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Singapore's diversity dining

When speaking about multicultural Singaporean food, many people say it's diverse and intriguing but lacking a distinctive personality. That's not the whole truth.

A while back, Singaporean Jacquie Tan, who opened her own restaurant My Dining Place to satisfy her cravings for home cooking, invited me to taste what she called one of the most authentic Singaporean dishes in Shanghai. Their home-made spicy curry deeply impressed me.

"What's your general impression of Singaporean cuisine?" Tan asked. "Malay, oh, no, Chinese, uh, India, together?" I was daunted.

"When I ask other people outside Singapore, regretfully, some of them only give me one of these answers. Your answer is 'exotic'," she said.

The population of Singapore, around 5 million, is comprised mainly of three ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. Each has their own religion and culture, including food.

Here Chinese food is mainly Cantonese and Fujian cuisine since most of the Chinese immigrants to Singapore came from Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China.

Cantonese fare is mild and seldom uses strong spices and seasoning; dishes are seasoned with a little salt, sugar, spring onion or soy sauce to highlight natural flavors of the ingredients. To retain the texture and nutrition, the ingredients are commonly steamed, boiled quickly or pan-fried quickly. Steamed dumplings, such as steamed prawn dumplings, and fried spring rolls are very representative.

Fujian people interpret food differently, adding sweet, salty, sour and spicy tastes. They are skilled at making sauces such as shacha sauce, a paste made from garlic, chili, dried shrimp and peanuts, which is served on top of dishes. They often add medicinal herbs such as gouqi (wolfberries) and danggui(Chinese angelica root) to soups, which increase the herbal aroma and add health benefits. Bak kut teh is known as one of the most popular Singapore dishes, with strong Fujian influence.

Then comes Malay cuisine. It uses abundant fragrant herbs such as lemon grass, curry leaf, chili, garlic, belachan (a pungent dried shrimp paste with ground fresh chilies) that deliver rich flavors and strong (some find it too strong) aromas. Coconut milk is indispensable, added to virtually all dishes (salads, curries, rice, soup, seafood and dessert). It soothes the palate and balances too-spicy flavors. Some popular dishes like satay (grilled meat served with satay sauce including peanuts and multiple spices) and nasi lamak (rice soaked in coconut cream and then steamed) have an authentic and traditional Malay style.

Another Singapore cuisine is based on Chinese and Malay food cultures, together known as Peranakan or Nonya, an old Malay word expressing respect for women. Nonya food inherits Chinese cuisine culture, especially cooking techniques like steaming, brewing and frying, as well as Malay cooking, notable for spices and herbs.

In Tan's restaurant, I tasted a Nonya dish called chili crab meat with deep-fried mantou. The mantou, a steamed bun originating in China, is light and crunchy outside and chewy inside. When it's dipped into the chili crab meat sauce, the flavor becomes sour and spicy.

Indian cuisine generally features aromatic herbs including cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom and turmeric, many of these used to make curry. Onions, chili and garlic are also staples. Indian immigrants in Singapore come from both northern and southern India hence, the cuisine reflects different characteristics - the south fiery hot, abundant vegetarian fare, rice and coconut milk; the north moderately spicy, lots of meat, bread and yogurt.

When Indian cuisine comes to Singapore, the ingredients and styles change somewhat to use local ingredients and better appeal to locals. Curried fish head and the drink teh tarik or pulled-tea are popular.

In Singapore, diverse food cultures coexist comfortably, blend with and borrow from each other. While retaining distinctive ethnic elements, the food is constantly updated with cross-cultural influences, not only Indian, Malay and Chinese, but from other points in East, West and around the world.

Slinging tales of an exalted cocktail

By John H. Isacs

although I'm decidedly a wine guy (with a few exceptions), this week let's relax together with a classic cocktail, the Singapore Sling.

The origin of the Singapore Sling is disputed. The one thing we know for sure is that it was invented sometime before 1915 by Hainan-born Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender at the fabled Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The Ngiam connection provides a nice Chinese angle to this legendary drink. These are the facts that everyone agrees on, however the exact recipe, date and reason for its invention remain muddled in the mists of time.

One popular tale tells of a handsome young English officer entering the bar on a sunny afternoon and being stunned by the beauty of a Chinese woman seated nearby. Her beauty so overwhelmed him that he asked bartender Ngiam about the captivating lady. "She is Lady Chin, the youngest daughter of Singapore's most successful silk merchant," Ngiam answered, then asked, "Shall I send over a Scotch with your compliments, Sir?" The officer quickly replied, "Definitely not, Mr Ngiam; Scotch is not an appropriate drink for a lady of her delicate bearing."

Legend has it that the bartender quickly mixed assorted ingredients around him, concocted the first Singapore Sling and served it to Lady Chin.

