Rambling001 Food, Culture, History


Okay, I’m gonna ramble about local food and how it remains relevant in our lives today despite the many “modern” food options available to us.

Took a trip to the museum recently and there was a section on food from the early days in Singapore, many of which are our local favourites till today. It got me thinking about how food, both in the cultural aspect and historical aspect has changed over the years.

Society is obsessed with change and moving forward but at the end of the day, what we eat today is really what our fore-fathers brought with them when they came here all those years ago.

Yes, cuisine options abound, from classical french to modern european, but this post is gonna focus on local food that has been passed down the generations. Every family has it’s own special recipe for laksa or chicken rice or even chilli. We will probably never be able to determine which is the “original” katong laksa or chilli crab or ayam penyet but therein lies the essence of asian cuisine: each family’s interpretation of the dish has been tweaked no less than the number of times a chef tweaks a menu for a new restaurant.Someone may prepare roast pork with 101 different spices but I know just as many a chef that would season it with just salt and good old ground black pepper, concentrating instead on the chilli it is served with.

Socially, the way we consume our food has also transformed over the years. From squatting by the street corner slurping at a bowl of porridge to sitting on a wooden bench with a leg raised, lapping noisily at piping hot noodle soup, chicken rice is now served ala fine dining. A local hotel does a tasting portion of chicken rice served on a single porcelain spoon, complete with the garlic and chilli. Another does a degustation menu of 5 all time local favourites, paired with wines from around the world.

When the revered Chef Ferran Andrià (of world-renowned El Bulli in Spain) visited Singapore earlier this year, he was brought around to taste our local favourites in the coffee shops and hawker centres, just the way we locals would have them. Now that would have been a true taste of the food, rather than if he had decided to hole himself up in his hotel room and order a local-sounding dish like Singapore Style Fried Noodles or something.

My point is, do these variations taste any better just because they are prepped in kitchens hosting an entire team of chefs and served on fancy platters that are pre-heated and cleaned around the edges before they are served?

I personally am a strong believer that they merely provide a watered-down interpretation of these traditional foods that must still, in all fairness be tasted in a hawker centre, or at a corner stall, for a visitor to savour the dish as we locals do.

We’ve got many dishes here to be proud off, hainanese chicken rice, laksa, nasi lemak, bak kut teh, hokkien mee, char kway teow and many other. Sure, not all of these are Singaporean and the debate will never end as to where they originated, but I am proud of our local interpretations of the dishes and I’ll have it no other way.

If I’ve got a friend from overseas coming in, we’ll probably end up at Changi Village for Nasi Lemak or at Bedok for Roti Prata, not at a 5-star hotel for a bite of chicken rice! The media has for too long, been obsessed with featuring the latest trends in the culinary front, gushing about some chef that was born in italy, trained in france, worked in germany, opened a restaurant in spain and has now graced our humble shores. Why not do a feature on old Uncle Tan who has been helping out at his father’s congee stall since he was 8 and has run the stall all through the years with exactly the same recipe, serving up hundreds of bowls of hot piping porridge everyday individually cooked? Ain’t he a culinary giant in his own right?

Let me end off with a quote from the great Luciano Pavarotti said in his book Pavarotti, My Own Story, that “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”

When you next tuck into your favourite chicken rice or lor mee, remember that you’re tasting years of hard work, passed down through the generations, as sophisticated and as developed as any dish served in your favourite high-end restaurant!

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