A Taste of Singapore: Singapore Food Writing and Culinary Tourism

Donna Lee Brien

Abstract


Introduction

Many destinations promote culinary encounters. Foods and beverages, and especially how these will taste in situ, are being marketed as niche travel motivators and used in destination brand building across the globe. While initial usage of the term culinary tourism focused on experiencing exotic cultures of foreign destinations by sampling unfamiliar food and drinks, the term has expanded to embrace a range of leisure travel experiences where the aim is to locate and taste local specialities as part of a pleasurable, and hopefully notable, culinary encounter (Wolf). Long’s foundational work was central in developing the idea of culinary tourism as an active endeavor, suggesting that via consumption, individuals construct unique experiences. Ignatov and Smith’s literature review-inspired definition confirms the nature of activity as participatory, and adds consuming food production skills—from observing agriculture and local processors to visiting food markets and attending cooking schools—to culinary purchases.

Despite importing almost all of its foodstuffs and beverages, including some of its water, Singapore is an acknowledged global leader in culinary tourism. Horng and Tsai note that culinary tourism conceptually implies that a transferal of “local or special knowledge and information that represent local culture and identities” (41) occurs via these experiences. This article adds the act of reading to these participatory activities and suggests that, because food writing forms an important component of Singapore’s suite of culinary tourism offerings, taste contributes to the cultural experience offered to both visitors and locals.

While Singapore foodways have attracted significant scholarship (see, for instance, work by Bishop; Duruz; Huat & Rajah; Tarulevicz, Eating), Singapore food writing, like many artefacts of popular culture, has attracted less notice. Yet, this writing is an increasingly visible component of cultural production of, and about, Singapore, and performs a range of functions for locals, tourists and visitors before they arrive. Although many languages are spoken in Singapore, English is the national language (Alsagoff) and this study focuses on food writing in English.

Background

Tourism comprises a major part of Singapore’s economy, with recent figures detailing that food and beverage sales contribute over 10 per cent of this revenue, with spend on culinary tours and cookery classes, home wares such as tea-sets and cookbooks, food magazines and food memoirs additional to this (Singapore Government). This may be related to the fact that Singapore not only promotes food as a tourist attraction, but also actively promotes itself as an exceptional culinary destination. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) includes food in its general information brochures and websites, and its print, television and cinema commercials (Huat and Rajah). It also mounts information-rich campaigns both abroad and inside Singapore. The 2007 ‘Singapore Seasons’ campaign, for instance, promoted Singaporean cuisine alongside films, design, books and other cultural products in London, New York and Beijing. Touring cities identified as key tourist markets in 2011, the ‘Singapore Takeout’ pop-up restaurant brought the taste of Singaporean foods into closer focus. Singaporean chefs worked with high profile locals in its kitchen in a custom-fabricated shipping container to create and demonstrate Singaporean dishes, attracting public and media interest. In country, the STB similarly actively promotes the tastes of Singaporean foods, hosting the annual World Gourmet Summit (Chaney and Ryan) and Pacific Food Expo, both attracting international culinary professionals to work alongside local leaders. The Singapore Food Festival each July is marketed to both locals and visitors. In these ways, the STB, as well as providing events for visitors, is actively urging Singaporeans to proud of their food culture and heritage, so that each Singaporean becomes a proactive ambassador of their cuisine.

Singapore Food Writing

Popular print guidebooks and online guides to Singapore pay significantly more attention to Singaporean food than they do for many other destinations. Sections on food in such publications discuss at relative length the taste of Singaporean food (always delicious) as well as how varied, authentic, hygienic and suited-to-all-budgets it is. These texts also recommend hawker stalls and food courts alongside cafés and restaurants (Henderson et al.), and a range of other culinary experiences such as city and farm food tours and cookery classes. This writing describes not only what can be seen or learned during these experiences, but also what foods can be sampled, and how these might taste.

This focus on taste is reflected in the printed materials that greet the in-bound tourist at the airport. On a visit in October 2013, arrival banners featuring mouth-watering images of local specialities such as chicken rice and chilli crab marked the route from arrival to immigration and baggage collection. Even advertising for a bank was illustrated with photographs of luscious-looking fruits. The free maps and guidebooks available featured food-focused tours and restaurant locations, and there were also substantial free booklets dedicated solely to discussing local delicacies and their flavours, plus recommended locations to sample them. A website and free mobile app were available that contain practical information about dishes, ingredients, cookery methods, and places to eat, as well as historical and cultural information. These resources are also freely distributed to many hotels and popular tourist destinations. Alongside organising food walks, bus tours and cookery classes, the STB also recommends the work of a number of Singaporean food writers—principally prominent Singapore food bloggers, reviewers and a number of memoirists—as authentic guides to what are described as unique Singaporean flavours.

