Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail ๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

What Singapore Hawker Food Culture Tell Us about the History of the Lion City

Every dish tells a story. Here's what 10 hawker dishes tell us about the history of Singapore. Let's eat and celebrate the Singapore story ๐Ÿ˜‹ (Image credit: Wikipedia.)

The Straits of Malacca has long been the vital link of east-west trade. It was so important that in 1025, the Indian Chola empire sent a huge fleet to challenge the Indonesian Srivijaya empire for control of the Malacca Straits. By that time, trade was already thriving between China, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East, 800 years before Raffles stepped foot on Singapore.

According to the Malay Annals, during the Srivijaya empire era, prince Sang Nila Utama landed on Temasek island in 1299 and established a kingdom which he ruled for 48 years. He renamed Temasek island Singapura, the Lion City after being told that the growling, swift, black head, red fur, white breasted animal he spotted fleetingly when they landed was a lion.

(Srivijava was a Buddhist empire which ruled the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and most of Java from 650 to 1377.)

By 1300s, Singapura was a thriving trading hub visited by Chinese traders trading goods between India, Southeast Asia, Arabia and China.

Parameswara, Image credit: Wikipedia

In 1398, the last king of Singapura, Parameswara fleeing the rising Majapahit empire established the Malacca Sultanate which controlled the Malay peninsula and Malacca Straits from Malacca. Parameswara converted to Islam and ruled the Malacca Sultanate as Sultan Iskandar Shah.

(The Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire controlled the Indonesian archipelago from 1293 to 1517.)

History of satay

Satay was probably first brought to Singapore around the 1800 - 1900s by Indonesian traders and street hawkers. But, satay has a much longer history in Indonesia dating back to the 1400s in Java. Depending on which account one chooses, it might be brought to Java by Gujarati traders from India or traders from the Middle East.

Small pieces of meat (usually chicken or lamb) skewered on a thin wooden stick is grilled over open charcoal fire. It is eaten with a peanut and spice sauce, and boiled rice bundles (wrapped with palm leaf) known as ketupat. There are many variations of satay, e.g. the Chinese have pork satay and add a bit of pineapple puree in the peanut and spice sauce. Satay is widely popular in Malaysia and Indonesia. In Singapore, there is at least one satay stall (often more) in every hawker centre.

After the founding of Malacca, Singapura declined in the 1400s. It was shunted by trading ships especially during the Southwest Monsoon season (Jun - Sept) due to the Sumatra Squalls that rage at up to 70km per hour, wreaking anything and everything in its path.

The Malacca Sultanate enjoyed great relations with China's Ming dynasty, and Malacca became the foremost port city on the east-west trade route. The Ming dynasty provided Malacca with protection from the Siamese in the north, Javanese in the south and pirates in the Malacca Straits.

A significant Chinese settlement was established in Malacca's Bukit Cina with the blessing of Sultan Mansur Shah (reign 1459 - 1477) of Malacca. According to the Malay Annals, the Ming emperor sent one of his princesses, Hang Li Poh to be Sultan Mansur Shah's fifth wife in 1459.

After the death of Admiral Zheng He, the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) lost interest in overseas affairs and turned inward. Meanwhile, the Europeans were just coming out, entering the Age of Exploration (1400s - 1600s). This turn of events would change the world (and come back to haunt China's Qing dynasty nearly half a millennial later).

The vacuum left open by the Ming dynasty was soon filled by European powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch, Spaniards and British jostling to secure control of the trade routes and the Malay archipelago. The Spaniards went to The Philippines. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set their sights on Malacca.

When the Malacca Sultanate fell to the Portuguese armada in 1511, Alauddin Riayat Shah II, the son of Mahmud Shah (the last sultan of Malacca) escaped south to form the Johor Sultanate. Singapura came under the control of the Johor Sultanate (and was its capital city from 1819 to 1824).

The Portuguese ruled Malacca for 130 years until the Dutch and Johor alliance drove them out in 1641.

In 1703, Sultan Abdul Jalil of the Johor Sultanate who was wary of the Dutch, secretly offered Singapore to Captain Alexander Hamilton of the British East India Company to set up a trading post. Sultan was hoping to balance the Dutch monopoly on power with British presence. Hamilton conveyed Sultan's invitation to his headquarters but the Johor sultan's offer was not taken up.

Over a hundred years later, in 1819, Raffles finally established a British foothold in Singapore in an effort to check Dutch dominance of the east-west trade routes.

