Burt Wolf's Menu: The Malay Community of Singapore - #115

Singapore -- it’s the place to take a look at the ancient food traditions of a city that is world famous for good eating.  We’ll discover the great recipes of Singapore’s Malay community, and the secrets of their spice mixtures.  We’ll tour the town and discover some edible love letters.  So join me in the Malay Community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The nation of Singapore sits on a group of islands at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Just north of it is Malaysia and just above that, Thailand.  Below it are the straits of Singapore and they are the key to the country’s history. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Commercial trading between India and China has been going on for about five thousand years.  And for all of those years, the Malaysian Peninsula has rested right smack in the middle.  Ships would come down to the west coast of the peninsula from India to do a little business in spices -- pepper, ginger, cinnamon.  Along the east coast you would find Chinese junks doing a little business of their own.  And eventually Arab traders joined in.  The area became a center of commerce.  Actually, it was more like a point for piracy.  The waters around Singapore are kind of narrow and as the trading ships came through, local pirates would come out out to do... what local pirates do.   For hundreds of years the land around Singapore was just a jungle with a specialty in local piracy.

But all that changed in 1819.  The British and the Dutch had been jockeying for position in the area.  The British were thinking about moving out of the neighborhood and leaving it for the Dutch, if the Dutch would give them a nice bit of property in India that the English had been coveting for awhile. Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles was the English Lieutenant-governor of Java and he hated the idea. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Raffles saw his opportunity when the old Sultan of Johor died without leaving a clear heir to the throne.  The sultan’s oldest son was in exile.  So they put the youngest son of the sultan on the throne.  But there was some real question as to whether the youngest son had the right to sit upon that seat.  So Raffles brought back the older kid, had him declared the new sultan, and then made a deal with him for exclusive English trading rights in Singapore.  He paid his new sultan three thousand Spanish dollars a year for those rights, and five thousand Spanish dollars a year went to the local Malay chief.  Raffles was in business.

Raffles had been able to obtain an important site for British trade in the area and he drew up a plan for the development of his new town. It was divided into areas for each of the major immigrant groups and its commercial strength was to rest on its location as a port.  His plan set the basis for the history of Singapore during the past two centuries.  When Lord Raffles showed up in 1819, Singapore was little more than a Malay village.  The majority of the small population were Malaysian Muslims who had drifted down the peninsula, but their cultural influence has always been greater than their numbers.  Today fifteen percent of the population of Singapore is Malay. They are very much part of the modern city, and the fact that they were here first is reflected in many subtle ways, including the fact that the national anthem is sung in Malay.

Today Singapore is a major Asian city. Its downtown business district is as modern and up to date as any city in the world.  Almost the entire population of Singapore lives on one island, which has a limiting effect on expansion, but only in the horizontal plane; vertically, the sky’s the limit.  For thousands of years the major economic activity of Singapore has been trade.  These giant buildings house the corporate offices of the major companies that manage much of the world’s oil business.  Because Singapore is in the middle of the most important shipping routes of Asia, it has become one of the busiest ports in the world.  Each year more than 100,000 ships pass through the facilities at the Singapore yards.   Singapore is also an outstanding financial center; its banks handle hundreds of billions of dollars in international transactions.  But if you’re not interested in making money, hey, that’s OK, Singapore will help you spend it.  Orchard Road has an impressive shopping area.  Mile after mile of stores, representing designers and manufacturers from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. 

Clearly business is important, and so is shopping -- but neither may be the single great compulsion for a Singaporean.  The consuming passion in this town is consuming good food.  No matter who you are talking to, within a few minutes the subject will come around to eating. Singapore has some 25,000 places to eat in and a population that is slightly over two and a half million.  Lots of competition, and lots of great food.

Within Singapore’s Malay community there is no more traditional dish than Satay.  It’s on the menu of hundreds of restaurants throughout the city.  Satay as it is presently presented is simply a bamboo skewer with three or four bite-sized pieces of shrimp, chicken, or lamb that have been marinated, and grilled and served with a peanut sauce.  Satay probably got started in Indonesia and over the years became a standby throughout Southeast Asia. It has even became a regular part of the service on Singapore Airlines.

