Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Singaporean cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Indian cuisine, here to read her column about Kenyan cuisine, and here to read her column about Jamaican cuisine.
Culture Tuesday – Singaporean Cuisine
Singaporean cuisine is a blend of cuisines of various nations, with its influences predominantly from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, India, England, the United States of America, Middle Eastern nations, and Portugal. Its influences are as a result of historical events such as the colonization of Singapore by Britain, the establishment of the East India Company (a trading post in Singapore) by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, which led to the migration of large numbers of people from neighboring nations, European nations, the Middle East and America to Singapore, Singapore’s population growth initiatives and the country being ruled by Japan during the Second World War.
Singaporean cuisine is known to accommodate vegans and vegetarians due to the significant amount of locals who practice both lifestyles.
Singaporean cuisine is known to accommodate vegans and vegetarians due to the significant amount of locals who practice both lifestyles as well as the custom of people being considerate of the cultures, ethics, morals, and religious beliefs of those around them in food-related settings and thereby choosing to eat meals which their companions are most comfortable around. Singapore also produces and stocks a great number of meat substitutes which are often used to veganize non-vegan dishes.
Epok-Epok – Curry Puff
During the mid-1600s, Singapore experienced an influx of Portuguese immigrants are Malacca (a state in Malaysia) was seized from their control by the Dutch. Between this period, and later in the 19th century, during the colonization of Singapore by the British (between 1819 and 1963), Portuguese settlers, in Singapore married locals thereby introducing aspects of their culture into that of the local culture of Singapore. Sometime between these centuries, epok-epok was created possibly due to influences from the Portuguese empanada and the British Cornish pasty and well as Indian influences in the style of fillings due to India being under British colonial rule at the same time as well as Indians migrating to Singapore to escape war, famine, poverty, and unemployment.
Epok-Epok, which is often also called ‘curry puff,’ is a flaky pastry filled with a thick flavourful curry often containing potatoes. However other fillings influenced by the cuisines of nearby nations can be found nowadays such as a Thai green curry filling and rendang (both of which can be found in their vegan versions).
Kueh Ubi Kayu – Steamed Tapioca Cake
From early-1942 until the end of World War II, the Japanese took over Singapore from British rule. This period was filled with food scarcity and a lot of hardship for those residing in Singapore and led to the locals having to survive on cassava (or cassava-based meals) as a way to sustain themselves due to cassava’s relatively quick growth and harvesting rate (3 months). It is believed that kueh ubi kayu was created during this period when Singaporeans relied on cassava to survive.
Kueh ubi kayu is a steamed cake made from grated tapioca, a starch from the cassava root, and coconut milk that is coated with grated coconut to make a delectable dessert. Baked versions of this dessert are also commonly found under the name ‘kueh bingka ubi kayu.’
Hokkien Mee – Stir-Fried Noodles in Broth
Hokkien mee was introduced to Singapore by Chinese sailors from the Fujian (Hokkien) province after World War II. Originally, the dish was made by stir-frying excess/leftover noodles over a charcoal stove. However, today, it is made as a stir-fried dish consisting of two types of noodles that are served in a fragrant and delicious stock, or broth. The noodles used are commonly rice noodles and egg noodles although a vegan version of the egg noodles is often substituted to make Hokkien mee suitable for vegans. Apart from the spring onions (scallions/green onions) and chives, commonly used to garnish Singaporean Hokkien mee, its garnishes are, generally, not vegan. However, due to the creation and common use of mock seafood, Omnipork, and other meat alternatives, traditional Hokkien mee is still made and enjoyed by those who adhere to a vegan lifestyle.
Mala Xiang Guo – Numbing Spicy Stir-Fried Noodles and Vegetables
During the 1990s, due to a low fertility rate and significant aging population, Singapore’s governments implemented various measures to encourage an increase in young/youthful population through pro-natalist policies (policies promoting birth). One of the successful measures they undertook was to open their borders and encourage an influx of immigrants, especially those of working-age. Most of the immigrants who settled in Singapore during this period came from China, Malaysia, and India. This influx of immigrants led to the introduction of new dishes and styles of cooking. During this period mala xiang guo became a part of Singapore’s cuisine as well as other dishes such as mapo tofu, char kway teow, ketupat, gudeg, acar, ham chim peng, biriyani, and bee hoon.
