Food & National Identity

Eating like a local helped develop a sense of belonging for this migrant from India

As Singapore celebrates its 56th National Day, my thoughts turn to that most potent of Singaporean assets – its Hawker Food. Thanks to its mind-boggling variety of outstandingly delicious and affordable fare, Singapore is known as the food capital of Asia. In that sphere and in many others, our Little Red Dot beats its challengers hands down. Right now, I can see people queueing up outside one of my favourite hawker centres to buy their lunch. I know many of them will be buying fragrant packets of Nasi Lemak (me definitely) or Hainanese Chicken Rice, both vying as Singapore’s top national favourites.

The people queueing up are from all social backgrounds and races, a concept I usually avoid in my writing, preferring the word ethnicity, but is a necessary signifier in the Singapore context as it’s a category used by the government in official policies. In the queue are teachers, lawyers, nurses, housewives, odd-jobbers, DJs, students, doctors, bankers and businessmen, the various socio-economic classes happily blurred into Singapore’s weekend national costume of shorts, T-shirts and slippers. No one knows (and cares even less) whether they live in a Good Class Bungalow or a three-room HDB flat or whether they studied in a neighbour-hood school or an international one. Hawker food is the great leveller and no self-respecting Singaporean will let you forget it, least of all the hard-working person behind the counter who treats each customer (regular or occasional) with salutary equality (no Q-jumping, the bane of Qs, such as they are in India).

While hawker centre diners come from a diverse universe of ethnicities, one curious thing that I’ve noticed in my 35+ years here, first as an expat and then 27 years as a Singaporean, is the absence or very scant presence of NRIs in these queues. If they are there, it is mostly to buy food at Indian food stalls serving foods with which they are familiar and “comfortable”. My hypothesis is that this is due to the extremely conservative eating habits of most Indians from India, bound as they have been by the strictures of culture and religion for centuries. Many are vegetarians and those that aren’t eat only chicken and, at a push, mutton or fish. Only a tiny minority eat pork or beef or seafood and these are mainly those from Northeast India, numbering only a few hundred here. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, its natural. After all, cooking and eating practices are not only symbolic but also tangible ways that ethnic identities are preserved by migrants such as new Singaporeans from India. There will always be a strong desire among new migrants to preserve one’s culture through food practices (and language) especially when one’s culture is not the dominant one. This symbolic power is an integral part of a person’s sense of identity, it’s about the familiar sensations of belonging and attachment that one experiences at home and it cannot be denied or decried.

But food is not only for nourishment; it is also a bonding activity. No matter what our differences with our colleagues, we set them aside when we tuck into a dish that we can share and savour together. Eating typical local foods together is probably the most effective ways to promote cross-cultural integration. It signals social solidarity and leads to greater open-mindedness and cultural awareness. Studies have found that there is a positive correlation between the diversity of peoples’ choice of food and their degree of integration into the host country. As immigrants, it is imperative to integrate with others on a personal level in order to belong, where belonging requires active participation in the community rather than participating only in your own community or simply co-existing in the same space.

I have come across people from India and other parts of South Asia, who tell me they do not eat in Hawker centres because they are not used to the pungent smells and “unusual” fare. They even prefer to eat Chindian food rather than local Chinese fare because that’s a comfort food for them – they are familiar with it and it reminds them of home. These people have a genuine reason and I am sympathetic to them as one’s olfactory senses are usually geared to one’s upbringing. Just as many East Asians cannot tolerate the smells of certain cheeses (grilled Raclette comes to mind), many Indians from mainstream India cannot tolerate the pungency of dried fish or fermented beans (East Bengalis are an exception). I am fortunate I am not one of them as I come from India’s Northeast where these foods are common.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that because of my ability to eat and enjoy local foods, it was easy for me to develop a large social circle that comprised many friends from the dominant and minority communities of Singapore – Chinese, Malay, Eurasian, Indian right from the word go. It served me in good stead when I started working in the country’s national daily which required a good understanding of Singapore and its culture from the ground up. I was able to share their foods and eating foibles with my colleagues and neighbours, and I could soon use the trenchant local culinary lingo (Kachang Puteh and Sotong) and feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie that only shared tastes, like shared mistakes, can bring.

Food is a basic need. The desire we have for and pleasure we get from food is deeply seated in our primitive reptilian brain. So primal is the power of food that it stimulates many of the same pleasure centres in our brain as pleasurable sex does. In fact, it’s probably the last truly enjoyable sensation that one can indulge in without any inhibitions when one grows old like me. Which is why I have a breakfast date tomorrow with a local Chinese friend to eat some amazing Orh Luak!

Happy 56th National Day Singapore!


Shobha Tsering Bhalla

Shobha Tsering Bhalla is the Editor-in-Chief at India Se.