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History & Origin of Indian Rojak in Singapore

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
I like this 1980s photograph of Indian rojak in Singapore - unembellished, no "food styling" so we know what the dish really was. There's spiced cuttlefish (rehydrated), fried battered egg, fried tofu, different types of fried fritters, cucumber slices and a reddish dipping sauce in three small bowls.

The origins of the dish seems uncontroversial. We are sure it is not from India because there is no such dish in the whole of South Asia. Not in the past, not even today.

Most sources say it is created in Singapore by Indian Muslim hawkers, though who and when is unclear. It is said the Indian hawkers from Thuckalay (according to one source) at first only sold traditional Indian fritters like vadai and masala vada. Seeing how Malay and Chinese hawkers were doing better business selling their respective versions of rojak, the Indian hawkers jumped on the rojak bandwagon.

(Rojak is a Malay word meaning "to mix". The Malays and Indonesians have several forms of the dish. Basically, it is jumble of cut fruits, vegetables and other ingredients tossed and mixed to coat it with a sauce made with a blend of crushed toasted peanut, prawn paste, tamarind juice, chili paste etc)

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
So, enterprising Indian hawkers expanded their menu beyond vadai and masala vada to include tofu, various varieties of fried fritters with egg, prawn, tempeh, potato etc inside. They also added spiced cuttlefish, fish balls, fish cake, flower crab, beef lungs, etc. Now, it really was a rojak of Indian, Malay and Chinese inspired fritters to cater to a wider audience. Maybe it could be called Singapore rojak 🤔

The Rojak Man of Waterloo Street, Singapore Free Press, July 1953
One Indian rojak hawker known as Chinayapillay was plying his trade on a pushcart along Waterloo Street. He was in his eighties in 1953, and said he was selling Indian rojak since his "early manhood", presumably late teens. That would put the date of Indian rojak in Singapore streets at around the turn of the 21st century i.e. late 1800s or early 1900s.

Chinayapillay's most popular items were tofu prawn, potatoes, squid, and boiled duck egg all battered and oil fried. All are still the mainstay of Indian rojak stalls in Singapore today, except for the boiled duck eggs.

Ministry of Rojak
As it is hard to eat much fried, crispy, greasy food without something to moisten and soften the texture, and to add more flavour, they created a sauce for their rojak. The flaming orange-red rojak dipping sauce turned out to be the item that gave soul to the newly created dish. The sauce held everything together (which would otherwise just be a heap of fried fritters).

No one is sure who created the magical concoction. It is a blend of crushed peanut, sweet potato, hot chili pepper, dried shrimp, onion, garlic, lemongrass, belacan, aromatic spices like turmeric, tamarind paste, sugar, salt etc. Every stall have their own secret recipe, some adding crushed biscuit, others peanut butter etc.

While no one is sure where was the first Indian rojak stall, everyone agrees that the best place for it was the row of 13 street side stalls at Waterloo Street across Saint Joseph Institution and beside their school sports field.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
My dad brought me here in the 1960s. 

Image credit: Flickr by Lawrence OP
At that time, my dad (I believe many non English speaking locals too) called SJI, "三个公仔" meaning "three statues" in reference to the statues of St. John Baptist de la Salle and two boys outside.

I can't remember the details of the Indian rojak much, except that it was a really good treat and delicious. We ate and watched people played sports in the field in front of the stalls on laid back 1960s Singapore afternoons.

After Indian rojak, dad took me to one of the coffee shops along Bras Basah Road and I had my first roti prata there. After that, roti prata became one of my favourite dishes. I really love the curry which had quite robust gamey goat fat smell. After that early exposure, goat / lamb gaminess never bothered me, unlike many other people.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In the 1980s, the Indian rojak stalls outside St Joseph were moved but they retained their Waterloo Street name wherever they went as a badge of honour.

Ministry of Rojak, Singapore
I still love Indian rojak as much as ever because it hasn't changed much since I first ate it and a part of me never changes doesn't want to change.  (The only change is today, we are more likely to use styrofoam plates and disposable cutlery than reusable plastic plates 🤔 )

Pasembur in Seremban, Malaysia
In the parallel universe of Malaysia, where and when did pasembur or rojak mamak (their names for Indian rojak) came about? I have been searching but have not found any references yet. If we can find out more about pasembur or rojak mamak, maybe it can inform us about Singapore Indian rojak too. Can you help?

Date: 6 Jun 2020


  1. in the 1974-75 we (high school classmates from from JB) used to frequent an indian store near Bras Basah road.In those days Bras Basah road had many sports stores.
    And also in the near by Peninsula tower had many electronic stores inside.
    good old days for JB boys..... Tom from Montreal 09-06-2020

    1. wow Thank you for the insight. Yes, I spent a lot of time in that area too. They had many jeans shops and people were crazy about Levis and Wrangler jeans at that time. My parents got me a pair of Levis after much pestering from me. It was $19 a pair and was a princely sum at that time.

  2. There was a shop making boots. Think it ws Broadway???

  3. Peter Yeoh said on Johor Kaki Facebook:
    I'm guessing that "pasembor" is a mispronunciation of Sri Lankan "pol sambol" (despite the different components in sauce/dish). I had these in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

  4. Sylvia Toh Piak Choo31 May 2024 at 20:02

    It is not an India Indian food.

  5. Bobcatsysop Chan31 May 2024 at 20:10

    In Malaysia, #Pasembur is an Indian Muslim rojak popular in #Penang, and perhaps #Kedah. This delicious salad consists of shredded jicama, cucumber, bean sprouts, eggs, tofu, and fritters.

  6. So it's only available in 🇲🇾 and 🇮🇩


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