Let me begin with an anecdote about the worst meal I have ever had and why it was so un-Singaporean of me. Continents away from the tropical food mecca that is Singapore – my home – I was craving and alone in New York City. On a miserable, hungry night on the uptight Upper East Side, I sat in my apartment in a neighbourhood of socialites and sophisticatedly designed for all-terrain strollers. For some unimportant reason I had neither food in the fridge nor the inclination to leave the house – all I had was a solitary bag of frozen broccoli. And that is what I had – gently nestled on a bed of big city dreams and a mirage of Teochew minced meat noodle (Bak Chor Mee). This was my personal ironic nightmare of private dining (please don’t tell anyone).
Food Identity Crisis
Good food in Singapore lies at the heart of our national identity – hence we easily make an extra effort for it. That boiled broccoli of mine was the lowest, most depraved place I went to – gastronomically. Being abroad or not in immediate reach to our favourite food, we can easily fall into an identity crisis. That broccoli was the most shameful thing I have done for food as a Singaporean. It would have never happened back home in Singapore. Let me tell you why.
We Don’t Talk Politics – We Talk Food
Naturally, the first thing I ate upon returning to Singapore (and trust me, every homesick Singaporean has a list) was Bak Chor Mee. Where is the best (insert any delicious item here) in Singapore? The eternal question always remains “what’s the best food in Singapore?” For outsiders it may seem trivial, but for us it has connotations that can be compared with the heaviness of philosophical problems.
Singaporeans don’t talk about politics or philosophy, but food is a cause that we can certainly get behind. It’s something that develops organically and speaks to the diversity of cultural identities that we have inherited, from the carbohydrate-heavy Hainanese Chicken Rice, the comfort food of the working class, to the enticing fusion of Peranakan food that centuries of life and trade in the Straits Settlement brought about. Sure, these may not be healthy food options, but the foods of our forefathers link us to history in a powerful, palpable, palatable way. Hence, food is history and politics at the same time.
Too Many Opinions – And No Correct One
Singaporeans are vocal about one thing – dining in Singapore. Everyone has an opinion about food in Singapore and knows that one hawker whose reputation they would stake their life on. Even down to how much chilli (red or green) you use, or the protein you choose to have with it (liver, meatballs, fish balls). There is no one true Bak Chor Mee, just the one that you like made exactly your way.
Anytime – Time and Time Again
Be it a supper with one’s family, meeting friends for kopi or summoning your buddies to answer the call of midnight soup dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) – we are down for it anytime.
A bespoke service, if you will, prepared by someone you know on a first name basis throughout the years, that you have returned to week after week for your favourite no-frills dining in Singapore experience.
Going the Distance For Getting In Line
On the noble quest for good food in Singapore, we Singaporeans have been known to travel across the island just to get exactly what we want, even if we are greeted by a snaking behemoth of a queue upon arrival. We will come early and wait for hours, relentless and uncompromising, stopping at nothing to obtain our heart’s (or stomach’s) desire.
The cynical may say this attests to our inclination towards conformity and giving in to groupthink, but the more initiated would realise that the truth is that in Singapore, we love food with such fervour that we know that getting exactly what we want is worth the wait as well as the trip to get it. That’s the price we pay for good food in Singapore.
We also stubbornly ignore the impulse to go for insipid, over-priced salads instead – the office crowd’s generic healthy food option. Life is too short for bad food, and calories should not be wasted on food that doesn’t make your taste buds dance and your heart sing.
‘Have You Eaten Yet?’ aka ‘How Are You?’
The question about whether one has eaten yet could be considered a traditional Singaporean salutation – it is our version of “how are you?” It is an actual question and not just a social nicety. If you have eaten, was it any good, and where can I find the best food in Singapore? If you haven’t, shall we go get some food now?
Food in Singapore is about being social. Whether you meet for brunch or kopi, or an exquisite feast at home with a private dining experience conjured up by a private chef, it is not about the place you are in or the cuisine you are enjoying. It is about the people you break bread with, and the time you spend together. The “fine” in “fine dining” isn’t about a hefty price tag, the latest celebrity chef or the cutting-edge culinary trends, but rather about good friends, good food and good fun. That is the good life – where you enjoy what really matters and don’t lose sleep over the things that don’t.
Having Our Own Version Of Everything
One can find dishes from everywhere in Singapore, but we twist them, just like everyone has their own way to eat Chicken Rice. For example, sushi is loved all over the world, but some of us dip it a soya-wasabi mix. What might be horrifying for everyone else, makes sense to us.
Our city state was built by generations of immigrants in search of the good life, bringing their tenacity, hard work, and personal and culinary history to our shores. Tastes, cooking skills and techniques that made them feel at home, we revised and made it our own. With influences from all over the world, local fine dining chefs take it to the next level.
Our country may be a secular state, but food in Singapore could well be our national religion. In fact, I would stake my life on it – or my dinner for that matter.