One of my most popular posts is South Asian Food and Singapore (So Far). That post ended with a promise: “Oh, my thoughts on Indian-Singaporean cuisine to come. So many dishes we’ve discovered here… are so unique to this part of the world. We’ve just begun to understand their histories and flavors.”
So, over a year on, I’ve finally penned my reflections on foods that have culinary roots South Asia (the modern day countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc.) but are unique to this part of the world (Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula).
FISH HEAD CURRY. Fish head curry is made by stewing the head of an ikan merah (red snapper) in a spicy-hot, tamarind-infused curry, similar to a typical Kerala fish curry. Legend has it that the dish was concocted in the kitchen of a small restaurant on Tank Road. The chef, “Gomez,” added a fish head–a delicacy amongst the Chinese–to his curry in order to attract more Chinese customers. Die Die Must Try: The Banana Leaf Apolo, 54 Race Course Road.
ROTI PRATA. Roti prata, AKA one of my favorite local breakfasts, is the Singaporean incarnation of the South Asian parantha, a flakey flatbread. The local version uses an egg in the creation of the dough. As far as I know, the South Asian version is vegan. Roti means “bread” in Hindi, Urdu, many other North Indian languages, and Malay. Prata means “flat” in Malay. Roti prata is traditionally served with a mutton- or fish-based curry, but it’s common to find outlets serving roti prata with egg, banana, chocolate, durian, and cheese. Die Die Must Try: Sin Ming Roti Prata, 24 Sin Ming Road, #01-51 Jin Fa Kopitiam.
TEH TARIK. Teh tarik is literally “pulled tea.” It’s made from black tea, condensed milk, and evaporated milk. The mixture is poured back and forth repeatedly between two vessels from a height, giving it a thick frothy top. It’s utterly delicious. Die Die Must Try: Thajudeen Teh Tarik, 2 Adam Road, #01-12 Adam Road Food Centre.
MAMAK (INDIAN) ROJAK. Rojak is a traditional fruit and vegetable salad dish found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The term “rojak” is Malay for mixture. Mamak rojak, or Indian rojak, in Singapore is an assortment of potatoes, eggs, tofu, and prawns fried in batter, served with a sweet and spicy sauce. The term mamak refers to Tamil Muslims who are believed to be the original hawkers of this concoction. Die Die Must Try: Sabeena Indian Food, Block 262 Waterloo Street, #01-29 Nan Tai Eating House.
ROTI JOHN. Roti John is essentially on omelet on a baguette. This local “sandwich” combines minced meat (chicken or mutton), onion, egg, sardines, and a tomato-chilli sauce. According to yet another legend, some time in the 1960s, “an Englishman asked a hawker in Sembawang for a hamburger. Because hamburgers were not available, as a substitute, the ingenious hawker spread minced mutton and onions between slices of French loaf and fried the concoction in egg.“ It is considered as being of South Asian origin because Shukor, the hawker who popularised it, was of Indian ancestry. Roti John literally means “John’s bread”; the origin of the “John” in the name is allegedly due to the Western origin of the baguette and the tomato sauce. (“John” was once a common form of address for Caucasians.) Die Die Must Try: Raimah Eating House, 56 Jalan Kembangan.
MURTABAK. Murtabak, a crisp roti filled with minced meat and onions flavored with garam masala, turmeric, chilies, has a roundabout origin. It apparently originated in the Middle East (Yemen and Saudi Arabia) and was “carried” back to South Asia and, ultimately, South East Asia by Indian traders from Kerala. Die Die Must Try: Singapore Zam Zam, 697 North Bridge Road.
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Suggestions? I know Singaporeans are passionate about food and will happily spend hours debating the best places in town to get murtabak or fish head curry! Leave your favorite South Asian Singaporean foodie haunts in the comments.
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UPDATE: This was a challenging post to write! It isn’t easy to point to a particular dish and definitively say, “Oh, that’s local!” This post was written in the spirit of discovering the local answer to South Africa’s bunny chow or Great Britain’s chicken tikka masala, two diasporic inventions.
Via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been directed to try: sup tulang merah (bone steak), Maggi mee goreng (a local preparation of instant noodles), ikan bilis sambal (dried anchovies cooked in spicy paste), and sardine curry. More to eat, more to learn!