Indelibly interwoven with the story of Singapore is the story of our food.
9 September 2021 / By SGN
The dazzling array of food and cuisine choices available to us is representative of our country’s history as a melting pot of cultures and people from all over Asia. For many Singaporeans, the default choice of activity when meeting friends is almost invariably food related. Our hawker centres, which bring together a cornucopia of tastes in one place, were inscribed in 2020 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The late Anthony Bourdain was effusive in his praise for our food, writing that “Singapore is possibly the most food-centric place on Earth, with the most enthusiastic diners, the most varied and abundant, affordable dishes – available for cheap – on a per-square-mile basis.”
Paradoxically, it is perhaps this abundance of choice – with many iconic dishes defying easy categorisation – which has led to a relative lack of fame in the West for ‘Singapore Food’, compared the cuisines of some of our Asian neighbours.
A growing appetite for Singapore food
Yet the winds are changing in the United States. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle last year penned an article titled “A Singaporean culinary renaissance hits the Bay Area”, covering many entrepreneurs who had started to offer iconic dishes from our island nation for the ravenous stomachs of the city’s inhabitants.
Among these were Emily Lim, who created Dabao Singapore. “For the most part of my earlier time in San Francisco, a lot of people had almost zero to no knowledge of what street food in Singapore is like – until Crazy Rich Asians showed up in Hollywood, and then, all of a sudden, there was a huge buzz around our food culture. People were starting to get interested,” she recalled.
Some entrepreneurs were inspired by homesickness. Seleste Wong, who started New York-based Lady Wong to sell kuih together with her husband Mogan Anthony, said they started the business while missing home. “The kuih that we had in Singapore right before moving to NYC was still in our minds, and we couldn’t find anything to satisfy our cravings,” they shared. “We find that kuih brings a sense of therapeutic comfort and makes us feel closer to our roots.”
Others were simply inspired by the good food. Kar said he had visited a roti prata eatery in Singapore and was amazed by the sheer variety of prata being served. This led him to found Prata House with his wife, Krishna Rekha, in Los Angeles in early 2019 to offer something similar, with the business describing itself as “LA’s only authentic Singaporean Indian Restaurant”.
Rethinking their recipes for success amidst a pandemic
This sea change has not come without headwinds, especially the COVID-19 pandemic. “Shelter-in-Place” orders affected many F&B businesses, which had to furlough staff members to manage costs. Emily saw many friends in the industry losing their jobs, with some in danger of running out of savings. This unfortunate situation motivated her to start a food business from home, together with her friends who helped with food prep and delivery.
While initially focused on helping to feed people who didn’t know to cook, or required special diets, Emily pivoted her focus when she saw a huge demand for Singapore food. She guessed that the demand came from “a number of us transplants (who) really missed home! And for those who’ve visited Singapore, they really wanted a taste of from-scratch laksa.”
As for Prata House, Kar’s 20+ years of experience in tech came in handy – he had already put in place the necessary digital infrastructure to make a seamless transition to digital. “We were well prepared, even before the pandemic hit our business,” he said, as the business was already accepting online orders through their website and delivery apps before the pandemic hit. They also pivoted quickly to offer outdoor dining before other restaurants in the area.
Rallying support from the local community
Seleste & Mogan, Kar, and Emily attribute a large part of their success to fellow Singaporeans and Southeast Asians living in their respective cities.
Seleste and Mogan described the kuih community built around Lady Wong as being almost “cult-like” in their enthusiasm, affectionately referring to them as “kuih fellows” and saying that they particularly enjoyed the “kuih talks” on the business’s Instagram page.
Kar said that the Prata House has seen similar support. “The support from the Singaporean community and wider South Asian community has been incredible since we opened. Through word of mouth, Singaporeans from every part of Southern California have made efforts to come and try our food, and they always left as happy customers, saying that the experience was worth the drive. We have customers coming all the way from San Diego, Las Vegas and San Francisco to try the food.”
Reaching the heart through the stomach
As food enthusiasts, these entrepreneurs could not hide their pride in the dishes they have created and their customers’ reactions.
According to Seleste and Mogan, Lady Wong’s most popular kuih is the Serimuka/Sarlat – “the pandan custard and blue pea coloured rice hold lots of memories for my kuih fellows“. They are also very encouraged by the positive reactions from American customers who have been very open to try her food and learn more about the culture and history behind kuih.
While Kar is not the chef at the restaurant, he describes himself as a foodie in charge of quality control and food tasting. Prata House also listens to their Singaporean customers’ feedback to ensure that the food tastes authentic. Kar is especially proud of the fact his food is freshly made to order, and does not contain preservatives, MSG, or GMO products.
While Dabao Singapore regularly rotates its menu to evoke Singapore’s hawker centre experience and showcase the plethora of street food from Singapore, Emily’s signature dish is laksa. She waxed lyrical about it – “Laksa is a dish that encompasses and represents a myriad of ethnicities and their food culture in Singapore in a bowl. The noodles are Chinese, the rempah is Malay, and the spices are Indian-influenced.”
Musing about how rewarding it has been, Emily said
“it takes so much work to make the rempah but it makes it all worthwhile when customers eat it and feel like they’re closer to home. The fact that we’re able to recreate a sense of home from 8000+ miles away through a dish really hits the bullseye for me. But what really warms my heart is that through Dabao Singapore I’ve made so many friends and have never before been so involved in the community! I had NO IDEA there were so many Singaporeans in the Bay Area!”
Perhaps the same metaphor – the binding together of cultures and ingredients to form a rich complexity of tastes – can be extended to the effect that food has had for these entrepreneurs. By combining ingenuity with hard work, they have found entrepreneurial success and brought together small communities. After all, the quickest way to any Singaporean’s heart is inevitably through their stomach.
Catch Emily at Creative X Fest! on Sep. 14 where she and renowned global Chef Martin Yan whip up Singaporean dishes with a California twist at their Masterclass! Register here.