Over the years I witnessed surprise and mild disbelief on the faces of those to whom I unabashedly gushed, “Singapore has the best food in the world.” Apart from the problem of the “-est” suffix that we Americans tend to put on all kinds of opinions, I think what led to all the confused looks in the first place was the idea that I was comparing Singapore’s national dishes to those of other countries. Obviously, there’s no real way to compare shepherd’s pie to boeuf bourginon, other than to say they are both hearty comfort foods from the countryside.
What I had meant to say all these years, with benefit of hindsight, is that “Singapore has one of the most vibrant and irrepressible food cultures I’ve ever seen.” On this most recent of what are now annual visits to see family, I attempted to get a better grasp on this food culture. I should note that even a book-length article would be insufficient to adequately explain Singapore food culture. This piece is meant solely as an introduction, which means I won’t be going into detail on how the dishes are cooked or what ingredients they are composed of. I won’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many choices available to Singaporeans every hour of every day.
And before we can get to that introduction, I need to acquaint you with Singapore’s “Yes, but…” way of thinking. In recent years Westerners have become acquainted with the high (never to be met) expectations of Asian parents. Well, imagine an entire country made by Asian parents (death penalty for drug possession!) and you have a partial glimpse into Singapore.
The “Yes, but…” rubric can be applied to anything. Examples include:
“That’s a nice car.”
“Yes, but I’d really like a different one” OR “Yes, but I actually had to do a lot of work to get it customized this way.”
“Sounds like you have a great job.”
“Yes, but really I want to get a promotion.” OR “Yes, but my friend has a great job that I think is quite fascinating.”
So here we just see the “never good enough” ethos that has been successfully passed down from Asian parent to Asian child. For those unable to accept a compliment, deflection is necessary, even at the risk of awkward tangents.