Singapore is well-known for being a foodies’ paradise with a long list of must-try dishes for locals and visitors alike. With the circuit breaker now lifted, Singaporeans are back in full force at their favourite hawker centres, savouring their favourite local fares while they are still hot.
Chinese, Indian, and European immigrants descended into Singapore in the 1800s not long after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, established it as a strategic trading point amid the lucrative spice routes linking Southeast Asia to Europe.
Singapore became a prosperous port city while under British rule. With that, its multi-cultural food scene also flourished, comprising a quirky mixture of Chinese, India, European and Malay influences.
Because of their proximity to each other and their shared history before Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singaporeans and Malaysians have long feuded over the authenticity of their cuisines, arguing over the origins of famous dishes such as Nasi Lemak and Laksa, but that’s another story.
Local fare is also comfort foods that remind Singaporeans based abroad of home, and their mere mentions will make the homesick tear up. As our hearts fill with COVID-19-triggered patriotism this National Day, let’s rediscover the roots of some of our most loved dishes.
The grand-daddy of Singaporean culinary exports, chilli crab is a perennial favourite and a delicacy enjoyed by many locals on special occasions. Made with copious amounts of dried chilli, a generous serving of tomato sauce, the signature red gravy is thickened with beaten egg and drizzled over meaty portions of stir-fried Sri Lankan mud crab. It is eaten with steamed or fried buns called mantou and is considered Singapore’s national dish.
The chilli crab was reportedly created by a Singaporean restaurateur called Cher Yam Tian in the 1950s. Her son Roland Lim runs Roland Restaurant, which serves chilli crab made from his parents’ multi-generational secret recipe.
According to Mr Lim, chilli crab came about when Mdm Cher’s father got bored with her steamed crabs. Mdm Cher decided to stir-fry them with chillies and tomatoes instead. Word about her unusual but delicious invention soon got around among the neighbours.
Inspired by the success of the dish, Mdm Cher and her husband set up a pushcart stall. It ran without a food licence, so it constantly changed locations to evade authorities. They set up a permanent seaside location in the 1960s in East Coast Park in Singapore’s east. The couple called it Palm Beach Seafood, after the many palm trees that lined Singapore’s coast at that time.
The restaurant’s name was sold and it has been rebranded as a finer dining establishment, relocating to a riverside spot in Singapore’s business district. But the family’s chilli crab legacy lives on through Roland Lim’s own eatery. The dish has become a mainstay of Singapore’s food landscape – today, you can find chilli crab in coffee shops all over Singapore.
Hainanese chicken rice is the next dish that comes to mind when it comes to Singapore’s culinary icons. Said to be introduced by Hainan Chinese immigrants, this dish is a favourite among Singapore’s lunchtime crowd.
It is made up of poached chicken stuffed with ginger and scallion, sitting on top of rice cooked in chicken stock, and served together with dark soy sauce, freshly ground ginger, cucumber slices, and a chilli, garlic and lime sauce.
The predecessor of the now-mainstream Hainanese Chicken Rice is the Wenchang Chicken. The Wenchang chicken is made with free-range chicken, known locally as “kampong” chicken.
The Wenchang chicken is still widely sold on Hainan Island if you are keen to know what the original tastes like. Singaporean variants include steamed chicken or fried chicken. Optional add-ons include chicken innards, braised egg or tofu.
Hainanese immigrants have introduced their signature chicken to Malaysia, which has spawned the chicken rice ball, a version of the dish popular in Malacca. In Thailand, the Wenchang chicken has been adapted to Khao Man Kai, which literally means “chicken oily rice”.
Fish head curry
This dish was concocted by immigrants from Kerala, the southernmost part of India, as a way of adapting curries to Chinese taste buds. Considered a national treasure and marketed around the world as uniquely Singaporean, the fish head curry has also put homegrown establishments Muthu’s Curry and Banana Leaf Apolo on the international map.
Fish heads are usually discarded in most cuisines, but its tender and soft flesh make it popular among the Chinese. A certain M.J. Gomez, a native Keralan who came to Singapore in the 1930s, has been credited with creating the fish head curry.
According to an article by the Straits Times , Mr Gomez came to Singapore in the 1930s, returning a little later to get married. He made several return trips and eventually settled with his family in Singapore a few years after the war. He started his restaurant, called Gomez Curry, on Sophia Road.
The dish became a hit and is now part of Singapore’s heritage. He returned to his hometown in the 1960s and died there of a heart attack in 1974, aged 67. Gomez Curry may have shuttered, but the dish lives on and is now a fixture in many South Indian restaurants in Singapore.
Laksa is a Peranakan dish that has become a favourite among many Singaporeans. The coconut gravy and chopped laksa leaf, which give the dish its distinct taste and aroma, have cemented it as comfort food for cold and rainy days. According to laksa purists, it is not considered real laksa without the addition of blood cockles, despite its controversial mud-like taste.
The dish is a blend of Chinese noodles as well as herbs and ingredients used widely in Malay cuisine. Peranakan, also known as the Straits Chinese, are an ethnic group whose ancestors were early Chinese immigrants to the Malay Peninsula and to Indonesia. They intermarried with the Malay and Javanese people, and their descendants came to be known as Peranakan.
Other than laksa, the Peranakan people have contributed other dishes that have become part of Singapore’s cultural identity, such as bak chang, a rice dumpling filled with meat and wrapped in bamboo leaves; and the Kueh Pie Tee, a crispy pastry shell filled with a sweet and spicy sliced vegetable and prawn mixture.