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.
Ketchup: A Local Flavour Turned Global Product
Ketchup was originally a fish sauce produced by the Chinese community in 17th century Northern Vietnam. Its name derived from ke-tsiap in the Amoy dialect, meaning “the brine of pickled fish”. British explorers discovered it and introduced it back home. As few in England had tasted the fish sauce, British cooks and writers took great liberty to reinterpret it for their own taste, thus creating many varieties. Up till the 18th century, ketchup referred not to a single, well-defined condiment but a category of many.
The first known English-language ketchup recipe was published in 1727. It resembled a fish sauce, with ingredients such as anchovies, shallots and vinegar, as well as spices including cloves, pepper and mace. These spices were not originally used in the Chinese fish sauce, but they were aplenty for the British via the spice trade. Soon, varieties like walnut and mushroom ketchups emerged. They became popular for gravies and stews, to which they bequeathed zest, colour and flavour. Throughout this century, ketchups were not highly differentiated and were often combined to make an “English Catchup”, which gave rise to Worcestershire sauce.
Ketchup took on a different spin in British America, after word about the savoury condiment spread to the English-speaking colonies via British cookbooks. Like their colonisers, the British Americans did not adopt a foreign food wholesale. In 1812, a Philadelphia scientist published the first known tomato ketchup recipe which involved unstrained tomato pulp and spices. More recipes for the tomato sauce were subsequently published, until it became the predominant ketchup in the US.
The earliest commercial tomato ketchup in America were based on homemade recipes. Domestic-produced ketchup subsequently became an anomaly, after the condiment became increasingly affordable to buy. H.J. Heinz Company from Pennsylvania was one the most successful tomato ketchup manufacturers of the time. The company edged out several others to become the largest producer and, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the biggest exporter to the Asian markets such as China, Japan and Singapore – where the Western powers owned treaty ports or had colonised.
The tomato ketchup that Heinz produced, and that we know today, is thick and dense, vinegary but also sweet. This came about only in the mid-1800s when larger quantities of sugar were added to ketchups in response to the trend of sweeter flavours in American cooking. As a result, more vinegar was added to ketchups to retain a sweet and sour balance – quite remote from the tangy fermented condiment that it started out as.
The new flavour profile of tomato ketchup coincides with that of Cantonese cuisine, the diet of the people in Canton as well as those who migrated to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The Cantonese immigrants, I recently found out, were the earliest purveyors of Singapore Noodles whether in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore or the US. This warrants a study of their cuisine and its relationship with tomato ketchup, so I turn my attention to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was the mecca of Cantonese cuisine around the mid-20th century. Its Western-influenced Cantonese cuisine was looked upon by chefs in Singapore and Malaya as the standard par excellence for modern Cantonese cooking. While the large number of European residents in this region helped exposed the locals to imported tomato ketchup, the frequent usage of this condiment in local Chinese cuisines may have more to do with Hong Kong’s culinary influence.
Hong Kong: The Rise of Ketchup-Flavored Cantonese Fare
Hong Kong, once a British colony, has been a major node for people, goods and cultures for over a hundred years. Up till 1900, however, its Chinese and European residents lived in different worlds, as the two races were separated in business, residence and entertainment, by design of the colonisers to emphasise ethnic distinction and hierarchy. The separation also prevented the Chinese from having access to Western foodstuffs, or eating at restaurants located within the European districts.
Things began to change after 1900, as Chinese merchants took over the failing businesses of the Europeans and established trade with China. New economic opportunities afforded these merchants wealth and material access to Western foodstuffs that were previously reserved for the Europeans. Western-style restaurants catering to the new elites were also established, gradually blurring ethnic boundaries.
Meanwhile in China, wars and political upheavals throughout the first half of the 20th century drove new waves Cantonese immigrants from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. The restaurateurs and renown chefs among them started food businesses and laid the foundation of Cantonese cuisine in the colony. But their food did not stay the way they were in China. Instead, they converged with Western foodways that the Chinese elites in Hong Kong now had access to.
