For Starters


Food is undoubtedly an important aspect in Singapore. From the many hawker centres we have to the high-end restaurants, the Singaporean tastebud has definitely acquired the ability to source out good food wherever it is. We see this from long queues at more famous stalls and learn that many people are willing to travel across the island just to get the tau huay in Geylang, chai tao kuay in Ghim Moh or the wonderful dim sum at Red Star Restaurant located at Chin Swee Road.


Dim Sum

If it's anything in this multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious society that we have come to notice, it is that we are the classic example of cultural diffusion. While the main aim of cultural diffusion stems from the want of capital gains, it has brought more colour and added variety to the Singapore landscape that all Singaporeans are far too familiar with. Some may say that our landscape lacks iconicity such that we ought to be known as Singabore rather than Singapore, but if we take a look at our food culture, we know that boring is really far from reality.

The Singaporean food culture speaks of a fusion of cultures from all over the world. From Malay food to Japanese cuisine, Western fast food joints to the typical Chinese restaurants, we have a good mix of delicaices to pick from. This array of choices is representative of cultural diffusion in the local context. Alongside globalization came the entry of different cultures into this small island so it comes as no surprise that in one way or another, we begin emulating certain cultures while ethnocentrism helps us in defining what cultures we do not want. And so, we have decided to take a deeper look at the local food culture and seek to understand why things are the way they are- things we do not usually try to comprehend on an ordinary basis.

Take for example the myth that dinner time is the meal of the day that we associate with socialising, and less so for all other meals. Also, we will take a look at why meal times are events that promote socialising more than other activities like going to the movies or shopping. Our choices of food also reflects our lifestyle and more insights will be given pertaining this issue as well. What we realised is that Singaporeans love their food and appreciate it despite not knowing the many reasons for why our culture is as such. This idea is linked to a sense of place. Subsequently, we will also be looking at hawker centres as a case study, as well as how media affects food culture. (Links are available in the sidebar under "Content".)

Rojak

-a mix of ingredients and representative of the Singapore food scene with a mix of foods from all cultures.

Singaporean Lifestyle

No one can deny the fact that eating is a significant part of Singaporean culture. Singaporeans do not eat simply for the sake of filling their stomachs; rather, it is a reflection of the Singaporean lifestyle. From a variety of hawker centers to fine dining, there is never a lack of places to go to for dinner in Singapore. No matter the reasons, be it whether the limited forms of entertainment available in Singapore, or the inborn love of food in every Singapore, eating is a part of every Singaporean’s lifestyle.

Images of Singapore Lifestyle

A big part of our lifestyle is reflected in our choices of places to eat dinner. For example, a person who has a more limited income, like students, would probably choose to eat in hawker centers or food courts, instead of choosing fine dining. On the other hand, someone who has more spending power and indulges in a more luxurious lifestyle may choose fine dining over eating in hawker centers. Another way that our choice of eating places reflects our lifestyle is illustrated by the fact that some people may choose fast food outlets due to their hectic schedules and lack of time to sit down and slowly enjoy a meal. In Singapore’s fast-paced society, fast food outlets here never suffer from a lack of business. Just like other habits in our lives and choices we make, the places people choose to dine at are also examples of how we choose to live our lives, and are indicative of our lifestyles. This said, some people might also choose to dine in certain places, to illustrate or attempt to show people their ‘lifestyles’. For example, a person who has just entered the workforce may not usually dine at fine restaurants, but when dining with his boss, or a client, may choose fine dining in order to show others that he has the means to dine there.

Not only the choice of eating-place is indicative of a person’s lifestyle; a person’s choice of eating partners also reflects his or her lifestyle. A person who is more family-oriented may choose to dine at home, or dine out with his family, in order to spend more time with his family. However, a more career-minded person would probably choose to dine with his business associates in order to build up his network of contacts, and so as to become more business savvy. This illustrates how a person’s choice of people that he dines with also reflects his lifestyles, values and mindset.

Eating Places in Singapore

Furthermore, a person’s choice of food is also representative of his lifestyle. Someone who is more afraid to try new things and would rather stick to what he knows would probably eat the same kinds of food, whereas someone who is more adventurous would not be afraid to try all different kinds of food and venture out from the more common types of food. This, once again, shows how someone’s lifestyle is reflected through the several choices he makes with regards to food.

Dinner Time Talk

Clarke Quay in the day

Clarke Quay at night


Students chat heartily over McDonald value meals as they get together after a day of school and extra activities. Just a stone’s throw away, clusters of people spill out of Pasta Mania and Thai Express in queues. One floor up, Crystal Jade Palace is filled with the tinkling of Chinese cutlery and conversation. And while a romantic candlelight dinner for two unfolds beautifully in a cosy Italian Restaurant nearby, families and friends dine casually but equally comfortably in food courts and hawker centres. Some simply enjoy warmth of a home-cooked spread. People from all walks of life gather for dinner more than just the rudimentary purpose of filling the stomach and relieving hunger - birthday celebrations, wedding banquets, class get-togethers, family gatherings, dates – the list can go on and on.


Students at Mos Burger

Socialisation among Singaporean’s is commonly observed over the most “important” meal of the day. The familiar saying that breakfast is the most essential meal to start the day is definitely a mere saying to us Singaporeans. For the majority, breakfast more often than not a “grab and go” affair. From my observation, most students who are fortunate enough to have a “grab” at this first meal of the day munch on bread in plastic bags on the way to school. This is nothing unusual to us. Even after half a day of labour, many choose to wolf down a Subway sandwich or some takeaway with eyes still glued to the monitor in that lonely office cubicle. Speaking of rushed meals, I remember having my recess food in just 20 minutes before that good old bell went off again.

Being thought to be time-orientated multi-taskers, Singaporeans generally do not have the luxury of enjoying fellowship in socialising during meals. This could be why it seems that we place more emphasis on the last meal of the day. Well, at least the last for some. Dinner becomes a leisurely activity where people get together in various social groups. I look forward to dinner – less time constraint, more good food. From my mother’s kitchen to the most high-class restaurant in town, dinner seems to call for a wider spread. Also evident is the increased amount of effort that goes into the choice of cuisine for dinner. My personal view is that people feel temporarily relieved of their day’s dose of stress and many look on dinner as a kind of deserved reward for a day of hard work. Eating in itself can serve as a very relaxing, stress-relieving activity. Dinner, being at the end of the day is all the more a pleasurable moment to savour.


A family enjoying dinner at night in Chinatown


For these very reasons I guess, dinner becomes a social tool in our society. We often receive invitations to grand Chinese dinners at restaurants where couples celebrate marriage. Occasionally, we attend class gatherings with BBQ on a cool breezy evening at East Coast. Chinese families coming together for a scrumptious reunion dinner is a yearly affair. And of course, we certainly love the indulgence of buffets together – the more the merrier. Just pause a second now to think about the last time you found yourself having a BBQ or reunion dinner in solitary. It is highly unlikely that a recollection as such even exists. And even if it does, it wasn’t exactly much fun was it?

What's With That Shape?

Circles and rectangles- are they just shapes that we learnt in our kindergartner years or something more significant?

Sure, we Singaporeans think that we know our food and are proud of our eating culture, but what exactly helped form this eating culture that we so often indulge ourselves in? While we always talk about the variety of food that we can boast of and the culinary skills of many chefs, we have neglected an important part of our food culture- the structure of our eating places.

Dining places in Singapore have a common feature that all Singaporeans take for granted because of their abundance- the tables. Round or square, they easily seat four to ten persons during a single mealtime. To us, there may appear to be nothing special about such a characteristic since most of us have been brought up in a time when all of these were already in existence. Only the older generation would have witnessed the transformation of Singapore’s eating places, from roadside hawkers to the many hawker centres and restaurants which provide comfortable seating. Gone are the days where people had to squat by the roadside in an unglamourous fashion slurping their ten cents’ worth of noodles.


Rectangular dining tables in Lau Par Sat

Round tables are in essence the key tool in most of our social gatherings. Round tables are more than just a piece of furniture with utilitarian value, but form much of what the Singaporean food culture is based on. This very feature allows people to sit in a way such that nobody is left out and everyone can participate in the conversation. The round table is a classic piece of furniture that allows a relatively large group of people to be seated together during any meal time. Under such a circumstance, it would be unlikely that anyone would be left out in a corner, as in the case of the more angular tables. We see these in many hawker centres and Chinese restaurants where the atmosphere is light and plenty of conversations are taking place amidst the clanging of utensils being washed and the occasional sounds of utensils dropping. Undoubtedly, the round table has served to encourage socialising rather than inhibit it.

Round tables in a typical Chinese restaurant

Still, I am not saying that square or rectangle tables inhibit the socialising process. Here in Singapore, we are more likely to find such tables in non-Asian restaurants. These also promote socialising, but on a smaller scale. Such tables are more intimate since they usually cater to two or four diners, as in the case of fine-dining restaurants for culinary experts, places for discussing business deals or a romantic candlelight dinner for two.

In contrast, our American counterparts have a very different dining experience. Many of their restaurants have bar counters where people can simply eat and leave. This is something that we can hardly find here. This serves to explain why dining out is not an event many Americans deem 'sociable'. Of course, we can also look at it that with the vast amount of space that the US has, travelling just to dine out would be far too troublesome and so they stay home and share their meals. Well, there are always exceptions, seeing how sitting in fornt of the television eating out of 'dinner boxes' has also become a common affair. It is now more explicit why we dine the way we do in Singapore. Our largely Asian culture sets in place the need to eat together so much so that we value the concept of eating together at the table and even take this culture along with us out of our homes and into dining places. The structure of our eating places continues to promote this common value that we all share.

Round tables in a hawker centre

We cannot deny that mealtimes here are a social affair. If all we had were bar counters then conversations would be few and far between. Judging by all the noise we generate through incessant chatter over meal times, it is far too obvious that discourses at the dining table are something that we cannot do without. This, with the exception of far too conservative families who believe that meal times should be just an eating affair to nourish the bodies and nothing more. Surely that belittles the significance of eating at the dining table, would it not?

I never thought that the structure of our dining places would actually help formulate the Singapore food culture this much until now. It is not something that we would take into consideration on an ordinary basis but rather something that has been taken for granted for a time too long.

Food, food, food


Food has always been used as a tool to define culture and identity, especially in defining characteristics of a country. This is especially true in the case of Singapore where the humble food has taken on iconic status and is rarely separated from the concept of national identity. This can be seen where praise for the high variety and versatility of food is often included in the assessment of the country itself. In this small nation of over 4 million people, food is a national passion as proven by the 20,000 eating establishments all over the county. Wherever one is, there is surely an eating place of some sort near them, showing just how pervasive dining has become.

What is Singapore food? This is food introduced by early immigrants to maintain an identity of their roots while in this foreign land. It has its origin in India, China, Malaysia and other countries in the region, leading detractors to claim that there is no such thing as Singapore food. They are only partially right because Singapore's cuisine is 'Singaporeanized', a fusion of the many cultures and races that have lived together on the island.

Being the food capital of Asia, Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Western foods are all available. Indian Muslim food(so called Mamak food) is very popular, with roti prata, mee goreng, Indian rojak, nasi padang, mutton soup being some of the more popular dishes. Dishes from India, particularly northern India, are popular in Singapore, but the Tamil's (the Indian majority in Singapore) prefer the hot and spicy southern Indian cuisine, with its saffron rice.
Malay cuisine is a blend of traditional dishes from Malaysia with strong influences from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. Coconut and Belacan is an essential ingredient when cooking these dishes. Malay dishes, use a variety of spices such as the kaffir, lime leaf and lemon grass, shallots and garlic, ginger and galangal to give it its characteristically piquant, spicy flavor. Some of the favorite Malay dishes among Singaporeans are Satay, Beef Rendang. and Soto Ayam. For religious reasons, pork is never used in Malay cuisine.


Roti Prata

Chinese food itself can be subdivided into those from the different dialect groups, namely Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Hainan and Hokien dishes. Famous dishes like Dim Sum, Cantonese porridge (sometimes called congee) and Wanton soup originate from Cantonese cooking. The Hakkas are famous for their Yong Tao Foo (stuffed tofu). Originally filled with minced pork flavoured with salted fish, the hawker version consists of a variety of boiled vegetable filled with fish paste that comes either with various sauces or as a soup. Through this dish, their values of thriftiness and diligence are reflected, showcasing part of their identity. The Teochews are famous for their fish ball noodles(especially Mee Pok - flat egg noodles), porridge and steamed dishes. Next, there is the well-known Hainanese Chicken rice, whose popularity easily earns it the status of an unofficial national dish. The Hokkiens who make up the largest Chinese ethnic group in Singapore offer dishes like Oyster omelette, Char Kway teow and Hokkien Mee.

Chicken Rice

The culture of Singapore food expresses a rich mixture of diversity as various ethnic groups continue to celebrate their own cultures while intermingling with one another. It is common to see Malay stalls selling halal food also serving halal versions of traditional Tamil food. Chinese stalls sometimes also introduce Malay ingredients, cooking techniques or entire dishes into their range of catering. Nonya cooking is a famous example of the local variation on Chinese and Malay food, mixing Chinese ingredients with local spices such as lemon grass and coconut cream. The popular spicy, coconut-based soup laksa is a classic Nonya example. Western dishes like chicken cutlet and fish and chips have also adopted an asian fusion with stalls sometimes serving it with rice rather than potatoes Seafood is another popular and social food that embraces the food culture of diversity. Chili crabs, black pepper crabs, drunken prawns, and curry fish head cooked using the famous sambal chili of the Malays, the curry of the Indians along with spices of the Chinese are enjoyed by all. Eating barbequed sting ray from a piece of banana leaf is also no longer just malay culture, it is an intricate part of Singaporean seafood culture. This continues to make the cuisine of Singapore significantly rich and a cultural attraction.

Laksa

This rich diversity of food has become such an integral part of Singaporean culture that there is no longer any conscious segregation of it under different racial or dialect groups. Due to a history of interracial and inter-class mingling, most citizens have already embraced these differences under Singaporean food as a whole. Meals are planned not according to racial distinctions but according to the taste and preference of the day. It is so common for people to eat food outside of their racial or dialect group that no one even bats an eyelid. It is also not surprising if one has taken food from all the different races within a day.