Mala xiang guo is a fragrant “numbing spicy” stir fry dish introduced to Singapore by the Chinese. It consists of noodles and vegetables stir-fried with an array of spices including Sichuan peppercorn, chili peppers for the numbing and spicy effect of the dish.
Char Kway Teow – Stir-Fried Flat Rice Noodles
In Singapore, char kway teow is usually eaten as a breakfast dish or street food. It was introduced to Singapore by the Chinese who make it specifically using flat rice noodles (kway teow). However, in Singapore, the style of making it is to combine the flat rice noodles with thinner/string wheat or rice noodles such as those used to make Hokkien mee. Other significant characteristics of Singaporean char kway teow are the use of more vegetables and less oil for healthier versions, fresh greens and bean sprouts for additional texture and a fresh taste, and the addition of other ingredients such as mushrooms, tofu, beancurd skin, or meat substitutes for even more flavor and texture.
Gudeg is a jackfruit stew of Indonesian origin (from the Javanese ethnic group). It is made by stewing young/unripe jackfruit in a mixture of coconut milk, palm sugar, galangal, chilies, bay leaves, candlenut, coriander seeds, and teak leaves for several hours until a somewhat sweet brownish (from the teak) stew is created. It is often served with steamed white rice, tofu, and/or tempeh.
Acar, also known as Achar, is pickled vegetables (usually carrots, cabbage, and cucumbers) with peanuts, chilies, and spices. It is served as a sweet and sour accompaniment to various local dishes for flavor, health benefits, and to reduce the greasy feeling created from some oily dishes. Its influences are believed to be both Indian and Peranakan. To make the acar found in Singapore, a rempah (spice paste) is usually made first. This consists of chilies, garlic, candlenuts, and shallots or onions. It is stir-fried with ginger and a bit of turmeric before being combined with some sugar, rice vinegar, and salted sliced/chopped vegetables.
Ham Chim Peng
Ham chim peng is a deep-fried (yeasted dough) bun often filled with a red bean paste. It is also known as a Chinese doughnut or Chinese five-spice doughnut as it is of Chinese origin. In Singapore, ham chim peng is usually eaten as a breakfast food or a snack. Unlike the doughnuts which can be found in Britain, America, and other Western nations, ham chim peng does not contain butter, egg, or milk, thereby making it vegan-friendly.
Ketupat is a square-shaped dish made by steaming rice in a cube-/square-shaped pouch made of woven coconut leaves. It is of Indonesian origin. It is often served unwrapped and cut into smaller cubes with some satay (spicy peanut sauce) to dip it in. In its long cylindrical form, it is served in a spicy vegetable soup and the dish is known as ‘lontong.’
Vegetarian Bee Hoon
Vegetarian bee hoon is a vegan-friendly noodle dish that originated in Singapore. However, it has Chinese influences. It is made from rice vermicelli noodles (bee hoon), vegetable spring rolls, gluten-based mock meats (seitan), and fried beancurd skin (tofu skin). Often, stir-fried vegetables are also added to the dish to add extra flavor, texture, and nutrition.
Recipe – Vegan Bee Hoon
Below is an amazing and easy-to-follow vegetarian bee hoon recipe by Pamelia Chia of the YouTube channel, ‘Singapore Noodles.’ Pamelia is a Melbourne-based Singaporean chef and author on a mission to share authentic Singaporean dishes with the world. In this recipe, she teaches you how to make a number of meat substitutes from scratch while teaching you how to make the entire bee hoon dish.
If this article on vegan Singaporean cuisine inspired you to learn more, you might also like:
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Somali Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Sri Lankan Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Ethiopian Cuisine
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