Hawker Heritage

Histories behind Singapore’s hawker food

If there’s anything Singaporeans love, it’s hawker food. We endure long queues for it; we celebrate it; we nominate it as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

Behind each hawker dish is a unique blend of histories. From ingredients that came from halfway around the world to names that contain a mix of tongues, hawker food is a tangible representation of diversity. And if diversity in food gave us hawker culture, what can diversity elsewhere and everywhere offer?

Learn the stories behind 10 iconic hawker dishes, rethink what a humble plate of nasi lemak represents, and read our statement on diversity.

Chicken Rice

Etymology

Chinese

Chicken rice is a literal translation of “鸡饭”.

The story behind chicken rice

Chicken rice dates all the way back to Hainan, China in the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). It’s based on a dish called wenchang chicken. As Hainanese emigrated to Singapore, they brought with them the recipe for this dish.

During the Japanese occupation in WWII, chicken rice rose in popularity when servant-class workers from Hainan recreated their hometown dish. Chicken rice was created out of wartime frugality, as the flavour of the chicken was used to make the accompanying rice and soup taste better.

Nasi Lemak

Etymology

Malay

Nasi lemak means “rich/fatty rice”; it got its name from the coconut cream that the rice is cooked with.

The story behind nasi lemak

Nasi lemak is a staple of the Malay World and created before colonial forces reached the region. It’s made of ingredients readily available in the region, such as rice, coconut and ikan bilis.

Within the region, though, the dish is adapted to suit local tastes in different areas. For instance, the Singaporean Malay version of nasi lemak has sweet sambal and includes ikan bilis, peanuts, fried egg. Sometimes basmati rice is used.

On the other hand, the Singaporean Chinese version usually has a range of sides like fried drumsticks, chicken sausages and luncheon meat. Some versions have green rice, coloured by pandan leaves that are added to the rice.

Rojak

Etymology

Malay

In colloquial Malay, rojak means “mixed” or “eclectic mix”, and is used to refer to the multicultural identity of Singapore.

The story behind rojak

Rojak might have originated from ancient Java—the dish was mentioned as “rurujak” in an ancient Javanese Taji inscription from Mataram Kingdom (901 CE) in Central Java.

Today, rojak is sold in different variants in Singapore. The Indian Muslim version is called rojak mamak, and it contains fried dough fritters, bean curds, boiled potatoes, prawn fritters, bean sprouts, etc., mixed with a sweet thick, spicy peanut sauce.

Then there’s rojak buah (the Chinese version), which contains fruits like cucumber, pineapple, benkoang, bean sprouts, taupok and youtiao. The dressing in rojak buah contains belacan (shrimp paste), sugar, and lime juice. Finally, there’s rojak bandung (the Malay version)—this version contains sotong, kangkung, cucumbers, bean curds, peanuts, chili and sauce.

The use of peanuts in rojak can be traced all the way back to Mexico. The Spanish empire brought peanuts from Mexico to the Philippines, where it was further brought to Indonesia and introduced to rojak.

Wanton Mee

Etymology

Cantonese

Wanton refers to the dumpling. In Cantonese, wanton literally means “swallowing clouds” because when the dumplings are cooked they float in the soup like clouds.

Hokkien

Mee means “noodles” in Hokkien. A distinct characteristic of wanton mee in Singapore is that its name is a mix of two dialects. In other regions of the world, the name wanton mee makes little sense.

The story behind wanton mee

Wanton mee was created in Guangdong, China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). The dish spread to many places as people Guangdong emigrated to other parts of the world—for example Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Unlike the Hong Kong and Guangdong versions, Singaporean wanton mee is usually served dry, with ketchup and chilli sauce. Fried wantons might also be served, on top of the usual boiled wantons in soup.

Putu Piring & Kueh Tutu

Etymology (putu piring)

Tamil

Putu refers to the popular breakfast dish puttu in South India, which are steamed cylinders of rice flour and grated coconut. Puttu is usually served with side dishes like gula melaka.

