Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Food and Identity

I'm a big fan of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations series (now sadly concluded). For those who haven't heard of this great man, Bourdain's a chef turned world-roaming gastronomic picaro. I am sometimes incredulous about his success -- one can't quite believe that he gets paid (a lot) to do this: to turn up in various parts of the world, eat, face the camera and talk. But it works. Bourdain, like the best TV personalities (Jon Stewart comes to mind), trades on mensch-ness, an essential authenticity that says, 'I'm just a good guy'. His TV food-talk, unlike some of the aberrant varieties of food porn, is funny and evocative, with just the right level of lavish, fawning description liberally laced with profanity. I bring up Bourdain because watching him, one is always reminded of the importance of food -- real, earthy food of the people -- to community and cultures. He doesn't essentialise and simplify the cuisines of cultures and yet somehow often manages to penetrate the core of the place (and its people) he's visiting.

As a Singaporean, as I've mentioned before, I have an inalienable birthright: an entitlement to good food. Understanding Singaporean food is one way to understand Singapore -- as a story of ongoing cultural experimentation. Singapore is often introduced to foreigners as a gateway to Asia, or as Asia-lite. In Singapore, people are often told, one can get Malay, Chinese and Indian food. I've done this several times as well. This clever, neat story really obscures what's going on, which is a tale from deep history.

I'm most familar with the Chinese story, so I'll stick to that one. When the Chinese descended from the Southern China and started settling in parts of Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago -- way before the British and other colonists had come -- they probably thought they were simply feeding demand and more importantly, themselves. Much like today, China was hungry for resources, often local produce like rice, gambier, sago, tin and pepper. As they settled though, new forms of culture and ways of living came into being, evolving as the generations passed. The Peranakans (sometimes called Nyonya/Baba or Straits Chinese) are sometimes upheld as the prime example of this: offspring of mixed Chinese and indigenous parentage with distinctive dress, food and customs, mixing Malay and Chinese elements. The reality, however, is that all the Chinese who came to the Straits started to live differently, interacting with the indigenous Malays and then the British and the Indian labourers that came along. And so did everyone else. The food, again, is the evidence of this. Singaporean Chinese food is often unique to at least the Malay Archipelago, if not Singapore itself. The same can be said of Singaporean Indian and Malay food.

Imagine for a moment: a stall in a hawker centre in Singapore selling 'Indian-Muslim' food, usually with a signboard of green type against a white background, with the Islamic crescent at one side. It might sell these items: roti prata, mee goreng, roti john and Indian rojak. The first, a flaky, buttery fried pancake, cannot be found in quite the same form in India. The second, a plate of eerie red stir-fried noodles, uses Chinese-style noodles. The third is French bread coated in egg and mutton mince and fried -- and it bears an Englishman's name. The last is the Malay word for 'mixture' (but it's nothing like the rojak the Chinese sell, which is a salad): it is a collection of various fried dough fritters, but it also includes fried beancurd and cuttlefish. The place is run by a Muslim Indian, perhaps of Tamil descent. Just what is going on here? It's the story of nearly every dish in Singapore. Try it: point to something, think about its origins, and one often finds a story of cultural interaction. It won't be some timeless element of an ancient cuisine: more likely, it's a fairly recent invention. (Our food bloggers, like Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost, have done a great job -- and tremendous service -- uncovering these histories: like that of chilli crab.)

Truth is, in the restless world of globalised capitalism -- and in a ruthlessly globalised city like Singapore, very little stays the same for long. We shouldn't despair though, because Singapore was born under the sign of globalisation, as a critically placed port city riffing off larger trends, whether in trade or culture. We have been for a long time, even before the British came, a crucible of cultural experimentation, a forerunner of the globalised world. (In a long history of globalisation, Singapore, along with places like Macau and Penang, would feature very prominently as the ur-globalised cities.) To fully embrace Singapore as a cultural phenomenon one should celebrate continual change and more importantly, resist simplification. I've seen this many times overseas: the complexity of our identities often causes us to simplify the Singaporean condition, to reduce ourselves to something we think is more comprehensible, to explain ourselves by capitulating to seemingly more dominant cultures. For example: we speak English and Mandarin Chinese in our own way, and we shouldn't feel insecure about this, nor should we regard the ways in which the English, Americans or Beijingers speak it as somehow more authentic. This truth seems self-evident when we talk about Singaporean food. It is however, true of nearly all aspects of Singaporean life. And this, perhaps, is the closest I will ever come to trying to understand what being Singaporean means. 

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