She was said to have taken one sip and given the officer a radiant smile. He glanced away to collect his bag so he could approach her and say "hello," but when he looked again, the lady had vanished.

The story goes that the officer returned to England and over many years as he aged, he never forgot that entrancing smile he received on that enchanted afternoon many years ago. True or not, this is an engaging tale and to this day the Singapore Sling has retained its association with feminine beauty.

But what was that magical recipe that put a smile on Lady Chin's face? There's no definitive answer.

Raffles hotel admits that the original recipe was lost sometime during the 1930s and attempts to find evidence of Ngiam's exact formula have failed.

Several historians of cocktails claim that the original Singapore Sling was in fact called the Straits Sling and the modern Singapore Sling evolved from this earlier cocktail.

The Straits Sling was a stronger drink with a good dose of gin and greater component of cherry eau de vie, also known as Kirsch. In addition, unlike most modern Singapore Slings, the Straits Sling didn't contain any pineapple juice. The recipe used by Raffles Hotel today was formulated by Ngiam Tong Boon's great nephew during the 1970s.

Though it is likely that we will never know the original recipe, any cocktail that continues to put smiles on the faces of beautiful ladies is special indeed.

For me, the past two weeks have been incredibly hectic with a whirlwind trip to Italy to accept an international award and assorted TV programs and wine events in five Chinese cities.

Next week, I shall regale you with my very special trip to Italy.

Singaporean signature dishes

Bak kut teh

Bak kut teh, literally means "meat bone tea," but is actually a soup combining pork ribs with various herbs and spices. The dish dates back to the 19th century when Chinese immigrants in Malaya used cheap pork ribs and herbs such as star anise, fennel seeds, cloves and coriander to boost their energy. The soup was also found to resist some conditions such as rheumatism and soon became popular among Chinese manual workers.

In modern Singaporean restaurants, two kinds of bak kut teh are served; the peppery Hainan style and the Fujian style which is more herbal-tasting.

We recommend eating bak kut teh with rice or dipping youtiao (a fried dough) in the soup. Pairing it with a cup of Chinese tea is also a good choice since it can balance the fatty meat and clean the strong herbal flavor left on the palate.

Lo hei

Lo hei, a Cantonese word meaning gaining prosperity, also known as yusheng, is a festival food served to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year. The dish is similar to salad and the various ingredients used have their own auspicious meanings. Fish, usually salmon, symbolizes abundance; pomelo brings luck; crushed peanuts symbolize longevity; colorful shredded radish or other vegetables symbolize prosperity. Other ingredients include sesame seeds, ginger and plum sauce.

When serving, all diners stand up and the leader of the table adds seasonings to the base ingredients. Then all the diners toss the shredded ingredients into the air as high as they can while loudly making auspicious wishes. Singaporeans believe the higher they toss and the more auspicious words they say, the more fortune they will receive in the coming year.

Hainanese chicken rice

The dish, originating in Hainan Island, China, consists of baiqieji (steamed chicken), rice, a red paste made of chili, ginger and garlic and dark soy sauce.

Ways to serve vary. Either mix the sauce and paste with the rice so that each bite contains rich flavor or dip the chicken with the sauce and taste the rice without paste to experience the original flavor and fragrance. When serving the latter way, the glossy rice, if correctly fried in chicken stock and boiled in chicken soup in advance, should display a rich chicken fragrance.

Whether the chicken meat is tender is another important way to judge the quality of the dish.

Some rigorous chefs first steam the chicken until it is well done and then quickly soak it in cold water to prevent the meat from being further cooked. Only in this way, can the meat be fresh and tender.

Curry fish head

A very spicy dish which can bring out a sweat but don't ask for less chili to be used in the curry or you won't get the authentic Singaporean taste. Curry fish head is a hybrid of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines. The head of red snapper fish, together with fresh vegetables, are stewed in the spicy curry. Some tamarind is added to give the fish some sourness.

You can serve the dish in the Chinese way, by tasting the fish first and then wiping the sauce with mantou. Mantou itself contains a certain sweetness which makes the taste balanced and changeable.

Or you can opt for the Indian way, serving the fish head with pappadams (a crispy flatbread) and paired with some pickles. Some Singaporeans say these are not the only ways to best serve the dish. A bottle of ice-cold beer is an indispensable finishing touch.


A typical Peranakan food made of fish and Malay-style seasonings. The fish is mashed while lemongrass, garlic, chili and coconut milk are successively added. The mixture is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over a charcoal fire. During grilling, the aroma of the leaf gradually permeates into the fish mixture to create a complex and aromatic final flavor.


Chendol, made from crushed ice, palm sugar, green starched noodles (a kind of rice noodle with transparent green color derived from the pandan leaf) and coconut milk, is a very popular street food dessert in Singapore.

For enriching the flavor, vendors offer toppings, including glutinous rice, mango, water melon and green or red bean paste.


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