Singapore Cuisine, and Fusion in Australia

Food Blogger Q&A

I was recently part of a panel of food-bloggers at a Fiesta Malaysia festival in Carlton, Melbourne. We did a 20 minute Q&A stint, introducing our local cuisines. Adrian from Food Rehab covered the Philippines, Anh from A Food Lover’s Journey represented Vietnam, Kat from Spatula Spoon & Saturday spoke for Thailand, and Winston from The Hungry Excavator exuberantly described cuisine in Malaysia… and then there’s me.

I’m starting to realise I’m a bit of a selfish blogger. I did not really do my part to promote the event, and kept pretty quiet over our eMail conversations about how to approach this public Q&A session. The organiser gave us a few guidelines about what to talk about, things like: history and brief introduction of our cuisine, popular dishes, and how the cuisine is doing in Australia. Those of you who know me in real life will probably know how I get quite withdrawn in unfamiliar situations, that’s why I don’t like hanging out in pubs, festivals, and big events. So needless to say, this public speaking session terrified me. Goodness knows why I said ‘yes’…! We met an hour before our time slot to discuss the flow of our talk.

When we went up on stage, I had my heart thumping in my throat, spoke in a high-pitched voice and panicked quite a number of times. But in the end, everything went fine. And to be honest, I think there were at most only 20 people who were actively listening to us, of which more than half were organisers, photographers and friends. Everyone else was too busy lining up for Penang hawker food. I quite admired my compatriot bloggers, though. They looked so calm, comfortable and seemed to talk so candidly about their cuisines in a very open, sharing way.

Back To Basics

Ever since I’d gone on that blogger melt-down rant, I’ve started to realise a few things about my blogging style and how it relates to me. A blog is what it is: it is personal! I want it to be a sounding board for my thoughts, I don’t have to always cover recipes and write about restaurants all the time. I should also cover topics that interest me, and write about things that inspire me.

Ayam Pongteh
– a home recipe

So the reason why I am writing this post now stems from the realisation that we really had very little time to discuss anything in depth at all. But what I really liked about agreeing to be part of this panel was how it propelled me to actually think hard about what I wanted to say. I had to gather my thoughts about Singaporean food and how it relates to my life in Australia. I did no research at all for this talk, but came up with many concepts that felt interesting to me.

During the Q&A session, I anxiously stammered my way through perhaps about 25% of what I really meant to tell everybody. I don’t think I was very engaging in public at all. But now that I’m back in my ‘safe space’… behind a computer screen, in my home, I can construct a post to share with you everything else that I forgot to mention during our talk. So here it is.

A Blog’s Focus Point

I wanted everyone to know first how every blog has a different focus point. We all blog for similar, as well as different reasons. Each blog that a person chooses to follow speaks to a different part of that person’s soul. I’m always interested in finding that focus point in a blog.

Mine’s a Melbourne-based food blog as seen from the perspective of a Singaporean migrant. I try to focus on the stories around the people I dine with and what they think of the food. I’ve also got a more conceptual focus point, and it consists of an inquisitive gaze towards things. In short, I have this constant need to always ask ‘why?’.

Why does my friend prefer this café over the other? Why do my parents keep returning to this hawker stall, ordering the same dish every week? Why do some restaurants seem to hate food bloggers? Why is this blogger’s palate so different from mine? And what is it about this dish that makes me not like it? These are the questions I ask myself.

When food has become ‘bastardised’, I don’t fail it instantly. Instead, I’m curious to find out why it became so. When I look at and taste a plate of food in a restaurant, I try to figure out the personality and vision of the chef that cooked that dish. When I’m sitting in an establishment, I take note of details in the venue and especially the actions of its staff… it helps me answer questions about a restaurant’s philosophy towards its customers and food service.

Tom Phat is a Melbourne fusion restaurant that, I think, is geared towards a more Western crowd

Many of these habits and perspectives were slowly cultivated over the time that I have been a food blogger. And I think it is thanks to the people who have guided me along that path. These people include friends of mine who’re supporters of this journey, other food bloggers, people from the food industry such as Lachy (my barista friend), cousin trouble and geek hubby, and a couple of restaurant owners.

Singapore Cuisine

This brings me to the actual discussion about Singapore cuisine. You can now see how I can’t really call myself an ‘expert’, (I’m sorry, organisers). That’s because up to this very moment, I’m still asking the same question: ‘why?’. And I think the discovery never ends. Food’s always evolving, and it starts becoming dangerous when you think you know everything about a cuisine. But having said this, I have made my own little observations about Singapore food as a whole:

Singapore is a small country, with many ethnicities compacted into a small island. Once you include the outer suburbs, Melbourne actually covers a land area that’s bigger than Singapore. The three racial majorities in Singapore are the Chinese, Malays and the Indians. Now I won’t go into subclasses and dialect groups here, but just imagine these migrants moving into Singapore in the 1800’s. Imagine how homesick they’d feel. And how they’d re-create the dishes that speaks of home, which is (by the way) exactly the same thing I am doing in Australia. Isn’t it interesting how food can speak to our hearts so simply?