Chef Mohammed Sharif works with the airline and is a specialist in Malay dishes.  He starts his Chicken Satay by preparing the marinade.  Shallots, lemon grass, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and a little water are blended together into a paste.  When the mixture comes out of the blender, one pound of chicken cut into bite-sized pieces is added in. Before the meat is mixed into the paste, two tablespoons of each of the following get added in: cumin, coriander, salt, sugar and oil.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That gets covered and rests in the refrigerator for four hours.

Next a dipping sauce is made.  A quarter of a cup of peanut oil goes into a sauce pan, to which is added a quarter of a cup of chopped shallots, two tablespoons of chili paste, a cup and a half of chicken stock, a cup of ground peanuts, a quarter of a cup of sugar and a little salt.  All that is boiled together for three minutes.  A charcoal grill is fired up, or you could use a broiler.  A little oil goes onto the grill to give it a non-stick surface. The chicken gets put onto the skewers, and grilled.  Traditionally a fan is used to bring up the temperature.  Because the skewers here are made of bamboo, the end you hold is kept to the side, away from the direct heat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The fan’s also pretty good for cooling off the chefs!

The chicken, lamb or shrimp satay is served with the peanut sauce, and a few pieces of onion and cucumber.

The indigenous food of Singapore was originally the cooking of Malaysia and Indonesia.  In Singapore these foods are presented as four different cuisines.  The first is Sumatran Nasi Padang.  It originated in the Padang area of Western Sumatra.  Many of the dishes consist of coconut cream combined with various spices and chilies to produce a sauce which is then used as the cooking base for fish, poultry or vegetables.  White rice comes in to dampen down the heat of the chilies.  Second is Javanese.  The most famous of the Javanese dishes is satay.  Next up are the Malayan dishes.  There is a considerable similarity between Malayan and Javanese cooking but the approach to spicing is somewhat different.  One of the best of the Malayan dishes is seafood coated with a sauce made from coconut milk and spices, and then grilled in a banana leaf.  The fourth of the traditional cuisines is called Nonya.  Nonya cooking combines many of the traditional ingredients and cooking techniques of both the Chinese and the Malaysians.  Laska is a good example; thick noodles and shrimp drawn from a Chinese recipe, then blended together with Malaysian coconut milk and spices.  

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Start with these four indigenous cuisines, add the eight regional styles that came from the Chinese, and the two forms that were imported by the Indian settlers, and you will see why Singapore is famous for its good cooking.  Of course, you also must give the people of Singapore credit for not being influenced by English food during the colonial period.

Violet Oon is one of Singapore’s leading food authorities.  She writes for major newspapers and magazines, represents the nation at important food events around the world, publishes a magazine devoted to food called The Food Paper, authors cookbooks, runs her own restaurants and educates people, like me, who want to know about Nonya cooking and Nonya culture.

VIOLET OON:  Well, I belong to what is known as the Paranakan culture; it’s a cross-culture of Malay and Chinese culture, mainly ethnically Chinese, but we’ve been here for generations and generations.  It’s also known as Nonya; Nonya is a term for the women of the culture.  And it’s also known as Baba culture; those are the men.  Now you know --

BURT WOLF:   Nonyas are the women, Babas are the men.

VIOLET OON:  Yes.  And the food, which is our most spectacular sort of part of our culture, is known as Nonya food, because cooking is a feminine art, and I think that’s why that word is sort of very much in use.  Now, we are walking down Emerald Hill Road in Singapore.  It’s become a very chic address.  The houses were where the rich people of my culture stayed at the turn of the century and this century, and the architecture you see is very like a, I call it a “wedding cake,” you know?  A bit of a bad-taste wedding cake, very colorful.  Our culture is  -- you see our motifs are the furniture, the dress, the crockery is very , very colorful.  The motifs are, if you look at it, very Arabesque.  So that’s the Malay influence.  Floral, rather than Chinese, which would be more symbolic -- animals and bats, and they would have all those other things.  Well, our culture uses the more floral motifs, which is sort of inspired by the Malay culture.  And our food would also be a mixture of Malay and Chinese.  You get the blandness of Chinese food, the fineness of it, with the spiciness of Malay cuisine, and I think people like it because it’s a mixture of two, two flavors, two textures, and two cultures.  And it’s been sort of developed into a classic cuisine with actual set dishes for festivities, for wedding feasts, for funerals, for births.  And all these are sort of big celebrations in a person’s life.  The Chinese have a saying that there are three big occasions in their life:  the day you’re born, the day you’re married and the day you die.  In our culture, we celebrate the feasts of the Chinese culture.  The first big birthday would be your sixty-first birthday.