Two types of hybrid dishes were produced: Western fare with Chinese influences and Cantonese dishes comprising Western elements. The former consists of steak marinated in soy sauce, while the latter include ketchup-flavoured sweet and sour pork and Worcestershire-marinated steamed beef balls (ngao yuk kau). It was the second type of hybrids that would later be emulated by Cantonese chefs everywhere.
The significance of such dishes is both race and class. In Hong Kong during the 1800s, race determined power and influence. The ethnic Chinese, regardless of their affluence, were considered second class residents. “Sih yuah sai chaan” or “soy sauce Western food” could be read as an attempt to disrupt the imagined superiority of the Europeans and their foodways, which the Chinese had been deemed unworthy of. The other type of hybrids, between Cantonese dishes and Western condiments, also contested the existing social hierarchy – although incorporating Western foodstuffs to command respect for Cantonese cuisine risk reinforcing Western “superiority”.
Colonial supremacy did eventually erode after the British’s defeat in World War II. This catalysed Hong Kong’s culinary amalgamations throughout the post-war industrial boom. Hybrid dishes became the mainstay of its food scene, as the new leisure class grew more aware of foreign foods and considered them a symbol of modernity. Over time, Hong Kong replaced Guangzhou as the centre of Cantonese culinary artistry. Following the communist rule in 1949, the Great Famine in the 1950s and Cultural Revolution between the 1960s and 1970s, Cantonese cuisine in the mainland slipped into decline, thus making way for Hong Kong’s hybrid variation to be the model for Cantonese chefs far and wide, including those in Malaya and Singapore.
Before moving on to chilli crab, I must highlight that it was hardly new to combine Western and Chinese foodways when Hong Kong did it in the 1900s. Chefs in mainland China were already doing so by the previous century, and might have even contributed to the development of Hong Kong’s hybrid dishes. If this is true, the history of globalisation and localisation that cumulated into chilli crab in Singapore is more extensive than it first appears.
After the end of the Opium War in 1842, the British established a treaty port in Canton. The growing number of foreign merchants in Guangzhou spurred an emergence of European fare in the city, as well as the local interpretations of these cuisines to suit the Chinese palate. Meanwhile in Shanghai, which had been divided into several foreign concessions, local cooks became well-versed in European and American cuisines. These mainland Chinese with prior knowledge in Western foodways were among those who migrated to Hong Kong in the 20th century. They are possibly the source of inspiration for Hong Kong’s hybrid dishes, or even the very people who created them.
Moreover, China was one of the first countries to which Heinz exported its tomato ketchup by 1907. I have no information on their regional destinations, but a reasonable guess would be the port cities that had been ceded to Western powers, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. If there was indeed a transfer of foodways from Guangzhou to Hong Kong via immigration, then it could very likely encompass the Cantonese application of tomato ketchup.
Chilli Crab: Ketchup’s Place in Chinese Food of Singapore
Tomato ketchup has a wide presence in the food that Singaporeans eat today. Home cooks and chefs don’t bat an eyelid when they mix the condiment with Chinese soy sauce or sambal, a Southeast Asian chilli paste. Local dishes using tomato ketchup include fried garoupa, mee goreng and the world-famous chilli crab. This section examines chilli crab and the extent of Hong Kong’s influence on the dish. A substantial number of Cantonese immigrants in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur became cooks to make a living. Singapore Noodles is believed to be created by one such cook in Kuala Lumpur around the mid-20th century, a time when Hong Kong’s Cantonese cuisine began to gain clout. How tomato ketchup became an essential component of chilli crab may tell us the same about its journey into the Kuala Lumpur-style Singapore Noodles.
The origins of chilli crab are well reported. There are at least two creators who did so separately. One of them is Cher Yam Tian, who is the founder of the now-defunct Palm Beach Seafood that was in business from the 1950s to 1980s. Her version of the chilli crab when she invented it in the 1950s comprises tomato ketchup and chillies, not quite the same as the rendition consisting of sambal and egg white that Singaporeans today are familiar with. This other version was invented by local culinary legend Hooi Kok Wai, who was apprenticed to a masterchef from Hong Kong in the 1950s. I focused my investigation on Hooi and his chilli crab since it closely resembles what is eaten today, and because the chef has a relevant culinary background.