You can now imagine how there’d be a market for street hawkers in Singapore, cooking & selling all varieties of foods from their countries of origin. Over the years, I can imagine these food hawkers starting to borrow elements of each culture’s cuisine, incorporating it into their recipes. And the food landscape changes. And because everyone’s so condensed geographically into that small island, the evolution is quick. And what was once a dish from its native country becomes metamorphosed into something that’s truly Singaporean.

Grandma, tucking into a plate of wonton noodles with such gusto it warms my heart.

I also think that the Singaporean palate is very adventurous, and that’s because we grew up exposed to a richly multicultural variety of food, all so easily accessible within a 15-20km radius. Each dish is also very affordable and within such an easy reach. Just walk into a hawker centre and behold the myriad of stalls, cuisines and dishes on offer.

On that topic, Singapore today no longer has street hawkers. They’ve been plucked off the streets and aggregated into hawker centres. I don’t mind, actually. Rather than run around or wait for a street vendor to come to you, I now can reliably find so much food on offer in that one permanent spot, without any dilution in its quality.

Popular Singapore Dishes

Singapore cuisine holds many parallels with Malaysian dishes, but there are some dishes that I believe can be called ‘Uniquely Singaporean’ (don’t know why those two words make me cringe). But before I go into specifics, let me just clear the air about one dish here: Singapore Noodles.

Vegetarian Bee Hoon in Singapore

Singapore noodles is a myth. This dish of fried rice vermicelli with curry powder in it that all of you ang mohs (‘Westerners’) enjoy eating at your local Malaysian does not exist in Singapore. The closest Singaporean equivalent, char bee hoon(Hokkien: fried rice vermicelli) does not, and will not ever have curry powder in it, unless they are catering to a Western crowd.

Phew, I’m glad that’s off my chest… I will now chat about three dishes that I think speaks ‘uniquely’ (*cringe*) of Singapore.

Let’s start with Katong Laksa. Laksa has been a sore point of contention on my blog for the larger part of 2011. But what I’d like to point out here is the actual ‘evolution’ of Laksa in Singapore. Most places in Melbourne serve curry laksa with a mixture of egg noodles and thin rice vermicelli, which is Malaysian in style. In Singapore, we use chu mi fen (thick rice vermicelli). But with Katong Laksa (and recent variants like Sungei Rd Trishaw Laksa), the evolution has gone a step further. The thick rice noodles are now cut into short lengths, so that everything can be picked up in that one spoon… ingredients, noodles and delicious broth… one slurp –> everything! This has completely obliterated the need for chopsticks!

Another interesting dish I’d like to speak of is Indian Fish Head Curry. If you look back in history, Indians do not eat fish head. In fact, prisons and hospitals in Singapore would practically give away fish heads for free after they’ve used the rest of the body for cooking. Then one day, an Indian cook started making curry dishes using fish heads in Singapore, it became hugely popular with the Chinese customers. Haha… how typical of the Chinese to love spare parts. But it wasn’t long before fish heads became a prized commodity. And the rest, of course, is history. I like how this story relates to how one culture can start appreciating another culture’s cuisine.

The final dish I’m going to mention is Bak Kut Teh. It’s a dish of pork rib soup that’s usually eaten with steamed rice and accompanied with tiny cups of Chinese tea. While I’m not sure whether it is a dish that’s unique to Singapore, it is interesting to note how different it is to Malaysia. Bak kut teh in Malaysia usually has a darker, thicker and more herbal broth. The type of bak kut teh that is more popular in Singapore involves a more Teochew-style broth that is lighter in colour, non-herbal, and contains lots lots more pepper.

This is all I will cover here. But if you want to know about more Singapore dishes, all you have to do is browse the ~ Singapore Food Trailcategory of posts right here on my blog!

Singapore Food in Australia

Aside for Old Raffles Place (Collingwood) and Killiney Kopitiam (Carlton), there aren’t that many Singaporean food places in Melbourne. Most of the time, my hawker food fix can only be satisfied within Melbourne’s Malaysian joints. In fact, cheeky people would probably suggest that Singapore food could almost be considered a regional variant of Malaysian food. Of course, I would slap anyone who’d dare lump us together… Outrageous! :p

Kopi, Kaya Toast & Half-Boiled Egg at Killiney Kopitiam in Melbourne

So I won’t speak about Singapore food in Australia, since it’s rare outside the confines of home kitchens. Instead, I’ll dive into the Malaysian food scene here. I concede that Singapore food shares many parallels with Malaysian dishes: char kway teow, hor fun, hae mee, Hainanese chicken rice. And I think the Malaysian food scene in Melbourne has taken big leaps in the past five years. Many many Malaysian joints are popping up, and you no longer need to go on a long drive for decent Malaysian food.

