In 2012, the Dutch artists Lernert and Sander — known for their irreverent sense of humour — created a new perfume by blending 1,400 fragrances — in essence every perfume released the previous year — into one potent concoction. The end result was a fragrance packed with the overwhelming cocktail of scents that permeates the perfumes and cosmetics floor of any major department store.
The fragrance was called “Everything”.
In this issue, we explore cuisines in Singapore originating from elsewhere that have been similarly infused with local influences to become distinctively Singaporean in identity. The evolution of food in Singapore reflects the hopes, longings and assimilation of travellers from faraway lands who eventually became residents.
For even as expatriate colonial housewives attempted to reproduce a sense of home through the recipes of the legendary Mrs Beeton cookbooks in Janice Loo’s article “Mrs Beeton in Malaya”, local cookbooks gradually introduced Malayan foods into the colonial diet. Bonny Tan highlights a series of colonial cookbooks — the Y.W.C.A cookery books — in the National Library’s collection that were inclusive in their incorporation of Western, Chinese and Indian recipes.
In “Spicy Nation: From India to Singapore”, Malarvele Ilangovan traces the evolution of Indian food that followed the Indian diaspora to Singapore, picking up Southeast Asian influences and nuances that have resulted in distinctively multi¬ethnic concoctions that are still Indian at their core.
Amanda Lee Koe’s article “Into the Melting Pot: Food as Culture” is perhaps the best example of this mixing of cultures, memories and values — yu sheng, though still disputed as a Singaporean invention, is described as a communal dance of feasting and invocation to the God of Wealth.
This sense of how food binds us with unbreakable ties can almost be vicariously tasted in Ang Seow Leng’s personal account of her family’s love story with Teochew food and her despair that most of it will be lost in translation in years to come as ties to our dialect heritage weakens with each passing generation.
Equally enchanting as the origins of food are the beginnings of our food establishments. I am particularly fascinated by the People’s Restaurants described by Ho Chi Tim in “Communal Feeding in Post-war Singapore”. These restaurants were set up between 1946 and 1948 as part of a government communal feeding programme. Three and a half million meals later, the scheme was able to pressurise commercial restaurants of the day into raising the standards and value of the meals they served.
Perhaps the bonafide People’s Restaurants of Singapore are the hawker centres — which began their lives along the streets and in alleys as villains and a general menace to society. Lim Tin Seng charts the intriguing journey from their origins as street hawkers to the much-loved culinary darlings they are today in “Hawkers: From Public Nuisance to National Icons.” It is ironic that a livelihood that the authorities once tried to root out and control has become an endangered artisanal profession that society now seeks to nurture and grow.
I hope you will be as enthralled as I am by the complex relationships and interactions between different peoples and the mix of culinary heritage they brought to Singapore. May the resulting complex repertoire of foods — and by extension cultures — we enjoy in Singapore outlast the march of time and not succumb to the bland homogeneity of an “Everything” concoction.
Mr Gene Tan