Ketchup-flavoured cuisine was introduced to Singapore around the 1950s, after hotels in Singapore began hiring chefs from Hong Kong. Among them was the Cathay Hotel, whose Cantonese–Shanghainese restaurant was the finest in town during the mid-century. Chef Luo from Hong Kong took the helm and recruited four apprentices – Hooi, Sin Leong, Thum Yew Kai and Lau Yoke Pui. A couple of decades later, the four men would make a name for themselves and be crowned the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Singapore’s culinary scene.
In April 2018, I approached the 81-year-old Hooi and 91-year-old Sin (Thum and Lau have passed on) at their Chin Swee Road dim sum restaurant, Red Star. The chefs were serendipitously having pork cutlets in a ketchup sauce comprising green peas and button mushrooms for lunch, as if inviting me to cut to the heart of the matter. “How come there’s tomato ketchup in what you cook?” I asked.
Tomato ketchup, the chefs replied, is one of the several Western condiments, such as Worcestershire and HP sauce, that they use. These were introduced to them by Luo when they were apprenticing at Cathay. The condiments were often mixed together, said Sin, to make gravies or sauces for plenty of dishes, including sweet and sour pork, fried garoupa and ketchup prawns (har lok). Sin does not recall seeing Western condiments in local Cantonese dishes before the 1950s. If his memory served him well, it diminishes the likelihood of a direct transfer of hybrid Western-Cantonese cooking from Guangzhou to Singapore by the earlier Cantonese immigrants.
It is not hard to imagine why Cantonese cooks newly introduced to Hong Kong’s culinary ideas were open to adding tomato ketchup into their traditional diet. The condiment emulates the classic sweet and sour flavours of Cantonese cuisine. Before tomato ketchup was available, said Hooi, people in Canton often mixed rice vinegar with sugar to produce that flavour combination. I have also heard of fruits like hawthorn and plum being used in the past. Since the “Heavenly Kings” were trained to cook Hong Kong style, they turned to tomato ketchup as much as they did to soy sauce.
While the chefs picked up the Cantonese application of Western condiments, they inherited none of the symbolic baggage that the condiments carried in the early 20th century Hong Kong. Instead, Sin likes using the condiments simply because of their tastes, and considers tomato ketchup a “改良” or “an improvement” to the traditional mixture of vinegar and sugar. I don’t speak enough Cantonese to have him explain why, but some facts about these condiments will: Tomato ketchup is rich in umami. This intense savoury taste comes from the tomatoes, which adds body to gravies and make them more enjoyable. Umami is not found in vinegar or sugar, but Cantonese chefs have continued to use to them with ketchup to take its sweet and sour flavours up a notch. Together, the condiments refresh the palate and sustain one’s appetite for oily food.
Convinced of tomato ketchup’s flavour enhancing quality, the “Heavenly Kings’” inclination for the condiment exceeded their employment with Cathay, which ended in the 1960s. Even as they sought creative breakthroughs outside of their Cantonese training, tomato ketchup was pivotal to their new creations, such as Hooi’s chilli crab.
Up till the 1940s, there were limited styles of crab dishes eaten by the Cantonese community. Crabs were either steamed with ginger and scallion, or with fermented black beans, said Hooi. But by the 1950s, he observed a desire for more robust flavours, as customers at Pearl’s Market – a Cantonese enclave where People’s Park Complex is today – started dipping steamed crab into a garlic chilli sauce “quite like the one for chicken rice”. Meanwhile, a dish of crabs stir-fried with tomato ketchup was also gaining popularity at the market.
