The Indians and Nepalese behind Singapore Noodles in Tallinn, Estonia

It wasn’t the Chinese restaurants bringing Singapore Noodles to the locals in Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia, as is the case in many western countries. When in the city to visit a friend earlier this year, I didn’t see any Chinese restaurant, but there was no difficulty finding the dish.

Singapore Noodles made its way to Estonia through the “Asian” restaurants operated by the Indian and Nepali immigrants. These restaurants sell a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes — some classics, while others unrecognisable to the members of the respective community. Plenty of dishes are named after a certain city — Shanghai Lamb, Hong Kong Chicken, Sichuan Beef — usually inventions to pique the curiosity of unsuspecting customers.

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Book Summary: Discriminating Taste

My favourite reading this year: Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste. The author observed a shift in America’s mainstream food culture during periods of widening income gap, and attribute the greater attention that people today pay to food to what she calls “class anxieties”. When the middle class is doing well and the upper class isn’t claiming much of the nation’s wealth, she explains, the former could scale the social hierarchy through hard work and the money they are paid. But when the super-elites emerge and even professional incomes are not enough for “class-climbing”, the middle class rely more on cultural forms of distinction, such as the gourmet or organic food they eat. While some “foodies” may be genuinely concern about nutrition or sustainable agriculture, they are also looking to differentiate themselves from the masses.

These two arguments left a deep impression on me:

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Singapore Noodles: An Awkward Public-speaking Attempt at the National Museum

I made a promise to myself that in 2019 I would not say no to any project even if it takes me out of my comfort zone, so in August I gave a talk at the National Museum of Singapore about my research on Singapore Noodles. It turned out to be a good exercise that got me to revisit and summarise my findings so far. After five years working intermittenly on this research, I was already somewhat lost in the plot. Because I’m a nervous public speaker, I prepared a speech that I could simply read from (apologies to those of you who were there!). But it reads nicely as a blog post so here it is:

Thank you for joining me this weekend afternoon. I’ll be talking about my research on Singapore Noodles, which I started in 2015. This particular dish interest me because it bears the name of Singapore yet most of us here will not consider it Singaporean. I started paying attention to it when I was living in New York. I thought it was bizarre to have something I didn’t recognise representing me and my country.

But instead of brushing it off as fake news, I wonder about the meanings it holds for the people who do enjoy it. Singapore Noodles may be foreign to Singaporeans, it is local to others elsewhere. I think this irony deserves an investigation.

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Singapore Noodles: The Curried Version in Hong Kong

Mido’s Singapore Noodles

Singapore Noodles is widely available in Hong Kong. It is also the only Asian city where the noodles is flavoured with curry powder. This means it could be where the curried Singapore Noodles in the UK, US and other western countries originated. I visited Hong Kong in May this year and spoke to few people to learn about the city’s Singapore Noodles. They were Veronica Mak, an adjunct assistant professor at the anthropology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Vivien Chan, visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; Mr Kwan, third generation owner of Mido Cafe; and Lan Chun Chung, owner of Lan Fong Yuen (he does not sell Singapore noodles, but has some knowledge of the dish). I summarised the key points about Singapore Noodles there:

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Leaves in Our Kitchen

Banana leaves

Leaves in the tropics are big. Bigger than the ones up in Greenland and down in New Zealand. This is because larger leaves tend to frost during cold nights and overheat in desert-like climates, but they cope very well in hot and wet tropical areas such as Southeast Asia (Klein).

Leaves of banana, bamboo, coconut, water lotus and betel nut palm in particular are put to good use in the Singaporean kitchen. These leaves are flexible and can be folded to wrap around food of different shapes. They also have strong water-proofing quality to withstand hot water and steam, as well as the gravies so common in Singapore’s food cultures. Some of them even impart a fragrance to the wonderful treat they carry (Ng). Continue reading

A Crush for Mortar and Pestle

IMG_1781

The mortar and pestle has a permanent place in local kitchens because it is required to combine the aromatic spices used widely in Singapore’s cuisines.

Sambal, a chilli sauce integral to Malay and Peranakan cuisines, is created in a mortar, usually made of granite. After its ingredients like chillies, garlic and shallots are pounded into one, sambal is either served as a condiment or stir-fried with meats, seafood or vegetables to make a sambal goreng dish. Another common item created with the mortar and pestle is rempah, a spice paste of varying ingredients like candlenuts and galangal that forms the aromatic base for braised meats (e.g. babi pongteh) and grilled fish (e.g. otak otak). So common were these preparation methods that families in the past also kept a batu giling, a large granite slab and roller, to grind more spices for bigger spreads (Sass).

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Wok: When Breath Becomes Culinaire

wok frying

Useful kitchen tools stand the test of time and new technologies. The wok is one of them.

The concaved and round-bottom utensil was designed for fast cooking as China was always short of fuel (Wilson 83). Its metal body conducts heat quickly, while its sloping sides provide a large cooking surface, producing maximum tastes with minimum fuel. The wok also sits securely atop the traditional Chinese stove, a brick- or clay-made open cylinder, but it is not always left to its own devices (Tan 8). A skillful cook likes to give it a jerk in circular motion to cook the food even faster and more evenly. Chinese dishes are by no coincidence pre-cut into fast-to-cook morsels but are designed so for the fuel-poor but food-loving Chinese (Wilson 54-55). Continue reading

Warming Ties with Barbecue Pits

A barbecue pit at East Coast Park.

