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Fusion & Evolution

The Singapore Heritage Cookbook series serves up tantalising whiffs of the island nation’s delicious and diverse cuisines, tracing the origins of specific dishes for a greater appreciation of cultural identity.

Words: Leonard Jeyam       Images: Courtesy Of Marshall Cavendish

A wedding picture of a Peranakan bride and groom

A wedding picture of a Peranakan bride and groom with the couple in traditional Chinese wedding attire but the attending ladies are in Malay kebaya dresses.

     The culinary history of Singapore can be traced in two obvious ways: One way would be by looking into the rich street food scene. Many of the street food recipes trace their origins to the migrant and multicultural character of the island itself. 

     Another route would be to look at the domestic kitchens of the many ethnic groups that have been living in harmony on the island for centuries now. This route would follow the dictum that the cuisine worth preserving is that which is found at home, in the family kitchen. 

     Some would say that the food the Chinese migrants brought to this part of the world often mirrored the culinary history of the Southern Chinese regions where they came from – especially their street food that is still found today, sometimes unchanged, in restaurants and hawker stalls. But the very multicultural nature of Southeast Asian history demands that the domestic kitchen serve as the place to begin tracing the origins of a certain dish and one’s cultural identity. 


Singapore Heritage Cookbooks Series

Singapore Heritage Cookbooks Series by Marshall Cavendish.

The Singapore Heritage Cookbooks series by publisher Marshall Cavendish is an attempt to trace the origins of much of the island nation’s diverse culinary heritage. The rich multi-ethnic character of the land, attributed primarily to the Chinese, Malay and Indian migrants, is well represented in five volumes written by amateur cooks, historians, chefs and restaurateurs. 

     Each cookbook in this series brings together recipes from the home kitchen or the nation’s fusion street food. Each volume offers a comprehensive history of the respective communities and a concise write-up on each cuisine. 


While Stamford Raffles is often regarded as the founding father of Singapore, the island’s pre-colonial history shows evidence that various Chinese communities were already living there either as traders or residents from as far back as the 14th century. These communities brought with them their distinct regional cuisines from southern China (mainly from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces). 

     Even today, many Singaporeans are able to tell these regional cuisines apart as the essence and spirit of the recipes have varied only slightly. Even in local versions of the original motherland recipes, little has changed except to lighten the flavours of the stocks and soups. This was often done so as to accommodate the warmer weather of the tropics. Or sometimes, it was the addition of the ubiquitous chili pepper that seems to be in abundance in so many cuisines of Southeast Asia.  

 Best Cantonese claypot rice

The best Clay Pot Rice according to the Chinese and aficionados of the dish is one that is cooked over charcoal embers.

     The Hainanese people from the southern island of Hainan, however, deserve special mention here; they were probably the most famous of the professional Chinese chefs. They rose to prominence around the time the British arrived. Not only did they invent many local foods such as kaya (a delicious egg and coconut jam or custard), chicken rice and caramelised local coffee, they also made famous their own versions of more westernised foods such as chicken chop and spicy oxtail soup. 

     These last two dishes are obviously a throwback to the hybrid nature of British dishes in colonial India, which were undoubtedly demanded by colonial officers stationed in Singapore and around then Malaya after the 19th century. 


The Malay cookbook in this series, written by Rita Zahara, also tells a story that bears a resemblance to Chinese Singaporean food histories. This cuisine too emulates the rich invention and variety of techniques of the many different migrant cuisines of the island. 

     Not only are the distinct Malay stewing styles in evidence here (such as the chili- tamarind- and tomato-based sauces), the full gamut of its culinary heritage are also to be found in the various curries inspired by the Indian migrants, as well as modern versions of Chinese noodles, stir-fry dishes and soups. 


Not to be outdone is the Indian volume in this series that is divided into local Singaporean versions of Indian fare (both  domestic and hawker varieties), as well as more distinct versions of southern and northern sub-continental recipes. These versions not only display the fiery character in the use of an abundance of chilies and spices, but also different techniques of making breads and rice dishes that vary greatly from one region to another. 

Indian sweet gruel, Green gram payasam.

Green gram Payasam, a typical Indian sweet gruel that is served at religious and family gatherings at the end of the meal.

     The Tamil people make up just over half of the local Indian population, and there are many other ethnicities such as those from Kerala, Punjab and other northern Indian groups that have brought their culture and cuisine with them. 

     I particularly like how the writers of this volume, Devagi Sanmugam and Shanmugam Kasinathan, have included a special chapter on Indian street food that is unique to the Malay Archipelago. These recipes are distinctive in that they fuse other ethnic recipes found in multicultural Singapore and make them their own. Examples of such recipes include the very tasty and spicy Indian salad called rojak, as well as fried noodles called mee goreng

Indian rojak with spicy peanut sauce.

Indian rojak, a salad of vegetables and dough fritters served with spicy peanut sauce.

     The first must have been inspired by the Chinese fruit and vegetable salad of the same name (rojak just means ‘mixture’ in the Malay language) and the second is obviously a take on the many types of Chinese hawker noodles. The Indian version, however, is totally vegetarian replete with tofu, boiled potatoes, fritters and bean sprouts.

     The Indians also gave Singapore various bread recipes. The layered bread roti canai (also known as pratha) is probably the most famous of them all, and is regarded as some kind of national food both on the island and in its northern neighbour, Malaysia. 

One of Peranakan dish, Ngoh hiang

Ngoh hiang is a typical Peranakan dish that is made of minced meat rolled in bean curd sheets.

