More kaya toast, anyone?
Text by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra.
Very soon, yet another kopi kaya toast chain outlet will be serving its first kopi-c in town. And it will be opening up at the Esplanade area, just a stone’s throw away from where we currently utter our ‘ahhs’ and ‘wahhhs’ with jaws ajar and stare at the National Day fireworks display as it lights up the heavens.
Roti kaya is a big part of our Singapore food heritage. But put this in perspective, we live in a city with almost 50 years of independence but we consume an inherited food culture with over 10,000 years of heritage and history. Just count what India and China alone, gave this land, by way of flavours and ideas.
But why oh why, with our world-famous makan reputation, with all our F&B industry and professionals, with their big ideas and idealistic government funding schemes and support to boost entrepreneurism- does it feel like we’re running still? I mean, we’re running ahead at full steam, but on a treadmill heading nowhere.
Are we kosong (zero) on ideas? We keep celebrating and bragging about everything new and foreign – preferably those with difficult to pronounce names, and those who are famous for being famous, and are usually more expensive (think branded ramen bars, uber cool burger joints, decadent pizza chains, pasta restaurants etc…)
Yes, Singapore is a nation of migrant cultures but it does have an identity of our own and it comes through most clearly when it comes to food. The only local food icons and brands that see some signs and semblance of success, are the same old usual suspects – those roti kaya chains (now found regionally), and ermmm… even more roti kaya chain stalls.
You can pretty much bet your last million dollars that next new mall will have at least one of those roti kopi stalls as an anchor F&B tenant. Also, expect to see even more curry puff chain joints soon – Old Chang Kee (a local curry puff brand) was voted one of the best “fast-food chains” by an international travel magazine this year.
Curry puff chains everywhere you look.
One thing is for sure, we Singaporeans love our kopi kaya toast and curry puff culture and the demand isn’t going away. They are definitely not fads as it came from our food heritage. What’s new-fangled and modern is like any news in the newspapers – it will fade. Just hark back to the coffee buns, floss breads, Portuguese egg tarts of yesteryear and who can forget the doughnut phenomena?
Will there ever be genuinely new and lasting food ideas trawled from the vast traditional culinary resources from our land? If so, can they please stand up? Have we already exhausted all our potential?
Look at Peru. They are not exactly world famous for South American chow (perhaps more famous for their lacklustre performances at the World Cup), but they have a very structured culinary movement. They have culinary heroes like Gaston Acurio, who is moving the nation ahead by looking into their backyard food heritage. They have some of the best cevicherias (cafes specialising in seafood dish juiced with citrusy fruit extracts) in the world today.
Is there anyone out there brave enough or able enough to take a Singapore noodle bar to the world? The menu ideas are all under our noses – think Mee Rebus, Prawn Noodles, Mee Siam, Cha Kway Teow, Beef Kway Teow, Bak Chor Mee, Mee Pok Tah, Laksa and of course Mee Goreng (both Punggol and Mamak style). Why not throw in a Laksa Pesto into the mix (you get the idea)?
How about celebrity icons? Where’s our Soup Nazi (that infamously livid soup cook popularised in the Seinfeld comedy TV show)? Our local version can be branded and popular for having an equally long faced reputation while dishing out Bak Kut Teh, Soto Ayam, Itek Tim, Her Muay ( fish soup rice), Teochew beef soup, Hainanese mutton broth, Ginseng herb chicken soup and even Indian soup kambing with toast.
I hope we can systematically start to institutionalise our own makan culture and industry as we progress more and more economically.
I think we can all identify with that feeling of looking forward to a touchdown when you fly home each time you travel – that familiar comfortable feeling of home and good Singapore food that you identify with.
I suspect that, when it comes to food, that familiar comfortable feeling is getting shallower and more untenable as the years go on.
One day, we might come home yearning for something foreign. Portuguese egg tarts, anyone?