I was looking forward to reading Food, Foodways and Foodscapes. I wondered how the accomplished contributors to this volume would handle what might seem like an easy task but is in fact a real challenge, as writing critically, or even just honestly, about Singapore's culinary sphere is complicated and politically sensitive.
Singaporean authorities have been very successful in promoting their country as a gastronomic destination and a culinary paradise. Food journalists rave about the Singaporean food scene, the Culinary [End Page 432] Institute of America opened its first international branch on the island a few years ago, and celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali flock to town to set up their own restaurants. It is true that one can find the finest of gourmet restaurants in Singapore. But these restaurants are extremely expensive and cater mostly to the island's narrow economic and political elite, the better paid "foreign talent" and some very wealthy tourists. When it comes to the daily eating patterns of most Singaporeans, to the street food — or more accurately, the "hawker centre" — scene and to restaurants that middle-class Singaporeans can afford, the situation is very different. According to some, it is in fact quite grim.
A comparison of the food culture in Singapore with that of two other cosmopolitan neighbouring cities with overwhelming Chinese influence, Bangkok and Hong Kong, is illuminating. In these global cities, gourmet food comes in all shapes, in all colours and at all prices: from street stands, through noodle shops, food centres at shopping centres, dim sum parlours, neighbourhood restaurants, and all the way to mega restaurants that serve thousands of customers and very high end institutions where international celebrity chefs serve innovative food to the global elite. In Singapore, cheap food is available everywhere, and so are restaurants that offer moderately priced food. But my Singaporean friends complain bitterly about mediocre, standardized food and very limited choice. They also complain about the small kitchens in their HDB flats; the lack of time to cook and eat with their children, spouses, relatives and friends; and the need to purchase food from commercial venues and for their children to eat unappetizing school-cafeteria food. Expatriates, often better paid, find some culinary aspects of Singapore exciting when it comes to variety, but they are critical of the quality of the locally available fare from their own culinary repertoires. Thus, for example, many of my European friends complain about the low quality of baked products in Singapore. It is only fair to point out that baking is hardly a part of the Chinese and Southeast Asian culinary heritage. Yet the fact that good-quality bread is so hard to find — except at very high-end bakeries, and even there quality [End Page 433] varies — does not match the widely portrayed image of Singapore as a gourmands' paradise.
The editors of this book have done a wonderful job in structuring the book in a way that depicts and criticizes the poor condition of much of the Singaporean culinary sphere without ever being explicit — by merely hinting at it. It is important to note that the adoption of this sort of indirect critical angle is one of the most exciting features of food studies. Everyone has to eat, and almost everyone likes to eat. We usually think that "our food" is great and certainly better than "their food", whoever "we" and "they" are. Food is therefore deemed an object, and a subject, worthy of attention and respect, and the recent flourishing of food studies attests to that interest. At the same time, food is so material and eating so mundane and taken for granted that the critical edge of food analysis often remains hidden and unnoticed. We must actively search for it. In what follows, I would like to highlight the critical edge of this book.
The book's chapters are each concerned with one of three themes: nostalgia and heritage, modernization, and globalization. These are buzz-terms in official...