The Flavours of Singapore
Despite its status as the smallest and least populated city-state in Southeast Asia, Singapore is one of the most developed countries in the region. It boasts a very modern and efficient economy, and its citizens enjoy a high standard of living. Singapore’s success story is largely down to the diversity of its people, made up of numerous ethnic groups and overseas expatriates. In fact, some 23 percent of the total population are foreign nationals.
One of the most obvious benefits this population diversity brings is the variety in cuisine. From hawker centres to Michelin-rated restaurants, Singaporean cuisine perfectly encapsulates the ethnic diversity of its citizens. Indian, Chinese, Cantonese, Indonesian, Middle Eastern and, of course, Malay influences can be widely seen in the foods available throughout Singapore. For many expats, eating out has become a popular way to taste and enjoy these delicious and healthy foods.
With its small geographical size and high population density, there are concerns about the large amounts of food, vegetables, meats and seafood that Singapore has to import. However, its close proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, and its importance as a strategic naval location in Asia, ensure that foods imported from surrounding countries remain fresh and nutritious.
Focusing specifically on popular Singaporean cuisine, it is particularly evident to see the influence the various ethnic groups have. A number of Singapore’s most popular dishes can trace their roots back to traditional Malay, Chinese and Indonesian recipes.
Chicken Rice, for example, is a Singapore-style variation of the dish that originated in the Chinese island of Hainan. Considered the national dish by many Singaporean citizens, Chicken Rice is actually a very simple dish to prepare. This may be why it remains so popular at both hawker centres and restaurants. Consisting of boiled chicken and steamed or boiled rice with an accompanying sauce that is made from chilli oil, ginger paste and soy sauce, Chicken Rice is a traditionally ethnic Chinese dish that was first adapted and then adopted as Singaporean.
The modern version of the stir-fried noodle dish Char Kway Teow, combines elements that would be recognised as distinctly Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean in terms of its ingredients, flavours and cooking methods. Yet, this dish was first developed in China. It is prepared with Chinese sausage and chives, prawn, cockles, bean sprout, onion and egg. The use of flat rice noodles also helps to enhance the flavour of the accompanying ingredients. Char Kway Teow remains an extremely popular dish at both hawker stands and in the home.
Indian Mee Goreng fuses a Chinese cooking-style with Indian ingredients. In the 1950s, Indian immigrants began experimenting with woks and Chinese cooking methods, which they then combined with their own traditional ingredients. Indian Mee Goreng was one such resulting dish. It uses yellow egg noodles which are stir-fried with slices of potato, pork, tomatoes, egg, green chillies and cabbage. In Singapore, this dish is memorable due to its fiery red colouring and full-flavoured taste.
Fish Head Curry is another dish that shows how chefs were able to combine other cooking styles and ideas with their own traditional ingredients. An Indian chef, keen to attract more Chinese immigrants to his restaurant, first developed fish head curry. This dish consists of the head of a red snapper fish which is simmered in traditional Indian-style curry gravy, with added tamarind sauce and vegetables. It became extremely popular, and variations of the dish have since been replicated in restaurants throughout Singapore and even Malaysia.
Southeast Asian Fusion Dishes
A popular breakfast in Singapore, Nasi Goreng first originated in Indonesia where the name of the dish translates to “fried rice.” The rice is typically leftover rice from the day before, which is preferred to fresh rice as its hardness is better for frying. Shredded chicken, shrimp or fish are the main ingredients, plus cabbage, shallots, garlic, cucumber and garlic. The popular Singapore version of the dish may also include chicken satay and prawn crackers, while the rice is often topped with a fried egg.
A source of contention between neighboring Malaysia as to who first invented this dish, Chili Crab is another extremely popular dish in Singapore. Although a variety of crabs can be used, mud crabs are the most common. The dish is prepared with crabs that are simmered in a thick and sweet tomato and chili sauce.