Singapore’s bid to get UN recognition for its street food has sparked a cross-border culinary clash, with angry chefs in Malaysia pouring cold water on the idea.
The city-state is home to many open-air food courts (commonly referred to as ‘hawker centres) where vendors serve dishes such as chicken and rice, noodles and satay at relatively cheap prices.
But they’re not the only ones to do so – hawker centres are commonplace in Malaysia, too.
Some Singaporean hawkers have even been awarded Michelin stars by the culinary bible, which has had a Singapore edition since 2016.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced last week that Singapore will nominate its hawker culture to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, describing the city-state’s food centres as “community dining rooms” which form part of the country’s identity.
But the move sparked anger in Malaysia, whose citizens have long claimed their own street food – which shares many similarities with Singapore’s – is far superior to anything in their tiny neighbour.
Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, commonly known as Chef Wan, told AFP he thought Singapore’s UN bid was “rubbish”. “When you talk about hawkers, Singapore is not the only one to have hawker culture… Why (do you) need to go to UNESCO to patent? Is yours so special?” added the chef, who once appeared on a show with late American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Another well-known local chef, Ismail Ahmad, insisted that his country was a street food “paradise” and it should be Malaysia that was applying for UN recognition. “Even the Singaporean people come to Malaysia and enjoy our stalls,” he said.
But Singaporeans have dismissed the anger in Malaysia, insisting a UNESCO listing is about more than just food. “It is about the street food culture heritage that bonds people together and is supported by the government and industry, because it is about the community,” acclaimed Singaporean food critic K.F. Seetoh was quoted as saying in the city-state’s New Paper newspaper. “If you have it, flaunt it.”
Check out this spread – regardless of where it comes from, you can’t say it doesn’t want to make you salivate all over your screen!
We could go on, but you get the idea.
With plans to submit its nomination to UNESCO in March, Singapore will only find out whether their bid has been successful in 2020.
Singapore and Malaysia both share a culinary heritage, stemming from Singapore’s former position as a member of the Federated Malay States before being expelled by the federation in 1965.
Further, across great swathes of South East Asia, there are similarities in cuisines in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore due to the influence of the largely Malay population as well as the influx of Chinese immigrants across the region.
Nyonya cuisine (from the Peranakan culture denoting Chinese born/bred in the Straits Of Malacca) which is popular in Malaysia and Singapore is a unique mix of Malay/Chinese ingredients and methods.
The Peranakan whilst maintaining their ethnic and religious beliefs, adapted the culture and language of the Malays and were assimilated into local communities.