BURT WOLF:   I have to wait ‘til I’m sixty-one before I get a big birthday?

VIOLET OON:  Three score and ten, yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

VIOLET OON:  Well, it’s like into your seventh decade...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Right...

VIOLET OON:  ...then the second one is your seventy-first birthday, and normally the biggest birthday celebration is the eighty-first, ‘cause most probably by the time you’re ninety-one you’re dead, you know?

BURT WOLF:   You wanna get it in while you still can.

VIOLET OON:  (Laughing)  Yeah, so when it’s the eighty-first birthday you find that Chinese families will come from all around the world --

BURT WOLF:   --for an eighty-first birthday.

VIOLET OON:  --for an eighty-first birthday. 

BURT WOLF:   Interesting.

VIOLET OON:  And normally you’ll have noodles, which is also part of our Paranakan culture for --

BURT WOLF:   Right, a symbol of long life.

VIOLET OON:  Yes, and you mustn’t cut the noodle --

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

VIOLET OON:  -- especially if it’s your mother-in-law’s birthday... [BURT laughs]  ...she thinks you have a message somewhere if you cut the noodles up, you know?

BURT WOLF:   Aah, I’ll be very careful about that.

VIOLET OON:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, very careful of that.

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

VIOLET OON:  And noodles would have, in a birthday, [“So we would have noodles at a birthday”]  but sort of in our Nonya culture we would also have the spicy foods, things like Sambal Udon, the Shrimp Sambal, and we would have certain Chinese soups like Hipyu soup with fish more[?], so it’s a mixture of sort of different cultures.  So I think that is, to a lot of people, the fun of Nonya cooking, the fun of Nonya food.

VIOLET OON  (NOW IN KITCHEN):  Well, this is Beef Rendang; it’s Nonya cooking but it comes from Indonesia originally, and... would you like to know what spices go into it?


VIOLET OON:  Yeah?  Well, we have garlic, which goes into the spice paste, about five cloves of it; and then there’s a chili paste, which is made from dried chilis; and then you have about a thumbful or two thumbsful of ginger.  And this here is lemon grass, which is citron -- citronella; and about two handsful of shallots.  And what you get out of all this is this spice paste that you have here, which you put in a blender or a food processor to get it into a fine paste.

BURT WOLF:  If I can’t get lemon grass, what should I use?

VIOLET OON:  Use nothing.

BURT WOLF:  Ah, nothing.  My supermarket always has that, and it’s usually on special.

VIOLET OON:  Mm-hmm.  Ahh, could you sort of pour some oil in here for me?  Now, you add two to three tables -- you have to add a bit more oil, actually; it may seem a lot, but you need the oil to cook the spice paste in, and if you’re sort of very health-conscious you remove the oil at the end of the cooking time.  And you sauté it over sort of medium heat.  You know when your spice mixture is done, and the secret is that it’s done when you have a sneeze.

BURT WOLF:  Enough of the volatile oils come up --

VIOLET OON: (overlaps)  Enough, yeah -- AH-CHOO!




BURT WOLF:  AH-CHOOOOO!!!!!  I think the dish is ready.

VIOLET OON:  Yes.  Well, at this point the spices are done, you add the coconut milk, about two to three cups of it, into the spice, yeah, so it doesn’t burn, and then I would add stewing beef, about maybe two pounds.  Or you could add chickens cut into pieces, and cut into -- the meat will be cut into cubes.  And then a bit of sugar, about a quarter of a cup of sugar... salt, maybe about one to one and a half teaspoons.  And then you could add these kaffir lime leaves, which could be replaced by lemon zest or lime zest in the States.  It’s sort of a -- gives it a beautiful aroma from the leaves.  And then you would stew it on sort of medium heat for about two hours, if you have this sort of stewing beef, two to three hours, ‘til it’s tender and the oil exudes again and the gravy gets thick.  Or if you like a nice gravy, you could sort of cook it less reduced; you could have a, a sort of creamier gravy.  So it depends on how you like it done, actually.

