November 7, 2005

Singaporeans Host Cookoff

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Approximately 200 people converged yesterday evening in The Straight’s Memorial Room for Makanmania, an annual food and culture dinner hosted by the Singaporean Student Association (SSA).

The night of “food-mania,” as Makanmania translates, featured 23 different entrees as well as Singaporean games and singing by SSA members.

The dishes ranged from traditional fried rice to more exotic items such as chicken rice; laksa, a Chinese adaptation of Malay curry; prawn mee, a noodle dish with prawn and pork; and sayur lodeh, a vegetarian curry dish. Desserts included almond longan, pandan cake and fried bananas.

“The main selling point of our event is that we have food from different races – Malays, Chinese, Indian and Eurasians,” said Yuan Chun ’06, the association’s president. He explained that because Singapore is home to a diverse mix of ethnicities, its food has a variety unseen in many other countries.

Vice President Kenneth Lau ’07 added that while many of these foods remain true to their ethnic origins, others such as laksa are a fusion of different tastes.

Students began cooking for the dinner as early as Friday. According to Chun, about 80 people, each working in a household of three or four, prepared the entrees with ingredients procured from Wegman’s and local Chinese supermarkets and with exotic spices transported in suitcases from Singapore.

“Seventy percent to 80 percent of Singaporeans [on campus] are cooking right now,” Chun said earlier in the afternoon. “Even the freshmen are involved, cooking in the dorms.”

Stationed at various tables around the Memorial Room, the chefs chatted with each other and with guests as they served their creations.

Yongchuan Pan ’06 took a break from serving to talk about his dish, fried bee hoon. According to the description on his table, fried bee hoon “is the closest relative to what is in the States mistakenly called Singaporean noodles.”

The fried rice vermicelli is “something most Singaporeans know how to make,” said Pan, who cooked yesterday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. He cautioned that the dish looked easy to make but was time-consuming because it had so many ingredients.

Another popular food was almond longan, a typical dessert made with almond essence and the fruit longan. Because the weather in Singaporean is very hot, people eat this dessert to cool down, explained Denise Wong, an exchange student from Singapore, as she served bowls of the dessert to guests.

By popular vote, the best food at dinner was Kaya Toast, a breakfast item of toasted bread spread with a green jam made from eggs, sugar and coconut milk.

Lai-Siu Leung, a banker who lives in Ithaca, said the toast was her favorite dish because it reminded her of the foods she ate growing up in Sabah, a region that is now part of Malaysia.

Many of the dishes had stories behind them. Roti John, which are slices of French toast fried with egg, sardines and onions, is a popular dish made by Muslims in Singapore.

Lau explained that according to popular belief, the dish originated when a Caucasian living in Singapore became homesick for sandwiches. Sandwiches did not exist in Singapore at the time, but a hawker cooked up a modified sandwich for the Westerner by putting together French toast with whatever other ingredients he could find.

The French bread served at Makanmania is a modern version of the hawker’s invention. Roti means bread in Malay, and John is the supposed name of the Westerner, Lau said.

Laksa, one of the most famous dishes in Singapore, is a noodle entree served with prawn and coconut based curry. Lau said this dish has tastes from both Chinese and Malaysian cuisine, presumably because Chinese and Malay immigrants in Singapore intermarried and adopted each other’s cooking styles.

He added, “It can get really spicy. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”

Following the dinner, SSA members competed in games such as chatteh, a Singaporean version of hackey-sack. Members also sang songs, including a national hit called “Home.”

The purpose of the dinner is “mainly to introduce to the Cornell community a little bit about Singaporean culture,” Lau said. “Our culture is very largely based on food and consumption.”

For natives of Singapore, the dinner hopefully will bring back “some memories of home, some taste of what [they] would get if [they] were back in Singapore,” he said.

The dinner was sponsored by the Singaporean Tourism Board, ALANA, Holland International Living Center, Southeast Asian Program, the International Students Programming Board, the International Students and Scholars Office and the Students Assembly.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor