Food is a popular choice of gifts amongst Singaporeans. Local snacks are a common souvenir from overseas trips, festivities are celebrated by the exchange of boxes of pineapple tarts or kueh bangkit, and what better way to build fellowships than stabbing one’s fork into a colleague’s food?
For many Singaporeans, food has also become a great introduction to their country. This is how it often goes: “You know chili crab, chicken rice, or laksa? Well, they come from Singapore.”
A tiny problem is that food is an imposing and intrusive gift. Sharing the joy of food or the concept of one’s culture is great, but pressurizing others, by ways of social etiquette, to literally digest them is not. As much as chili crab is great, people like variants of them, or for some, not at all.
A recent trend in Singapore’s design scene offers a solution. Food has become a popular subject matter for local designers: From kueh tutu erasers by Winston Chai and Yong Jieyu, to Lee Shu Han’s noodle poster, and the nonya kueh sticky notes by the Singapore Souvenirs collective—there is now a spread of delicious food-inspired design products available for consumption.
While these cannot be eaten like the real dishes, they are functional as vehicles for conversations with foreigners over what these food are and the relationships Singaporeans have with them. If it’s with a fellow Singaporean this conversation is to be had with, not a word is needed to strike a chord with that person.
It is worth noting that many of the existing designs are largely based on traditional dishes rather than corporate food brands or products. It is a positive sign that Singaporeans’ shared food memories are built around personal, cultural histories, rather than trend-driven consumerism. If the copyright wall has prevented the corporations’ participation in our nation’s narratives, may that wall never be taken down.
But many of the food immortalised thus far are Chinese and Peranakan (a community whom also share the Chinese culture). The definition of Singapore food, however, is never so restrictive. After all, one of the key things that differentiate Singaporean Chinese from their counterparts in Hong Kong and China is that the former goes gaga over roti prata, mee rebus and curry fish head—dishes that reflect the contributions of the country’s Malay and Indian culture too. More diverse representations of Singapore food in design would be more inclusive and accurate.
While food-inspired products are great as souvenirs, designers should consider the design of our food too. The nature of many Singapore dishes forbid them from becoming exquisite gifts. How do you pack bak chang, bak kwa, putu piring into one gift box and make them look like they belong with one another? What designers in Singapore have done so far is mostly taking food out of its context to create something fun and new. But how about bringing design into food packaging to serve up fresh possibilities of something familiar?
One example is the bite-size nasi lemak dumpling prototype conceived by DesignSingapore Council and the Food Innovation and Resource Center.
The prototype’s small size is appropriate for casual tasting, while its sealed packaging raises its potential for gifting. This is just one example of the government’s recent intiatives—holding conferences like the Singapore Food Vision 2020 and design thinking workshops—to push food and beverage businesses to incorporate design into their products.
Perhaps one day we will find, at the basement of Takashimaya, or at Changi’s departure hall, a mind-blowing array of gift set boxes comprising of this country’s pride.