The heritage foods at risk of disappearing in Singapore

There are dishes that Singapore is world-famous for. Then there are disappearing heritage dishes even many locals are unaware of. Get acquainted with the city’s rich and diverse food culture.

Crystal Dumpling
  • Koh Yuenlin
  • January 2020

In the 1865 book Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India by John Cameron, there’s a fascinating description of a market scene in Singapore during that era:

“There are Malays, generally with fruit; Chinamen with a mixture of all sorts, and Kling [Indians] with cakes and different kinds of nuts. The travelling cookshops of the Chinese are probably the most extraordinary of the things that are carried about in this way. They are suspended on one of the common shoulder-sticks, and consist of a box on one side and a basket on the other; the former containing a fire and small copper cauldron for soup, the latter loaded with rice, vermicelli, cakes, jellies and condiments.”

Singaporean migrants
The founding of colonial Singapore as a free port in the early 19th century led to a rapid influx of immigrants from India and China.

That is possibly one of the earliest descriptions of hawker fare on the island, and it is plain to see that Singaporean hawker food — a product of its mosaic of migrants each bringing with them a piece of an ancient culinary culture from their homeland — was extremely diverse even in the 19th century. And with its constant evolution, Singaporean hawker fare has grown to become a vibrant and integral part of the country’s food landscape.

Lau Pa Sat
More than a century old, Lau Pa Sat is one of Singapore’s most famous hawker centres.

Yet for every popular hawker dish, there are many that are fading into obscurity. Daniel Chia, a food and wine educator, reckons that there are multiple factors behind the disappearance of heritage hawker fare. There are dishes such as jiu he eng chye (a salad of cured cuttlefish and water spinach in a thick soy dressing) and loh kai yik (mixed meats braised with fermented bean curd) that have fallen out of favour with younger patrons due to their rustic look and taste.

Chicken rice
While Singapore is famous for certain dishes like chicken rice, there are many more that are falling into obscurity.

Then there are dishes that are just too tedious to prepare for a commercial business. “Singaporeans are more than willing to pay for Japanese or European food, but they have this strange tendency to complain when local food costs more than a certain amount,” shares Chia. “As a result, it’s hard for traditional food producers to fetch prices that commensurate with the effort needed to make them.”

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Jiu he eng chye
Jiu he eng chye, a zesty salad of cured cuttlefish and greens.

Award-winning writer and photographer Christopher Tan shares his personal experience of going to a particular stall just to buy kee yah kueh, a steamed rice-flour jelly seasoned only with alkaline water: “I trekked to Ang Mo Kio to one of the last stalls that sold it, only to be told that they had discontinued it because no one bought it anymore.”

Kee yah kueh is not the only dish at risk of disappearing completely — here are some other uniquely Singaporean dishes to try while they’re still around.

1. Chwee jia bao

Chwee jia bao
Chwee jia bao is also known as crystal dumplings, so-called because of their glistening translucent skin.

These Teochew dumplings come in two varieties — the white ones are made with savoury turnip while the dark brown ones are filled with sweet red bean. Both require dexterity to perfectly fold the skin, which turns translucent once steamed.

Tiong Bahru Lien Fa Shui Jing Pau is one of the few stalls left that make chwee jia bao the old-school way. Everything here is prepared from scratch, from the red bean and yam paste to the thin and chewy tapioca flour skin that can become gooey in less experienced hands. Even the turnip is hand-chopped instead of shredded to maintain just the right amount of crunchiness.

Address: Blk 120 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-10, Alexandra Village Hawker Centre

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2. Putu mayam

Putu mayam
In Singapore’s early days, putu mayam was sold by roaming Indian vendors who carried it in a basket balanced on their heads.

A South Indian snack that resembles a lacey pancake formed with thin rice noodles, putu mayam is a local breakfast favourite that can be enjoyed with sweet toppings such as grated coconut and orange jaggery sugar, or with a savoury dip such as curry. Today, it’s mostly mass-produced in factories and handmade putu mayam is hard to come by on the island.

Helmed by a second-generation stall owner, Heavens is one of the few places where you can get the real deal. Also known as String Hoppers, the dish is made fresh upon ordering: a rice-flour dough is pressed through a sieve to form thin strands that are twirled over a steamer tray. Moist, fluffy and fragrant, it’s a delight to savour even on its own.

Address: 20 Ghim Moh Road, #01-26, Ghim Moh Market & Food Centre

3. Laksa Siglap

Laksa Siglap
Instead of thick rice noodles, laksa Siglap uses shorter noodles with tapered ends made from rice flour and tapioca starch.

This dish that originated from the Malay communities in the Kampung Siglap neighbourhood cannot be more different from the Nyonya laksa, which most people are familiar with. While the latter is creamy with the sweetness of prawns, laksa Siglap is thick with pounded fish bits and kerisik (grated coconut), and tart from the use of tamarind and dried slices of the fruit garcinia cambogia.

While this dish used to be widely available, it’s now sold only by a handful of Malay hawkers. Family-run Selera Menanti, which has been serving heritage Malay food for over two decades, dishes up a satisfying rendition of this retro classic.

Address: 21 Marsiling Lane, #01-120, Marsiling Lane Market & Cooked Food Centre

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4. Kueh abuk-abuk sagu

Kueh abuk-abuk sagu
While many traditional kuehs are colourful and visually alluring, kueh abuk-abuk sagu is a relatively plain-looking dessert — which might explain why it has gone out of fashion.

A banana leaf parcel of steamed sago pearls filled with palm sugar and grated coconut, kueh abuk-abuk sagu is similar to its Chinese counterpart of steamed sago dumplings filled with red bean paste.

Once popular, these sticky, chewy treats are a rare sight today outside of homes but Tan reveals they can still be found at some Malay kueh shops, such as Deli Maslina, which has been in business for close to four decades, and continues to make over 50 types of traditional Malays snacks in-house.

Address: 151 Bedok Reservoir Road, #01-1743