Hawker Heritage is an art project by Teo Yu Siang that explores the stories behind 10 iconic hawker dishes to advocate for greater diversity in Singapore. You can stay updated through Hawker Heritage’s Facebook page.
The Story Behind Rojak
In colloquial Malay, rojak means “mixed” or “eclectic mix”, and is used to refer to the multicultural identity of Singapore.
Rojak might have originated from ancient Java—the dish was mentioned as “rurujak” in an ancient Javanese Taji inscription from Mataram Kingdom (901 CE) in Central Java.
Today, rojak is sold in different variants in Singapore. The Indian Muslim version is called rojak mamak, and it contains fried dough fritters, bean curds, boiled potatoes, prawn fritters, bean sprouts, etc., mixed with a sweet thick, spicy peanut sauce.
Then there’s rojak buah (the Chinese version), which contains fruits like cucumber, pineapple, benkoang, bean sprouts, taupok and youtiao. The dressing in rojak buah contains belacan (shrimp paste), sugar, and lime juice. Finally, there’s rojak bandung (the Malay version)—this version contains sotong, kangkung, cucumbers, bean curds, peanuts, chili and sauce.
The use of peanuts in rojak can be traced all the way back to Mexico. The Spanish empire brought peanuts from Mexico to the Philippines, where it was further brought to Indonesia and introduced to rojak.
The Story Behind Wanton Mee
Wanton refers to the dumpling and is from Cantonese. Wanton literally means “swallowing clouds” in Cantonese, because when the dumplings are cooked they float in the soup like clouds.
Mee, on the other hand, means “noodles” in Hokkien. A distinct characteristic of wanton mee in Singapore is that its name is a mix of two dialects. In other regions of the world, the name wanton mee makes little sense.
Wanton mee was created in Guangdong, China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). The dish spread to many places as people Guangdong emigrated to other parts of the world—for example Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Unlike the Hong Kong and Guangdong versions, Singaporean wanton mee is usually served dry, with ketchup and chilli sauce. Fried wantons might also be served, on top of the usual boiled wantons in soup.
Hawker Culture Teaches Us the Value of Diversity
Hawker food is all about diversity. When cultures and recipes are blended together, the result is a unique spread of dishes. It’s a reminder that diversity has true—and tangible—benefits that we all enjoy. Unfortunately, in Singapore some forms of diversity are more celebrated than others. We cheer for racial and cultural diversity, but ignore LGBTQ and gender diversity, among others. As a nation, we can do so much more to fully embrace the ethos of our hawker culture.
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