6. The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook (1974/2004)

By Charmaine Au-Yeung (@steamedbaos)

Nasi lemak, fish ball noodles, roti, and Hainanese chicken rice walk onto a table. This diversity of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian offerings is the bread-and-butter of Singaporean eating culture, which primarily takes place in hawker centres: indoor food markets. Indeed, when people talk about Singapore, food is all they ever talk about. However, food is not just a social enterprise; the act of eating, at least in Singapore, is a metaphor for the state’s national policy of ‘multiracialism amidst diversity’.[1] The national and political role food plays is something that Singaporeans are keenly-aware of. Maideen, an Indian-Singaporean, testifies that the eclectic mix of ‘rice and curry, mee goreng, rojak, mee siam, iced thanneer’ made the food stalls ‘a site of interaction for working-class men from all communities’.[2]

This food-based nationalism is not merely something acknowledged by ordinary Singaporeans – it’s also promoted by the Singaporean government. This institutionalised linkage between food and nationalism is best seen in The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook.[3] Originally published in 1974, the book illustrates the centrality of food to Singaporean nationalism from the perspective of the government. Lee Chin Koon, the author, was the mother of Singapore’s first Prime Minister: Lee Kwan Yew.[4] Indeed, the book presents its primary function as representing a true Singaporean. In the revised edition, Shermay Lee writes that ‘[Mrs Lee’s] recipes … reflect a segment of Singapore’s culinary heritage. It would be a great pity if … these recipes are not preserved for future generations’.[5] National cuisines, as Alison Smith argues, can be used to promote an agenda; they are ‘collections of dishes’ that are ‘created out of … [societal] differences and traditions, and presented to the public – sometimes to introduce a nation to its own members’.[6] As Shermay Lee’s testimony demonstrates to us, eating food is a way of knowing what the nation stands for. Altogether, this helps us better understand how Singapore’s leaders have ‘imagined’ the

Singaporean identity, and to what end.[7] Through the wide variety of food, Singapore’s leaders imagine a ‘national smörsgåsbord’ of different social groups.[8] This creates a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ between its different groups, and therefore an ideology of what Sunil Amrith calls ‘state-managed multiracialism’.[9]

Image rights: “Hawker Centre, Singapore” by shankar s. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

[1]Nicole Tarulevicz, Eating Her Curries and Kway: A Cultural History of Food in Singapore (Chicago, Illinois, 2013), p. 3.

[2] ‘Maideen’ in Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, MA, 2013), p. 161

[3] Lee Chin Koon, Shermay Lee (ed.), The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook: Volume 2 (Singapore [1975] 2004)

[4] Tarulevicz, Eating Her Curries and Kway, p. 106.

[5] Shermay Lee, ‘Introduction’ in Lee Chin Koon, Shermay Lee (ed.), The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook: Volume 2 (Singapore, [1974] 2004) p. 22.

[6] Alison K. Smith, ‘National Cuisines’, in Jeffrey M. Pilcher (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Food History, Oxford Handbooks (Oxford/New York, 2012), p. 446.

[7] Benedict R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (London/New York, 1983), p. 7.

[8] Beng Huat Chua and Ananda Rajah, ‘Hybridity, Ethnicity and Food in Singapore’, in David Y. H. Wu and Chee Beng Tan (eds.) Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia (Hong Kong, 2001), p. 163.

[9] Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013), p. 241.

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