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“I eat therefore I am” is the creed by which Singaporeans live. Singapore’s food has as mixed a heritage as its people, a fact that comes to life at the country’s crowded hawker centres.

Hawker centres, or open air food courts, have come to define Singaporean food culture. Popular markets like Old Airport Road Food Centre in Geylang, Golden Mile Food Centre on Beach Road and Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown offer the best of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cooking, wrapped into foods that are uniquely Singaporean.

Singapore's lively culinary scene is gradually attracting renowned chefs from around the world. In the past year, Singapore won its first Michelin Star-rated restaurants: Santi and Guy Savoy. Like most fine dining restaurants in Singapore, these establishments focus on Western food. But a few upscale eateries are starting to experiment with Singaporean flavours, developing reinterpretations of classic, beloved dishes.

Such creations are taking old foods in new directions. Before we look toward the future of these dishes, though, let us look at how they came into existence in the first place. After all, each dish has a story to tell about Singaporean culture and history.

Looking backward
When British imperialist Thomas Stamford Raffles sought to convert Singapore into a trading post for the East India Company in 1819, writes Wendy Hutton in Singapore Food, immigrants from China, Malaya, India, Indonesia, Europe, America and the Middle East flocked to the island.

Chinese traders migrated from several different provinces of southern China, bringing with them distinct languages and cuisines. This can be observed in the dishes of modern day Singapore. Hainanese chicken rice, arguably the king of Singaporean hawker food, evolved from a Hainan dish made of bony wengcheng chicken. Hokkiens from Amoy and Fukien provinces brought with them Hokkien mee, or yellow wheat noodles, incorporated into many hawker dishes, a popular one being Hokkien char mee, pan fried noodles in dark soy sauce with squid, prawns, pork, cabbage and crispy pork belly.

Peranakan, or Nonya, cuisine was born in the late 1800s, Hutton explains in her book, when Chinese labourers arrived in Southeast Asia without wives. They began marrying Malay women and their descendants came to be known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese. Their food combined flavours from China, Malaya and the countries they travelled to as merchants.

One example is ayam buah keluak, braised chicken and black nuts stuffed with sweet pork. The nuts come from Indonesia, since many Peranakan families came through Java and Sumatra, while the pork is Chinese, since Muslims from Malaya and Indonesia did not eat pork.

Another is laksa, one of the several dishes both Singapore and Malaysia claims to have invented. Katong laksa is a vermicelli noodle soup made with coconut milk, prawns, cockles, fish cakes, bean sprouts, lemongrass, turmeric, homemade shrimp-chilli paste and the all-important laksa leaves. The turmeric and chilli suggest Indian influence, while the sprouts suggest Chinese influence. The rest incorporates a mix of Malay, South Indian and Eurasian influences.

Indians came to Singapore first as indentured servants and later as traders. Hailing from modern day Tamil Nadu and Kerala, they brought vegetables like gourds and seedpods and seafood like crab and fish, respectively.

One Singaporean dish with obvious Indian influence is the curry puff, created as a British friendly version of the samosa. Curry puffs are puff pastries filled with potatoes, Indian spices and meat.

Indian transplants also shared their love of spicy food, bringing heat to such dishes as the ever popular chilli crab and curry debal, or "devil's curry". Curry debal was created by Eurasian traders (of mixed Portuguese and South Asian descent) when they decided to stew leftovers from Christmas. The hodgepodge stew, made with pork, poultry, potatoes, candlenut, galangal, vinegar, mustard and homemade chilli paste, is commonly enjoyed on Boxing Day.

One of today's most popular Indian-inspired dishes came about more recently. Fish head curry is thought to have been created in the 1950s by a Keralan chef who balked at the idea of discarding edible parts of the fish. While fish head does not exist in Indian cooking, it does in Chinese, so the dish became a hit (as the story goes, anyway).

Looking forward
It is fitting that this merging of cultures would take modern day shape in Singapore's hawker centres. The country's multicultural dishes, though, are also making their way into the world of fine dining, with some restaurants re-imagining old classics and others simply upgrading traditional recipes.

At the Amara Sanctuary Resort, Shutters is pumping new energy into chilli crab, one of Singapore's national dishes. Its young chef Aaron Goh prepares a crab shell filled with crabmeat and roe, served with calamansi-Hollandaise sauce. The most unique part of this dish, which he calls "chilli crab gratin" is its topping of a cheesy gratin crust. Goh also takes a crack at laksa, replacing coconut gravy and rice noodles with seafood bouillabaisse and capellini, but holding onto laksa leaves and lemongrass.

Chef Willin Low at Wild Rocket has also experimented with laksa, transforming it into a linguine with laksa-pesto sauce, accompanied by prawns and quail eggs. Another clever invention is his boneless chicken wings: stuffed with rice soaked in chicken broth and then deep fried with brandy liver pate. The only thing standard about this innovative take on chicken rice is the chilli sauce that comes with it. 

Purists seeking traditional dishes prepared with high quality ingredients have plenty of options as well. Authentic Nonya fare can be found at The Blue Ginger; Chatterbox has become famous throughout Singapore for its chicken rice; and locals rave about the curry debal at Big D's Grill.

A country that cherishes food as much as Singapore is the perfect place for new chefs to experiment with ingredients and styles, whether in elegant restaurants or tiny hawker stalls. As the culinary scene expands, locals and travellers will soon have the best of both worlds.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

 

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