Am I murdering our food heritage?

By Jovita Ang - Tuesday, Dec 31, 2013

I am 18 years old.


Many describe ours as the “lost” generation. We look at food from surface level – it’s about price, hype, trends and hip factor, nonchalant about the warm craft, heritage and meaning behind the dishes that often stare at us at our food centres and restaurants. Well, we never go beyond, like wonder about, “How this dish was perfectly executed.” or, “The sauce could have been thicker.”
Toast Box brings old-school local café experienes but with a buffed up décor concept.


Or, how this dish came about? Why is it braised and not steamed? Why is it known as ‘Teochew Style’? Questions we never poked into, and probably never will, perhaps. But I have to qualify somewhat, in my books, there’s nothing better than popiah at any time of the day. I love my hawker food.


We stepped foot into this world not just in a physical form, but with a distinct cultural DNA. Yet, many of us are bred to be so conscious of our appearance, the way we speak, but never our culture. It’s cool to have the latest gadget but okay to be clueless about why traditional Teochew marriages must begin before dawn, or what constitutes traditional Teochew festive fare. We get excited about the opening of a new café, but cannot care less about the repercussions of the just retired old hawker master. We’ll even fly to Spain and celebrate some jamón (ham) festival. We never wonder what our children might eat in this foreseeable future.


Back in the day where desperation drove people to hawk food on the streets, the government came up with the brilliant idea of hawker centres to rehouse them. Our migrants brought along cuisines of their own, created flavours many today are fond of. The Indians developed “Mee Goreng”, a dish you’ll never see in India. They borrowed flavours from the Malays (sambal specifically), and stir-fried it like the Chinese. The Chinese introduced ingredients like tau pok and pineapples to the original Indonesian Rojak, and gave birth to their own version. The Hakkas were travelling nomads, and their cuisine is very much influenced by that fact. They were heavy on salt as it helped to flavour the ingredients and preserved dishes while on the move. Comfort street food in Singapore isn’t just about a melting pot, it’s a melding culture.


Every group of people has their own unique food culture, flavours they proudly call their own. It is these cultures that bind people together. Sadly, we might be losing ours. Let’s put aside for now the fact that not many teens can speak fluent dialect – I understand how it can be quite a mouthful. But to lose the ability to eat and appreciate your own heritage food? To lose the ability to taste these mouthfuls of pleasure, that’s most unforgiveable. Loss of such an appreciation and understanding can result in the dilution of one’s identity, and the systemic propagation of cultural zombiehood.


We seem to be mindlessly obsessed with café-hopping these days. Tasting food that is trendy, or what the rest of the world is currently crazy about, like some ramen burgers or cronuts. Question is, must food too, be about fashion? Do we want to turn into lifestyle lizards, living everyday doing things void of heritage and cause?
Maxwell Food Centre is home to many good eats (file photo: Makansutra).

Our street food culture was not built up overnight. Past generations of food fighters and masters built up this street food empire. Current technology and resources suggests that we can only make it better. The way to improving and preserving is to first, understand. You cannot walk into tomorrow, if you don’t know where you came from yesterday. You’ll just be a wanderer.


How then, do we go about obtaining this understanding towards street food culture? Ask. Talk to your grandparents, your parents and the next time you visit a hawker centre, strike a conversation or two with the chef when he/she is not busy. The most accurate information is among those who have experienced it themselves. Many have taken valuable information we should have treasured, back to heaven. Ask, while our older hawker generation, friends or relative, can still answer. Form groups, take a trip down to the hawker centre with a group of friends or anyone, and relish in our hawker culture. Skip trying to propagate the cultures of foreign cuisine, there are people of correct heritage and culture who are naturally good at it. Be a soldier of our own food heritage. Let our future food experiences be memorable, and not about mopping up residual memories wondering about who, what, when, where and how it should have been. The best war won, is when you defend what truly is yours and continue building up from what is left behind.
Mee Goreng is an Indian-Muslim dish you’ll never find in India (file photo: Makansutra).

So, for starters, my dear peers, ask three questions about that next, say, bowl of bak chor mee you are going to tear into, that will make you a wiser food soldier.