But here’s where it gets sticky. I seem to gather a common consensus from fellow foodies (and from my own experiences) about the consistency in dish quality at Malaysian restaurants. It goes up and down… a meal today may be enjoyable, but the same dish a week later may come out bad. I also personally think that many of these restaurants should think about reducing the salt and MSG levels in their dishes. These are things that Malaysian joints in Melbourne should seek to improve on.

Another reason why I think Malaysian/Singaporean food in Australia just doesn’t feel the same as back home is the lack of a hawker heritage in Australia. Most Malaysian restaurants here don’t specialise. You get a big menu, with a wide selection of showcase dishes to suit a polyglot of customers. In Singapore, each individual hawker stall belongs to a larger network in a hawker centre. But each stall still specialises in just one type of dish (eg. kway chap, mutton soup, roti prata…). That’s hawker heritage… the street hawker, passing the cooking techniques and recipes down the generations… an almost palpable pride and genuine passion is involved and it can be seen in the dish, even when it’s as cheap as $2 a plate or bowl.

Kopitiam (by night) in Singapore

In contrast, a Melbourne food court just can’t be compared with a hawker centre. In food courts, each stall’s menu is usually again wide in variety, lacking specialisation… and I think the vendors are mostly salaried employees, without much passion in the dishes they’re cooking.

The Potential Fusion of Dishes

I can speak volumes about this next topic, but shall keep it as short as I can. I have now accepted that the fusion (or bastardisation?) of many Malaysian dishes in Australia has to happen. I think many Malaysian restaurants may have opened with noble thoughts about being authentic. However, the palates of Singaporeans and Malaysians can be quite specific and finicky, they want food to taste exactly like their home region, and they are quick to fail a dish. But in Australia’s hugely multicultural community, you can’t cater to everyone’s regional palate. So in order to remain viable, the restaurant’s recipe has to change to suit the palates of a wider and more accepting audience.

And if you think about it, (and I’m really generalising here)… the ang mohs (‘Westerners’) tend to have bigger appetites, they may also order the pricier dishes, and they have wines with their meals. Conceptually, eating Malaysian to them is still like having a nice night out dining, and not a quick & cheap meal. So doesn’t it make good business sense to cater to their preferences more since they generate more money? In doing so, it leaves behind a feeling of want in many of us migrants, myself included. The market for our own specific (regional) cuisines is just too small for a restaurant to stay viable. These are probably a few of the reasons why you don’t see me eating Malaysian/Singaporean food all that often in Australia.

$5 Takeaway packet of Nasi Lemak at  Sambal Malaysia, Carlton. Pretty authentic!

But there is one advantage that Malaysian places here should make use of, and that is the freshness of Australian produce. Look at the wonderful beef we can find here. I love Vietnamese pho in Melbourne because the beef is so good! Many Australian restaurants alter their menus to suit Australian produce that is on offer. So I wonder if there is a way for Asian restaurants to follow the seasonality and availability of local produce, but still stick to the heart of the Asian recipe, without absolutely bastardising the actual dish. I am not necessarily the authenticity nazi that everybody thinks that I am. Fusion food, when done in the correct direction, and with enough mindfulness, can actually taste marvellous.

Closing Thoughts

So that was what I really wanted to say. As you can see, it’s definitely not the kind of topic(s) that can be squeezed into the 4 minutes of fame that was allotted to each of us at the Q&A session. I’m glad I can voice out what I think here on this blog, and I’m glad this event has made me think so much about Singapore/Malaysian cuisine and its fusion in Australia.

Our Q&A session ended with Winston and Adrian mentioning things that resonated closely with my heart. And it was about how we may be from different countries, but really, our cuisines do share many ingredients and cooking techniques in common. So rather than stand out from the crowd as a cuisine that’s different, we all should acknowledge that just by the virtue of our geographical proximity to each other’s countries, we actually share a lot in common.

What they said really humbled me, because I then realised that my short speech about Singapore cuisine still selfishly revolved around myself and what I’ve observed about Singapore’s food and its history, without bearing much obeisance to the cuisines of its neighbouring countries. (If, at this point, someone says to me ‘same same, but different’, I’m going to slap that person!) But yes, I shamefully fled the event and had a mountainous cone of Patagonian ice cream with Fakegf… all the time thinking I still have so much to learn about life, and food…