Malay

Piring means saucer and refers to the mould on which putu piring is steamed.

Etymology (kueh tutu)

Hokkien

Kueh or “粿” refers to bite-sized snacks and desserts.

Disputed

Some believe tutu to be a corruption of putu, which refers to the South Indian dish puttu. Others think tutu refers to the sound made by charcoal-heated steamers in which kueh tutu is cooked.

The story behind putu piring & kueh tutu

Putu piring

Putu piring came from a similar dish puttu, which originated from Kerala, India. Puttu is a cylindrical steamed cake made from rice flour and grated coconut.

Putu piring is also similar to putu mayam, a popular dish in Tamil Nadu, India. Putu mayam is a rice flour noodle that’s steamed and served with sweet toppings like grated coconut and gula melaka. Similarly, putu piring is made from rice flour and usually steamed with gula melaka filling. It’s often served together with grated coconut.

Kueh tutu

While some think putu piring and kueh tutu refer to the same dish, others believe that they’re different—and they might be right.

For instance, putu piring is often smoother, flatter, and larger than kueh tutu, which usually has a distinctive flower-like shape. Putu piring is often served with banana leaves, while kueh tutu is served on pandan leaves. Kueh tutu is also often filled with peanut or coconut rather than gula melaka.

Kueh tutu is believed to have come from Tan Yong Fa, an immigrant from Fujian, China, who started selling steamed rice cakes in Singapore during the 1930s. He eventually added coconut and peanut fillings and the cake was named tutu after the sound of his machine.

Carrot Cake

Etymology

Teochew

This dish is called “菜头粿” (chai tau kueh) in Teochew, which roughly means “snack made with radish”.

“菜头” (chai tau) refers to the radish that’s used in the dish, but can also be interpreted as “carrot”. You see, in Chinese and Chinese dialects, radishes and carrots share the same name—radishes are called “white carrots” while carrots are “red carrots”.

“粿” (kueh) refers to bite-sized snacks or desserts, and in this case refers to the rice cake that is fried.

English

In Southeast Asia, the Teochew name of the dish is directly translated to English into carrot cake, even though it’s not related to the western cake made of carrots. This misnomer is more commonly used than its Teochew version.

The story behind carrot cake

Carrot cake originated in Chaoshan region of Guangdong, China—but the original version was made only from rice flour and contained no radishes. In the original version, the rice cake is marinated in fish sauce before being cut and fried with eggs, prawns and oysters.

Teochew immigrants brought the dish around the world, including to Singapore. For instance, in Hong Kong the dish eventually became the equally misnamed turnip cake.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Teochews in Singapore introduced radishes to it to turn it into the carrot cake we know today.

Roti John

Etymology

Hindi, Tamil & Malay

Roti means “bread” in Hindi, Tamil, and Malay. It’s derived from the Sanskrit word रोटिका (rotika).

English

John was a common way of addressing Caucasians, especially British soldiers in Singapore. The name roti john can thus be understood as “the bread of John” or “the caucasian’s bread”.

The story behind roti john

The origin of roti john is the stuff of legends in Singapore. The story goes that in the 1960s, an Englishman approached a Malay hawker in Sembawang for a hamburger. Hamburgers, of course, didn’t exist in Singapore back then—so the hawker cut a French loaf lengthwise and filled it with fried eggs, minced muttons and onions.

When he served his creation to the Caucasian, he said in Malay “Silakan makan roti, John,” which meant “please eat this bread, John.” This sentence, however, was overheard and misinterpreted as “please eat this, named roti john.” The hawker’s creation went on to win many hearts in the region, and its misinterpreted name stuck.

Kopi O

Etymology

Malay

Kopi means “coffee” in Malay.

Hokkien

O means “black” in Hokkien. Kopi o thus means “black coffee”.

The story behind kopi o

The story of kopi o is one of Singapore’s colonial history. In the 19th century, Singapore came under colonial rule by the United Kingdom, which brought an influx of immigrants to the island. To cater to the British’s coffee-drinking habits, many Chinese immigrants opened coffee shops (called kopitiam, where tiam means “shop” in Hokkien).