     The lacy, net-like pancake appam jala has now been adopted by the Malay community that calls it roti jala instead. But the Indian community’s real contribution to Singaporean cuisine would probably rest on their fiery curries such as the popular chicken and mutton (goat meat) curries, as well as the spicy mutton bone and marrow stews or soups. 


These main ethnicities apart, the true culinary heritage of the island nation (and by extension, Malaysia) would not be complete without looking at the rich hybridity in the cuisines of the Peranakan Chinese and Eurasian communities. The cuisines of these two groups display an early affinity for what would later be termed ‘Asian fusion’ cuisine, and boast of dishes not found anywhere else in Southeast Asia or Asia for that matter. 

     The history of the Peranakan began with the coming of the south Chinese migrants to the Malay Archipelago from the 17th century onwards, though earlier Chinese communities were already present in various parts of Southeast Asia in what are now Bangkok, Malacca, Manila and Borneo. It was with the coming of the Dutch colonialists to the Indonesian islands and the Malay Peninsula that greater numbers of Chinese traders and peasants decided to take root in this region. 

     As many of them married local Malay or Sumatran women, their interaction with all things local produced a hybrid Chinese- Malay cuisine that melded Chinese cooking techniques with Malay ingredients (and vice versa). This produced a very tasty and original hybrid cuisine still much admired for its unabashed use of chilies, local herbs, coconut cream and various other Chinese ingredients. 

Onde-onde is popular with both Peranakan and Malay communities.

A glutinous our dough ball dessert stuffed with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut, the Onde-onde or Buah Melaka is popular with both Peranakan and Malay communities.

     Their desserts, on the other hand, display the rich influence of various European techniques (from the Portuguese and Dutch) by employing a variety of local ingredients. Dairy milk was replaced with coconut milk, while cane sugar was substituted with local dark palm sugar. 

Ang Koo with sweet mung bean paste

A Peranakan lady reparing Ang Koo (turtle shaped  our cakes stuffed with sweet mung bean paste) and in the foreground, jam tarts.

     Incorporating rice and wheat flour into these desserts produced such sweet treats as the kueh lapis, a pretty and delicate-looking cake made up of thin layers of sweet steamed coconut milk batter. It’s a pity that the author of this particular volume, Philip Chia, chose not to include this recipe. However, he more than makes up for this omission by including just about every other well-known community recipe. 

     The Portuguese Eurasian community probably has a longer history of settlement in this region simply because they consider themselves to be descendants of the earliest Portuguese colonial settlers and traders who married local Malay women. Perhaps such origins would be an over-simplification of history since their cuisine displays obvious Dutch, Goanese Indian and British influences, so that what is termed ‘Portuguese’ is actually an amalgamation of what is regional Malay and Chinese with all the different colonial influences that came to this region. 

Chilli crab in Singapore

Chilli crab has earned itself a place in in Singapore’s culinary scene as the unofficial national dish.

     If Peranakan cooking reveals a distinct Chinese identity, Eurasian cuisine would probably be said to showcase a distinct Malay character with obvious hints of Chinese and colonial British India thrown into the mix for good measure. The writer of this volume, Chef Quentin Pereira, obviously knows his heritage and cuisine well. He shows this by including all the famous recipes of his community such as their meat stews, devil curry, prawn sambal and so forth. He also exhibits a true knack for heritage concerns by including recipes such as the more obscure Captain Curry – a dish that he says his father used to make. 

Fragrant curried lamb

Mysore mutton is a fragrant curried lamb dish but don’t expect to  and this dish in Mysore, India.

     Captain Curry is probably the forerunner to another local dish famously known as kari kapitan, which is believed to have roots in Peranakan cuisine (although the Peranakan volume in this series makes no mention of it). Food historians have shed light on this mild chicken stew steeped in Malay herbs and chili by revealing to us that the earlier and rudimentary Captain Curry was in essence a British colonial export from the Indian subcontinent. 

     The recipe basically incorporates whatever ingredients readily available in any one time and place to form an ultra-basic chicken stew or curry. Over time in Malaya and Singapore, this dish began to use Malay herbs such as galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime, and eventually became a rich chicken curry that could either be of Malay, Thai or Peranakan influence. 

     It is this kind of invention and re-invention that is revealed in all the different volumes of this heritage cookbook series. Not only is the series well researched and laid out, it serves as a tool to remind future generations about the great diversity and history of each local ethnic group on the island, and how each one of them has contributed to the rich multicultural makeup of the island nation.


One of Peranakan popular dish, Acar.


     Philip Chia’s mak-ko (eldest auntie), Auntie Alice, taught him how to make achar. The process involves cutting the vegetables into strips roughly similar in size to ensure the end product is visually pleasing, then rubbing with salt or blanching them before sun-drying so they are crunchy. This also ensures that the achar will have a longer shelf life.


Peranakan's Sate ayam

Sate ayam serve with ketupat, slices of shallots, cucumber and sambal kacang (peanut gravy).

This richly- avoured meat, skewered on thin bamboo sticks and grilled, is best prepared to order and eaten on the spot. A typical serving comprises 10 sticks with ketupat, slices of shallots, cucumber and sambal kacang (peanut gravy).


There are five cookbooks in this collection by Marshall Cavendish focusing on the cuisines of the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and Eurasian communities. This collection is available at all major bookshops in Singapore and Malaysia or can be purchased at www. marshallcavendish.com.


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