the appetizer:

The cuisine of Singapore is a prime example of ethnic diversity: the food is heavily influenced by Malaysian, Chinese, Tamil-Indian, Indonesian, and even British cuisine. Cooking is central to Singapore's national identity—eating is a national pastime and food a national obsession.

Global Destinations



by Emma Lewis

The 600 square kilometer island of Singapore can be found just off the coast of peninsular Malaysia and near to Indonesia. Since at least the 5th century AD this busy waterway has seen traders travelling the busy route between China and India. This rich history of maritime trade and movement of people has given Singapore the cosmopolitan feel it has today.

The island was originally inhabited by Malay peoples and was, for many years, a sleepy backwater under the rule of the Sultan of Johor. The British, under Stamford Raffles, were keen to limit the dominance of the Dutch in the region and in 1819 Raffles negotiated a treaty with the Sultan. From these humble beginnings, the vibrant city of today arose and a thriving economy lured a huge migration of people to Singapore, with each ethnic group bringing their own unique culture and food.

The indigenous Malay cuisine depends on rice as a staple. This is served with vegetables, meat and fish and is normally highly spiced. Spices such as galangal, cloves and lemongrass have been used in the cooking for centuries. From the 15th century, chilli became an intregal part of the cuisine and is now used in most dishes. The cooking style owes a lot to India, as spices were imported from there and Indian curries embellished with local flavors. As an island, Singapore also has a strong tradition of seafood. Prawns, squid, crab and lobster are readily available in addition to such fish as barramundi, stingray, garoupa and king fish.

The Chinese have had links in the area for centuries, however the tumultuous situation in China during the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to a large migration of people from there. Migrants came especially from the south of the county, in particular the Hokkien, Canton, Teochew and Hakka regions. With them they brought their regional styles of cooking, and woks and chopsticks were introduced to Singapore. The Chinese are now the largest ethnic group on the island, and different Chinese cooking styles can be sampled all over town.

It was normal for only Chinese men to migrate, and on arrival in Singapore they often married into local Malay families. This lead to the creation of Peranakan culture, which also spawned its own unique cuisine. Taking staple ingredients such as noodles, soy sauce and tofu from Chinese cooking and mixing them with local Malay spices, it created a totally new taste.

Raffles, when he arrived in Singapore, brought an entourage of Indians and this group soon increased its presence, as they were recruited to build the city and work on the Malaysian plantations. Workers came especially from the southern, Tamil speaking part of the country. With them they brought a whole range of Indian cooking styles including the hot and spicy curries from the south and the milder, creamier tastes of the north.

Singapore continues to act as a cultural melting pot. Its prosperity attracts many from poorer countries in the region who bring with them their own cooking styles. As the different groups live among one another and sample different foods, a Singaporean style of cooking is evolving. This incorporates tastes from countries throughout Asia and the world, adopting and adapting them to make them Singaporean.


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This page modified January 2007