Saving Singapore's cuisine one laksa at a time

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Food critic KF Seetoh is on a mission to keep Singapore’s unique cuisine alive -- one laksa, chicken rice and chilli crab dish at a time.

A woman prepares food at a hawker centre in Singapore May 26, 2008. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

Seetoh fears Singapore’s signature dishes, and the street hawkers who make them, are losing out to fast food, imported cuisines and an uninspired younger generation.

The self-styled food guru has made it his business to preserve this slice of Singaporean heritage through Makansutra (, a company dedicated to promoting indigenous Asian food through a street food guide book, TV shows, Internet reviews and a restaurant consultancy.

“Makan” means eating in Bahasa and “sutra” is Sanskrit for guide, reflecting two of the main traditions -- Indonesian and Indian -- that have influenced Singaporean cuisine.

The guide is published once a year and its 7th edition is out soon. Makansutra has launched a guide for Malaysia and Indonesia and is planning more editions for the region, including Beijing.

Reuters spoke to Seetoh about the business of food and why eating is such an important part of being Singaporean.

Q: Singapore’s hawker food centers, basically street food courts, are world famous. Are we about to lose them?

A: “Hawker food is the last bastion of our culture but now we’re seeing Japanese, German and even French hawker stalls cropping up. This internationalization of our organic food culture signals its death. There are still enough old masters, but they’re passing away soon and many have disdain for their own food and haven’t passed it on to their Harvard-educated sons. Many Singaporeans look down on hawker fare, they consider it grandfather food made by ex-cons. Hawker food is the heartbeat of our culinary culture. And we’re losing our heritage.

Q: How do you think Makansutra can help?

A: About 10 years ago, I realized our great food culture was not being celebrated so I launched the first hawker food guide in 1998 as a wake-up call for the locals to tell them: wake up and smell the laksa (spicy noodle soup). I got a lot of people telling me ‘you don’t have to tell me where to get the best char kway teow (noodles with cockles), I already know’ but despite that, it sold out and now we average 30,000 copies a year, often selling out.

Q: A lot of foreigners also use your guide. So this wasn’t intended as a tourism-boosting venture?

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A: “I didn’t do this deliberately for foreigners, but the new generation, they’ve got money and they love to travel, and they’re after the local food culture. About 20 to 30 percent of the guides are bought by foreigners now. After all, why come to Singapore to eat French food? By eating the local food, you digest the local culture.

Q: What’s so special about Singaporean cuisine? And why is food such a big deal in this country?

A: Our food is a bastardization of the three motherland food nations of Asia -- China, India and Indonesia. It’s fusion food born out of the factors that created the country. For example, here, curry rice isn’t an Indian dish, its Hainanese Chinese. The food offerings here are very diverse, which makes eating a national pastime, up there with shopping. There is no mass appeal thing to do here other than eat. Everybody can afford to do it.

Q: Hawker centers are often hot, crowded, loud, messy -- and bewildering if you’re not Singaporean. Any tips?

A: There is an art to enjoying a hawker centre. First, go with your local friends. Find a cool corner and eat one dish at a time and take a break to talk. Conversation is the best palate cleanser. If you can’t find a cool place, then get in and get out quickly then go for coffee and a chat somewhere else.

Q: What’s considered comfort food here?

A: Chicken rice. When you’ve got an extra buck or two, it’s chilli crab or laksa, but when you don’t know what you want, its got to be chicken rice.

Seetoh’s top five Singapore hawker centers:

1. East Coast Lagoon food centre

2. Chinatown food centre

3. Old Airport Road food centre

4. Maxwell food centre

5. Changi Village food centre

Editing by Paul Casciato