two years later, they left that alliance and became a fully independent republic. This all began in 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a merchant of the British East India Company, signed an agreement with the Malay ruler that enabled him to establish a trading post. He declared it a free port with no tax on trade. This crucial decision coupled with his vision of a prosperous staging port for the world's ships, created a climate for tremendous growth.

The country grew rapidly and attracted merchants, traders and laborers, most from China and India. These immigrants and the native Malays are the ancestors of Singapore's current multi-cultural society. Early on, by British decree, they lived in separate ethnic residential districts. This was done to prevent unification and rebellion against British rule. As a result, each ethnic group preserved its native culture and its own cooking traditions. These ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India, though unofficial in modern Singapore, still exist.

Initially, there were very few restaurants. People ate at home or availed themselves of the wares of food peddlers who brought cooked foods to their doors. These venders cried out their wares for all to hear. Today, modern Singapore has officially certified 'Hawker Center' restaurant-markets. At them, itinerant peddlers have food stalls that offer a great variety of foods from the many cultures that comprise this small nation. Singapore is famous for these places, government inspected, very clean, and quite inexpensive. Diners can feast without sanitary concerns. They can choose a table or wander around to various stalls eating as they do. They can watch chefs cook their various specialties, then decide what to order. They get a table number and wait for their food to arrive.

The smells at these Hawker Center markets are redolent of garlic, pepper, curry, and ginger. It is a feast for the senses to watch or delight in different noodle dishes, curries and roti in Indian or Malay styles, fried rice, chap chye, chili crabs, satays and sauces, and poh piah. Just about any Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, or Malay food desire can be satiated here. Singaporeans love their food, and it is said that you do not just dine in Singapore, you experience food. It is the country's pride, passion, and its greatest tourist attraction. All this created by a diverse population and their unique mix of food.

Singapore's population increased from less than a thousand in 1819 to eighty times that in 1869. The immigrant majority was Chinese males who came as indentured labor or as merchants. Today, Singapore is about three-fourths Chinese, Malays are the second largest group followed by Indians; a mixture of other groups form the remainder of the population. To understand the food culture of this country, it is important to explore the three main groups living there.

CHINESE: Singapore's Chinese settlers of the 19th century brought the cooking styles of their homelands, primarily the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, to the straits settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The Chinese men often married Malay women and their unions created one of the world's first fusion cuisines, called Nonya cookery. It is referred to by locals as the 'cuisine of love.' Nonyas are Singaporean, their women are called Straits-born Chinese; their men are Babas, and together they are called Peranakans.

Peranakan culture has had a tremendous influence on Singapore. Nonya-style food is a mixture of Chinese ingredients such as tofu, preserved soybeans, shrimp paste, sesame seeds, dried mushrooms, dried lily buds, noodles, and soy sauce with Malay seasonings such as turmeric, coriander, sour tamarind, and coconut milk. The result is a unique cuisine, very different from either Chinese or Malay food. Here in Singapore, even pork--normally taboo in the predominantly Islamic cuisine of Malaysia--is combined with Malay spices, roots herbs, and coconut milk. Nonya cooking is often done by instinctive estimates making it difficult to write down recipes; anyway, it would be otherwise difficult as good cooks jealously hoard their cooking secrets.

Nonya recipes are usually hot and spicy using herbs and spices, unfamiliar in many Chinese foods. Many are based on rempah, a mixture of various spices including chilies, spring onions, lemon grass, candlenuts, lengkuas, turmeric and blancan (sometimes written as balacan). hese are pounded to just the right consistency, preferably done with a stone, or a mortar and pestle. Other tools invaluable to the Nonya cook are a wok or kuali, a sharp Chinese cleaver, and a heavy wooden chopping board.

Nonyas serve their meals banquet style, spread over the length of a long table. Bowls of steaming, fragrant rice are placed in the middle of the table. They serve as a traditional Asian sign of prosperity. There are noodles, curries, sambal, soup, and vegetable dishes from which each diner can make their own choices. Chicken and rice are hallmarks of Nonya cooking. So are other dishes such as laksa, which is a composed dish of rice noodles in coconut gravy laced with shallots and turmeric.

Daily meals are simple. Lunch and dinner may be the same choice of rice, curries, sambals and vegetables. Traditionally, those at Nonya tables mix and eat the food with their fingers. Not just any fingers, but the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. Modern manners favor spoons and forks. Desserts, important in Nonya cooking are very sweet by Western standards, and highly original. Tapioca, sago, corn, yam, and tiny pellets of dough combine with rich sweet gula melaka and santan--coconut milk and make sweets, drinks and puddings. Malay coffee is the preferred drink.

Besides the Nonyas. the Singapore Chinese community is comprised of Hokkiens from the Fujian province, Teochews from Guangdong, Cantonese from Guangzhou, Hakkas from central China, and Hainanese from Hainan Island. Foods from each group are found in the melting pot of Singaporean cuisine with the Hainanese noted for their chicken rice, the Hokkienese their noodle dishes, and the Teochewese their rice porridge.

Chinese cooking in Singapore is mainly stir-fried and steamed dishes, with chop sticks the meal's main utensils. As in China, the diner never sticks chopsticks upright in his or her bowl since this has the connotation of death. Pointing a chopstick at someone is considered rude. Clearly there are a variety of Chinese cuisines well-represented in Singapore. However, Nonya is the cuisine that truly represents this tiny nation. Some consider It the most interesting because it is unique to this country.

Only recently, has Nonya food become available in Singapore restaurants. If you want to experience a true Nonya meal, your best bet is an invitation to a Peranakan home. There are restaurants that serve Nonya dishes in Asian enclaves—as can be found in Flushing, New York and Boston Massachusetts, but these are not common.

As far back as 500 BCE, the Chinese believed in natural healing. Health is considered the perfect harmony of Yin and Yang; in the quest for balance. Flavor and Fortune readers know that nutrition and medicine are closely linked and that foods and medicine are categorized as warming, cooling, or neutral. If a patient has an imbalance these two opposites, a healer determines the cause observing the patient. After a diagnosis is made, an herbalist creates a mixture that can be infused like a tea, boiled in soup, or taken in the form of pills made from pulverized ingredients. The influence of Chinese herbal healing has always been popular in Singapore; it can now be seen in the United States. During the last decade there has been tremendous growth there and here in herbal medicine, aroma therapy, and in the use of vitamins.

In general, Singapore has a reputation for being one of Asia's healthiest countries. High quality Western medicine as well as Oriental medicine, reflexology, homeopathy, aromatherapy, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are available and popular. Traditional Chinese medical halls are widely available and people can walk in and get a consultation with a Chinese sinseh for a variety of common ailments.

The Chinese, in Singapore and elsewhere, believe that certain foods—symbolic foods—will help them attain success, wealth, many sons and a good life. Red and yellow are considered lucky colors; red dates and yellow tangerines good luck symbols. Ho see, the Cantonese word for oyster, sounds like good deeds and well-being so they are eaten in abundance on New Year's Day. Small good luck buns filled with lotus paste are sometimes eaten for breakfast, and so on.

INDIANS, as traders, have been in the straits region for more than a thousand years. About sixty percent of Singapore's Indian population are Tamils, from the eastern part of Southern India or the Tamil enclave in northern Sri Lanka. The rest are Bengalis, Punjabis, and Malayalee. The Indian community, often referred to as Little India, has been close since the 19th century, carefully maintaining their religious, social, dietary, and professional customs. Shoppers at the markets of Little India, find all the spices that comprise the curries or masalas of Indian cooking–the chilies, cloves, turmeric, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, coriander etc. They also find lamb and mutton hanging to age, an abundant selection of tropical fruit, and food venders selling a variety of groceries, seafoods and meats; their own feast for the senses.

