Does Singapore’s Food Culture Help to Unite Us?

I love getting questions about Singapore from readers. I’m no expert, but if I can help with the little knowledge I have, I feel thrilled.

I just got another fascinating question from Nienke from Holland. She’s researching food culture in Singapore and was wondering if I think food makes Singaporeans come together so peacefully. She revealed that in Holland there are also a lot of different cultures (Dutch, Moroccan, Turkish, Polish etc.) living together, but there are always difficulties going on. She feels that in Singapore everyone seems to get along really well and wonders how this is possible. She wonders if our food culture has something to do with it.

Well I feel that it certainly does. It’s something that binds us together. Our food itself is often a kind of fusion food. For instance, in India you can’t find Fish Head curry. This was invented by our Chinese Singaporean ancestors influenced by the curries of our Indian ancestors. You also won’t be able to find cheese prata in Singapore. This is a recent invention which probably gets the inspiration from melted cheese on pizza.

Much of the food here can be found in the homes of our ancestors in China, India and Malaysia, but they have been modified and now have a uniquely Singapore taste, even if they have been tweaked just slightly. You won’t find chicken rice in China for instance, and I don’t think you can find anyone in Singapore who does not love satay (the food of the native people of Singapore – The Malays) for instance. Just thinking about satay makes me hungry. I think that because Singapore and Malaysia have a common history, culture and food, we feel a closeness with each other.  That’s true for me at least.  We are definitely more than just neighbours.

But beyond fusion, there is the element of nostalgia. Food was very much part of our childhood and we have the same collective memories. We may not be very patriotic (as we are a young nation – just 46 years old) but we are loyal to our food. In fact very passionate about our food and willing to travel across the island and queue up for 30 minutes or more for our favourite hawker food.

Kirsten Han loving calls this place: The Island of Noms. Would love to hear what she thinks about all of this. As she has expressed before it is not so much about the food itself, but the memories and collective experiences that bind us together and makes us feel part of this tiny island. But to be very open about it, there is ethnocentrism everywhere in the world, including Singapore. It’s just that our laws push all these under the surface. It’s naive to think that racism and prejudice does not exist.

But yes I could not imagine Singapore without our unique food culture that we are all so proud of. Recently when an Indian family was asked to stop cooking curry when their neighbour (who is not a Singaporean and happened to be from China) could not tolerate the smell and lodged a complaint, there was a huge uproar and people of all races came to this family’s defense. There was a strong element of xenophobia about it that made us uncomfortable, but basically don’t mess with our culture or bully our fellow people, is the message we all got. I’m sure there are echoes of this in other countries.  When people live in close proximity there is bound to be issues – like chickens in a coop. All I want to say is that things get messy in all countries – it’s never a Disneyland as it may seem on the surface. There was even a Facbook page set up in support of the family and a day set aside to cook curry.  The whole thing got a bit heated.

Sorry, but I am not very apt at commenting on social issues. I would love your input and comments so that I can understand this issue better myself. Before I started writing this post, I thought I knew for sure.  But as I was working through my thoughts as I was writing this, now I’m not so sure. I guess nothing is as neat as it seems.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore & recently cancer too.
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8 Responses to Does Singapore’s Food Culture Help to Unite Us?

  1. not only food, there is the experience of NS and having a common lingua franca helps. Also, studying together in schools.

  2. kirsten says:

    I’m not sure how much our food unites us – there are still many societal frictions and problems within Singapore that will take much more than food to soothe. But there is certainly something about our shared food culture that provides a way for residents of Singapore (not just the citizens!) to connect.

    I for one have noticed that whenever I meet another Singaporean overseas, especially if we’ve both been away for some time, the conversation will inevitably turn to food and the dishes we miss the most. And no matter what our differences are, this is something that almost always allows us to click, even for a little while.

    And whenever people come to visit Singapore, my plans to show them around revolve more around food rather than sights. It’s as if we Singaporeans know that even if our country doesn’t have much to offer in terms of cultural/art/historical sights, we have our food and that’s what we’re most eager for visitors to experience.

    Certainly you can’t deny that food culture is very important to us as a community; it’s a way we make connections with each other.

    • bookjunkie says:

      Thanks so much for your insights Kirsten. I knew that food was an important element, but I didn’t know how to articulate it.

  3. Nienke says:

    Hi Bookjunkie,

    Thank you so much for your blogpost! It’s great information. For me it’s really important to know how the actual Singapore citizens think about this matter. In your blog you also say that things would be different if the government wouldn’t put racial/religious problems underneath the surface. Is the normal day life very influenced by the strict rules of the government? Can you say that everybody (or most people) fear the government?

    And do you know why the Singaporeans eat out all the time? Here in Holland we always make diner ourselves, and we event take sandwiches to work for lunch (really boring!). When we eat out it’s only for special events, and we go with friends or family, not with the intention to meet new people. Do you meet people when you eat in a Hawker centre? Or are you just eating besides each other?

    Thank you also for the links to the blog funny little world, those blogs were really helpful as well. I hope I’m not bothering you with all these difficult questions, and I understand if you don’t want to answer them. Thank you very much for all the information so far!!

    • bookjunkie says:

      Happy to answer your questions Nienke 🙂 I’m thrilled that you dropped by all the way from Holland 🙂

      Yes we are a little bit oppressed. You could say fear to some extent as laws are very strict.

      We mostly eat out with family and friends (known folk) and mostly because it’s pretty cheap. An average meal at a hawker centre would be about $4 including a drink. Don’t really meet people while eating. Sometimes eating out at a hawker centre can be cheaper than eating at home and because in Singapore we work very long hours it’s more convenient to buy take away or just eat out. But it’s definitely healthier to prepare your own meal. Usually people who do, tend to want to be healthy. Hawker food can be quite oily and starchy.

      Kirsten’s blog is amazing…so happy to introduce her to you. She writes so well about socio-political issues.

  4. Nienke says:

    A question for Rubbish Eat Rubbish Grow. Can you explain to me why it helps that you have a lingua franca? Does it make you feel more like a united country, or is it just that it’s easy to communicate with each other? Thank you!

    • bookjunkie says:

      I’ll try to give my take on this too. Singlish is more like having a common jargon that only residents who have been here for very long understand. It’s like a feeling of understanding the jokes and inclusiveness 🙂 Quite a binding factor. We mostly code switch from Singlish to Standard English depending on the situation and level of formality.

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