The agreement signed between Raffles and representatives of the Johor Sultanate was innocuous enough - it merely lets the British set up a small trading post at the mouth of the Singapore River on a narrow strip of land "the distance of a cannon shot" and no more. In return, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman each received a handsome fee. 

History of curry puff & epok epok

Today's curry puff and epok epok are legacies of Portuguese and English rule. Epok epok is often referred to as the "Malay curry puff" or the "Malay word for curry puff". But, epok epok and curry puffs are actually different dishes.

Curry puff has elements of Indian samosa and English puff pastry - spiced curried potatoes and meat (usually chicken or lamb) in a crisp, flaky fried or baked pocket of layered laminated dough.

Epok epok has elements of Indian samosa and Portuguese empanada. The curried contents are in a fried dough pocket that is not flaky as it is not a puff (defined by layered laminated dough). There are also epok epok with non spicy and vegetarian fillings which are more like Portuguese empanada.


After securing his foothold in Singapore, Raffles set up a tax free port to rival Dutch Malacca (and Batavia), enticing many Malaccan traders to shift their operations to Singapore.

In 1824, the British and Dutch signed an agreement to carve up control of the Malay archipelago between themselves. The British have control of the Malay peninsula while the Dutch have control of the Indonesian archipelago. Borneo was partitioned and shared between the Dutch and British.

The Dutch handed over Malacca to the British in exchange for Bencoolen in southwestern Sumatra (today's Bengkulu). Singapore together with Malacca and Penang was governed under the British Straits Settlements which was established in 1826.

Ayam buah keluak iconic Nyonya dish

Malacca had the largest Peranakan community in the Malay peninsula as Chinese started settling in numbers there since the 1400s when relations between the Malacca Sultanate and China's Ming dynasty was excellent. When Raffles launched the port of Singapore, a trickle of Peranakan traders moved their operations here. With the establishment of the Straits Settlements in 1826, more Malacca Peranakans moved to Singapore (and Penang). Hence, Singapore became one of the main havens of Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine today.

History of Peranakan food

Peranakan cuisine created by Chinese settlers in the Malay archipelago who married locals and adopted local customs, is a fusion of Chinese and Malay culinary traditions. The outcome is neither Chinese nor Malay but uniquely Peranakan. Also known as Nyonya cuisine, it relies heavily on local ingredients, especially aromatic local herbs and spices. Examples of Nyonya dishes include ayam buah keluak, Nyonya laksa, Penang asam laksa, otak otak, etc.


The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 dramatically shortened travel time between Asia and Europe. Coupled with the advent of steamships (which don't rely on winds for power), the volume of cargo and people travelling through Singapore grew exponentially. It was boom time at the docks!

Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor made a few visits to Europe in the late 1800s and he fell in love with spaghetti. When he returned to his palace after one of his European trips, he ordered the chef to make laksa with spaghetti instead of the traditional rice and tapioca noodles. And so, Laksa Johor was changed forever. In Johor, Laksa Johor became served with spaghetti while in Singapore where the dish was unchanged became known as Laksa Siglap (because the most popular hawker serving it was from Kampung Siglap).

Laksa Siglap is made with mashed fish (usually Ikan Parang) with herbs, spices, and belacan cooked in fish stock to make a thick grainy sauce. The thick sauce is laid on top of a mound of rice and tapioca noodles, and garnished with raw onion, cucumber, and sambal chili etc. Not a commercially viable dish due to its intricacy and labour intensiveness, it is only made at home for special occasions like Hari Raya, weddings etc. The full story of Laksa Siglap ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

From the 1800s, the Qing dynasty which ruled China since 1644 was in its death throes. Defeats in wars with foreign naval powers, widespread rebellion, famine, disease, etc caused massive dislocation and suffering. Millions from southern China took to the seas to escape war and poverty. From the mid-1800s to 1930s, many came to British Malaya which was hungry for manpower for its tin mines, rubber plantations and thriving seaports, including the port of Singapore.

Coolies in Singapore faced many hardships. Far from home, lonely, in heavy debt for the passage from China, back and soul breaking work, living 20 or more to a room, suffering painful torn muscles and ligaments, sometimes broken bones, chills from slogging in the rain - many turned to opium for solace. Actually, second hand opium - the ashes of the towkay's (bosses) first smoke.

History of Singapore bak kut teh

The origins of bak kut teh in Singapore is murky like the soup. According to one urban legend, someone, maybe a physician, perhaps a travelling quack medicine man, came up with a coolie's herbal tea to cure all the coolies' ailments. Bak kut teh is first a medicine, a health fortifying tonic long before it was a gourmet dish. Discarded pork bones and cheap Chinese herbs were boiled in water with dark soy sauce to make bak kut teh or meat bone tea.