A barbecue pit made entirely of concrete.

They reside in most condominiums as well as public housing estates. They are also expected at chalets, campsites and beach parks. Barbecue pits are everywhere in Singapore. As more than 80 per cent of the country’s resident population live in high-rise flats, this implement is more often a shared facility than a personal backyard grill.

Barbecue became a popular past-time in Singapore between the 1970s and 80s, reflected by the many stories about this form of cooking published in the local English-language newspapers. They gave advice on meat marinades, specifications of low-calorie cuts, and preached the gospel of barbecue fish: the importance of firm scales —“to seal in the juices”— and the minimum layers of banana leaves (five) to make a wrap (Lee 5; “How to Make” 16; “Calorie Scale” 25). When the fees for barbecue pits at East Coast Park increased by $1 in 1985, it made the news too (“Barbecue Fees Up” 13).

The proliferation of barbecue pits in residential and recreational spaces during this period coincided with the rise of Singapore’s economy. As the people’s affluence grew, they demanded more recreation options. Barbecue pits were amenities offered as part of new parks built across the country (Fung and Ng 1). The biggest project in the 1970s was East Coast Park, which was constructed on a newly reclaimed coast and boasted a 9km cycling track and many barbecue pits along the shoreline. Shortly after, in 1981, the Singapore Institute of Parks & Recreations, reported that barbecue was “the most popular past-time in Singapore, with the young revellers staying on the beach throughout the night” (20). Continue reading

The Material Culture of Kopitiam Cups

Kopitiam cups 5

Images from roots.sg

The icons of a kopitiam (coffee shop) vary depending on who you ask. A young person who knows the coffee shop as it is today – underneath a Housing Development Board (HDB) block and comprising of several food stalls – identifies with the transparent glass cups with big handles. Those who used to while away their afternoons at the coffee shops before the 1970s, fondly remember the stout porcelain cups with green or blue floral motifs as well as their matching porcelain saucers and spoons.

This porcelain coffee set was the de facto utensils used by coffee shops since they began in the early 20th century (Ong). Pioneered by the people of Fuzhou and Hainan, such establishment peaked in numbers during the Depression Era in the 1930s when many vacant shop lots were up for grabs at low rent. The Hainanese, in particular, many of whom had been cooks for the British, snapped up shophouse units by the dozens to capitalise on what they learned in the British kitchens. As the barriers to entry for selling coffee and tea to the working class was low, coffee shops sprouted across the island beginning from the Hainanese enclave of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street (Han 24).

These coffee shops enjoyed brisk business, receiving hundreds of customers every day. Despite tea and coffee costing a mere 2 to 4 cents before the war, a flourishing coffee shop could make $70 a day (KKCMRBOA 286). The porcelain coffee set was in many ways useful to the coffee shop assistants coping with this high-speed operation. An assistant typically served several drinks at one go, especially when large groups of customers arrived together. However, the porcelain cup, which became hot when filled with coffee, must be held by its ear. The assistants would have to make multiple trips to the tables if they delivered only two orders each time. With a saucer, they could easily juggle five cups on both their hands and wrists (Ong). Continue reading

Chilli Crab: A Case Study for Singapore Noodles

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry.

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry powder.

Singapore Noodles is replete with ironies. It is elusive in the city that it is named after, but a common staple in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. In any of these places, the dish is prepared by the local Cantonese communities, using sauces that are essentially British inventions – either ketchup, Worcestershire sauce or curry powder. I wonder if a common past among these former British colonies helped shaped Singapore Noodles into the three varieties there are. This story attempts to answer this by tracing the temporal and spatial journeys of tomato ketchup, from 18th century England to 20th century British Malaya, where the ketchup-flavoured Singapore Noodles found popularity and is still so today.

I begin by investigating how the Western condiment became a key ingredient for Chinese cuisines in Singapore and Malaysia during the colonial times. This is followed by a case study of chilli crab, a national dish of post-independence Singapore. Like the Kuala Lumpur-style Singapore Noodles, chilli crab comprises the unexpected ketchup and begs the question of how a foreign condiment came to be an essential component of a local invention. But unlike the uncertainties surrounding the noodles, at least one of the pioneers of chilli crab has been identified and is available for interview. Since the two dishes were created in similar space and time, a case study of chilli crab may be extrapolated to understand how ketchup Singapore Noodles came about.

This investigation about ketchup’s journey, from bangers to noodles, illuminates the mobility of foodways to traverse between the global and the local. Ketchup remained “English” for only as long as it took to commercialise and export it worldwide. The product then became divorced from its roots and turned into a crucial element in the Cantonese cuisine of Hong Kong. Singapore Noodles, similarly produced against the backdrop of global migrations and free trade, appears to have emerged from the dialogue of foodways that are crossing in and out of national and cultural boundaries.

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