Aug 092013


On this date in 1965 Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and in consequence became the first and only country to this day to gain independence unwillingly (although I will qualify this at the end). Just to remind everyone that this is supposed to be a recipe blog, all the images today are of Singapore dishes. Singapore is foodie paradise. As a tourist the main challenge is to find something to do between meals.


The earliest known settlement on Singapore was in the second century. It was an outpost of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire, named Temasek (‘sea town’). Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, it was part of the Johor Sultanate. In 1613, Portuguese raiders burnt down the settlement and the island sank into international obscurity for the next two centuries.


In 1819, Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived and signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor on behalf of the British East India Company to develop the southern part of Singapore as a British trading post. In 1824, the entire island became a British possession under a further treaty with the Sultan and the Temenggong (local head of police and army). In 1826, it became part of the Straits Settlements, under the jurisdiction of British India. Singapore became the capital of the Straits Settlements in 1836. Before Raffles arrived, there were around 1,000 people living in Singapore, mostly indigenous Malay, and 20-30 Chinese. By 1860, the population exceeded 80,000, with over half of the population being Chinese. Many immigrants came to work at rubber plantations; and, after the 1870s, the island became a global center for rubber exports.


During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Malaya culminating in the Battle of Singapore. The British were defeated, and surrendered on 15 February 1942. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” The Sook Ching massacre of ethnic Chinese after the fall of Singapore claimed between 5,000 and 25,000 lives. The Japanese occupied Singapore until the British repossessed it in September 1945 after the surrender of Japan.


Singapore’s first general election in 1955 was won by the pro-independence David Marshall, leader of the Labour Front. Demanding complete self-rule he led a delegation to London but was turned down by the British. He resigned when he returned and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock, whose policies convinced Britain to grant Singapore full internal self-government for all matters except defense and foreign affairs.


During the May 1959 elections, the People’s Action Party won a landslide victory. Singapore had become an internally self-governing state within the Commonwealth, with Lee Kuan Yew as the first Prime Minister. Governor Sir William Allmond Codrington Goode served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (“Head of State”), and was succeeded by Yusof bin Ishak who in 1965 became the first President of Singapore. During the 1950’s Communists, mostly supported by the Chinese majority, with strong ties to the trade unions and Chinese schools, carried out an armed struggle against the state, resulting in the Malayan Emergency and later, the Communist Insurgency War. The 1954 National Service Riots, Chinese middle schools riots and Hock Lee bus riots in Singapore were all linked to the Communists.


On 31 August 1963, Singapore declared independence from Britain and joined with Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak to form the new Federation of Malaysia as the result of the 1962 Merger Referendum. Singaporean leaders joined Malaysia for various reasons. First, as a small country, they did not believe that the British would find it viable for Singapore to become independent by itself. Second, they also did not believe that Singapore could survive on its own, due to scarcity of land, water, markets and natural resources. Third, the Singapore government wanted the help of the Malaysian government to assist in opposing the Communists. However, the two years that Singapore spent as part of Malaysia were filled with strife and bitter disagreements.


The Malaysians insisted that Singapore be a pro-Bumiputera (Malay rights) nation, where indigenous Malays and tribes were given special rights to compensate for the decades in which they had been left behind in terms of their share of the wealth of the country compared to the ethnic Chinese, and also to maintain harmony within a multiethnic society. In addition, the Malaysians were suspicious of Singapore’s Chinese majority and worried that Singapore’s economic clout would shift the centre of power from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. There were also linguistic and religious issues. The Singaporeans, on the other hand, wanted an equal and meritocratic society (without special rights for one ethnic group): a Malaysian Malaysia where all citizens were given equal rights.


As part of Malaysia, Singapore’s economic and social development stagnated because the Malaysian parliament blocked many bills. Race riots broke out in Singapore in 1964. After much heated ideological conflict between the two governments, in 1965, the Malaysian parliament voted 126 to 0 to expel Singapore from Malaysia. Subsequently Singapore has prospered as an independent nation.

Here’s the qualification I promised at the beginning.

Singapore (as did Sarawak, ), joined Malaysia under pressure from the British government. Singapore had not been happy with the situation from the start, in many quarters, and was quite happy to be expelled (hence the lopsided vote).  But they were expelled.


As you can see, Singapore’s cuisine is indicative of the ethnic diversity of the culture of Singapore, a product of centuries of cultural interaction owing to Singapore’s strategic location. The food is influenced by the native Malay, the majority Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan, and Western traditions (particularly English and some Portuguese-influenced Eurasian, known as Kristang). Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, and the Middle East  have also influenced local food culture. Singapore is fusion-central. For example, at Singapore hawker stalls chefs of Chinese background, influenced by Indian culture, might experiment with condiments and ingredients such as tamarind, turmeric, and ghee, while an Indian chef might serve a fried noodle dish. This multiethnic nature of Singapore cuisine is a significant tourist attraction.


Most prepared food is eaten outside the home at hawker centers (large food courts), famous examples of which include Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre. This is because such Singaporean hawker stalls are almost universally excellent and include a huge variety of cuisines, ranging across the board. A group of diners can share a table and each can pick from a different ethnic style of cooking. These hawker centers are abundant and cheap, hence encouraging a large consumer base. Chicken rice is unrivalled in popularity at hawker centers and is considered the national dish.


In Singapore, food is viewed as crucial to national identity and a unifying cultural thread; Singaporean literature declares eating as a national pastime and food, a national obsession. Food is a frequent topic of conversation among Singaporeans. Religious principles can complicate matters with Muslims not eating pork, and Hindus not eating beef. But people from different communities often eat together, and being mindful of each other’s cultures, choose dishes that are acceptable to all at the table.


Here is a favorite from the hawker chefs: oyster omelet with chile sauce.  It’s not an omelet in the Western sense; more like thickened scrambled eggs with oysters.


Singapore Oyster Omelet

10 large fresh oysters shucked
2 tbsp cornflour
1 tbsp rice flour
8 tbsps water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 eggs
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sake
1 pinch white pepper
fresh cilantro chopped
spring onion chopped fine


Whisk both the cornflour and rice flour together with the water to make a fairly thin batter.

Mix the soy sauce, sake, and pepper in a cup. Set aside.

Heat a large heavy frying pan until very hot and add the oil. Pour in the batter and cook until the batter is lightly set, 2-3 minutes.

Crack the eggs whole over the cooked batter and smash them down with a spatula to spread them evenly but not so as to completely mix yolks and whites.

When the eggs start to set, break up the omelet into chunks and toss them around the cooking surface as you would with scrambled eggs adding in the garlic. Cook for another 2-3 minutes tossing constantly.

Make a shallow mound of the omelet in the center of the pan. Pour the soy/sake mix over the omelet and then add the oysters on top.  Let everything steam for about 20 seconds, then quickly stir everything together to blend the ingredients and ensure everything is heated through.  It is vital not to overcook the oysters.

Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and spring onions, and serve immediately with bowls of chile sauce.

Serves 3-4

Chile Sauce:

3 whole large red chiles
1 slice fresh ginger (young ginger is best)
1 clove garlic peeled
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp water
½ tsp sugar
Salt to taste