Southeast Asia neighbors battle over street food
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Singapore and Malaysia’s fight over street food highlights an interesting development in the history of food. It shows how this once-disparaged form of cuisine has become popular for newer generations.
Singapore is known for its street food; it has been called a foodie city for ages. It did not come as a surprise to many that the city-state made a bid for a UNESCO cultural heritage listing. But immediate neighbor Malaysia did not appreciate the move.
The two countries share a similar food culture, and many of their cuisines are quite interchangeable. Among Southeast Asian nations, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand can boast a large volume of visitors. Indonesia and Vietnam are close behind, so competition in the region is bigger than ever.
Both Singapore and Malaysia share a common history of domination under imperial Britain. There was a brief merging of these two nations before going their separate ways. According to Malaysians, the hawker culture that Singapore is so proud of is the same as theirs. Singaporeans don’t agree.
Some say that there is nothing unique about street food in Singapore and that this is a pure marketing gimmick. According to them, many of the popular dishes have been introduced by immigrants. These include the national dish, Hainanese chicken rice, and Rojak, a popular traditional salad dish.
One may wonder why Singapore made a bid for this unique distinction among Asian street food traditions. The reason is simple, and anyone who has visited that nation will understand why. Singapore is full of diverse cultural influences.
The city-state successfully combines different cultures and serves it up with a unique Singaporean flavor. Their cuisine may be like neighboring countries, but the cooking techniques and flavors are inspired and created by the vibrant, multiracial population.
Hawkers are very much part of Singapore life and identity. Like hawkers everywhere else, Singapore’s hawkers too dished out food from rickshaws and mobile carts on the streets in the past.
But from the 1960s onwards, the traveling vendors moved into government-built open-air hawker centers creating a unique street food culture. Because it is more regulated and organized, Malaysians think it is too sanitized and sterile to be real. Yet, two Singaporean hawker stalls now have the distinction of serving the cheapest Michelin-starred food in the world.
Those opposing Singapore’s move should remember that to preserve the street food culture they must stand beside each other. Many countries are waging war on street food vendors in their efforts to clean up their cities.
What does that mean for the 2.5 billion people around the world who eat street food every day? It means potentially restricted access to cheap and healthy hot meals.
Street food vendors in Bangkok are no longer allowed on footpaths since April 2017. The authorities banned them from selling on the streets because they appeared unsightly to some tourist, attracted vermin, and impeded pedestrian passage.
Governments in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Jakarts, Indonesia, are taking similar actions to restrict street food vending. Back stateside in New York, where street food is an integral part of life, vendors have to follow strict rules and policies to stay in business.
In the midst of such opposition, it is interesting to note how California went ahead and legalized street food vending in September. The ubiquitous food trucks and eclectic street foods have become mainstays of Californian culture.
By legalizing street food, unlike so many other cities, the Golden State is sending the message that we should preserve these rich aspects of our culture.
Street food vendors around the world provide cheap and flavorful food for locals and tourists alike. But more than that, they provide culture and history to a place and its people who can share them with others.
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