With visions of splendour and a mighty list of touristy things to do, I recently made my first trip to London. Amongst my scribbles of “must try Burger and Lobster” and “visit platform nine and three quarters”, was “get Chinese takeout” – simply because I felt it was a classic sitcom thing to do, and I did want to know the difference between that and Chinese food in Singapore. And so upon arriving at a dingy Chinese takeout restaurant I asked the man behind the counter what he recommended.
“Oh, you should really try the Singapore noodles!” he exclaimed.
“What? What’s that?” I stared at him wide-eyed.
“Noodles with eggs, mushrooms…” he trailed off before adding, “Spicy, it’s spicy!”
So I ordered the noodles with other dishes, went back to the apartment, and ate every bit of that god-awful meal but feeling utterly satisfied, because those noodles really got me thinking about how the rest of the world saw us. If a little takeout restaurant could name a dish after us, it meant something for the Singapore cuisine, didn’t it! Perhaps it was simply an effort to sound exotic, but really, we’ve yet to even crown the national food in Singapore and somewhere out there people may already be doing it for us. We don’t call ourselves Asia’s culinary capital for nothing, huh?
So, What’s a Food Capital?
Being a culinary capital isn’t just a fancy way of saying you have the best food around. The roots of the culinary capital concept is said to stem from French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, as noted by authors of Culinary Capital – Peter Naccarato and Kathleen Lebesco. However, with the concept being incorporated more frequently than ever in foodie discourse, the phrase has seemed to adopt a less complicated definition. The term “culinary capital” is typically bestowed upon cities and countries that do not only enjoy economic success in the culinary arena but have also obtained a consensus of reverence by locals and foreigners alike. It also seems to be that to be a culinary capital, it’s more important to boast a bright future than a glitzy past.
While there isn’t a precise definition for the term ”culinary capital” yet, it has nevertheless roused interesting opinions and debates. For example in 2011, The Guardian declared Lyon the culinary capital of not just France, but the world, citing the authenticity and secrecy of its best food as justification for the accolade. And just in 2014, Yahoo dismissed New York’s long-held title of America’s culinary capital and elected Los Angeles as the new reigning leader because of its ability to reshape trends and cultures unlike any other city.
Many of us would like to think of Singapore as Asia’s culinary capital, and our tourism brochures describing food in Singapore constantly reaffirm that belief for us. CNN touted Singapore as Asia’s culinary capital, citing the influx of fine dining as a major reason for scoring this prestigious title. But what makes food in Singapore worthy of that epithet constantly evolves and complicates, making it a topic of intrigue. Before we get our heads in the clouds, know that we are not alone in this fixture, with a few cities running right next to us for this title.
The Food Forward Trends Report Asia Pacific 2014 by Weber Shandwick highlighted the rise in popularity of Korean cuisine, stating that “Korean food tops the list of foods purchased at foreign specialty stores in China, is the most prominent emerging style of restaurant and cuisine in Singapore and is amongst the tip five food trends embraced by consumers in Australia in 2014.” Korean food in Singapore has proven to be versatile, current and comforting – basically everything we look for in good food. It also helps that Korean food in Singapore can be found in throngs – take a walk at Tanjong Pagar Road and you’ll know what I mean.
Another “frenemy” of ours who seems to promote the same title of “culinary capital” in their tourism brochures is Hong Kong. The Independent had referred to them as the culinary capital of Asia, on grounds very much similar to ours. Also, the 2015 Michelin Guide Hong Kong & Macau was published recently, “which reinforced Hong Kong’s reputation as Asia’s culinary capital,” stated a Hong Kong fact sheet published by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government just last month. And if you think we’ve got our World Street Food Congress and Epicurean Market, they’ve got their fair share of upscale events happening regularly as well such as the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival which features 4 days worth of fine wine and good food.
Well and then there’s also Japan – who famously dethroned Paris as the world’s culinary capital in 2011 by setting a staggering record of 29 Michelin three-star restaurants. Enough said.
So, How to Remain Competitive in Asia?
We Singaporeans always love a good ole competition, don’t we? But while we continue to retain the sense of pride we have of our standing in the world’s culinary playground, it is important to remind ourselves that competition isn’t everything when it comes to food in Singapore. In fact, Singaporeans have already shown positive signs of that in the Food Forward Trends Report Singapore 2014 by Weber Shandwick. 63% of Singaporeans felt that the Michelin Guide should not include Singaporean restaurants, reasons being that we have our unique manner of evaluating food in Singapore and that such a guide “would likely increase restaurant prices”.
With less competition in mind, our culinary scene will have room to evolve into one that is well rounded and inclusive. While the spectrum of the Singapore cuisine is staggering, it is important to fill in the widening gap between fine dining and hawker food in Singapore. In fact, it is heartening to see that that is already happening. “There is a wave of nostalgia sweeping over Singapore with young Singaporeans wanting to retain parts of what we grew up with, and there is also a concerted push by the government to retain the culinary fabric of Singapore before they disappear,” said Raymond Lim in Singapore Tourism Board’s newsletter last year. Additionally, Singapore has also started to excel in other avenues within the food industry, such as setting goals to be a global hub for food science and nutrition.
Like how opinions about food in Singapore are always subjective, so is the measurement of its success. Editor of Restaurant Magazine, William Drew, couldn’t have said it better, “Singapore’s willingness to embrace all, and in particular what is fresh and exciting, has led to it becoming one of the world’s premier gastronomic centres.”