BURT WOLF:  That’s it.

The high value placed on hospitality in the cultures that make up Singapore has affected many aspects of the city’s life.  On the smallest scale it is the friendliness that greets you when you enter someone’s home; on the largest scale it is the government’s desire to keep Singapore as the number one convention city in Asia.  The Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, which everyone calls Suntec City, is designed to be the place to meet in the Asia-Pacific region.  It is a state-of-the-art facility with an ideal location, right at the center of the city.  And because of the size of the project, it has attracted a considerable amount of additional development to the area.  Particularly in terms of hotels.  A prime example of a top hotel is the Marina Mandarin.  It’s 21 stories high, and designed by John Portman of Atlanta, who pioneered the use of spectacular atriums in hotels. There’s a skylight that lets you feel like you are outside while having all the comforts of being inside.  Every room has a view and all the other elements that you would expect from a really first-class facility.  But because the Marina Mandarin is in Singapore, it has a gastronomic responsibility that is considerably more challenging than it would have in any other city.  Let me show you what I mean.  This is the kitchen of a famous hotel in Paris.  Many chefs, many talents, many recipes. One food... French.  This is the kitchen of a famous restaurant in Italy. Again, many chefs, many talents, many recipes.  One food, Italian.  But here the hotel must cater to at least 15 different gastronomic cultures.  The House of Blossoms presents the dishes of six different regions in China. 75 percent of the population of Singapore is of Chinese ancestry.  The Tatler serves the foods of India, which is representative of about 15 percent of the population.  It also cooks the four traditional foods of the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula, which constitutes about 7 percent of the population.  Of course they didn’t want to miss out on the great traditions of the west, so there is the Ristorante Bologna, which is one of the only Italian restaurants in Asia to be admitted into the International Association of Italian Restaurants.  The hotel’s Executive Chef is George Fistrovich, who has an impressive set of credits from restaurants all over Europe, Asia and the United States.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But the thing that impressed me the most about George’s background is his mother.  She lives  in Indiana and is a regular viewer of my reports.  As an expression of our appreciation we tried to find a recipe that we thought she would truly enjoy.  It’s called Fish Sambal.  It’s made from a boneless, skinless filet of fish with a really interesting collection of seasonings.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Is that okay, Mom?

The recipe starts with two tablespoons of oil going into a hot sauté pan. As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a quarter of a cup of minced shallots, a quarter cup of minced garlic, and a quarter cup of pureed red chilies. 

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  You take the garlic and chili and the shallots, and you stir it about ten to twelve minutes over moderate heat until all the oil comes penetrating throughout.  And that way you’ll know that all the flavors are even throughout.

After a few minutes of stirring three tablespoons of sugar are added plus a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of water. 

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Some people might find this mixture a little bit hot.  So by adding ketchup, it will sweeten the mixture up a little bit and also add a nice color to it.

BURT WOLF:   Traditional Asian ingredient.


George puts a little oil onto a banana leaf, but if banana leaves are not big in your neighborhood, some aluminum foil will do the job.  Then the fish goes onto the leaf and the sauce on top of the fish.  The leaf or the foil gets wrapped around the fish.  A little oil goes into a pan and then the wrapped fish.  Six minutes of cooking on one side, six minutes on the other and the fish is ready.  While the fish is cooking George prepares a sweet chutney.  Three tablespoons of sugar go into a hot sauté pan.  Then three tablespoons of lime juice.  Within a minute or so the sugar will dissolve into the juice.  At that point take the pan off the heat and hold it aside.  Put a quarter of a cup of sliced green chilies into a bowl, plus a quarter of a cup of sliced red chilies, a sliced mango and a cubed apple.  Then pour the sugar and lime juice mixture on top.  Two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar are added, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of chopped chives.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  This mixture can be kept in your refrigerator for three to four days, if you just minus the chives and add ‘em when needed.

The banana leaves go onto a serving plate, the fish, the chutney and a few chopped chives.

