Makan Till Shiok : The Problems with Defining Singapore Food

Winner of the Design-A-Tee contest (picture from Channel News Asia)

Winner of the Design-A-Tee contest (picture from Channel News Asia)

An illustration of 71 dishes and drinks depicting Singapore’s iconic food culture wins MediaCorp’s “Design-A-Tee” contest. The comments following the Facebook announcement—as with many users comments on various online platforms—are brutal but insightful. While some Singaporeans give the thumbs up for the design, there are complaints that generally fall into three categories:

1. Spelling and translation

Bo bo cha cha or burbur cha cha? Oneh oneh or ondeh ondeh? Cwhee kueh or chwee kueh? Several people have disputed the spellings of the dishes on the designs. Since many of these names are translated from other languages and dialects, it’s hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. Just look at the range of spellings for bee hoon/bihun/mee hoon on signboards at hawker centres and coffee shops. These differences are due to historical and cultural reasons and their names do transform over time. Tomato was native to South America and the Aztecs called it xitomatl. But it became known as “love apples” in France because the French called it pomme d’maure, which means “apple of the Moors,” and many thought it was pomme d’amour. Although standardising the spellings of all foods and drinks will make researching and documenting easier, it will also dilute their eventful pasts. Besides, how should one choose which kueh, kuih or kway to use?

2. Race representation

Because Singapore is a multiracial country, and the state consciously brands itself as so, its citizens tend to seek out such a representation in any works that illustrate the nation. For some, the winning design features dishes predominantly of the ethnic Chinese. It leaves out some like lontong, yet includes the potato wheel, a tidbit with unclear origins.

But what is the magic ratio for this design to be considered fair to all races? Is it 1:1:1 or should it parallel the population size? What then will represent the state-constituted “Other” of Singapore’s racial composition? While the Peranakans are represented by dishes like cendol (or is it chendol?) in the design, no one seems to be up in arms that the Eurasians dishes are missing. Wait a minute, is cendol Malay or Indonesian or…

The challenge in tracing the origins of a dish further complicates the debate. Is a dish like satay supposed to be categorised according to the ethnicity of its inventors (if one traces too far back in time, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire will have to be taken in as one of the nation’s ethnicities), or of the people today who usually peng kang the skewers (the Malays, Indian Muslims, and the Hainanese all do)? Perhaps, it should be categorised according to the races of those who enjoy satay (but who doesn’t?).

Given Singapore’s mix of ethnicities, religions, and social classes, there will always be people left out from any portrayal of the nation. Social categories to which individuals belong determine, in this case, food choices and the meanings associated with them. Therefore, the hawker foods with which the Muslims imagine Singapore are different from the non-Muslims’ top 10 favourites. A middle class shipyard worker who lives in Jurong will base his memories of the nation upon a set of hawker foods different from an upper class banker who lives in Katong. To assume every Singaporean’s idea of the national cuisine is the same is to say that everyone is born equal. But we’re not.

To acknowledge that differences will inevitably emerge is not so that one can disregard the presence of others. It is to recognise how pointless it is to pursue an arbitrary and merely symbolic “racial balance”. To think that it is possible or meaningful to categorise individual dishes according to race reflects a failure to recognise that many hawker dishes already testify to the intermingling of the nation’s diverse cultures. Mee soto and mee rebus are possible because Chinese noodles met Malay spices. Fish head curry came about because some Indian cooks tried to cater to their fish head-loving Chinese customers. Singapore is not the only immigrant country in the world (think USA), but it is one of the few that boasts a fairly well-integrated cuisine, and the members of most races devour one another’s share of contributions. Since most Singaporeans enjoy roti prata and chicken rice, why segregate one dish as Indian and the other as Chinese?

3. Local/Non-Local

Someone also points out that the siew mai included in the design is not Singaporean. Our pioneer Cantonese immigrants brought this mainstay of dim sum to Singapore, and while siew mai is not created in Singapore, it has become a common dish in many Singaporeans’ diet. This is also the case for nasi padang, roti prata, milo dinosaur, chicken rice, chai peng, mee goreng, durian, kueh lapis, ice kachang, and biryani. Instead of nitpicking the legitimacy of these “Singaporean dishes,” it is more constructive to judge the entire cuisine. The winning design is not Malaysian because it would have included nasi kandar and roti prata would have been called roti canai. Neither is it Indonesian, because there is not a dash of Balinese or Sudanese element in it. It is not this or that dish the designer selects, but the combination of those 71 dishes that makes it Singaporean.

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