In the 1940s / 1950s, a peppery style of bak kut teh using meaty pork ribs emerged as the top choice as Singapore became more affluent. The dish is preferred among Teochew towkays (business owners) who mingled and networked while eating bak kut teh and sipping Chinese tea along the quaysides at Singapore River. Today, the peppery or Teochew style of bak kut teh with prime loin rib is the mainstream in Singapore and represented by major chains like Song Fa, Founder and Ng Ah Sio. It's a far cry from the original humble coolie's tea.

Hand pulled rickshaws were the primary means of public transport in 1920s Singapore. At its peak, there were 30,000 licensed rickshaw pullers in Singapore, plying the streets under the blazing sun often barefoot and shirtless. Unlicensed rickshaws could be triple that number.

Rickshaw noodles

Once in a while, the rickshawmen would stop for fuel i.e. rickshaw noodles. There are 2 places in Singapore still selling rickshaw noodles. It is a simple dish - soup made of vegetables and dried shrimp for flavour. Yellow noodles snipped into short stubby strands. (In the past, the noodles were handmade.) Garnished with fried shallot for a bit of aroma and flavour.

The noodles and soup were eaten without spoons or chopsticks - just tip it into the mouth, slurp it up and off you go to pick up the next passenger. It was cheap fuel to power the muscles of the rickshawmen, hence it was called rickshaw noodles.

History of bak chor mee

Bak chor mee is ubiquitous in Singapore and more commonly found than even chicken rice. It most likely came with the Teochew sinkehs in the early 1900s. It's a coolie's meal. You don't find bak chor mee in the Peranakan repertoire.

It is just yellow noodles topped with thin small slices of pork, liver, minced pork etc. The dish is held together by the sauce which is tossed and thoroughly mixed with the noodles. 

There are many such "stir noodles" ๆ‹Œ้ข all over China. So, bak chor mee is just the Singapore immigrants' version of this. Bak chor mee sauce has sambal chili, shallot oil, lard, light and dark soy sauce, fish sauce, peanut oil etc., which makes it unique like no other in China or anywhere else. Each hawker has their own secret concoction.

There are many types of noodles to choose from but the yellow flat ribbon type known as mee pok ้ข่–„ is the most popular. So sometimes, bak chor mee is simply referred to as mee pok in Singapore. The most famous bak chor mee is by Tai Hwa of Crawford Lane which even won a Michelin Star award.

History of char kway teow in Singapore

Char kway teow came to Singapore with Teochew coolies from Chaoshan, China. If you go to Chaoshan today, you will find a dish you can recognise as char kway teow. It's a humble staple of rice ribbon noodles, chive, bean sprout and small pieces of pork stir fried in lard and fish sauce. The Singapore version took on some Cantonese, Hokkien and local elements so it has lup cheong (Cantonese wax sausage), dark and sweet soy sauce (Hokkien), blood cockles (which were abundant at one time in Malaya) and chili sauce (a Malayan influence).

Char kway teow ingredients are unremarkable and the dish relied heavily on the skill of the chef to sear in and forcefully infuse the rice noodles with caramelised flavours with wok hei ้•ฌๆฐ” (Chinese term for the mythical art of doing magic with the wok and fire). Unfortunately, that is a bit of a lost art in Singapore now, so char kway teow to die for, there is none today.


The Hainanese were latecomers to Singapore. By the time they arrived here, the only space available was the margin - no man's land - between European Town and Arab Campong (that's how the British spelt kampung then). So, the Hainanese established themselves here around Purvis Street, Seah Street and Middle Road.

History of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore

Initially, the Hainanese worked as bartenders, cooks, domestic help and seamen etc. In the 1930s, they started businesses like kopitam (coffee shop) in the Hainanese enclave. The first Hainanese chicken rice stall was at Purvis Street.

Poached chicken, chopped into large juicy chunks and served with greased aromatic rice made with chicken stock perfumed with pandan leaf and lemongrass. Eaten with chili sauce, dark soy sauce and grated ginger.

Swee Kee Hainanese chicken rice restaurant which became a legend in the world of Hainanese chicken rice was founded at Middle Road. From there, Hainanese chicken rice spread to every corner of Singapore, from hawker stalls to five star hotels. It is today considered one of Singapore's national dishes.

