SINGAPORE: Pride in local food is a trait Singaporeans and Malaysians share.
So, expect ruffled feathers and salty jibes when either side lays claim to a dish like chilli crab or nasi lemak.
Cross-border food fights that have erupted in recent years include one that a 2018 CNN article triggered by listing cendol from Singapore as one of the world’s 50 best desserts. It led to an outcry from Malaysian netizens.
Fast food chain McDonald’s caused another kerfuffle in 2017 when it released the nasi lemak burger to celebrate Singapore’s National Day.
Malaysian burger joint myBurgerLab responded with a nasi lemak ayam (chicken) rendang burger. It tweeted a picture of its burger with the Malaysian flag in the background and the words “Dear Singapore, nice try, but …”
Over in Malaysia, Weng Fung Seafood restaurant in Langkawi came up with its own chilli crab dish in the 1950s.
One of the island’s oldest seafood establishments, Weng Fung was founded in the 1920s and has been serving chilli crab since 1958, possibly earlier, said owner Kelly Keh Pooi Ling.
It was her parents-in-law who created its sauce. And theirs was the only shop that sold the dish at the time, she said.
The way its crabs are cooked is different, On The Red Dot host Ming Tan found out, and the flavour is “more refined”.
According to the chef and culinary consultant, the Singaporean version is “generally thicker” and contains more corn starch and eggs, whereas Weng Fung’s chef-owner Ong Chin Yong thickens the chilli sauce by simmering it gently.
It seemed like compelling evidence to support Malaysia’s claims to the dish, but food blogger Tony Boey threw Tan a bone and led him to Pek Sin Choon, a tea merchant in Singapore’s Chinatown.
Fourth-generation boss Kenry Peh Ching Her said the business has been supplying tea to coolies and bak kut teh stalls since 1925.
Some of its documents that bore evidence of this were destroyed in the Second World War, but Peh presented a receipt from 1938 and told Tan about a stall in Maxwell Food Centre that he still supplies.
The sambal, or chilli paste, for both dishes is also different, he pointed out.
“There are literally hundreds of kinds of sambals all around the Malay Archipelago. And the one that’s used in nasi lemak … is very common on the west coast,” he said.
Today, nasi lemak in both countries can come with a myriad of side dishes, such as squid, cockles, beef, fried chicken as well as processed items, like fishcake and sausages, which are more commonly found at stalls in Singapore.
For Damian D’Silva, the Singaporean chef-partner of Rempapa restaurant who specialises in heritage cuisine, there is no question about which country does the side dishes better: “Malaysian nasi lemak is better because nothing is processed, everything is cooked from scratch.”
There is a reason Malaysians had also been riled by CNN’s 2018 article that called cendol a dessert from Singapore.
A crucial ingredient in the icy concoction, besides pandan jelly and coconut milk, is a type of palm sugar called “gula melaka”. And Jonker Street in Malacca, Malaysia’s oldest city, is lined with shops selling cendol and gula melaka.
WATCH: Origins of cendol — Singaporean, Malaysian or Javanese? (22:43)
But popularity and provenance are not the same thing, and some netizens pointed out that cendol comes from Indonesia.
Culinary expert William Wongso, who is from Indonesia, told On The Red Dot that cendol is also called “dawet”. The dish is mentioned in the Serat Centhini, a collection of Javanese tales and teachings first published in 1814 and whose events took place in the 1630s.
Dawet can be traced even further back to a Javanese manuscript from the 12th century, said Indonesian food historian Fadly Rahman.
More recently, in the 1860s, a recipe for dawet was published in an East Indies cookbook, and the word “tjendol” made it into a Dutch dictionary as well.
Today, dawet remains a part of Javanese traditions such as the dodol dawet at wedding ceremonies, said Fadly.