True-blue S'pore dishes

It is no secret that Singaporeans love to eat, and most of us would often head to a hawker centre for a cheap and good meal, so much so that the hawker centre has become an icon of Singapore culture.

But 50 years ago, dining at a hawker centre was unheard of. It was more common to be seen having a meal at hawker stalls along the street. No one would bat an eyelid over tucking into a bowl of noodles, beside a wet, stinky and dirty drain, with rats scurrying by.

"The most significant change in Singapore's food history could be the decision to move all the hawker food stalls along the streets into hawker centres," says chef Lee Tong Kuon, 67, former executive chef and co-owner of Thai Village Holdings, which was started in 1991. Chef Lee now heads the kitchen at Tao Seafood Asia, a Thai-Teochew restaurant.

"Back in the 1960s, push-cart stalls were rampant and most food vendors operated independently on the streets. The government started an initiative to improve the hygiene standards of the stalls and created hawker centres to house all the individual food stalls under one roof," recalls chef Lee.

Hawker centres sprang up in the 1960s, and today there are 107 markets and hawker centres across Singapore.

Even back then, Singapore had its celebrity chefs, and no journey through Singapore's food history would be complete without mentioning four particular chefs: the late Lau Yeok Pui, the late Tham Yui Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai.

These Four Heavenly Kings of Cantonese cuisine were the ones who created the must-have Chinese New Year dish, yusheng, in 1964. Other familiar favourites created by Singaporean chefs include black pepper crab, yam ring basket and crystal prawns.

Chef Lee recalls that the 1980s saw the emergence of seafood restaurants with chilli crab becoming an iconic Singapore dish.

"Seafood restaurants are one of the first few restaurants to break away from the stigma of a restaurant serving a cuisine from a particular region such as Cantonese, Teochew or Shanghainese restaurants," says chef Lee. "You could even say that seafood restaurants serve a Singaporean cuisine, with creations such as deep-fried baby squid and deep-fried dough fritters with sotong paste."

In the last 20 years, the food scene changed with the arrival of restaurant companies such as Crystal Jade Group and the Tung Lok Group opening restaurant chains often with different concepts. "With the Singaporean economy rapidly developing since the 1980s, food consistency and quality that came with a brand promise and also comfortable dining atmospheres became important considerations for the consumers," says chef Lee.

For those who bemoan that the foods of yesteryear no longer taste the same today, there are reasons for it.

Royal Pavilion's sous chef, Kee Siau Chuang, 50, who has over 30 years of cooking experience, including stints at Raffles Hotel's Empress Room where he cooked for two late presidents, says that cooking methods have changed over the years.

He cites the example of oyster omelette, although commonly found in hawker centres around Singapore, the dish is no longer as tasty as before. "Previously, the omelette is cooked over charcoal and wood, giving the dish a complexity of flavour. But now, we cook with gas, and that smoky flavour is gone."

Chef Lee says dishes no longer taste the same because the quality of raw ingredients has changed. "Cockles are now packaged and lard is used in smaller quantities and the pigs also have been bred on a different feed than in the 1960s, changing the way pork and lard smell and taste," says chef Lee.

What has changed too, the two chefs note, is the Singaporean palate. Chef Lee says that Singaporeans are a lot more health-conscious than they were 50 years ago. "Customers today are more careful of what they eat. They will look for less greasy, less salty options generally. Back in the 1960s, Singaporeans indulged in anything that was deep-fried or covered with chilli sauce without care," he says.

Chef Kee notices that in the past, Singaporeans were more easy-going and are typically contented with food as long as they are well-cooked with fresh ingredients.

"We are not as concerned about individual platings as we prefer communal dining with family and friends," he says. "Singaporeans today are better travelled and have a greater understanding of food, such as the complexity of flavours, and quality of ingredients."

The Internet also had a part in changing Singapore's food history. Food writer Christopher Tan notes that with the rise of the Internet as a disseminator of food trends, cooking techniques, and news about what restaurants, chefs and cooks around the world are doing - chefs, home cooks and restaurateurs are able to upgrade their knowledge base far more easily these days.

And whereas in the past, people would just be happy eating and going on their way, these days, it is the norm to be taking countless photos of food and then for many posting them on their food blogs. "Suddenly everyone is or wants to be a critic," says Mr Tan.

This article was first published on Jan 2, 2015.
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