Food is my National Identity


by Joel Phoon, United World College Maastricht
6th July, 2019


Picture yourself standing in a filthy, unpaved street littered with trash. The sunlight beating down upon you, beads of sweat dripping profusely down your chin. You’re feeling extremely parched and exhausted from pulling passengers around in your rickshaw(1) for the past five hours. Dropping off your passenger, you decide to stop by one of the makeshift carts along the road for a bowl of Laksa. It is simple fare, but it fills your stomach and keeps you going. This was the reality for one of the thousands of early immigrants to Singapore.
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Due to its strategic position and status a free port, Colonial Singapore had attracted people from all over the world, and these people came for two main reasons: trade and work. Out of the many that passed through, there were three main ethnic groups that settled and decided to call Singapore their homes: the Chinese, who worked as traders, middlemen or coolies(2) ; The Malays, who made use of their unique crafting skills to help them acquire jobs in boat-building, gardening, and fishing among others; and finally, the Indians, who were mainly moneylenders, merchants, or moneychangers. The influence of these early settlers on modern day Singapore is still apparent, and nowhere is it more apparent than in our food.
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Take the humble bowl of Katong Laksa for example. Aptly named after the Peranakans that lived in the Katong area, Laksa is a dish that consists of a soup base made of coconut milk and spices and rice noodles that are cut into short lengths. Traditionally a dish to be eaten only with a spoon, this Laksa can still be found in hawker centers(3) around the island. And although the dish has been jazzed up to adhere to modern standards with the addition of pricier ingredients such as blood cockles, at the core, the dish is still the same as what it was even before the nation gained its independence.
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Another example would be Roti Prata, a flatbread that is tossed, stretched, and then fried on a griddle with ghee (4). Served with a vegetable or fish curry, the dish is reminiscent of the staple Paratha that can be found throughout the Indian Subcontinent. First popularised by the Indian population in Singapore, Roti Prata has evolved to become synonymous with the midnight supper runs of a large proportion of the population, myself included.
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Although you will find many long snaking queues at any time of the day for these dishes, it can still be argued that these two aforementioned dishes cannot be called our own. After all, we just adapted existing recipes to our taste. Enter Chilli Crab. A dish that is uniquely Singaporean, Chilli Crab is said to have been brought into existence by hawker Cher Yam Tian of the  Palm Beach restaurant during the 1950s when she decided to opt for bottled chilli sauce instead of the usual tomato ketchup for her dish of stir-fried crabs(5). Nowadays, a slightly different version which calls for the use of egg whites in the gravy to add to its velvety texture which is served with deep-fried bread, Mantou, is more commonly found in Singapore. Cher Yam Tian took what was a traditional dish from her hometown and inadvertently made it Singaporean.
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At this point in the article, you, as a reader, probably already have some understanding about Singapore’s food culture and how our heritage lives through the cuisine served here on a daily basis. But still, the question remains: How did dishes with such diverse origins come to define and even become someone’s national identity?  To answer this question, I believe we must take a dip in Singapore’s metaphorical pool of policies. In particular, the Ethnic Inclusion Policy which was implemented in 1989. In short, the policy set racial quotas for Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks and neighbourhoods, in which around 80% of the population live in (6). This policy played a large role in ensuring religious and racial harmony in Singapore, because it not only facilitated interaction between members different races and beliefs, but also made sure that the children of these people went to school together, played together, and most importantly dined together.
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It is precisely because of this that the members of each group were exposed to the cuisines of the other groups. In that sense, food became a social lubricant of sorts – it was something we could all bond over. Sometimes, food even becomes a source of friendly competition. Who makes the better version of a certain dish? Which style of Nasi Lemak is better? Chinese or Malay?
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So, for me, whenever people ask me about my national identity, I don’t mention a costume, or traditions. Because we don’t have those. I mention the food. Why? For me, it represents my life. I grew up running around the hot and humid hawker centres, interacting with the hawkers, and of course, getting free food. But more than that, Singaporean food in many ways keeps me rooted to home and gives me a sense of belonging. It reminds me of the rich history, culture, and the diverse origins of my nation and its population. Even as I am thousands of kilometers away from home, whenever I see or hear about a dish that I consider to be Singaporean, I smell the scents of spice, oil and charcoal fires.
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And therein lies the magic of Singaporean food.
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(1) A passenger vehicle pulled along by another person.
(2) A manual labourer.
(3) Hawker centres are open-air complexes that house a myriad of stalls that sell inexpensive street food.
(4) Clarified that is commonly used in South Asian cuisine.
(5) Lim and Damien, “Chilli Crab,” Infopedia, June 17, 2011, , accessed June 27, 2019, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1112_2011-06-17.html.
(6) “Ethnic Integration Policy Is Implemented – Singapore History,” History SG, , accessed June 27, 2019, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/d8fea656-d86e-4658-9509-974225951607.
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Bibliography
“Ethnic Integration Policy Is Implemented – Singapore History.” History SG. Accessed June 27, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/d8fea656-d86e-4658-9509-974225951607.
Lim, and Damien. “Chilli Crab.” Infopedia. June 17, 2011. Accessed June 27, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1112_2011-06-17.html.

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