Street Food Stirs Ancient Beef Between Malaysia and Singapore

The neighboring countries are in a tug of war over a dessert.
December 13, 2018, 8:00am
Two bowls of cendol
Image via Shutterstock

Friendly rivals Malaysia and Singapore are back at it this month. The neighboring governments are currently in the middle of a maritime dispute — Singapore is pissed that a Malaysian port is encroaching on its territorial waters — but citizens of both sides don’t really care about that. Instead, they seem to be more concerned about a food fight.

People have taken to Twitter in recent days over a CNN article that came out earlier this month that named Singaporean cendol as one of the world's best desserts. An iced concoction of green rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup, cendol is a staple of Malay cuisine and variations of it exist across Southeast Asia. The Penang version uses kidney beans while Singapore’s contains sweet red beans, which makes it “especially tempting,” according to CNN.


The amount of scorned Malaysians tweeting about CNN cold-shouldering their cendol far surpasses the number of posts about the port spat.

Singapore briefly merged with Malaysia as one of its states in 1963, but since the former declared independence in 1965, the two have quarreled on various aspects of their shared heritage. The frenemies compete on everything from football to politics, but it’s food that really stirs the entire population into a frenzy. Critiquing the other side’s cuisine has pretty much become a national sport.

Both are home to diverse migrant populations that have produced a wide variety of Malay, Indian and Chinese delicacies. Each have their own take on classic regional dishes such as nasi lemak and laksa but Singapore wants more international recognition of its local delights. That's angered its peers up north who believe their culinary specialties are the real deal and accuse Singapore of hijacking Malaysian fare.

In August, Malaysians were riled up after Singapore launched a bid for its street food vendors, known as hawkers, to be recognized by UNESCO as cultural heritage. Since the rest of Southeast Asia also boasts deep hawker traditions, Singapore’s effort to distinguish itself was perceived by many as divisive and arrogant. Malaysians also often question the authenticity of Singaporean food courts, calling them "too clean."

Pro tip for UNESCO: Just celebrate hawkers across the region.