History of Hainanese curry rice

The resourceful Hainanese also gave us Hainanese curry rice. They picked up the art of making curry dishes from working as domestic help in wealthy Peranakan households. This they mixed and matched with traditional Hainanese dishes like cabbage stewed in soy sauce, pork belly stewed in dark soy sauce etc. One of the signatures is to splash different curries and stewing sauces onto plain white rice, and fold them together to get a riot symphony of flavours in the mouth. Personally, I think of it as an ugly, but delicious mess.

Hainanese curry rice is eaten with many side dishes. An iconic one is Hainanese style pork chops - thin slice of pork loin covered with crushed biscuit crumbs and fried to a golden brown crisp outside. Pork chops, of course, is an English dish the Hainanese learnt from cooking for their British employers.

Kopi & Kaya Toast

The ever enterprising Hainanese gifted us yet another culinary icon - kopi and kaya toast. Working for British colonial officials and in British forces bases, the Hainanese acquired a taste for coffee, bread and butter (which were rather alien to Chinese of that time).

Following the Great Depression of the 1920s, many vacant shophouses became available. The Hainanese saw the opportunity these presented - left their jobs and opened coffee shops or kopitiams.

The basic menu was coffee brewed with Robusta beans (which was cheaper than Arabica beans the Europeans drank but packs a stronger caffeine punch and tastes more bitter) paired with toasted bread slices slathered with coconut jam (kaya) and a slice of chilled butter.

History of the Singapore coffee shop

This kopi and kaya toast pairing was often enjoyed with runny poached eggs flavoured with light or dark soy sauce and a dash of white pepper. The runny eggs were drank like a thick soup straight out of the saucer! (I still do that today ๐Ÿ˜‚ )

(Jumping ahead in time to the 1950s - with the declaration of the People's Republic of China in 1949, some Hainanese folks returned to China seeing that peace was finally restored in their homeland. Some sold their kopitiams to Hockchew Chinese, this bringing the latter community into the kopitiam business).

Today, kopi and kaya toast culture is part and parcel of Singaporean lifestyle.

Singapore fell under Japanese rule during the Second World War from 1942 to 1945. The Japanese renamed Singapore, Syonan-to, the "Light of the South" island.

Image credit: Wikipedia

When I was a child, I saw these Japanese wartime Syonan-to currency notes often. People call them "banana money" in a mocking way. They were worthless as money but it was common to keep them in the drawer as souvenirs.

Tapioca cake

The years of Japanese Occupation were hard times for locals. Food was in short supply, especially rice which is the staple carb. Any available went to the Japanese soldiers first.

The locals resorted to eating tapioca (a root tuber). I kept hearing about eating tapioca when elders recounted their nightmarish lives during the Japanese Occupation. Many people lost family during the war. It was a frequent topic when our grandparents were still with us.

We can still get tapioca cakes today (it no longer has the stigma of wartime memories). It has become part of our local hawker dishes. It's really very simple. The tapioca is cut into chunks and cooked by boiling or steaming. To make the fibrous chunks palatable, they are topped with grated coconut flesh. A sprinkle of table salt gives the sweet coconut and tapioca a bit of salty balance.

I like eating tapioca cakes even as a child but never dared told my grandparents that I enjoyed it.

The Japanese surrendered in 1945 after American atomic bombs obliterated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The British returned to reclaim Singapore.

History of Katong laksa

Peranakans are extremely proud of their family heirloom dishes which are painstakingly prepared and served only to family and invited guests. The recipes are jealously guarded family secrets and non-Peranakans never have a chance to taste them unless they were lucky enough to be invited by a Baba-Nyonya family.

The immediate period following the end of the Second World War were years of economic hardship. To make a living, some Hainanese who worked for Peranakan families began to serve Nyonya dishes commercially. One prominent example is Nyonya laksa which have since become one of Singapore's street food icons.

Nyonya laksa is thick rice noodles in a thick coconut milk flavoured with aromatic and flavourful spices like galangal, lemongrass, chili, turmeric etc. Strips of fishcake, a shrimp, a few blood cockles add flavour and texture. It is eaten with a clump of finely chopped Vietnamese coriander known locally as daum kesum or laksa leaf. A dollop of chili paste is available at the side for people who like to spike up the spiciness quotient. Nyonya laksa is a very popular hawker dish in Singapore and considered one of Singapore's hawker food icons.

Original Nyonya laksa do not have blood cockles in it. It only became prevalent in the commercial version.

The 1950s were tumultuous interesting times. The struggle for independence from the British empire was well underway. The Communist insurrection in British Malaya was at its height. The nascent political parties in Singapore were jostling for the hearts and minds of the populace. But, these interesting times birthed a few iconic Singapore dishes.