However, kopitiam owners couldn’t afford the expensive Arabica coffee beans that the caucasians were used to drinking. They turned to lower quality Robusta coffee beans instead, which had been introduced to Indonesia through Arab traders. Since Robusta beans contain more caffeine and had a strong bitter taste, kopitiam owners had to make it more palatable. In a stroke of genius, they realised that if they fried their Robusta beans with butter and sugar, the caramelisation process would enhance the flavours of the coffee beans.

Over the years, Singapore’s kopi scene grew and locals acquired a liking for the foreign drink. Today, Singapore’s lexicon of kopi variants reflects a blend of cultures and tongues:

Kopi name What it is Etymology
Kopi Coffee with condensed milk and sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”
Kopi o Black coffee with sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hokkien: o means “black”
Kopi o kosong Black coffee without sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”; kosong means “empty”

Hokkien: o means “black”
Kopi c Coffee with evaporated milk and sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hainanese: c or si means “fresh”
Kopi peng Iced coffee with condensed milk and sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hokkien: peng means “ice”
Kopi siew dai Coffee with condensed milk and less sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hock Chew: siew dai means “less sweet”
Kopi ga dai Coffee with condensed milk and extra sugar Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hock Chew: ga dai means “more sweet”
Kopi gao Strong coffee Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hokkien: gao means “thick”
Kopi di lo Extra strong coffee Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hokkien: di lo means “pour it all the way”
Kopi po Diluted coffee Malay: kopi means “coffee”

Hokkien: po means “thin”

Roti Prata

Etymology

Hindi, Tamil & Malay

Roti means “bread” in Hindi, Tamil, and Malay. It’s derived from the Sanskrit word रोटिका (rotika).

Hindi

Prata is derived from the Hindi word paratha, which means “flat”. Paratha is itself an amalgamation of two words parat and atta—which literally means “layers of cooked dough”.

The story behind roti prata

While roti prata has Indian origins, the dish doesn’t exist in India. It’s believed to have come from Punjab, India, where wheat is a prominent part of their cuisine, and adapted into Southeast Asian tastes when Indian migrants came into the region. Interestingly, the name roti prata is unique to Singapore. Across the Straits of Johor in Malaysia, the dish is known as roti canai, where canai is Malay for “to roll out dough”.

Today, roti prata is Singapore’s version of pancakes and incredibly versatile. The plain prata, often served with curry, is a great breakfast and snack, while stuffed variants (some include meat and even cheese fillings) make for a delicious lunch and dinner. Finally, sweet versions such as the prata bomb are perfect as desserts.

The cooking process forms an important and iconic part of the roti prata experience: the prata man flips and whirls the dough in the air to stretch it to 4–5 times its original size before it is fried.

Diversity.

That’s what makes Singapore’s hawker food such a breathtaking delight. It’s a blend of tongues—of languages, tastes, and spices that have travelled halfway around the world.

Hawker food represents the best of what diversity can offer. It’s what happens when peoples and cultures meet—and instead of clashing, we try to understand and learn from one another. It’s proof that beautiful things happen when we embrace differences, when “them” and “us” become “we the people”.

How can we be so quick to celebrate hawker food, and yet so hesitant to embrace differences? Why do we cheer for a UNESCO bid for hawker culture, but stay silent when people of different colours, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and gender identities are discriminated against?

The next time you drink kopi peng to wash down your plate of roti prata, think about the different threads that have come together to create your meal. Taste how differences need not dilute and divide, but can often enhance our collective experiences. And imagine a future where diversity can be tasted not only in our food, but in all of society.

We’ve always been ready for diversity. We just need a little imagination and hunger.

More Dishes Coming Soon!

Every week, we reveal the stories of 2 more Singaporean hawker dishes. Follow us on Facebook to stay updated whenever a new dish is revealed!

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