We continue our exploration of Public Service Broadcast (PSB) programmes that help viewers explore Singapore through the lens of food. Read Part 1 here!

What has satay got to do with a Chinese admiral in the 14th century? Oak3 Film’s Food Going Bananas reveals that the famed explorer Admiral Zheng He and his crew ate three slices (“sa teh”) of meat on a stick while traveling to this region, which could explain how the name “satay” became popular here. This is one example of how Singapore’s food heritage is connected to its ancestral nations including China, India, and the rest of the Malay Archipelago.

Oak3’s chief operating officer, Lim Suat Yen, explains that for an immigrant country like Singapore, celebrating nationhood through food often means paying homage to these ancient sources. “If these dishes had remained in China and not been exported here, they would not have merged with the food of other immigrants to become what they are today,” she says. “The Singapore identity is moulded from a melting pot of imported cultures.”

This rich food heritage has provided the perfect ingredients for television. Since 2008, Wawa Pictures have done at least 10 such PSB shows to feed Singaporeans’ hunger for stories on their shared identity. Molby Low, chief executive officer and founder of Wawa Pictures, says that food programmes have always been popular here but the company realised that they could look deep into the connections between food and the Singapore story when their first production, Food Hometown, became a breakout hit in 2008. The series, which explored the heritage of popular local dishes, was given a prime time belt for its second season and Wawa Pictures has produced more of such shows since.

The company’s latest Let’s Cook series showcases how the Singapore identity continues to evolve as new immigrants from all around the world move here. Each episode features two new immigrants—who come from Russia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, amongst other places—preparing food from their home countries. While shopping for ingredients, the participants talk about the differences between markets in their cities, and let viewers in on their struggles of settling down in a foreign land. “Because food connects well with people,” says Molby, “promoting an understanding of the new immigrants is best done through food."

Even as connecting viewers with Singapore through food helps local production houses meet the aims of PSB programmes, it also satisfies the creators’ desire for answers about what it means to be Singaporean. “As young graduates we were always asking ourselves what the Singapore identity is about so the programmes we do tend to try to answer that,” says Suat Yen. For Molby, it was a curiosity for why Hokkien mee in Fujian is different from the ones we have in Singapore that ignited what is now a life-long pursuit to better understand the stories behind our local cuisine. “There’s nothing better than producing these programmes to satisfy our craving for the food and the knowledge behind them.”

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