My Chilli Padi Singapore
By KF Seetoh - Monday, Aug 17, 2015
Today is not one for me to tell all you hard core made-in-Singapore foodies where to go eat. It is too momentous a day to just go out and eat at any one or five places. Instead I am going to ponder and muse about just what makes our food “us” and even have Singaporeans think twice about migrating or going on too long a holiday (away from their hard-to-get-elsewhere Bak Chor Mee). I have always wondered what is it that binds all this wonderfully eclectic, extreme and nostalgic flavours of ours that make us call “our own”. Nasi Ayam Penyet is as different as night and day to Har Cheong Kai but there is something that bonds them for us, the same something that provides a link between Malay rendang and Teochew beef kway teow and even nasi lemak and Cha Hae Mee.
It’s chilli. Yep, someone learned in the delicious ways of this land once told me and it took a while for it to register. But when we bitch about chicken rice, we invariably question the chilli- it has to have that certain tang and sharpness, be it done with vinegar or calamansi juice or both. When done right, it’s a home run. And as for Cha Hae Mee, the conundrum.. sambal or red cut chilli with lime? If they serve the light soy sauce with red cut chilli padi for your Bak Kut Teh, you can bet your last Pioneer Generation ang pow dollar that a complain will come immediately “it has to the thick soy sauce la, cannot anyhow!”. The caramelised soy sauce and chilli must cling to the ribs when dipped in, no question about it.
Not many place in this world has foodies that will question the chilli sauce that come with the immense range of makan available on the land. Sriracha, fancy as it sounds, just won’t cut it for us. It’s just another type of Thai chilli sauce that’s right only for those few items. Mention stew ducks, be it Teochew Lor Arh or Nonya Itek Sio, the spice and heat factor for it must be as precise as using mini prongs just for hairy crabs. When we mention sambal, we will ask “what type, sambal tumis or sambal belachan” and what of the sub-group variables. Many now know the joys of having roti prata with sambal and it has to be of certain pedigree- sambal belachan will not do.
Makansutra is in the midst of launching the Deliciously Singaporean campaign in collaboration with the SG50 celebrations- where we identified 50 born, bred and evolved or modified in Singapore dishes, both old school and fancier new ones like Malcolm Lee’s Buah Keluak ice cream. We turned 25 of them into recipe videos and the rest in static content (check them out at www.makansutra.com). The overwhelming majority of the recipes featured chilli in one form or another, from Katong Laksa, Punggol Mee Goreng, Sup Tulang Merah to Roti John. And while researching on Indian Rojak, it fascinated me that some folks from Thackalay in South India created this complex orangey pink sweet potato mash dip laced with chilli, right here in Singapore.. it blew my mind that this combo works so well for us.
My dearest Singapore, we have come of age and have matured in so many ways, including being unforgivingly discerning with food and knowing just how it bonds us as citizens. Celebrate it and be true blue about it. But if chilli is not your friend, well, be contented knowing you live in a food capital anyway, Happy SG50 birthday, my delicious and red hot chilli padi Singapore.