Singapore is a country that is smaller than the city of New York. It’s a beautiful city, but after a while, there just isn’t all that much to do. So how do Singaporeans pass time? By exploring food. Well, that and complaining about our government. But really, food first.
Singapore is a huge mass of cultures coming together in a very small area and food does not only connect us, it defines us. Sunday mornings are for family brunches of roti prata and teh tarik. When you want to sneak food into class, it’s a chicken pao or a char siew pao. When it’s a rainy cold December night, it’s warm soupy dumplings for supper. Food brings us together and gives us a reason to stop and connect with one another.
America, like Singapore, is full of many cultures coming together and finding a way to coexist with each other. But the one thing that separates America from Singapore is that somehow America finds a way to dilute whatever foreign culture is being introduced. I don’t mean this in a negative way. After all, America is the great melting pot and finding a middle ground is how cultures integrate themselves here, but it is heartbreaking how Americanized food can become.
Imagine my surprise when I taste anything that is remotely related to curry here, just to realize it tastes sweet and without depth. Curry is suppose to have a rich, spicy, full flavor, but it severely lacks this in America. Or finding Char Kuay Teow and realizing it’s made of Vermicelli instead of Kway Teow, which is a thick flat rice noodle. The rice here is also just not as satisfying. It doesn’t melt in your mouth. It doesn’t clump together in soft white balls. It doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth, warm and moist. It just doesn’t feel the same.
Vegetables here are cooked a grand total of three ways. Steamed, sautéed or stir-fried with something else. No spices. No flavor. No “oomph.” It’s a far cry from the Sambal Kangkong I miss from home. In fact, everything here tastes just a little too bland for me.
You have hot sauce — which tastes more sour than spicy — instead of chili. Not the bottled Heinz chili that you get here, but the chili I know that is fresh, red chili padi ground and mixed with garlic.
Food is more than just sustenance for the Singaporean in me. It’s what I share with the people I love. While I have succeeded in finding some really good xiaolong bao here, it’s just not culturally the same. In Singapore we celebrate a festival for every of the four major religions. So while you guys get really excited about just Christmas, we celebrate Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas. It’s just a party year-round to be honest, and it brings us together.
To me that means going to my Chinese friends’ houses during Chinese New Year and bringing two oranges with me. It’s eating love letters and having steamboat as fireworks go off and loud wishes of “Gong Xi Fa Cai.”
It means celebrating Hari Raya with my Muslim friends and having sambal everything and curry puff. It’s celebrating Deepavali and inviting all my friends over and eating Thosai and Biryani. It’s going to Orchard on the eve of Christmas and getting really drunk with all of my friends, and then going to Christmas dinners hungover the next day to binge on Turkey and potatoes.
Food to a Singaporean is a social event, and a bonding experience. We have incredibly high standards and we can be really snooty when we tell you how your Indonesian Rendang and Thai curries don’t match up. We like to think we’re experts on all different kinds of foods, and honestly a lot of us are, because we are a relatively well-travelled bunch. But do not mistake our picky eating for arrogance.
The truth is, food is sacred to us. Therefore, we take it upon ourselves to hold everything we eat to a higher standard. Also, if we’re away from home and complaining about food, it’s probably just because we’re a little homesick. So cut us some slack and take us out to the best place you know for dinner. If the food’s any good, we’ll be your best friend by the end of the night.