Singapore Finds Freedom of Expression in Its Food

Curried mussels. Caste-photocuisine-Corbis

In my early days in the United States, whenever anyone discovered that I was from Singapore, they wanted to discuss one of two things: the ban on chewing gum or the fact that officials had once ordered an American teenager caned for vandalism.

This, naturally, grew tiresome. Instead, I'd steer the conversation toward a far more enjoyable topic that obsesses most Singaporeans: food.

With great emotion, I would describe the dishes I yearned for now that I was far from home: beef rendang, a creamy, coconutty curry loaded with coriander, cumin, nutmeg, and lemongrass that, when done well, is so tender it falls apart on your tongue; Hainanese chicken rice, in which each grain of rice is slick with chicken fat and inflected with the scent of garlic and the vanillalike tropical pandan leaf; and murtabak, essentially an Indian calzone in which crisp roti is filled with minced mutton and onions flavored with garam masala, turmeric, chilies, and more.

Always, my new American friends expressed surprise at discovering that this city-state best known for its by-the-book rigidity had a vibrant and inventive food culture. (This was in the 1990s, when many Americans I encountered at my Midwestern college still thought Singapore was in China.)

Outsiders might consider it incongruous that a country with a reputation for limited free speech could foster such creative cuisine. But I maintain that it is precisely those limitations that make Singapore's food scene so dynamic; it's simply the safest outlet for no-holds-barred expression. In politics and religion, silence might be best in Singapore, but with food there are no restrictions. "Is there freedom of speech in Singapore?" responded Willin Low, chef of the well-regarded "Mod Sin" (shorthand for Modern Singaporean) restaurant Wild Rocket. "I don't know about that because I have only one mouth and I am busy eating."

To comprehend Singaporeans' deep relationship with food—and their preoccupation with putting the highest caliber of food on the table at any given time—you have to understand the cuisine's origins. Until the British arrived in 1819, the island on the tip of the Malay Peninsula had been little more than a tranquil cluster of tiny fishing villages. Once the astute Sir Stamford Raffles recognized Singapore's prime location and established a trading port there, however, the transformation began. Settlers from India, Europe, China, and Malaysia flocked to Singapore, and the country's fusion-style cuisine was born, meshing flavors and cooking styles from the various far-flung lands. The sedate chicken rice from China's Hainan Island was spiced up with garlic, pandan leaves, and chilies. Fried Roti John—named for the British soldiers, or Johns, as the locals called them—combined a Western baguette-style bread with minced mutton, beaten eggs, and a plethora of Indian spices.

By now we've simply spent centuries taking other people's dishes and, well, making them better.

Today these dishes and more are served at the hundreds of hawker centers and kopitiams (food-court-like coffee shops) sprinkled across the country, packed with stalls serving Indian, Malay, Chinese, or Western food, all of it very good and incredibly cheap. You can have a full meal at a hawker center for under $5. I often tell my American friends that even the worst hawkers in Singapore often serve pretty great fare.

My Singaporean friends and I think nothing of spending hours debating the best places in town to get murtabak or fish-head curry, or piling into a car and driving from one end of the island to the other in search of perfect bak kut teh (peppery pork-rib soup). Singaporeans are the toughest critics I know when it comes to food; the same person who worries about too openly expressing dissatisfaction with the government will not think twice of berating a hawker for serving a bowl of fish porridge deemed substandard. We try our best to keep them honest—and this, perhaps, inspires them to greater heights.

I'd never questioned such devotion to food until I moved to Chicago in the 1990s and realized that these practices sounded more than a little peculiar to the American friends I was making. But this reckless passion may also be due to the fact that food has great symbolic power in Singapore. "We were an immigrant society where the most important thing was having enough to eat," says Violet Oon, the Julia Child of Singapore. "So the greatest sign of success was having a fat baby." (I remember unsuccessfully trying to explain this concept to an American boyfriend who got tremendously miffed whenever my parents showed up for a visit and remarked with big smiles, "You've put on weight!")

Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chairman of the country's National Heritage Board, has another, far simpler theory. "There is more spontaneity, joy, and warmth in Singapore than we are given credit for," he says, noting that his favorite places to eat include Wild Rocket and the Tiong Bahru Market, a hawker center near the city center that is packed with dozens of stalls serving fantastic dishes like Fukienese prawn noodles and chwee kway, a classic breakfast dish of steamed rice cake topped with minced preserved radishes and slathered with chili sauce. "Most of us have been brought up by tiger mothers, but we have retained our sense of humor and love of life," Koh says.

As someone who has chosen the free speech of America over Singapore's irreplaceable food scene for more than a decade now, I sometimes look back on my decision with a little regret. Freedom of expression in the kitchen can be prized, too, after all. And besides, as I often tell Americans about Singaporeans: we don't eat to live; we live to eat.

Tan is the author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.