October 29, 2020

Singapore: the city-state lives its gastronomic evolution between restaurants and food trends

Welcome to Singapore. The city-state warm outside and cold inside (bring a sweater to get into any building: air conditioning seems to be the only air Singapore can breathe), lush greenery, which takes just under an hour to walk from east to west (the longest side). An island that has one of the most important ports in Asia, it is the fourth largest financial center in the world, but it is only 200 years old: the date of its foundation was arbitrarily made to coincide with the arrival of Thomas Stamford Raffles on the island, namely January 28, 1819.

Here they speak English - an English all their own, understandable only to them - they drive on the left, even if cars are a luxury of a few (but public transport works very well), and the symbol par excellence is the Merlion, a statue with the body of a fish and the head of a lion, although on the island lions probably never lived. After all this, to understand it even a little bit, Singapore must be studied, starting from history.

A bit of history of Singapore

It has always been a crossroads of peoples and cultures, to understand (also) its gastronomy it is necessary to dust off a few historical stages of what is officially, today, the Republic of Singapore. The first written records date back to the third century - on Chinese accounting books that describe it as Pu-Luo-Chung (an island at the end) - but then it will be necessary to wait for about ten centuries before coming across the testimonies that speak of it as an important commercial center, thanks to its strategic position among the different maritime routes, at the end of the Malaysian peninsula.

And it was precisely between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century that Singapore experienced the first waves of immigration from different countries in the region, seeing its Chinese, Indian, Arab and Portuguese coasts arrive on its shores. Then, however, the decline, until Raffles established there a commercial base on behalf of the British East India Company, immediately proclaiming it a free port. This marked its economic but also its culinary fortune.

Chinese and Malaysian merchants arrived, others from Malacca and Manila while Calcutta, which administered the colony, displaced convicts and Indian soldiers. Boars and Arabs then came to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations while the English, Europeans and Jews increased - explains Rosario Scarpato, historian of gastronomy - The kitchens of these groups prospered and soon mixed. Singapore became the capital of fusion, two centuries before it became fashionable. And from the mix were also born "original" kitchens such as Peranakan, a mixture of Chinese, Malaysian and European, now almost in extinction. The Indonesians from Sumatra and Java also continued to come with their spices, as they had done in the previous 500 years. Singapore has always been a great center for sorting spices.

The economic development recorded in the second half of the 19th century caused a rapid growth of the population, in particular following the influx of immigrants from China. And soon it became a delicious morsel for its great commercial and strategic importance, so much so that it was occupied, from 1942 to 1945, by Japanese troops and, subsequently, re-conquered by the British. Without going into too much historical detail (see timeline), its independence is recent history, it arrived only in '65 with the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia (yes, in the meantime the country, following a referendum wanted by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has also been part of the Federation of Malaysia!)

And so we have arrived to the present day. The historical excursus for dummies was right: it was its history, especially that of the last hundred years, that made Singapore the economic center of the area. Years in which Lee transformed the island from a battered post-colonial remnant into a glittering laboratory for the most daring experiments, turning it into one of the most prosperous economies in South East Asia. But what has all this involved from a gastronomic point of view?

Curious about Singapore? Check out my post about double eyelids and other popular treatments.

Singapore and peranakan cuisine

Since it has always been a crossroads of peoples and cultures, it is very difficult to identify a traditional cuisine. Suffice it to say that the population, of over 5 million inhabitants, is composed of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and other descendants of Asians and Europeans. But as mentioned by Scarpato there is one that most of all approaches the concept of "traditional", and it is the Peranakan cuisine, made of Chinese and Malaysian flavors, ingredients and techniques together, in a perfect example of integration, a concept so difficult to understand, today, from this part of the world.

In the Candlenut restaurant (which has confirmed a star for the Michelin Guide Singapore 2019), surrounded by the lush greenery of Dempsey Hills, chef Malcolm Lee proposes his version of peranakan. It refers to the cuisine of descendants of Chinese immigrants who settled in the Malay archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries, who then married the local Malaysians creating a unique cuisine that blends Chinese, Malaysian and other influences.

The ah-ma-kase menu

It recalls the Japanese word omakase (a type of Japanese restaurant where guests rely totally on the hands of the chef, ed.), but at the same time "ahma" means "grandmother", to recall the spirit of his cuisine, and at the same time the way the dishes are served, a bit 'meze style, with the possibility of sharing them with their diners.

At the beginning I worked together with my mother and every time I tried to introduce new ideas, I heard myself answer "that's not the way to do it". I didn't try anymore! And I stuck to tradition, focusing rather on the quality of the ingredients and techniques used. A traditional peranakan meal can take up to a week to prepare.

The keluak buah that when raw is deadly

As for example the famous keluak buah, which here from Candlenut accompanies rice or pork. It is a sauce made with a kind of black walnut typical of Southeast Asia, which if not treated with the right technique is deadly: This seed, raw, contains cyanide and is deadly. That's why they let it ferment and boil it repeatedly before serving it.

Among the chef's workhorses are red snapper with green mango sambal and ginger flour and typical prawns with sambal and charred chives. "I buy fish at the Tekka Center, I now have my trusted vendors, but to understand the influence of Malaysia on nonya foods (another name given to peranakan) I suggest you take a trip to Geylang Serai market, where they still serve my childhood dishes, from Asam pedas stingray (sour and spicy stew) to braised meat cooked in coconut milk and spices, to goreng pisang (banana pancakes)".

Fine dining in Singapore

After the parenthesis of the "traditional" most of the fine dining restaurants worthy of note are under the banner of the driven westernization. Singapore, in fact, while remaining an Asian city (in the markets this characteristic can be felt), is also Western. This westernized character is pure, free from its own cultural and political roots, which is why the entire island has become a fertile ground for chaotically pursued development, configuring it, perhaps, as the most vibrant laboratory of gastronomic experimentation on the globe.

There is the Australian restaurant with barbecue in the heart of Chinatown, Burnt Ends, the Cantonese Summer Pavilion, the Frenchman Odette, the Japanese Tetsuya Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands or the exponent of Nordic cuisine Bjorn Frantzen with his restaurant Zén. And in such a cosmopolitan context could not miss - again because of the history of Singapore - the British cuisine of the Jaan.

Where to shop in Singapore? Read my article on the best shopping centres and markets.