The strategies at the heart of this promotion are linking advertising to useful information. At a number of food centres, for instance, STB information panels provide details about both specific dishes and Singapore’s food culture more generally (Henderson et al.). This focus is apparent at many tourist destinations, many of which are also popular local attractions. In historic Fort Canning Park, for instance, there is a recreation of Raffles’ experimental garden, established in 1822, where he grew the nutmeg, clove and other plants that were intended to form the foundation for spice plantations but were largely unsuccessful (Reisz). Today, information panels not only indicate the food plants’ names and how to grow them, but also their culinary and medicinal uses, recipes featuring them and the related food memories of famous Singaporeans. The Singapore Botanic Gardens similarly houses the Ginger Garden displaying several hundred species of ginger and information, and an Eco(-nomic/logical) Garden featuring many food plants and their stories. In Chinatown, panels mounted outside prominent heritage brands (often still quite small shops) add content to the shopping experience.

A number of museums profile Singapore’s food culture in more depth. The National Museum of Singapore has a permanent Living History gallery that focuses on Singapore’s street food from the 1950s to 1970s. This display includes food-related artefacts, interactive aromatic displays of spices, films of dishes being made and eaten, and oral histories about food vendors, all supported by text panels and booklets. Here food is used to convey messages about the value of Singapore’s ethnic diversity and cross-cultural exchanges. Versions of some of these dishes can then be sampled in the museum café (Time Out Singapore). The Peranakan Museum—which profiles the unique hybrid culture of the descendants of the Chinese and South Indian traders who married local Malay women—shares this focus, with reconstructed kitchens and dining rooms, exhibits of cooking and eating utensils and displays on food’s ceremonial role in weddings and funerals all supported with significant textual information. The Chinatown Heritage Centre not only recreates food preparation areas as a vivid indicator of poor Chinese immigrants’ living conditions, but also houses The National Restaurant of Singapore, which translates this research directly into meals that recreate the heritage kopi tiam (traditional coffee shop) cuisine of Singapore in the 1930s, purposefully bringing taste into the service of education, as its descriptive menu states, “educationally delighting the palate” (Chinatown Heritage Centre).

These museums recognise that shopping is a core tourist activity in Singapore (Chang; Yeunget al.). Their gift- and bookshops cater to the culinary tourist by featuring quality culinary products for sale (including, for instance, teapots and cups, teas, spices and traditional sweets, and other foods) many of which are accompanied by informative tags or brochures. At the centre of these curated, purchasable collections are a range written materials: culinary magazines, cookbooks, food histories and memoirs, as well as postcards and stationery printed with recipes.

Food Magazines

Locally produced food magazines cater to a range of readerships and serve to extend the culinary experience both in, and outside, Singapore. These include high-end gourmet, luxury lifestyle publications like venerable monthly Wine & Dine: The Art of Good Living, which, in in print for almost thirty years, targets an affluent readership (Wine & Dine). The magazine runs features on local dining, gourmet products and trends, as well as international epicurean locations and products. Beautifully illustrated recipes also feature, as the magazine declares, “we’ve recognised that sharing more recipes should be in the DNA of Wine & Dine’s editorial” (Wine & Dine).

Appetite magazine, launched in 2006, targets the “new and emerging generation of gourmets—foodies with a discerning and cosmopolitan outlook, broad horizons and a insatiable appetite” (Edipresse Asia) and is reminiscent in much of its styling of New Zealand’s award-winning Cuisine magazine. Its focus is to present a fresh approach to both cooking at home and dining out, as readers are invited to “Whip up the perfect soufflé or feast with us at the finest restaurants in Singapore and around the region” (Edipresse Asia). Chefs from leading local restaurants are interviewed, and the voices of “fellow foodies and industry watchers” offer an “insider track” on food-related news: “what’s good and what’s new” (Edipresse Asia).

In between these publications sits Epicure: Life’s Refinements, which features local dishes, chefs, and restaurants as well as an overseas travel section and a food memories column by a featured author. Locally available ingredients are also highlighted, such as abalone (Cheng) and an interesting range of mushrooms (Epicure). While there is a focus on an epicurean experience, this is presented slightly more casually than in Wine & Dine. Food & Travel focuses more on home cookery, but each issue also includes reviews of Singapore restaurants. The bimonthly bilingual (Chinese and English) Gourmet Living features recipes alongside a notable focus on food culture—with food history columns, restaurant reviews and profiles of celebrated chefs. An extensive range of imported international food magazines are also available, with those from nearby Malaysia and Indonesia regularly including articles on Singapore.

