The History Behind Singapore's Foodie Smorgasbord

4 March 2015

Rojak [ro-jak]; a colloquial term meaning ‘mixture’. Used to describe the multi-ethnic character of Singaporean society and the name of a traditional mixed fruit and vegetable dish.

In Singapore, nearly every greeting starts with ‘have you eaten yet?’

With four distinct ethnic groups: Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian harmoniously living together, it’s the only place you can find a dozen national dishes with different cultural origins.

We take a look at the national dishes represent each of the majority ethnic groups in Singapore.

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 Chinese:  Chicken Rice

This dish came to Singapore via the Chinese’s Hainanese ancestors. They were poor and the only chicken they that had were skinny, but with good flavour. The Hainanese found a way to poach the chicken to bring out the flavour. They’d then add the chicken dripping to the rice and fry it. Add the unique chilli ginger sauce – and you’ve created the perfect Hainanese chicken rice – a tribute to the Chinese and how they overcame the hardship they encountered.

 Delicious classic Hainanese chicken rice

Indian: Fish Head Curry

Famous for its unique taste and history, in the old Singaporean days, rich people threw out fish heads, but the working class people knew they had wonderful flavours not to be wasted. So they used the heads for the base of a curry dish. It’s both delicious and resourceful and represents the inventiveness of the early settlers.

 The fragrant fish head curry

Malay: Roti John

It could be argued no one is more passionate about their food than the Malays. It’s hard to choose a dish that captures the Malay taste, some might say nasi lemak or beef rendang, but the roti john is a national dish with an interesting history. The story goes that a Westerner once asked a Malay hawker for a hamburger, there were no hamburgers at the time, but the ingenuous hawker put minced mutton and onions together into a fried in egg omelette and then put in a baguette. In those days, westerners were commonly referred to as ‘John’, and so the ‘roti john’ was born. It’s a dish that represents how adaptable Singaporeans had to be.

Eurasian: Devil’s Curry

Like many of the people in Singapore, this dish is a mixture of the east and west. Taking its influence from the cuisine of early Western settlers mixed with the spices from the Asians. This dish is said to put ‘fire in your belly’ – something the early settlers would have needed.

 A Singaporean feast that expertly blends the many cultures of the city

Singapore has many delicious national dishes. Which is your favourite? Perhaps you need a trip to Singapore to really do your research? Lucky for you our Flavours of Asia campaign is on this month – grab yourself a bargain!

Rachel Surgeoner

A self-confessed 'food-tourist', I take hunting for the world's greatest sandwich very seriously, my quest has taken me from Berlin to Hoboken. Stopping off only for vintage shopping, craft beers and Mediterranean sunsets.