Food Culture

Some time ago, Chee Soon Juan (a prominent opposition politician) embarked on a hunger strike to protest his treatment at the hands of Singaporean academic authorities. Chee was here appropriating methods from a distinguished tradition of non-violent opposition (think Mahatma Gandhi and his ilk). Many Singaporeans reacted with indifference or confusion: “Chee, ah? Why that one no eat? Got to eat to live lah.” Some commentators attribute reactions like this up to woeful ignorance of non-violent opposition and its methods; others take those reactions to confirm the stereotype of Singaporeans as politically naive or apathetic or over-trusting of government (especially the PAP — the main political party). I think there’s actually a simpler and better explanation, though. Singaporeans just love eating. Eating is good. Eating is life. So there must be something wrong in the head with a grown man like Dr. Chee who voluntarily refuses to eat.

It’s hard to overstate just how important food is to Singaporeans. Indeed, I think that — though Singapore is composed of a bunch of interlocking and diverse tiles — appreciation of food is one of the few glue-like elements had in common across these diverse strata. For example: small talk here does not often concern the weather (understandably — the weather remains more or less the same all year ’round). But it does often revolve around food. So instead of “windy day, ah?” or “how was your weekend?”, one might instead ask: “so what did you eat this weekend?”. And then you’re off to the races, talking about your favorite hawker centre stalls and how no one serves good ginger with chicken rice anymore (except this one stall in Woodlands, I’ll take you there some day). In short, loving food opens lots of social doors. Loving food and sharing one’s love of food is a central mode of social interaction.

A few factors contribute to this happy situation. Among them: first, the food in Singapore really is great. World-class, in fact (I think I’ll be posting about this a lot as I continue to blog here). This is not just PR copy. It is easy to find really good food here, and downright difficult to find mediocre or bad food. Second, there’s little or no guilt attached to eating. Eating is not a wicked treat you earn by burning calories or by skipping meals. It is life. It’s something you’re allowed to think and talk about a lot, and places that sell food are the main places of social gathering (as opposed to, say, pub culture, where one gathers with friends to drink or watch sports). Third, the cheapest food here is the best. This is not a McDonalds nation. Hawker centres (open-air markets with food stalls — basically, street food that’s just a little bit removed from the street) offer amazing and diverse arrays of dishes at just 2-4 SGD a pop. It’s fast too; one will usually be served immediately or in a few minutes after ordering. Appreciating and regularly enjoying great food, then, is something that all Singaporeans can afford to do.

There’s a lot more to say about food in Singapore, even without talking about particular eateries or dishes. And that alone is evidence of my main point here, I think. To know and love Singapore is (in part) to know and love its food.

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