Both northern and southern Indian cuisines are represented in Singapore as well as a hybrid Singapore-Indian style that incorporates Chinese elements such as noodles into older recipes, i.e.: fish-head curry mixed with the Indian spices of coconut milk, tamarind juices, cumin and fennel. Southern Indian cuisine has rice as its staple, and its own focus on thin hot curries, rice-flour breads, and vegetarian dishes. Meals generally consist of several vegetable dishes cooked with coconut and a complex mixture of spices. The meal is often served on a banana leaf along with steamed rice. Meat is generally not eaten, the cow is considered sacred to the Hindus, many of whom are strict vegetarians. Like the Nonyas, food is eaten with the fingers.

Northern Indian cuisine has wheat as its staple, with a focus on milder creamier curries. It relies less on chili peppers than on cream, ghee and chopped nuts for flavor. Meat is eaten when it can be afforded. Food is usually served with light naans, a tandoori-style Indian bread, to mop up the rich sauces. A North Indian feast is served in courses. Northern cooking focuses on the tandoor method of cooking, in which marinated meat is partly baked--partly roasted in a clay oven on long skewers placed standing over charcoals.

MALAYS in Singapore are descended from migrants from the states of Johore, Malacca, and Indonesia. Their cuisine is heavily influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian cooking; It is said that it adopted the use of spices from India, cooking techniques and ingredients from Indonesia, and ingredients and customs from the Chinese way of cooking. It has these and some of its own unique characteristics including that chilies are used often, lemon grass popular for Malay food's lemony-peppery undertones, tamarind for tartness, and shrimp paste, turmeric and coconut milk all adding their own distinct flavors to their foods. Malays, who are largely Muslim, do not eat pork, nor drink alcohol, so those are not part of their dietary.

Rice is the staple food and served at every meal. Breakfast may consist of fried rice, coconut rice, pressed rice, or rice gruel served with sweetened tea or coffee and condensed milk added. Lunch and dinner are rice meals with a number of fried or braised dishes, chilies and sambals, or little spicy side dishes. A Malay feast consists of a lavish spread of golden rice spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, spicy condiments and sambals, accompanying curried vegetable dishes, spicy meat dishes, or roasted seafoods. Malays eat with their fingers, though spoons and forks are gaining acceptance. The Malay cooking style requires simple tools such as a clay or aluminum pot with a rounded base and a fluted opening on top for simmering curries, a wok for stir frying or braising and a tawa or flat iron griddle for grilling. Although Malay food is not as prominent in Singapore as is Chinese, familiar favorites like chicken curry, various sambals and laksas, spicy noodle soups, are part of their mainstream diet.

Festivals and holidays, due to the multicultural nature of Singapore’s population, are many. They are celebrated throughout the year with a plethora of food part of many of them. The following is a brief description of some important events in Singapore:

Poon Gal commemorates the Tamil harvest and Thanksgiving ceremony. Rice is cooked in new pots and allowed to boil over to symbolize prosperity. It is then offered to the gods with vegetables, sugar cane and spices. Ultimately it is eaten by worshipers in a cleansing ritual.

Chinese New Year is a two-week festival celebrating the end of the year and beginning of a new one. People eat seasonal cakes, kumquats, and other tidbits.

Qing Ming Festival is when Chinese gather in cemeteries and temples to offer food and prayer to their ancestors.

Hungry Ghosts Festival is during the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, that is when the Chinese believe spirits wander the earth. People offer incense, food and prayer to ward off bad luck. This Mooncake Festival is the Chinese celebration of the overthrow of the Mongol Dynasty. At it, pastries are traditionally eaten that are called Mooncakes; they are filled with lotus seed or red bean paste and the yolk of a salted egg. Legend says that rebel forces smuggled messages to the people inside the mooncakes.

A special pilgrimage to Kusa Island is a month long festival. Taoist Chinese go there to offer fruit, flowers, joss sticks and red-dyed eggs to the temple and Malay shrine on that island.

