7 non-authentic Singapore dishes you should know about
Penang was right. Foreigners do spoil local food. Just like our ancestors did.
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Many people are adamant that local food stays in the hands of local people, for fear of diluting our culture. However food always had a curious habit of changing and mutating their way through time, especially in Singapore, a crossroad of different cultures.
Since people have been crying father and mother over the authenticity of local food, here are 7 non-authentic Singaporean foods to cry about.
1. Hainanese Curry Rice
Hainanese immigrants were one of the last to arrive here in Singapore, after the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese. It didn’t help that the Hainan dialect was so different from the others that no one could really understand them. Excluded from the run-of the-mill businesses that the other dialect groups ran, Hainanese immigrants became chefs for the British and Peranakans.
Taking dishes from these cultures, the Hainanese adapted and combined them into a dish that boasts 4 flavours – Sour, Sweet, Bitter and Spicy. To say that it looks bad is an understatement. But get past the ugly exterior and prepare to be mindblown by the first spoonful of gooey goodness.
What it was originally: British Pork Chops, Peranakan Curry Chicken, Chap Chye (Mixed Vegetables) and Chinese Kong Bak (Braised Pork) – all tasty and distinct in their own ways.
What it is now: In the words of the good doctor Leslie Tay, it is pigs swill that “slides down the oesophagus like engine oil on pistons”. Sexy.
2. Hainanese Chicken Rice
Everyone’s favourite immigrant chefs return, ready to butcher one of their hometown dishes. To be fair, there are similarities between our local chicken rice and those from Hainan: Both have chicken; both have rice.
Authentic Hainan chicken rice is made with a very tough chicken called wenchang chicken (aren’t you glad we don’t use that here). It is served with rice drenched in oil with a dipping sauce made of chopped garlic, spring onions and oil.
The local version uses tender young chicken as well as a tangy chilli sauce flavoured by lime (thanks to the Cantonese). The rice is cooked in chicken fat and chicken stock. Some places here include a tropical twist (oh the horror) by adding pandan leaves when cooking the rice. Additionally, our Malaccan cousins up north have also managed to desecrate the dish further by serving the rice in balls.
What it was originally: Tough Hainan-raised chicken and oily rice.
What it is now: Chicken, Chilli and (rice) Balls.
3. Fish Head Curry
Fish Head Curry was purportedly an invention of a certain Mr Gomez who hailed from Kerala, India. Coming over to Singapore in the 1950s, Mr Gomez wowed the people here with his superb curries, especially his chicken korma (some said it was so good because the good sir added opium to his food!). Like any good businessman worth his salt, Mr Gomez decided to woo Chinese patrons by selling curried fish head (since the Chinese eat everything right?).
It was a hit. Today, we have a variety of fish head curries – from the spicy and sour Assam variety to the milky Nonya type. The fish head is usually steamed first while the curry is prepared. After which, the fish head is placed in the curry to simmer so that the curry flavour seeps into the flesh.
Interesting fact: Fish eyes are said to be highly nutritious and good for preventing brain diseases. Want to improve your brain power? You know where to look (hur hur).
What it was originally: Indian curry
What it is now: Curry flavoured animal head.
A long time ago, Javanese immigrants brought along with them their fruit and vegetable salad which the Chinese promptly stole and modified. The local version of rojak has a mix of tropical fruits (such as pineapple and jambu), vegetables like bean sprouts, kangkong and turnip, as well as Chinese influences in the form of you tiao and century eggs. Everything is mixed with prawn paste, sugar and lime juice, and then dusted with peanuts and garnished with a ginger flower.
Interesting fact: prawn paste is actually made from belachan (fermented ground shrimp). Rotting prawn sauce anyone?
What it was: Tropical fruit and vegetable salad
What it is now: Fruit and vegetable salad covered in decomposing prawn sauce. Yum.
5. Mee Soto / Mee Rebus / Mee Goreng
You can take the Chinese immigrant out of China but you can’t separate him from his noodles for long. The early Chinese immigrants’ enthusiasm for egg noodles won over the Malays who in turn, decided to incorporate them into their dishes. What we call yellow Hokkien mee (noodles) today can be found in Malay dishes such as Mee Soto, Mee Rebus and even the staple of every Indian Muslim restaurant – the infamously red Mee Goreng.
What it was originally: Egg noodles
What it is now: Egg noodles adapted into Malay and Indian noodle dishes.
6. Curry Puffs
The presence of the British here meant that many local foods underwent changes to suit their delicate tastes. One such example is the humble curry puff. There are many stories that tell of the history of curry puffs – one version claims that the British took the samosas brought over by Indian immigrants and modified it into a flaky puff version with a less spicy filling.
After the war, many Malay women made and sold epok-epok. These were puff pastries filled with either sardines or potatoes mixed with rempah (spice paste). Soon, the Chinese came along and decided to mess around with the recipe by adding an egg to it – giving rise to the curry puff we eat today.
What it was: Indian samosa
What it is now: Pumped up version with fancy edges and an egg.
7. Roti John
Roti John is an enigma in itself. Roti is a Hindi word meaning ‘bread’ while ‘John’ clearly refers to an angmoh. Who was this legendary red-head who single-handedly caused the creation of a local dish?
According to unverified sources, an Englishman was so homesick that he asked a Malay hawker to make him a hamburger. Not knowing what a hamburger was, the hawker took whatever he had – eggs, onions, mutton and a French loaf – and created the next closest thing – a sandwich of sorts – which he named Roti John.
Roti John was popularized by an Indian hawker in the 1970s. His stall at the Taman Serasi Hawker Centre enjoyed a booming business selling Roti John to Eurasians and Caucasians alike. It was said that he sold up to 800 loaves every weekend.
What it was originally: A hamburger
What it is now: Well, definitely not a hamburger. Think of it as a mash-up between a murtabak and a sandwich.
*Bonus*: Milo Dinosaur
This isn’t strictly a case of non-authentic foods, but since we’re on the subject of locally created delights…
Milo was originally created in Australia and has gained quite a number of consumers in Singapore and Malaysia. Here, many would be familiar with the Milo Dinosaur, a concoction often found in the bowels of 24-hour Indian Muslim eating places.
It is ridiculously simple to make: Make a glass of iced Milo and add a heap of Milo powder on top. Former A & A Restaurant (currently Teh Tarik Muslim Restaurant) took credit for the creation of this calorific beverage. Incidentally, A & A also claimed to be the inventors of Teh Cino.
Check out how to make some seriously atas Milo Dinosaur varieties:
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