Add Singapore's Street Food to the Menu
No, Bourdain was not talking about France or Italy—he means Singapore, home to 3.5 million people and more than 40,000 street food vendors, called hawkers, serving an incredible mix of recipes that combine Singapore's ethnic heritage of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Indonesian.
"The cuisine is an amazing amalgam of influences—from the rich, elegantly spiced curries introduced to the country by travelers from the neighboring Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra to the phenomenal stir-fries brought by its Chinese settlers. It is one of the world's most sophisticated and robustly flavored cuisines," explains James Oseland, author of the James Beard Award-winning Southeast Asian cookbook Cradle of Flavor.
The flavors of Singaporean food are robust and frequently spicy. The fare pairs Chinese cuisine with the spices of India—coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom—and those of the Malay Peninsular—fresh root spices, herbs, aromatic fruit skins, galangal, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime leaf, garlic and onions, explains chef Violet Oon in Timeless Recipes, a cookbook co-developed with International Enterprise Singapore (IES). Under its Tasty Singapore brand and promotion, IES is working to help local food manufacturers internationalize their traditional products to bring the distinct taste of Singapore to markets like the U.S.
Singapore is tiny, about the size of New York City, and owes its culinary traditions to another similarity—a rich history of immigration. In 1819, the British colonizers established Singapore as a port and within five years, the population grew from 150 to 10,000. Migrant workers from Malaysia, southern China, India and Indonesia flooded the island.
These immigrants gave rise to the Singaporean tradition of hawker food. When these men arrived looking for work—and leaving their wives back in their home countries—they depended on the street vendors that would visit work sites selling food. Over time, the recipes became uniquely Singaporean in taste—reflecting a blend of southern China (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hainanes), southern India (Kerala, Tamil) and the native cuisine of the Malay Peninsular.
In modern Singapore, hawker food is central to the cuisine. It is inexpensive, authentic and can be eaten throughout the day for meals and snacks. It is sold in hawker centers and food courts, with names like Glutton Square. Each holds between 100 and 200 stalls, giving a sense of the variety and bounty available.
Although there's a seemingly endless array of hawker food, some dishes are clearly local obsessions. Laksa is one of these—a spicy noodle soup combining Malaysian and Chinese influences. It is most commonly made with rice noodles, shrimp and cockles, and flavored with coconut curry.
Hainanese Chicken Rice sounds simple—boiled chicken served with rice—but for Singaporeans, its preparation is a topic for endless conversation. It is accompanied by several condiments, including chile sauce, ginger and soy sauce.
Other favorites are: Singapore Chili Crab, whole hard shell crabs swimming in thick chile tomato gravy, and Satay (likely the most familiar of the popular dishes) with diced grilled meat laced through bamboo skewers and served with a spicy peanut sauce.
For specialty retailers interested in expanding their Asian sections and introducing consumers to something new and delicious, Singapore's cuisine provides interesting possibilities—and the country's government (through IES) is spending money to help educate the American consumer. They've sponsored culinary tours for star chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Anita Lo and sponsor an annual Tiger Beer Chili Crab Festival in New York City in September.
"We're trying to create more platforms where people can try the food," says James Ching, IE Singapore's director. "It's not like Thai and Vietnamese, where people came and set up restaurants. There aren't too many. We need to get people aware of how different it is from the rest of South Asian cuisine."
"The consumer in the U.S. is definitely looking for something new," says Allan Becker, a food and marketing consultant with ALSID Management Group, Mahwah, N.J. "You mention Singapore and people say, 'Oh yes, we're willing to try it.' But someone has to market it. Somebody has to get behind it and introduce it."
David Tsang, senior category manager for the Florida-based distribution company Tree of Life, Inc., is one of the main proponents for importing Singapore's flavors. On a recent mission to Singapore, Tsang discovered several products he plans to carry, through a Tasty Singapore promotion that includes a trip for two to Singapore and money for advertising, in-store sampling, cooking classes, as well as cookbooks and recipes.
Several suppliers are offering packaged versions of popular street foods for heat-and-serve or grab-and-go consumption. AsianHomeGourmet.com sells packaged versions of laksa and Singapore stir-fry noodles, and both Peacock and Orient Foods brands offer microwaveable noodle dishes. The sauce and seasonings category also offers a variety of do-it-yourself options to consumers who want to add Singaporean flavor to recipes. These include a chile sauce from Yeo's, Satay BBQ by Tai Hua and the Double Pagoda line of flavored oils like chile and spicy sesame.
Even though America imported nearly half a billion dollars of Singapore's food products in 2007, there is a strong need for consumer education. Supplier Annie Chun, for instance, changed the name and flavoring of her pre-packaged Singapore Curry FreshPak Ramen Noodle to Thai Curry after discovering that consumers weren't buying the Singapore style. "People are more familiar with the coconut curry as opposed to what we originally had, which was more sour," notes Roxanne Pangilinan, Chun's sales and marketing associate. For Singapore products to really take off, it will require a significant investment in public relations, promotions and awareness building, says consultant Becker.
One development that may help? Getting more high profile names associated with Singaporean cuisine. Rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges is doing his part. He launched a modern Singaporean restaurant in Atlanta this spring called Straits, an outpost of a successful chain in San Francisco.
Leslie Koren's articles have appeared in The Washington Times and the Bergen Record.
Traditional Singaporean Street Foods
Some popular dishes for authentic hawker food include:
BEEF RENDANG: Beef slowly cooked in coconut and spices such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies and turmeric
CHILI CRAB: Live crabs in a chile-spiked gravy
HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE: Poached chicken in fragrant rice cooked in chicken broth with ginger and garlic in a chile-lime sauce, ginger purée and a thick black soy sauce.
LASKA: Rice noodles covered in a gravy of coconut milk, spices, dried shrimp and chile, topped with prawns, cockles and sliced fishcake.
ROJAK: Means a "wild mix" in Malay; made with an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, cucumber, water spinach and green apple and shredded ginger bud. These are added to deep-fried soybean cakes and fried Chinese dough fritters.
SATAY: Sweet-spicy meat, barbecued over charcoal and served with a thick, sweet-hot peanut sauce and sliced cucumbers, onion and pressed rice cakes.
Packaged Hawker Food
Here are some products to help consumers create hawker food at home. All of these are carried through International Enterprise Singapore's Tasty Singapore brand. Visit iesingapore.gov.sg for more information, or visit the Product Finder on specialtyfood.com for more suppliers.
Chng Kee's Asian Originals Char Siew Sauce and Hainanese Chicken Rice Mix
Dodo Seafood Treats
Koka Instant Stir-Fry Original Flavor Noodles
Kwong Cheong Thye Singapore Rojak Sauce and Black Pepper Crab Sauce
My Mum's Sauce for Hainanese Beef Noodle
Peacock Bird Brown Rice Vermicelli
Prima Taste Ready to Cook Meal Kit for Laksa and Satay
Spring Home TYJ Spring Roll Pastry and Roti Paratha
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