Cookbooks

These magazines all include reviews of cookery books including Singaporean examples – and some feature other food writing such as food histories, memoirs and blogs. These reviews draw attention to how many Singaporean cookbooks include a focus on food history alongside recipes. Cookery teacher Yee Soo Leong’s 1976 Singaporean Cooking was an early example of cookbook as heritage preservation. This 1976 book takes an unusual view of ‘Singaporean’ flavours. Beginning with sweet foods—Nonya/Singaporean and western cakes, biscuits, pies, pastries, bread, desserts and icings—it also focuses on both Singaporean and Western dishes. This text is also unusual as there are only 6 lines of direct authorial address in the author’s acknowledgements section. Expatriate food writer Wendy Hutton’s Singapore Food, first published in 1979, reprinted many times after and revised in 2007, has long been recognised as one of the most authoritative titles on Singapore’s food heritage. Providing an socio-historical map of Singapore’s culinary traditions, some one third of the first edition was devoted to information about Singaporean multi-cultural food history, including detailed profiles of a number of home cooks alongside its recipes. Published in 1980, Kenneth Mitchell’s A Taste of Singapore is clearly aimed at a foreign readership, noting the variety of foods available due to the racial origins of its inhabitants. The more modest, but equally educational in intent, Hawkers Flavour: A Guide to Hawkers Gourmet in Malaysia and Singapore (in its fourth printing in 1998) contains a detailed introductory essay outlining local food culture, favourite foods and drinks and times these might be served, festivals and festive foods, Indian, Indian Muslim, Chinese, Nyonya (Chinese-Malay), Malay and Halal foods and customs, followed with a selection of recipes from each.

More contemporary examples of such information-rich cookbooks, such as those published in the frequently reprinted Periplus Mini Cookbook series, are sold at tourist attractions. Each of these modestly priced, 64-page, mouthwateringly illustrated booklets offer framing information, such as about a specific food culture as in the Nonya kitchen in Nonya Favourites (Boi), and explanatory glossaries of ingredients, as in Homestyle Malay Cooking (Jelani). Most recipes include a boxed paragraph detailing cookery or ingredient information that adds cultural nuance, as well as trying to describe tastes that the (obviously foreign) intended reader may not have encountered.

Malaysian-born Violet Oon, who has been called the Julia Child of Singapore (Bergman), writes for both local and visiting readers. The FOOD Paper, published monthly for a decade from January 1987 was, she has stated, then “Singapore’s only monthly publication dedicated to the CSF—Certified Singapore Foodie” (Oon, Violet Oon Cooks 7). Under its auspices, Oon promoted her version of Singaporean cuisine to both locals and visitors, as well as running cookery classes and culinary events, hosting her own television cooking series on the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, and touring internationally for the STB as a ‘Singapore Food Ambassador’ (Ahmad; Kraal). Taking this representation of flavor further, Oon has also produced a branded range of curry powders, spices, and biscuits, and set up a number of food outlets. Her first cookbook, World Peranakan Cookbook, was published in 1978. Her Singapore: 101 Meals of 1986 was commissioned by the STB, then known as the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board. Violet Oon Cooks, a compilation of recipes from The FOOD Paper, published in 1992, attracted a range of major international as well as Singaporean food sponsors, and her Timeless Recipes, published in 1997, similarly aimed to show how manufactured products could be incorporated into classic Singaporean dishes cooked at home.

In 1998, Oon produced A Singapore Family Cookbook featuring 100 dishes. Many were from Nonya cuisine and her following books continued to focus on preserving heritage Singaporean recipes, as do a number of other nationally-cuisine focused collections such as Joyceline Tully and Christopher Tan’s Heritage Feasts: A Collection of Singapore Family Recipes. Sylvia Tan’s Singapore Heritage Food: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cooks, published in 2004, provides “a tentative account of Singapore’s food history” (5). It does this by mapping the various taste profiles of six thematically-arranged chronologically-overlapping sections, from the heritage of British colonialism, to the uptake of American and Russia foods in the Snackbar era of the 1960s and the use of convenience flavoring ingredients such as curry pastes, sauces, dried and frozen supermarket products from the 1970s.

Other Volumes

Other food-themed volumes focus on specific historical periods. Cecilia Leong-Salobir’s Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire discusses the “unique hybrid” (1) cuisine of British expatriates in Singapore from 1858 to 1963. In 2009, the National Museum of Singapore produced the moving Wong Hong Suen’s Wartime Kitchen: Food and Eating in Singapore 1942–1950. This details the resilience and adaptability of both diners and cooks during the Japanese Occupation and in post-war Singapore, when shortages stimulated creativity. There is a centenary history of the Cold Storage company which shipped frozen foods all over south east Asia (Boon) and location-based studies such as Annette Tan’s Savour Chinatown: Stories Memories & Recipes. Tan interviewed hawkers, chefs and restaurant owners, working from this information to write both the book’s recipes and reflect on Chinatown’s culinary history.