These inspired Hooi to create a crab dish that delivered both flavours. In 1963, he concocted a fiery sambal with chillies, garlic, shallots, dried shrimps, belacan, and made it more amicable with the sweet and vinegary tomato ketchup. He also added an aromatic ginger flower native to Southeast Asia, and finished the sauce in classic Cantonese style: After stir-frying steamed crabs with the sambal sauce, he drizzled egg white for a silkier mouthfeel, a technique known as “wat dan”.
The chilli crab was born. It is a sweet – and spicy – balance between Hooi’s Cantonese roots and Southeast Asian sensibilities. By the 1950s, Hooi told me, Cantonese in Singapore had adapted to the native flavours, veering away from the taste preference of their counterparts in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To resolve the gap between their ancestral and adopted cultures, Hooi and his colleagues often took ideas from Indonesia and Malaysia to put a local spin on their heritage cuisine. One may, therefore, regard chilli crab as a palatable reconciliation between the Cantonese and Malayan identities that Hooi and many other immigrants had to juggle.
I believe tomato ketchup became a flavouring for Singapore Noodles under similar conditions. Cantonese-run tai chows were the earliest businesses that sold Singapore Noodles in Kuala Lumpur. Recalling Hong Kong’s culinary clout at that time, it isn’t surprising if many of these businesses picked up the application of Western condiments from its hybrid dishes. These condiments then became essential to the Kuala Lumpur’s Cantonese kitchens, at first for the classics, but eventually to zest up new experiments too – like the oily, fried Singapore Noodles.
Asian Brands and Their Influence on Singapore’s Ketchup Use
Restaurants weren’t the only ones incorporating tomato ketchup into Chinese dishes. Hawkers at Pearl’s Market, as mentioned earlier, had been selling ketchup crabs by the 1950s. The affordability of imported foodstuffs after World War II encouraged the usage of tomato ketchup among Chinese hawkers who charged low prices. But the products that this community ended up purchasing weren’t necessarily the most well-known. The Chinese-language newspaper are the best indicators of the brands that hawkers would have used. It was the main source of information for the ethnic Chinese who tended to be proficient in Chinese or its dialects. The advertisements in or absent from the papers are, hence, telling of the products that were appealing to this particular group of consumers.
While American and European tomato ketchup were exported to Singapore in the early 1900s, the non-English speaking residents were not their target consumers until after the 1950s. Heinz, then the world’s largest tomato ketchup producer, consistently advertised in the English-language Straits Times during the first half of the 20th century. However, its advertisements didn’t show up in the database of the Chinese-language Nanyang Siang Pau until 1956. At 40 cents a bottle in 1906, Heinz tomato ketchup was out of reach for the common folks (an apprentice clerk made $10/month while a rickshaw coolie made 50 cents a day in 1900). Up till the 1950s, imported food was a luxury available only to the Europeans and English-proficient local elites.
Even as the affordability of food imports improved in the post-war years, tomato ketchup manufacturers from the West were never as interested in the ethnic Chinese consumers as they were in the English-speaking elite. Heinz frequently promoted its tomato ketchup in The Straits Times up till the early 1960s, but it rarely put an ad in Nanyang Siang Pau even after the mid century. When it did advertise, the company contextualised its tomato ketchup within the realm of Western cuisines. Other brands such as HP and Alymer from the UK and Canada respectively, also invested their marketing dollar in the English paper.
Tomato ketchups from Asia would have been preferred by the ethnic Chinese hawkers. Hong Kong- and Shanghai-manufactured tomato ketchup were available in Singapore as early as the 1930s. In 1938, Maling’s “tomato katsup” from Shanghai cost $3.60 for a box of two dozens, which works out to be 15 cents a bottle. Considering price inflation, this was a fraction of what Heinz would cost in the same period. The Asian brand is thus more likely to attract the average local Chinese and popularise its use within the community.
After the war, tomato ketchup became commonly used in Chinese households. Besides greater affordability, more printed recipes incorporating the condiment for Chinese dishes also spurred its domestic usage. Nanyang Siang Pau began publishing such recipes by the 1950s. Ketchup prawns (茄汁虾球) and fried chicken breast (番茄鸡) are just some of them. As these recipes were more attuned to the traditional Chinese diet compared to The Straits Time’s recipes for veal galatine and mushroom au gratin, they were more likely to convince home cooks to add tomato ketchup into their pantry.
