Some time has passed since the Michelin Guide for Singapore was debuted. Some said it's a recognition of the island's cultural heritage. Some really didn't care whether the stars descended or not. Whatever it is, it is undeniable that food is deeply ingrained in the Singaporean cultural DNA, and is a personal subject for most Singaporeans.
To understand the ever-evolving foodscape of Singapore is to grasp the Singaporean psyche. From the deeply local delights of Singaporean hawker cuisine to the swanky international restaurants with celebrity chefs congregating here, and to all the in-between cafes, and restaurants attempting to establish their own independent flavours and personalities – Singapore is proclaimed the island of flavours, the home of food lovers. Anywhere in Singapore you will see long snaking queues for food. Singaporeans are also infamous food travellers and hunters.
For anyone attempting to enter this captivating island of food dynamism or to understand its consumers, it becomes ever more crucial to acquire a deeper appreciation for the impact of cultural tradition, and evolution of lifestyle values. As Michelin continues to leave its 'food-prints' around the island food tracks, what sits behind the ever-changing foodscape?
Time frames the food narrative
It is said eating is a national pastime for Singaporeans, a national obsession. Rational beings or not, emotions play a large role in consumer decisions. If food is about time, then memories and nostalgia in search of that 'good old flavour of my childhood/past/60s/etc.' continue to shadow the food narrative.
There is a slew of food bloggers in Singapore dedicated to the hunt for 'local love', mourning for lost culinary art, prompting queues of people scurrying to try it before it disappears. From young hawkers taking over the declining trade, to questions about 'should the chili crab be the national dish?' – all point to a society that is deeply conscious of preserving and protecting its collective memory amidst the globalising current.
Deeply aware of the rapid transformation of the urban landscape, Singaporeans will increasingly continue to prize food outlets which help them assert and express their Singaporean identity, and understand the increasing penchant for the 'local'.
From big home dinner parties where immediate and extended families gather, to TV home dinners as life gets busier, to eating out as ubiquitous and commonplace, the social and emotional aspects of dining cannot be ignored. Food is affection, it also serves as a common language. Technology is set to change the ways people eat, and social eating has taken new forms through social sharing.
Singaporeans share food experiences online, and seek information of new food hangouts online. Engagement with food goes beyond just the basic human necessity, but drives self-expression, adventure, and entertainment. This social sharing broadens the Singaporean psyche of 'die-die-must-try', and to keep up with the times, many food businesses are realising the importance of how online has reshaped the ways food is experienced and shared. This in part has fuelled experimentation and exploration, leading the wave of innovation in the food and dining scene.
Multiculturalism and identity making in gustatory exploration
At the heart of it all, is the multiracial make-up of the Singapore society that conditions the Singaporean consumers to an openness to different palates. Singaporeans are one of the most well-travelled people in the world, where exposure to global experiences are crucial in the desire to try new things.
With broadening palates and expectations of 'food-paths' setting onto the food capital, Singaporeans are increasingly looking to satisfy their insatiable desire for new flavours and food experiences. From the salted egg yolk fad, to waffles and churros that spur on those endless long queues, prove that the Singaporean consumer is looking to travel through his or her taste-buds.
Concurrently, the multi-varied palate of the Singapore foodscape is one that Singaporeans hold with pride. As much as innovations and global experiences enter the island, essence of Singaporean-ness through food travels globally.
After Buzzfeed UK’s blunder on a Singapore classic 'bread with ice-cream', Singapore Tourism Board took the opportunity to promote the nation with its street snack as part of its Singapore identity, the Singapore experience. As crusaders of the local flavours and dare-devils of the new and innovative, Singapore consumers will be critical and observant of the evolution of foodscapes, reflecting their inherent global yet distinctly local characteristics.
Global to local to the heart
Behind the shifts in the foodscape of Singapore lie these enduring cultural nuances. Fads come and go, trends can emerge, evolve and become mainstream, but culture will continue to stay and shape these changes. Understanding these cultural insights can help brands stay culturally relevant.
At the intersection of globalisation attempting to localise, is also a sense of local sensibility that is closely knit to the very heart of society. Singaporeans' passion for food must not be undervalued through its emotional appeal that is ingrained deeply into the social experience of the Singaporean everyday life amidst the ever-evolving changes in this urban city.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Andrea Ng is a Cultural Trends and Insights Consultant with Join the Dots, a consumer insights agency. As a cultural inquirer, she observes and analyses sociocultural changes across Asia, and identifies synergies between cultural values, practices, and beliefs with market and brand needs. Andrea holds a Masters of Arts in Asia-Pacific Studies from the Australian National University, and is also an alumna of the National University of Singapore.