Food culture also features in (although it is not the main focus) more general book-length studies such as educational texts such as Chew Yen Fook’s The Magic of Singapore and Melanie Guile’s Culture in Singapore (2000). Works that navigate both spaces (of Singaporean culture more generally and its foodways) such Lily Kong’s Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food, provide an consistent narrative of food in Singapore, stressing its multicultural flavours that can be enjoyed from eateries ranging from hawker stalls to high-end restaurants that, interestingly, that agrees with that promulgated in the food writing discussed above.

Food Memoirs and Blogs

Many of these narratives include personal material, drawing on the author’s own food experiences and taste memories. This approach is fully developed in the food memoir, a growing sub-genre of Singapore food writing. While memoirs by expatriate Singaporeans such as Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, produced by major publisher Hyperion in New York, has attracted considerable international attention, it presents a story of Singapore cuisine that agrees with such locally produced texts as television chef and food writer Terry Tan’s Stir-fried and Not Shaken: A Nostalgic Trip Down Singapore’s Memory Lane and the food memoir of the Singaporean chef credited with introducing fine Malay dining to Singapore, Aziza Ali’s Sambal Days, Kampong Cuisine, published in Singapore in 2013 with the support of the National Heritage Board. All these memoirs are currently available in Singapore in both bookshops and a number of museums and other attractions. While underscoring the historical and cultural value of these foods, all describe the unique flavours of Singaporean cuisine and its deliciousness.

A number of prominent Singapore food bloggers are featured in general guidebooks and promoted by the STB as useful resources to dining out in Singapore. One of the most prominent of these is Leslie Tay, a medical doctor and “passionate foodie” (Knipp) whose awardwinning ieatishootipost is currently attracting some 90,000 unique visitors every month and has had over 20,000 million hits since its launch in 2006. An online diary of Tay’s visits to hundreds of Singaporean hawker stalls, it includes descriptions and photographs of meals consumed, creating accumulative oral culinary histories of these dishes and those who prepared them. These narratives have been reorganised and reshaped in Tay’s first book The End of Char Kway Teow and Other Hawker Mysteries, where each chapter tells the story of one particular dish, including recommended hawker stalls where it can be enjoyed.

Ladyironchef.com is a popular food and travel site that began as a blog in 2007. An edited collection of reviews of eateries and travel information, many by the editor himself, the site features lists of, for example, the best cafes (LadyIronChef “Best Cafes”), eateries at the airport (LadyIronChef “Guide to Dining”), and hawker stalls (Lim). While attesting to the cultural value of these foods, many articles also discuss flavour, as in Lim’s musings on: ‘how good can chicken on rice taste? … The glistening grains of rice perfumed by fresh chicken stock and a whiff of ginger is so good you can even eat it on its own’.

Conclusion

Recent Singapore food publishing reflects this focus on taste. Tay’s publisher, Epigram, growing Singaporean food list includes the recently released Heritage Cookbooks Series. This highlights specialist Singaporean recipes and cookery techniques, with the stated aim of preserving tastes and foodways that continue to influence Singaporean food culture today. Volumes published to date on Peranakan, South Indian, Cantonese, Eurasian, and Teochew (from the Chaoshan region in the east of China’s Guangdong province) cuisines offer both cultural and practical guides to the quintessential dishes and flavours of each cuisine, featuring simple family dishes alongside more elaborate special occasion meals. In common with the food writing discussed above, the books in this series, although dealing with very different styles of cookery, contribute to an overall impression of the taste of Singapore food that is highly consistent and extremely persuasive. This food writing narrates that Singapore has a delicious as well as distinctive and interesting food culture that plays a significant role in Singaporean life both currently and historically. It also posits that this food culture is, at the same time, easily accessible and also worthy of detailed consideration and discussion. In this way, this food writing makes a contribution to both local and visitors’ appreciation of Singaporean food culture.

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Acknowledgements

Research to complete this article was supported by Central Queensland University, Australia, under its Outside Studies Program (OSPRO) and Learning and Teaching Education Research Centre (LTERC). An earlier version of part of this article was presented at the 2nd Australasian Regional Food Networks and Cultures Conference, in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, Australia, 11–14 November 2012. The delegates of that conference and expert reviewers of this article offered some excellent suggestions regarding strengthening this article and their advice was much appreciated. All errors are, of course, my own.


Keywords


cookbooks; food writing; Singapore; creative writing; food memoir; food magazines



Copyright (c) 2014 Donna Lee Brien

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