Fried rice paradise: How hawker culture has become an essential ingredient of national identity
Regardless of race, language or religion, Singaporeans bond through their taste buds, embracing a mind-blowing plethora of cuisines that have evolved and fused over many decades in the cross-cultural melting pot of this island city.
Food is integral to our multicultural and multiracial identity. Singaporeans of all backgrounds share a common way of life and special pride in our iconic Hawker Culture that was inscribed onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020. Hawker centres serve as “community dining rooms” where people from diverse backgrounds gather, mingle, and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As Ambassador Tommy Koh put it in 2020: “Hawker food makes Singapore unique. It is part of our national identity.”
Part of the reason hawker food has become a big part of national identity is that it is a common experience that all Singaporeans resonate with. In turn, this has created memories for many people who remember not only the delicious food they have eaten but also the sounds and sights of the crowded hawker centres, the conversations among friends, and the shared experiences between family members.
Gathering for hawker food is a national past-time, with 83 per cent of Singaporeans saying they visit a hawker centre at least once a week, according to a 2018 NEA poll. That is hardly surprising since hawker fare tastes good and is also affordable. (NEA’s comment: The findings based on a 2018 poll were mentioned in NEA’s 2019 media release. Corrected for factual accuracy.)
Singapore is one of the few highly cosmopolitan cities where eating out can be cheaper than home cooking – and possibly even more delicious. Indeed, several hawker eateries have won a Michelin star before, such as Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice in Chinatown and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles.
Image credit: Unsplash
One local food blogger, Dr Leslie Tay, who also goes by the moniker, ieatishootipost, even proudly declared: “Hawker food embodies the essence of being Singaporean.”
Some distinctive Singapore dishes include rojak – a mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese influences and tastes melded together into a uniquely Singaporean culinary experience – and roti prata, which has been localised with ingredients like cheese and mushroom.
As veteran hawkers retire, hawker food and the trade risk becoming “endangered”. The hawker community weathered through successive challenges over the past two years, with Singaporeans rallying around them to safeguard this important element of our national identity, as Singapore wrestled COVID-19 with measures to take us closer to an endemic state.
Younger Singaporeans are responding to the call to take on hawker apprenticeships. To ensure that hawker trade and culture will continue for our future generations, NEA has been working closely with hawkers and stakeholders to professionalise the trade, improve working conditions and keep barriers to entry low. Meanwhile, netizens have created apps, crowd-sourced maps and other online platforms to encourage people to keep “eating local” and keep hawkers in business.
With widespread support, hawker culture will remain an integral part of Singapore’s culture – something that everyone can continue to enjoy.