GEORGE FISTROVICH:  Finish the plate by two pieces of chives... and that’s home cooking, Mom -- but in Singapore!

This is Peter Wee, a leading authority on Paranakan culture.  He collects valuable examples of Paranakan history, and even offers traditional foods for appropriate holidays.  His antique shop is at the center of Singapore’s Paranakan district.

PETER WEE:  Now, in every Paranakan home, especially of this type, you have this little peephole, because we can look into the main entrance and see who is knocking at the door.  And the ladies of the house are not supposed to be found outside, and so they can peep and see who is in, who is downstairs. 

BURT WOLF:   Very functional, too.


BURT WOLF:   You drop the keys down?


BURT WOLF:   What does “Katong” mean?

PETER WEE:  Well, Katong is, in the eastern part of Singapore, this area is known as Katong.  And at this time of the year, the shop is full of Paranakan cookies.  We get these from the several bibis that make all these traditional cookies and bring them to the shop.

BURT WOLF:   Bibis?

PETER WEE:  Bibis are elderly ladies.  Now here is a tin where we keep all the “love letters,” or Quay Blanda.  Now, blanda, to the Paranakan, is “Dutch.”  So I suppose this must have been influenced by the, by the Dutch in the Paranakan culture.  And the basis for this is, of course, coconut, flour, sugar, and pandan leaves.

BURT WOLF:   Pan -- ?

PETER WEE:  Pandan leaves, fragrant, green pandan leaves.  And, talking about pandan leaves brings me to the idea, at the early days of my grandfather’s time, we used to boil hot water and put it in a, in a teapot, and they’d just put the pandan leaves into the teapot, and the entire pot of water is fragrant with pandan leaves.  And if you cool it, you drink it, my goodness, it’s so fragrant.  Pandan leaves! ...  Now that is what we call the aga-aga.  It’s made into the shape of a rabbit.  Now, we make this out of seaweed we collect from the sea and we dry it up...

BURT WOLF:   And that’s dried seaweed?

PETER WEE:  ...for at least a month or two, you dry the seaweed; you leave it under the sun, rains, and then you wash it until it turns white. 

BURT WOLF:   And then it becomes like a gelatin.

PETER WEE:  Gelatin.  Then once it is formed, it will last from five to six months.  Now this --

BURT WOLF:   What is that?

PETER WEE:  Ah, now this soft-looking little cake here is what we call quay bakul.  Bakul is “basket,” because it is steamed in a basket, and it is steamed for eight hours...

BURT WOLF:   Like a plum pudding.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  The longer you steam it, the darker the color will be.  So this is --

BURT WOLF:   The sugar carmelizing in it.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  So you get that -- this is made of glutinous rice.  Now this is very important to the Paranakan Chinese New Year because this is the main cake that has got to be offered to the deity. 

BURT WOLF:   I like the symbolism of that; the stickiness of the rice holding the family together, the roundness, all in one place, and those two things making life sweet.

PETER WEE:   And it is also stated that if the family is mourning that year for someone who has passed away, they cannot make this cake; because if they make this cake it would not stick together.  But they will receive gifts of this cake from their relatives.  So if one is mourning, it’s very superstitious -- you cannot make this cake. ... It’s a photo of my father and mother’s wedding day; they were dressed in the traditional Chinese costume, which is also a Paranakan costume.  You can see that she wore a very unique aspect of Paranakan bridal headgear, which is made of a hundred and forty-four hairpins.

BURT WOLF:   A hundred and forty-four hairpins!

PETER WEE:  And she walked into the Church of San Teresa and she was married in a Christian manner, wearing that traditional costume.  We believe -- the Chinese believe, and the Paranakans also have that feeling, that you know, life has got to be complete with longevity, prosperity and happiness.

BURT WOLF:   You wouldn’t want to be old and rich and not happy.

PETER WEE:  Yes.  You have to have all these three, so that is why we have these three star-gods representing, you know, the new year, the wishing of the new year, wishing one happiness, prosperity, and longevity.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our report on the indigenous food of the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula... an island known to the world as Singapore.  It’s done an amazing job of bringing together six different cultures and helping them preserve their ethnic traditions... especially when it comes to food.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.