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Commentary: A piece of Southeast Asia in a Singapore dish

With the threat of climate change, it is important for Singapore to join hands with other ASEAN countries to enhance food security where so many ingredients in our dishes come from around the region, says one observer.

Commentary: A piece of Southeast Asia in a Singapore dish

A plate of char kway teow. (File photo)

SINGAPORE: The sun is setting, and a pot rages to a boil on the stove, the scent of aromatic spices wafting through the air.

On the table, fresh chicken is prepped for the oven, while fragrant coconut rice steams steadily in the cooker.

A little girl sits on a high stool, looking on curiously as vegetables sizzle in a wok while sugar and chilli caramelise in a pan.

This is the home many of us grew up in, where food is literally the centre of the universe.

We would gather at dusk, sitting in our dining rooms, chatting about our days over a warm bowl of rice and delectable dishes, at times ending dinner with a bowl of sweet treats – red bean soup, kueh – the list is endless.

It is only when we grow older that we start to think more deeply about the origins of our food. As far as we know, Singapore generates precious little of our locally consumed produce. So where does all this food come from?

Singapore sits in the cradle of Southeast Asia, and our palates have long been accustomed to the diverse and colourful tastes of our region. Yet many of us may not be aware of how much of our food comes from our neighbours.

Southeast Asia, a region of robust agricultural development and diversity, has availed the presence of a rich variety of produce making their way to our city-state.

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(Photo: Ministry of Communications & Information)


In every well-stocked kitchen in Singapore, one is likely to find at least a few essential products from ASEAN countries. A groceries shopping trip to NTUC Fairprice will reveal several interesting facts about the many origins of our food.

While Malaysia is often perceived to be the main exporter of produce to Singapore, including meat, seafood, spices, fruit and vegetables, much of our kitchen stock also comes from other ASEAN countries.

This includes jasmine rice from Thailand, sweet potato and coffee from Vietnam, mangos from Myanmar and the Philippines, and even Kolo Mee from Brunei.

Even in a simple dish of noodle soup that one might whip up in their kitchen, there might be chicken from Malaysia, organic chye sim from Thailand, and spices from Indonesia.

In another local favourite, fried rice, most ingredients are sourced from our neighbours too – rice from Thailand, eggs from Malaysia, garden peas from Vietnam, carrots from the Philippines, garlic and spring onions from Indonesia and shrimp from Brunei. 

The region has, literally, come to our kitchen, being present in almost every local Singaporean delicacy, from nasi lemak to char kway teow.

The presence of ASEAN in Singapore kitchen is emblematic of the multi-fold and far-reaching benefits of enhanced regional trade in agricultural products.

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Nasi Lemak. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are among the top 10 exporters of food products to Singapore.

Thailand and Vietnam especially are among the top three rice exporters to Singapore, accounting for 62 per cent of its total rice imports.


A number of ASEAN initiatives have been put in place to enhance the sustainability of Singapore’s food imports, including the ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) Framework which provides an enabling environment for ASEAN member states to operate and cooperate in various aspects related to food production, processing and trade.

With the ever-present threat of climate change, episodic droughts, floods and other natural disasters, it is of utmost importance that Singapore join hands with other ASEAN countries to enhance food security in the region, including promoting conducive food market trade, agri-innovation and food security emergency arrangements.

One notable achievement in this respect is the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve established in 2013.

With earmarked stocks and voluntary donations from 10 ASEAN member states plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, this reserve offers rice supplies for affected countries especially in times of acute emergency.

Now when I recall my childhood, I think not only of the bursts of flavour in every bite, but the lustrous fields across the region from which my rice and noodles hail.

When it comes to food, ASEAN is ever present in our home as much as we have always been right at home in the ASEAN region. These culinary connections highlight the intimate ties that bind Singapore to and with ASEAN.

Cheryl Teh is Research Associate at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary was first published in ASEAN Focus Issue 4.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)