Nothing stokes the flames within Singaporeans quite like a good ol’ debate on which stall sells the best version of our favourite hawker dish.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when eating is often hailed as Singaporeans’ undisputed favourite pastime (aside from queueing, although I must say, much of how we judge which stall to eat is by the length of queues, but I digress).
We owe a lot of our favourite hawker dishes today to the influx of immigrants that came from around the region with Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Most of them were traders who, apart from setting up their businesses, brought with them their religious practices, cultures, and most importantly, food.
Take for example Tu Tu Kueh, which was brought over by people from the province of Hui’an, China. Tu Tu Kueh got its name from the sound the charcoal steamer (which was used back in the day) makes when steaming was done.
In the past, Tu Tu Kueh was primarily a dish that used plain rice flour, but today one can often find different fillings ranging from coconut to peanut. Most assuredly at that time, all of the Tu Tu Kueh stalls were run by people from Hui’an and were all surnamed “Tan”. Tan’s Tu Tu Coconut Cake, which is said to be one of the first Tu Tu Kueh makers who came over in 1932, is now being run by the 4th generation.
And that, my friends, is just one of the many dishes which lay claim to some form of heritage in Singapore.
Inspired by Culture Trip’s history of Shanghai in 7 dishes and Roads and Kingdoms’ own edition for Singapore, we take a look at how Singapore came to be through our palates and our stomachs, conflating Singapore’s rich ethnic and diverse history with dishes that form the bedrock of our hawker culture.
We start off with perhaps the quintessential Singaporean dish – Chicken Rice.
Chicken rice is a stalwart dish in Singapore’s hawker culture. Stop at any coffee shop or hawker centre and you’ll be sure to find at least one stall selling the dish. At the famous Maxwell Food Centre located in Chinatown, along with the Michelin Bib-Gourmand Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, I count no fewer than 5 stalls selling this humble rice dish.
When a Singaporean Instagram page that delivers a different chicken rice post every single day has a reach of 13k followers, you know our love for Chicken Rice runs deep. As of this writing, the dedicated Instagram account owner has eaten a whopping 480 different plates of chicken rice.
Chicken Rice, or more properly Hainanese Chicken Rice traces its origins back to the Hainan province in Southern China, though the version we have grown to love is an adaptation with a touch of Cantonese influence.
The dish at its core, is deceptively simple – poached white chicken (there is also the roast variation) sitting on a bed of rice with soy sauce and a garlic chilli dip on the side. In Hainan, wen chang chicken is used, which is a smaller and bonier animal, giving the resulting dish a much more lean and fibrous bite. The version we’re used to favours younger and tender chickens, a preference derived from Cantonese cooking.
And so evolved the Singaporean Chicken Rice, a blending of Hainanese origins with Cantonese influences resulting in a staple dish that has enraptured the heart of a nation.