Food unites Singaporeans beyond our obsession with its taste, say the producers of local television programmes. They tell this country’s histories and cultures too.

When swimmer Joseph Schooling returned to Singapore from Rio with the country’s first Olympics gold medal in August, the first thing on his mind was to eat chai tow kueh. It’s something all Singaporeans can relate to—our common love for food.

But beyond just consumption, food connects Singaporeans in other ways too. Just as Schooling prefers his chai tow kueh “black” from a young age, children living in Singapore in the 1950s also enjoyed this sweet version of radish doused in dark soya sauce. This was why the “white”, non-sauce option we have today was uncommon in the past, as children were the main customers of chai tow kueh hawkers, while working adults had their meals provided for by employers.

This historical nugget was recounted by a veteran hawker in A Taste of Time, a television series that tells Singapore’s social history through retracing the evolution of popular local dishes. “Instead of telling you what your grandfather’s life was like, we used food as a medium to bring you back in time,” explains Molby Low, chief executive officer and founder of Wawa Pictures, the production house behind this programme that aired on Channel U in 2015. “What we want to portray is food changes with the pulse of our lives.”

A Taste of Time joins a long list of Public Service Broadcast (PSB) programmes — government-funded shows usually aired on Mediacorp’s free-to-air TV, radio and the Internet — that have used food as a lens to explore Singapore. These shows can come in varying formats, including current affairs, infotainment, travel programmes as well as drama and variety series. Their aim: to reflect and help shape Singapore’s identity, celebrate our heritage and unite Singaporeans with shared experiences. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat” and it is no wonder why food is the top choice for many of these programmes. 

Take for instance, Sweets for My Sweets, a 2008 production by Oak3 Films. The programme promotes family unity by getting celebrity couples like Aaron Aziz and his manager-wife Diyana Halik to share their love stories over their favourite desserts. Another example is Active TV’s The Food Detectives, which helps viewers make informed eating choices by getting experts to weigh in on common questions such as whether cereals are good for health and if “fresh milk” is really fresh. Such programmes go beyond traditional food programmes that focus simply on how to cook and what’s good to eat. Instead, these PSB shows help foster a cohesive and informed society as well as celebrates Singaporeans’ shared identity by examining the relationships food has with our culture and society. Or as Molby puts it: “We try to do food programmes that makes you think deeper about the food you eat every day.”

Before A Taste of Time, Wawa Pictures did A Taste of History, which uses “food to paint a picture of the area”. In a 2014 episode, a hawker at Katong explained that his Hokkien prawn mee is different from those in Fujian, where this dish originated, because the neighbourhood was home to many Peranakans. He also had learnt how to cook the dish from his neighbour, who was also Peranakan. For Molby, the goal of such programmes is not to claim nationalistic ownership or authenticity of a dish but to enhance Singaporeans’ knowledge of what they eat. Contrary to how convenient it is to stoke nationalistic pride by laying claim to a dish (Just recall how ex-England footballer Rio Ferdinand angered many Indonesians accidentally when he suggested nasi goreng was from Singapore) it is “almost impossible” to prove that something belongs to Singapore. 

“Even if you trace all the way back to your forefather’s generation, whatever they were eating was an evolution from further back,” he says. “Food is always built on certain things from the past.”
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