By 1954, local food manufacturer Yeo Hiap Seng (known as Yeo’s today) introduced its own line of tomato ketchup, suggesting a healthy demand for the condiment. Considering also the advent of ketchup-flavoured Cantonese fare in the local restaurants, the mid-20th century marked the turning point for tomato ketchup in Singapore. From a foreign import used largely in Western cuisines, it was becoming a standard flavour in local Chinese dishes.
Despite the strong influence of Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine, it did not singlehandedly introduce tomato ketchup to the Chinese in Singapore. When one thinks about Chinese-Western food in Singapore or Malaysia, the Hainanese comes to mind. Starting from the late 1800s, immigrants from Hainan worked as cook boys for the British Army as well as European households, from whom they learned Western cooking and ingredients like tomato ketchup.
But unlike the Cantonese in Hong Kong who produced two types of hybrid fares, the Hainanese in this region mostly produced Chinese-style Western dishes. Pork chop and chicken pies, which combine soy sauce with either Worcestershire or tomato ketchup, are some of their best-known interpretations of Western dishes. Between the 1930s and 1990s, the Hainanese dominated the coffee shop and coffee house businesses, through which they introduced western dishes and culinary techniques to the masses. The pork chop that I saw the “Heavenly Kings” eating resembled the Hainanese’s take on the dish. I am not surprised if it was indeed Hainanese-influenced, since Hooi and Sin have shown to be very willing to learn from the non-Cantonese.
But that does not discredit the Cantonese’s role in promoting the consumption of tomato ketchup among the Chinese in Singapore. By normalising the use of the condiment in a Chinese cuisine, it effected a more lasting appetite for tomato ketchup than Western and Hainanese-Western cuisines did.
The Global–Local Food Cultures
In today’s globalised economy, cities regard food cultures as capitals to assert their uniqueness and authenticity for economic advantages over one another. Through this method, Hong Kong and Singapore have successfully distinguished themselves as destinations for tourism and commerce. But sweet and sour pork and chilli crab, as this study has shown, are not as remote from one another as their advertisers have us believed. Their Cantonese roots and common use of tomato ketchup highlights that food more often blur than define the line between “us” and “them”.
This is different from claiming that globalisation has turned the world into one homogenous culture with the same taste for food. Tomato ketchup did not popularise Western diet in Hong Kong or Singapore. Instead, the condiment has been assimilated into the respective local cuisines to serve different purposes. While it is typically used in Cantonese dishes to achieve a sweet and sour flavour, it serves to balance the spicy sambal in chilli crab as well as mee goreng.
In fact, foodways can’t be successfully global without first becoming a local institution for people of different places and cultures. Had the imagination of tomato ketchup remained in the realm of French fries and barbeque ribs, it could not have been as well received in Asia as it is today. Likewise, if Cantonese cuisine hadn’t been adapted to suit the American palate, it would not be as popular and ubiquitous as it is now in the US.
Modern Cantonese cuisine, chilli crab and perhaps even Singapore Noodles, emerged from the globalisations and localisations of several foodways, facilitated by the movements of people and trade during European colonialism. This period produced many unexpected but delicious cross-cultural hybrids, which were eventually accepted into the “local” domain. The breaking down of spatial and cultural barriers do not destroy local cultures, but create future iterations of them. Chilli crab contains ingredients from multiple origins, yet it did not stop Singaporeans from identifying themselves with it today.
These concepts will lay the foundation of my upcoming investigations about tomato ketchup, Worcestershire and curry powder in Singapore Noodles. I believe these foreign condiments, all British inventions, found their way into the dish in the same way tomato ketchup became a logical companion to sambal belacan in the Singapore chilli crab.
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This story is a part of my research about Singapore Noodles’s origins and how it has impacted the lives of those who eat it and also those whose identities it has been associated with. Other related stories can be found here.