Spice Island

The tiny Southeast Asian island-country of Singapore owes much of its history and ethnically diverse cuisine to piquant spices and herbs.

| October/November 2002

At the southern tip of the Thai/Malaysian peninsula lies the 400-square-mile island of Singapore—a diminutive country with a reputation as an economic and culinary giant. Lying along the sea lanes between China and India, Singapore was historically a spot where trader vessels docked and pirate ships lurked, awaiting plunder. As a result of centuries of spice and cultural trade, lively Singapore combines exotic cooking traditions from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.

When I visited Singapore, my first foray into Asia, I was dazzled by its multi-ethnic food. The magic of Singapore cuisine—whether it’s Indian curry or Indonesian satay—lies in its tropical herbs and fruits. I’ve never before tasted so many unusual flavors in one place. Though much of Singapore is a sleek, modern city, there are still old-world enclaves filled with the aroma of spices, incense, and flowers. Little India, Arab Street, and Chinatown are home to colorful Hindu, Moslem, Taoist, and Buddhist temples; piquant Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian foods; and bustling herb and food markets.

Singapore’s history has always been linked to spices. Indian and Chinese trading was already underway all along the Malaysian peninsula by the fifth century a.d. The Chinese were keen to buy Singapore’s aromatic woods; its tropical forests were a rich source of medicinal camphor. Even today, camphor makes the island famous, as it’s a primary ingredient in a popular Singapore export: the topical analgesic called Tiger Balm. In the nineteenth century, the island was scattered with spice plantations that produced pepper, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon. Many of these spices found their way across the world to Singapore’s colonial ruler, the British Empire.

Singapore’s ethnic enclaves

Singapore’s three main ethnic inhabitants—Indian, Malay, and Chinese—all have their herbal traditions. In Little India, shops sell colorful saris and display barrels and bags of cumin, coriander, curry, and other spices. Hindu fortune tellers wait on sidewalks with their parrots who choose the card that foretells your future. And outside the many Hindu temples, vendors thread fragrant flowers such as jasmine into elaborate garlands to give to the gods. Inside the temples, offerings of the garlands, plates filled with spices, pomelos (related to grapefruits), pineapples, and bananas surround the feet of the many deities. With these food gifts, worshippers plead their case to the gods.

Elsewhere in the city, the two traditional centers for the Malay and Arabic Muslim communities are both named for herbs. Geylang Serai, where the streets are lined with traditional Malay bungalows, was named after the area’s ubiquitous lemongrass (called serai in Malay). Arab Street, also called Kampong Glam, is named for gelam, a native, eucalyptus-like tree known as paper bark to the British. Its extracted essential oil, cajeput, is still added to salves to soothe chest congestion.

In Kampong Glam, you’ll find the Sultan Mosque and a cluster of shops selling textiles, batik, sarongs, rugs, and woven rattan and pandan goods. Another specialty of the area is Malaysian essential oil perfumes including jasmine, sandalwood, basil, and honeysuckle.

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