On market days, I remember when I was but a few books tall, and I’d peer over boxes brimming with gorgeous galangals, listening to my grandmother rattle off a litany of hurried Hokkien, calm Chinese and economic English to the vendor. She would palm coins over to the nice man, and she’d balance the red plastic bag on my arm. I’d toddle off and we’d make our way home. These memories of the melting pots of culture, stirring together to form an enrapturing broth, might sound familiar to us.
We were inspired to think about what the wet market means to each of us by From Wet Market to Table, a panel discussion part of the Singapore Writers Festival. The event featured famous literati of the Singapore food scene, namely Pamelia Chua, Shamsydar Ani and Sarah Jessica Huang. Moderated by KF Seetoh (of Makansutra fame), the hour we had together was a delight, with wonderful insights on our local food heritage being brought quite literally to table.
Many would remember the battering sellers took earlier this year, when wet markets shuttered because of localised COVID clusters. But with numerous wet markets dotted around Singapore, it has become critical to remember what wet marketing represents to our common heritage. Think about it: the haggling. The marketing. The looking-for-your-trolley-but-you-forgot-where-you-left-it-after-hiding-from-your-neighbor. All of these build towards how we see wet market life, and emphasise how crucial these aspects are towards our sense of national identity.
The question of curating our food heritage also arises in Singapore’s meteoric rise in the Michelin Guide, and the resulting scrutiny at our local culinary history. With more than a few fiery spats in claiming chilli crab and nasi lemak as prominent figures in Singapore’s pantheon of national dishes, this diplomatic headache was condensed by KF Seetoh in the example of Satay.
One might think it is a variation on the Kebab—but, surprisingly, it isn’t!
Brought over by impoverished Hakka immigrants to Indonesia, the word Satay is in fact a portmanteau of Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia, meaning “three pieces”. Such a fact similarly emphasises the continuous change often happening in cuisine, and the murky classifications that continue to complicate which dishes belong to which country. Wild food genealogy aside, what becomes equally as important to consider is how new cuisines from overseas challenge the definition of Singaporean cuisine, especially in the recent arrival of mala some years past. While much criticism has been levelled at how its spiciness tends to overwhelm conventional flavours, Sarah Jessica Huang countered that there becomes a necessity to have cuisine be in flux. Authenticity and modernity have always been two sides of a coin; with too much in one direction, we get things aberrant to reality itself (I’M LOOKING AT YOU TRUFFLE BEEHOON WITH CAVIAR.) That said, these questions continue to destabilize our concepts surrounding the murky notion of National cuisine.
Whilst authenticity and modernity continue to be in tension, mala’s smokiness is productive in asking what exactly Singaporean food is. In this sense, its popularity in the conversation around local food emphasises how keeping food relevant is only natural.
Think about it this way: what often was available in Singapore’s early beginnings as a colonial port might be different from their versions today. If not for modernity, Hainanese chicken rice, with its heaps of jasmine rice and sesame oil-drizzled chicken, would most likely be chicken on rice! Yuck. With guaranteed access to spices from the then-Dutch East Indies, it becomes only natural that dishes take on new traits over time. The variety of spices picked up and the need to cater to existing tastebuds is critical in this regard.
In fact, I’d think that picking up regional variations is Singaporean in itself.
So hear them out: Create your variation on a Singaporean dish. It’s patriotic after all!
Image courtesy of Eric Foenander