SpotLight: Singapore, a country with an identity and reputation of embracing multi-cuisine.
By Sarah Muxlow ~ exclusive for 4Hoteliers.com
Wednesday, 17th May 2006
The Singapore food culture by reputation demands diversification, local cuisine is much more than the well known prawn soup or savoury crab and pork roles.

Looking back, it's clear that the country's history has had a big part of shaping this nation's multi-cuisine. Traditional dishes from many original immigrating communities were embraced, retained and then passed down from generation to generation.

For Singapore cuisine, history tells the story. In 1819 Englishman Stamford Raffles founded a trading settlement which started the arrival of British colonials, Arab merchants, European adventure-seekers, and an assortment of Southeast Asian settlers. Each arrived with their cooking methods, equipment and spices .

Chinese traders congregated in the South Coast, South of the Singapore River. They brought regional tastes from Hokkien, Teachew, Cantonese, Hakka and Heinanese cuisine. The Malay inhabitants cooked Malay Cuisine; a combination of Indonesian and Thai flavours, blending ginger, turmeric, chillies, lemongrass, and dried shrimp paste to make unique curries.

Indonesians who likewise used aromatic leaves and roots in their cooking and founded the popular satays and rendangs. Indian businessmen and labourers mainly for Kerela and Tamil Nadu brought their pungent marsalas and curries.

Today, each cuisine is important and makes a unique contribution to what is known as Singaporean. There are brand food outlets, fine dining restaurants and authentic eating stalls. Whilst many authentic recipes are less well known they are still passed from generation to generation.

What is noticeable outside Singapore, is that it isn't commonplace to embrace and retain such a diverse food culture over generations. For example, in modern Australia, a country also of diverse immigration origin (British, Italian, Greek, German, Chinese) there is difficulty in some states to find diversity and authenticity in cuisine.

Statistically Australia is the world leader in multiculturalism by numbers. Whilst some regular Australian diners crave and actively seek diversity when eating-out, popular eating trends are still conservative in taste. Restaurateurs don't have a particularly easy job of keeping dishes authentic and need to dub down and introducing regional ‘unknown' tastes to diners with caution.

The most easily compromised Australian restaurants and cafes are those competing in location with modern cuisine and theme restaurants. Backstreet boutique restaurants have their knowing diners.

Diverse eating experiences is a broad topic. The diversity frequently sought in Australia, is in the surroundings, entertainment or location, which is different to diversity in cuisine where the unique experience is focused on the food itself. Steak and chips, pizza and deep fried fish with a pasta dish or two can satisfy a large percentage of diners. Needing to sell seats and ensure a high number of regular and loyal customers as well as attracting visitors and those seeking something new means having a menu to suit all markets.

The cost of cooking authentic food produce isn't necessarily more than local modern cuisine. But there is a question of skill level and cost of skill. Kitchen staff would need to be representative of the country and regions of origin or be part of a multi-cuisine international kitchen staff. The keenness of the chef to expand his own repertoire and empower a diversely skilled kitchen team is essential. There is the option to focus on the one type of cuisine and expand with specials, regional theme nights, (with no reprints of menu's needed) as many an Italian café will do.

Then there are food courts and smaller individual eateries in Australian shopping Malls. On the whole, in the past 5 years or more there has been an increased range of brand fast-food options. In contrast, in down-town Singapore, businessmen and taxi drivers eat side by side enjoying food cooked from the same hawker's cart on the streetside. Hawkers carts are most likely to sell authentic and diverse dishes; the local answer to fast and cheap food.

Eating out is the daily habit of in Singapore. Again this stems back to their history.

The majority of the first immigrants were business men  and traders, so peddlers started hawking the male society providing nourishment that either reminded them of home comforts or overtime became new adaptations, as the cuisines infused. These new adaptations extended the taste buds and cultivated the original Singaporean food enthusiasts.

Singaporean diners would not be content eating food that is very samey or dubbed down. The questions of authenticity is as much about dinners being willing to be educated into the differences in regional cooking, rather than clumping into one singular cuisine.

Take for example, Chinese cuisine. Given that Chinese food is very regional it can be surprising to find that for many, Chinese cuisine is Cantonese Cuisine, the style usually found in the West. This cuisine is primarily stir-fries, dim sum wontons, spring rolls, dumplings, meatballs, spare ribs and sweet-and-sour sauces. For those in the ‘know' and the Chinese themselves, consider Cantonese food is considered bland. In Singapore where regional Chinese fare is known, Cantonese restaurants serve the standard dish of chilli condiment at the table, to keep the presence of this cuisine but allow for individual adaptation.

If you then compare the reputation and international ‘know' of Cantonese food with the regional dishes of Beijing (north China) the food of the emperors, it can be a shock to realise the knowledge gap. Beijing dishes are distinct for their rich garlic and bean-paste with a little chilli. Typically sauces are heavier and dishes will often include beef and mutton. However, the most famous Beijing-style dish is Beijing duck (also known as Peking duck). These cuisines of origin do stand firm and outlive the test of time.

Fusion cuisineAlongside the haut cuisine of the French, Italian, Chinese and Indian restaurants, the modern Singapore chefs constantly feed the local craving for ‘something new', by experimenting and fusing.

Fusion cuisine, increasing in popularity combines two cuisines and creates a whole new flavour. It isn't a new concept. There is the natural fusions of the Peranakan cuisine for example, which came out came out of the Straits-born Chinese community and combines mainland Chinese ingredients such as noodles and oyster sauces with local Malay flavours of coconut milk and peanuts.

The new fusion cuisine however, is the ‘East meets West' or ‘New Asia'. In this instance, the cooking styles and raw ingredients are a combination of Eastern and Western traditions. In some cases this works very well, in others it doesn't and for many a true gourmet connoisseurs the whole idea of blending is outrageous!

There is also an element of misplaced and misunderstood combining. What fusion cuisine isn't: taking a dish, adding chilli sauce and saying it is Asian. Chips with curry sauce was very popular ‘fusion cuisine' in the UK in the 80's, a far stretch from the creations found there now but a definite dubbing down when it comes to authentic taste nonetheless!

SpotLight is the weekly column exclusively written for 4Hoteliers.com by Sarah Muxlow, it is highlighting the challenges and issues which the global hospitality is facing today.

Sarah is writing for hotel and restaurant owners, hotel chain managers, producers/growers/sellers of food & beverage, restaurant associations, governing bodies and hotel schools. She is looking at the problems they face...competition, trends of branding, staff shortages, unskilled staff, turning out students who are looking for good in-house management training schemes with hotel chains, what makes a good quality training course at a hotel school and more... 

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