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Culinary Biographies: Charting Singapore’s History Through Cooking and Consumption

Project Abstract

Culinary Biographies seeks to examine Singapore’s intangible food heritage from a longue durée perspective. Spanning Singapore’s documented 700-year history, this study will trace the pathways through which ingredients, techniques, and regional culinary philosophies converged in Singapore. The project will demonstrate how these conjunctures established crucial precedents for some of Singapore’s most iconic food offerings, mapping out the everyday historical contexts in which the island’s cuisines emerged and evolved. Through food, the study will encourage interest in Singapore’s social history among residents of different generations.

Our investigation seeks to construct the ‘culinary biographies’ of seven food items: fish-head curry, ice kachang, laksa, biryani, Milo dinosaur, sweet potato lemak, and betel quid. We combine a focus on cuisine with the novel concept that all food items have socially embedded ‘lives’ that change over time, revealing the long-term dynamics and historical underpinnings of Singapore’s food heritage. Each biography will trace the diversity of locations where each offering and its predecessors were prepared, the knowledge and practices of their creators and consumers, and each food’s underlying material realities. In doing so, our framework aims to consolidate understandings of how tangible and intangible notions of heritage can be mutually reinforcing.

Project Duration: Oct 2018 – Oct 2020

Research Publication:
1. Geoffrey K. Pakiam. “A Fresh Look at Fish through a Brief History of Fish Head Curry.” Berita Newsletter (Winter 2019/2020): 5-10.

Principal Investigator:
Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam, Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

1. Dr Loh Kah Seng, Independent Scholar
2. Mr Michael Yeo Chai Ming, Department of History, University of Oxford / Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

For more information, please contact:
Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam: geoffrey_pakiam@iseas.edu.sg