The Merlion - half fish and half lion - is the symbol of SingaporeImage: picture-alliance/Sergi Reboredo
Understanding Singapore's culinary diversity
August 4, 2017
Singapore is the country of perfect clean streets and futuristic skyscrapers. However, when it comes to street food, Singapore's culinary art is messy, diverse and a real melting pot.
Singapore's culinary diversity goes back to the end of the 18th century, when the city-state became one of the largest and most important ports in East Asia. This ultimately attracted foreigners from all over the globe who were looking for a new start and subsequently resulted in them bringing along their culture and traditions.
Two hundred years later, this unique mix of diversity and tradition is still a defining feature of the country's culture and cuisine. In a country where one out of 35 citizens is a millionaire, it's interesting to understand how and why, to Singaporeans of all social classes, street food stalls - known as hawker centers in Singapore - prevail as the first option for grabbing a meal, playing cards after work or just enjoying a cold drink during a hot day.
Singapore as a cultural melting pot
To understand the culinary diversity in Singapore it's important to know how diverse it is in terms of culture and what it means to be a Singaporean. Due to its geographical position between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, Singapore has always been a country of interest for many foreigners.
When Thomas Stamford Raffles started transforming Singapore into a center of trade in 1819, people from regions like East and Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East came to Singapore as the new land of opportunities - bringing along with them new traditions, languages and cuisine.
The fusion of these cultures didn't automatically occur with the arrival of immigrants from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds: Muslims don't eat pork and Hindus shun beef, while the Chinese have a long tradition of preparing dishes with these two ingredients. Cuisines were therefore initially segregated; each culture cooked their own food with the ingredients they found in the region.
A Michelin star for street food
This food was then sold in food courts or hawker centers, where citizens could choose from all these different styles and still share a meal with friends from other cultures. Later, after the first generations of immigrants, Singapore developed its own style of cuisine, without leaving behind its traditions. That's why it is very common to hear food being described as Indian Singaporean or Chinese Singaporean.
In recent years, Singaporean hawker culture has gained increasing international attention. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain portrayed Singapore's food courts in his show "No Reservations" and in 2016 Singapore's hawker culture entered a new era when two restaurants, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Chicken Rice, got the most prestigious award in cuisine: a Michelin Star.
Being the first two street food stalls with this award, they contributed to changing the world's opinion about street food. It's quite ironic, when you think about it: In a country where an average car costs 60,000 euros (over $68,000) and a beer in a bar 15 euros, you can get a Michelin-starred meal for only 1.50 euros!
Singapore is always evolving; its cuisine is in constant change with diverse international influences. Nowadays, with the arrival of more international citizens from regions like America, Africa and Western Europe, it's very common to see a western section in food courts offering fried chicken and potato wedges. I'm quite confident that in some years we will start seeing soy-chili fries or some kind of Singaporean style schnitzel.
With such a variety of tastes and styles, experiencing Singapore's street food has become one of the highlights of a visit to this country. International foodies would agree: A mix of Japanese, Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine and Michelin-starred food stalls selling dishes under two euros are reason enough to get on a plane and taste it for yourself.