Singaporean and Malaysian food share many similarities, with some differences here and there, because of geography and culture. The two countries were of course, one and the same until the 1965 separation, when it was realised that the racial demographics made it impossible for a symbiotic relationship.
The racial mix is similar in that you have the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians and a few other small ethnic groups. What is different is of course, the percentage per race. Malaysia is predominantly Malay, with the Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and Nyonyas making up a small part of the general population. Singapore, on the other hand is predominantly Chinese, although Singapore’s indigenous race is actually the Malays.
Their fantastic racial mix is brilliantly reflected in the various local cuisines. To talk of local food of Singapore and Malaysia is to talk of Malay, Chinese, Indian (north and south), Eurasian and Nyonya foods. On a side note, Christmas, Eid, Chinese New Year and Diwali are all public holidays in Singapore, reflecting its multi racial make up.
Here you’ll find them all: Malay recipes, Eurasian recipes, Nyonya recipes and so much more!
Malays in Singapore and Malaysia
The Malays are considered to be the real indigenous people of Singapore. Their history goes as far back as, if not further than, the 13th century when Singapura was established by Sang Nila Utama, a prince in exile from neighbouring Sumatra (Indonesia).
In Sanskrit, Simha = Lion, Pura = City
Singapura in Malay, Singapore, in English, in other words, The Lion City.
Interestingly, some historians believe that Sang Nila Utama is a descendant of Alexander the Great. The majority of today’s Malays in this island city are the children and grandchildren of post World War Two immigrants from the neighbouring areas, especially Indonesia.
Malays are predominantly Muslims, sharing similar traits with their counterparts in Indonesia, whether in language, culture or cuisine, and their food is quite often, sharp and rich, utilising the spices that South East Asia is famous for: galangal, ginger, lemongrass, etc.
Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia
While there already were the odd scattering of Chinese in Singapore from the surrounding states, the first “real” immigrants arrived in the early 19th century, the majority being the Hokkiens from the Fujian province. When I was growing up, this was the most common Chinese dialect in Singapore, Cantonese being the next most popular.
I remember being fairly fluent in Hokkien but, sadly, twenty years of not speaking it has diluted that by quite a bit! Besides the two mentioned, the early immigrants also included the Hakkas, Teochews and Hainanese.
Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans in Singapore
The mass migration from these countries, again, much like the Chinese, began in the early 19th century, with the founding of modern Singapore in 1819, by Sir Stamford Raffles, who is credited as being the founder of modern Singapore.
They came from all over, mainly from the South of India, which explains Tamil being one of the four official languages in Singapore today. However, they also came from Bengal, Gujarat, Punjab and Sri Lanka.
Eurasians in Singapore and Malaysia
Eurasians = European + Asian
With me so far? Marvellous!
The term Eurasian was initially coined for Anglo Indians in the time of the British Raj in India but now encompasses all manner of Caucasian heritage. Today, the term Eurasian encompasses so many hybrids that it boggles the mind but so much of the Eurasian cuisine in Singapore and Malaysia owes its origins to the Portuguese.
Who would’ve thought that a bunch of fisherman with a few handy boats could have had such a profound influence that would survive the fickle ravishes of Time and still be a marked presence, four to five centuries later?
Malacca (in Malaysia) was made a Portuguese settlement in the early 16th century and remained so for over 100 years. Despite the Dutch and the British taking over in the next two centuries, the Latin oats sowed earlier prevailed, and, until today, there is a huge Portuguese legacy in this old port – from the beautiful red buildings to the language spoken, which is an old Portuguese dialect called Kristao (pronounced Kristang), interspersed with the local lingo, Malay.
This influence travelled all over Malaysia and Singapore, so much of the traditional Eurasian recipes as we know them today have Portuguese origins, like the Devil Curry.
However, let’s not forget the Brits whose tastes gave rise to the Mulligatawny and Kedgeree, and the Dutch, from whom our local potato patties were borrowed.
So, you see, Eurasian recipes are a glorious mix of Asian and European; stews and pies with chillies, ginger, cumin, lemongrass, etc. and curries with vinegar, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.
Peranakans (Nyonyas/Babas) in Singapore and Malaysia
The term Peranakan is a general term that actually encompasses a few different mixed ethnic groups in Singapore and Malaysia. However, to many of us born and bred in Singapore and Malaysia, the term refers to the Nyonya/Baba community. Nyonya is the term for women as Baba is for the men and they make up a unique community that has it roots in Malacca and Penang.
Often also called the Straits Chinese (from The Straits of Malacca), ethnically they are Chinese, but have over the years, whether through inter marriage or sheer assimilation, taken on some marked Malay characteristics, namely the language spoken and the style of dressing. Nyonya recipes, consequently, reflects this amalgamation of cultures, resulting in an incomparable cuisine – rich, aromatic and one that makes you a believer with the very first mouthful!
The Babas and Nyonyas’ roots are in Malacca and Penang.
Arabs in Singapore and Malaysia
A small but significant part of the population, the early Arabs were predominantly Yemeni traders and had a huge part to play in establishing Singapore as a major trading post. In fact, so successful were they, that at one point in the 19th century, they owned more than half of the island of Singapore!
Arguably the most successful Arab diaspora to be found outside the Middle East, the Arab community gives us such delicious delights as tabbouleh, kabsas, baklava and so on.
Below, you’ll find a range of recipes from all the various ethnic groups in Singapore, many of them I grew up eating and cooking at home. My family is a fantastic reflection of the cultural diversity that makes up these 2 countries.