History of Singapore chili crab

In the 1950s, Mr. Lim a policeman would go catching mud crabs at Sungai Bedok river near his village home during his off days. His wife Mdm Cher would steam or stir fry the crabs, the Teochew way. After a while, Mr. Lim asked his wife to try cooking the crustaceans another way, spicy maybe?

Mdm Cher came up with a spicy chili crab dish. It didn't work for Mr. Lim at first but it hit the spot after a few attempts. The Lim family shared the chili crabs with neighbours and they loved it so much that they encouraged Mdm Cher to open a stall to sell it. It was an instant success and the rest is Singapore chili crab history. Mdm Cher's chili crab dish is emulated by literally thousands of eateries across Singapore (and Malaysia) now.

The crabs smothered in flaming red spicy tangy sweet savoury sauce is now synonymous with seafood in Singapore. If you go to any seafood restaurant today, you will be hard pressed to find any table that didn't order this dish.

History of curry fish head

Gomez Curry was a Kerala style banana leaf curry stall at Sophia Lane in the 1940s. Some time in the 1950s, it began to serve curry fish head. At that time, mainly Caucasian families would buy and eat Ikan Merah but they wanted it filleted. The huge Ikan Merah heads were thrown away. The owner M.J. Gomez of Gomez Curry, took these discarded fish heads and cooked it with Kerala style curry, thus creating curry fish head. The dish was a big hit and was quickly copied by other restaurants. This dish is popular today in Singapore and also Malaysia. It is even popular back in Kerala because M.J. Gomez retired and returned to his hometown in the 1960s bringing the dish back with him.

History of Singapore fried Hokkien mee

Ng Seng came to Singapore from Fujian China in the 1940s. He worked as a general worker in an iron workshop in the Bugis Street / Rochor Road area. In the evenings, Ng Seng would stir fry noodles with discarded pork (mostly fat and skin) and leftover seafood (squid and prawns) from the market here. He concocted a fried noodle dish with thick stock which infused the flavours of pork lard and umami of crustaceans into the noodles. Ng Seng shared it with his friends (all living around Rochor Road) who loved it.

It was so popular that Ng Seng started a hawker stall at Rochor Road in the 1950s to sell his noodles - he didn't have a name for the dish, so it was called "Rochor mee". People from all over the island would descend on Rochor Road for Rochor mee. Soon, stalls sprouted up across the island selling versions of Ng Seng's noodles. Rochor Mee became known as "sotong mee" and gradually the name settled on "fried Hokkien mee". Now, almost every Singapore hawker centre has at least one fried Hokkien mee stall.

Singapore was thrusted into independence on 9 August 1965. We were suddenly responsible for our own affairs from economic to social, security, foreign affairs to defence.

For a short while, British, Australia and New Zealand military forces continued their presence in bases across Singapore such as in Changi, Tanglin, Sembawang, Seletar, Tengah, etc. By 1971, all British forces east of Suez were withdrawn back to the United Kingdom. Singapore had to quickly build up its own military forces to take care of its own defence.

History of Roti John

One of the legacies of the British forces in Singapore was Roti John. According to one of the more colourful but plausible accounts, Roti John started at the hawker stalls at Koek Road in the 1950s. British servicemen would RV (rendezvous) here for a quick bite before heading out for partying hotspots like Bugis Street, to avoid getting drunk drinking on an empty stomach.

One of the hawkers by the name of Abdul sold simple French loaf sandwich with a fried egg stuffed between the halves. Abdul would call out to the servicemen "Roti! John!" - roti for bread and John was the generic name given to any Caucasian male. And, thus the dish Roti John was born. Roti John stalls sprouted up outside all the British bases.

Today, Roti John is a very popular dish throughout Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It has become rather elaborate, stuffed with meat, cheese, mayonnaise, sambal and other good things - a far cry from the simple egg sandwich of Abdul and John's days.

National Service for all male citizens was introduced in 1967.

How come we don't have a national service dish like the Korean army stew......๐Ÿค” ?

Wait..... in the 1970s, we did look forward to that horribly greasy fried rice in "night snack container" with diced char siew and fried wieners to warm our stomachs during those wretched guard duty nights. It was all washed down with sugary teh O (black tea). Do they still serve these in Singapore army camps today?

I am adding to this list of foods that tells the Singapore story. Warmly welcome your suggestions and insights in the comments.

Date: 4 Jun 2020

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