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Singaporeans explain why their food hawker culture merits Unesco listing, hit back at Malaysian critics

Hawker food centres unify country’s diverse threads, express its multiculturalism, and may even be an art form, so they deserve Unesco cultural heritage status, Singaporeans say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 8:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 12:12pm

When Singapore announced it would nominate its food hawker culture to be included on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Malaysian foodies were up in arms.

Celebrity chef Ismail Ahmad told English-language Malaysian newspaper The Star that Singapore’s food hawker culture lacked authenticity because it was confined within buildings, and described the hawker centres as “beautiful but tasteless”.

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Cultural conservationist Wazir Jahan Karim told the newspaper that Singapore needed to be more specific should it wish to claim hawker culture in its entirety as its own.

“Singapore can stake a claim, but the culinary history of Malaysia is so much richer and more authentic in comparison,” she said after the announcement last month. Singaporeans, though, are adamant that their beloved hawker food is unique.

“The sheer variety and customisation in Singapore is what makes our hawker cuisine unique,” says Linda Lim, course manager at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management.

“Stalls next to each other sell different types of food from different cultural groups. Even simple fishball noodles could differ across stalls, from one Chinese stall to another, depending on the stall owner’s dialect group. Also, the hawker business and recipes in Singapore are usually handed down from generation to generation. This lineage makes it unique, too.”

Lim adds that although both Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine have elements of multiculturalism, Singapore hawker culture is more structured and regulated, possibly because of its smaller size and strong national support.

Others point out that not all of the dishes served in hawker centres originate from Malaysia – as some Malaysian critics claim. The country’s cosmopolitan milieu and social development play a huge part in shaping its flavours.

Alvin Pang, an author and editor, says the taste of Singaporean food today reflects the country’s history. Food served by hawkers, who were moved into special indoor centres for hygiene reasons in the 1970s, is derived from the city state’s unique blend of cultures, he says.

“Many of the dishes we have here, even though they may have roots in Chinese, Indian or Malay cuisine, have been infused with Southeast Asian characteristics you wouldn’t find in their places of origin,” he says.

“Cases in point are Singapore’s Hainanese chicken rice, which differs from Hainan’s, Hokkien noodles that do not taste anything like those in Malaysia or Fujian [the southern Chinese province where the Hokkien dialect originates] or rojak, a fruit and vegetable salad dish, which means ‘eclectic mix’ in colloquial Malay.”

The sheer variety and customisation in Singapore is what makes our hawker cuisine unique
Linda Lim, Nanyang Polytechnic

If there is a distinctively Singaporean art form, Pang adds, it would probably be its hawker food.

“By bringing hawker food together into hawker centres, we have brought together some of the best fare under one roof that is judiciously catered to our mix of cultures,” he says.

“Maxwell and East Coast food centres are in themselves distinct Singaporean dining experiences, more memorable than any restaurant. It’s a pity today’s hawker food is a little sanitised and lacks wok hei [taste of the wok] to be truly in character and tasty.”

Some Singaporean natives feel that hawker culture unifies the diverse threads of the country and is more tangible than, for example, the culture of a specific ethnic group.

Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says: “I could see the logic of selecting hawker culture as Singapore’s first [Unesco] nomination, as it is something that cuts across all communities. The other nominations, such as Eurasian and Peranakan culture [that of the Straits Chinese], are not exclusive to Singapore.”

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For Frances Loke Wei, a graduate student in linguistics, the hawker centres are living exhibitions of Singapore’s “motley culture that you won’t find in any museum of artefacts in the country”.

“As a linguist, I like to think of them as a pasar [Bahasa Malaysia for market] for languages. They act as a microcosm of Singapore, embodying its transactional nature and origins, while featuring influences of languages from Southeast Asia, India and China,” she says.

Singapore’s hawker food culture also continues to evolve as local taste buds become increasingly sophisticated. In many hawker centres today, you can find novel fusion menu items that retain old-school flavours but feature new preparation techniques and ingredients. Singaporeans, as an ever-evolving population, typically embrace these concoctions.

Traditional dishes may be given a modern twist. For example, there’s cheese fried carrot cake, satay rice patty burgers, and truffle oil wonton noodles. Western fare, including the humble burger, can also be given an innovative Asian makeover. Hambaobao, in Bukit Timah, serves a burger made up of chap chye (assorted vegetables) and ayam buah keluak, a chicken dish enlivened with a mix of nuts and spices.

Authenticity is subjective, says Dextre Teh, a food and beverage consultant and marketer. He says it’s hard to argue one dish is necessarily more authentically Singaporean than another.

“I don’t believe that there is such a thing as an authentic flavour of a culture or country. Perhaps you can say it’s only traditional. As Singaporean restaurants like Jumbo and Long Beach Seafood start to become corporation-like and develop central kitchens [where the food is prepared then sent to the chain’s branches], it’s only natural for standards and quality to suffer,” he says.

Teh finds it difficult to think of any single hawker dish that could be described as exclusively representative of Singapore.

“Chilli crabs are one of the national icons, but in recent years the dish has become something passé and bygone, still popular but slowly losing its traditional flavour. My family restaurant has been trying our best in preserving the chilli crab for the next generation.”

The city state’s huge expatriate population – accounting for 1.6 million of the 5.61 million population as of June 2017 – are also fans of hawker food centres, and always have something to say about local cuisine.

Daniel Vrenner, operations manager at a shipping firm, says the hawker culture in Singapore reminds him of his home country, Mexico. “Our mercados [markets] closely mirror a Singaporean hawker centre. In Singapore hawker centres, I love that you can get pieces of fruit and fruit shakes just like in Mexico. The corn in a cup sold in Singapore is also very similar to our tamales back home.”

Vietnamese expat Huy Pham, a marketing professional at a technology start-up, compares the street food found back home with that in Singapore.

In Vietnam the food is renowned for having green elements such as vegetables, while a lot of street food dishes there are either home-made or have their own unique recipes that have been used for years. 

“I think Singaporean cuisine can learn from Vietnam’s to be less reliant on oil or chilli for flavour, and for a more natural taste,” he says. “As for Vietnam, it could do with setting up more structured and less overwhelming food centres to make Vietnamese street food more welcoming to visitors.”

New York-based writer and blogger Erik Trinidad has visited Singapore many times and finds the city’s food culture the best way to observe and connect with its people.

He describes typical Singaporean experiences: “In Geylang, young Singaporeans gathered at a table outside a durian stand to socialise, people-watch, and simply sit and eat the tropical fruit – despite its strong odour,” he says.

“At Lau Pa Sat [a food centre in the central business district], locals and expats conversed over dinner, while a Filipino cover band played on a nearby stage. I could only imagine that this was the nighttime hawker scene as it was decades ago – minus the Journey lyrics and ubiquitous glow of mobile devices, of course.”

Turkish-born Emir Cetinel, an operations professional with consultancy Future Talent Council, believes more could be done to promote Singaporean food culture outside Asia. He points to how Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Italian food has attained global popularity thanks to immigrants who took their food culture overseas, above all to the United States.

“It is crucial for the Singaporean government to offer support, both financial and logistical, to take hawker culture and migrate it to appropriate [overseas] markets,” Cetinel says. “I travel frequently and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a Singaporean restaurant or hawker in any of the countries I’ve visited. Now I understand that Singapore has a fairly small population, but that shouldn’t hold anyone back.”

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Cetinel has some thoughts about the future of Singaporean food and how it can retain its appeal as it continues to evolve. He believes it boils down to two things.

“The first is a revival and modern interpretation of certain recipes without losing their essence,” he says. “The second is an increased effort in making it known better worldwide.”