Hari Raya Puasa is celebrated by Muslims to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. There is much feasting eating of sweet meats, special cakes and ketupat or rice cakes are eaten. Hari Raya Haji, another Muslim holiday, honors those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca. At this one, sheep are slaughtered as a sacrifice to Allah and the meat from them is widely distributed. There are many other important Singaporean holidays, including religious Christian ones such as Good Friday and Christmas. There are national holidays including Labor Day and National Day. And, locals of various other nationalities celebrate a plethora of others. Food, so much a part of Singapore's culture, plays a role in all of them because Singaporeans are clearly devoted to their food and their holidays. At celebrations and on ordinary days, food is considered the unofficial national pastime; everyone participates.
Susan Epstein has written two cookbooks, made television and radio appearances. and given many cooking classes. She has an MBA from Baruch College, lives on Long Island, and provides wonderful food for her husband and three children.
Ayam Buah Keluak is Chicken with Pangi Tree Seeds
1 chicken (about three pounds) cut into eigths
20 Buah keluak or pangi tree seeds
3 and 1/2 ounces lean ground pork
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 piece about 3/4 oz of galangal root, minced
1 piece about 1 and 1/4 inches of fresh tumeric root, peeled and chopped or one Tablespoon tumeric
6 candlenuts, chopped
10 fresh chili peppers, sliced into rings
7 ounces shallots, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
juice made form eight ounces of tamarind pulp
1 stem lemon grass, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons oil
1. Thoroughly scrub the pangi tree seeds and soak in four cups of water for twenty-four hours, changing the water frequently. Then, slice off the broad end of the seed and remove the kernel with a fork. Save the shells.
2. Mash the kernels with the fork, add the pork, two teaspoons of sugar and a little salt and knead well.
3. Fill the shells with the mixture and reserve.
4. Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the galangal, tumeric, candlenuts, chili peppers, shallots, and the shrimp paste until the flavors have fully developed and oil seeps out.
5. Add the chicken pieces, pangi tree seeds, lemongrass, the remaining sugar and salt and stir well. Then add the tamarind juice. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Nonya Popia II
12 Egg Wrappers (see recipe below)
12 medium lettuce leaves
1 cup shredded giant white radish known as daikon
1 cup shredded yam or taro
1 medium carrot, shredded
1 cup shredded cabbage
3 shallots, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, minced
3 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons mashed taucheo which are salted yellow soybeans
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound cooked peeled small shrimp
1/2 cup or 2 ounces fresh bean sprouts, chopped
3 large scallions, shredded
2 ounces firm bean curd, shredded
1/4 cup shredded omelet, made from half an egg
12 sprigs fresh cilantro
3 Tablespoons sweet soy sauce
1. First prepare egg wrappers. Then, cover them with a clean cloth until needed. Allow them to cool before rolling the popia.
2. Mix the radish, yam carrots cabbage, shallots, garlic and ginger and saute this mixture in the oil for about four minutes. Sprinkle on the tauche0 or mashed salted yellow soybeans and add the sugar and three tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer gently for about four minutes, until the vegetables are cooked but still slightly crisp.
3. Turn this mixture into a colander to cool and drain.
4. Arrange the lettuce, shrimp, uncooked vegetables, bean curd, omelet and cilantro on platters with the wrappers.
5. Place the drained cooked vegetables in a dish and pour the soy sauce into a small pitcher. Take both to the table as well as the egg wrappers.
6. Each guest assembles his or her own by lining a wrapper with a lettuce leaf, then adding a selection of ingredients. After doing that, the soy sauce is drizzled on them and the wrapper rolled up, but not too tightly, just before eating the popia.
Popia Egg Wrappers
4 large eggs
4 Tablespoons corn oil
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1. Beat the eggs thoroughly and mix with the other ingredients, adding enough one or two tablespoons of cold water, if needed, to make a thin batter.
2. Strain this through a fine colander, preferably into a pitcher or bowl with a pouring spout.
3. Brush oil on a heavy skillet or wok; or use a non-stick pan, and pour in sufficient batter to make a thin round wrapper about seven to eight inches in diameter.
4. Cook this pancake over medium heat until firm and lightly colored on the underneath side, then turn it over and cook it briefly the other side. Repeat until twelve pancakes are made. Stack and cover each one, on top of those already made, with a clean cloth. If there is any additional batter, reserve it for another use. Cover and refrigerate; it will stay one or two days.

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