Many of Singapore’s many iconic dishes: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), chilli crab, Hokkien prawn mee, to name a few, tend to have a commonality — more often than not, they all have “tsap” (汁) or sauce/gravy in them. No matter Malay, Indian, or Chinese, Singapore dishes are sauce-heavy and gravy-generous. Singapore’s love for sauces and gravy doesn’t stop at local dishes, but extends its saucy reach to foreign cuisines localised in the country. It is hardly ever talked about, but even in “tsap” can we tease out what it means for a dish to be “truly Singaporean”.
How does Singapore’s love affair with “tsap” contribute to establishing identity? The answer lies with how we localise foreign food. Cuisine localisation anywhere in the world takes into consideration local preferences, and modifies the dish accordingly. For example, mapo tofu in the United States is generally always saltier and less spicy than its Asian counterparts (true can be said for most Chinese food in the U.S. really).
Now in Singapore, discussion of food localisation usually surrounds taste: food is usually made less salty, less greasy, etc. But modification of texture to imported cuisines goes unnoticed, because something as simple as sauce is so basic to a dish that we forget it exists, just as we don’t think about how we breathe and taste. That does not mean we cannot learn something about our psyche and approach towards food from “tsap”.
Case in point: carbonara pasta and pasta with marinara sauce. Carbonara in Singapore is usually heavy on the cream sauce — Singaporeans want to see their pasta sitting in a pool of it, and one of Singapore’s biggest pasta chain Pastamania serves their pasta carbonara swimming in sauce.
However, real carbonara is actually pretty dry. Be it in the United States or in Europe, most of the carbonara I’ve had outside of Singapore tend to not drown the noodles in “tsap”.
Proper carbonara lightly clings to the pasta. Not only just with carbonara, but Pastamania’s marinara dishes are akin to soup.
Of course, one can say that Pastamania, as a chain restaurant, isn’t representative of how the food is supposed to be served and that they serve bad pasta, but that is besides the point. What we’re looking at is how these companies think Singaporeans would like these foreign cuisine best, and their verdict: swimming in a lot of “tsap”. In my experience, not only Pastamania, but many other local pasta establishments, from chain restaurants to slightly fancy “atas” restaurants tend to be heavy-handed on the sauces.
Has anyone ever stopped to think “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?” Many will quickly point out that spiciness is an aspect. But just as Singaporeans can be pointed out in a crowd in a foreign country purely by accent alone, “tsap-heavy” food is idiosyncratic to Singapore and is an identifying element when local dishes are compared internationally. An example of “what makes X food so identifiably X?” would be Japanese dishes and their philosophy of preserving the natural flavours of the ingredients, so much so that they serve individual dishes on separate serving dishes so as not to mix flavours.
A reason, I suspect, why Singaporeans love gravy so much could be our mantra of being kiasu, or the fear of losing out. The idea that “more is better” sticks very close to our heart — why would you have less gravy when you can have more? Singaporeans get ecstatic when their dishes come more liao (料), or toppings, and having extra “tsap” comes close. Just think of how people advice when ordering cai png (economic rice) to never forget to ask the server to drizzle/drench the food with sauces, curry, and gravy in hopes of getting extra food morsels. Our desire for value (or fear of losing it) manifests itself in extra “tsap”, so much so that the gravy is sometimes as much the dining experience as the entrée itself.
Another possible reason could be that Singaporeans are culturally averse to eating anything that is purely dry. Compare eating a baguette with eating a baguette dipped in chilli crab sauce or curry. Compare eating a plain roti prata with roti prata drowned in curry. Think about how even when we eat Khong Guan biscuits, there is a desire to dip it in hot Milo or kopi. I wonder if the heavy usage of steam and moisture in many of our cooking have led us culturally to prefer hot and moist food. Many Americans I know have no qualms about eating cold pizza (gag). In the Chinese language, hot food can be described as re pen pen (热喷喷), literally hot and spewing, and I imagine it is spewing steam; an element of moisture. I guess in English there is “piping hot”, but it conveys less the image of moisture as it does purely heat. I cannot speak for the other major languages in Singapore whether they have similar food adjectives. Gravy and “tsap” do have excellent heat-retaining properties, and are pretty wet too.
What does this say about us as a culture and the way we like our food — which is hot and wet? Well, not much, except that we like our food hot and wet. It is possible to extrapolate and say that philosophically hot food to Singaporeans is a source of comfort, and that gravy on our food not only adds flavour but serves additional soothing properties, but that is a bit of a stretch. However, simply being able to distil what makes Singaporean food so Singaporean is an exercise that can be applied to many other aspects of our lives — what makes Singaporean writing so Singaporean, or Singaporean English so Singaporean, etc etc?
So the next time someone asks “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?”, the answer is: If we love it, we lin (淋) a lot of tsap on it.